Moral responsibility and merit.

Author:King, Matt

In the contemporary moral responsibility debate, most theorists seem to be giving accounts of responsibility in the "desert-entailing sense." This is meant to distinguish it from causal or legal responsibility and to draw it closer to our other moral concepts. Moral responsibility and desert are natural partners: Morally responsible agents can be blameworthy and praiseworthy--they can deserve blame and praise. This convergence on responsibility in the desert-entailing sense is a welcome development, for it helps secure competing accounts as rival accounts, a status that appears to require having the same target notion in mind. Yet, despite the convergence, it is striking that so little has been said about the notion of desert that is supposedly entailed. One potential worry is that without saying more about desert, we risk merely replacing one difficult concept (moral responsibility) with one just as difficult (desert).

This paper seeks to address this lacuna in the moral responsibility literature. I propose an understanding of desert sufficient to help explain why the blameworthy and praiseworthy deserve blame and praise, respectively. I do so by drawing upon what might seem an unusual resource. I appeal to so-called Fitting-Attitude accounts of value to help inform a conception of desert or merit, one that can be usefully applied to discussions of moral responsibility. I'm less concerned with defending the view than with explicating it as a conjecture and examining what work it might be able to do. As such, this paper is both speculative and overtly noncommittal. I do not seek to argue for a conception of desert so much as to investigate a potential line of thinking about it. I do, however, argue that the candidate view, which I will call Desert as Fittingness (or DAF),1 merits additional attention. I do so by defending two claims: First, that it does better than extant Fitting Attitude accounts of blameworthiness and praiseworthiness, and, second, that it has an initial plausibility with respect to informing a general account of desert. Again, these reasons are not intended to support the view as true, but merely to make the case for taking the view seriously.

  1. The Basic View

    The outline of DAF connects four thoughts.

    First, theories of moral responsibility, if they are to account for responsibility "in the desert-entailing sense," need some positive account of the notion of desert being used. We need to know what is entailed by the responsibility relation in order to properly evaluate those theories. Given that the very plausibility of treating moral responsibility as responsibility in the desert-entailing sense rests on there being a natural connection between moral responsibility and desert, it seems at the very least prudent to seek a better understanding of the latter.

    The second thought concerns two observations. One, that moral responsibility involves blameworthiness and praiseworthiness. When we talk about moral responsibility we are talking about a way of being related to things so as to make individuals blameworthy or praiseworthy for them. (2) The other observation concerns Fitting Attitude (FA) accounts of value. These accounts provide general explanations of (at least certain) normative properties in terms of the attitudes it is "fitting" to adopt in response to those properties. (3) Part of the motivation for such accounts comes from the fact that there seems to be a semantic connection between the properties and relevant attitudes. So, for example, the "desirable" is not what we are able to desire, but what is fitting of desire. This observation appears to extend to a wide array of similar terms. Thus, the admirable is what is fitting of admiration, the enviable is what is fitting of envy and the contemptible is what is fitting of contempt. Similar but differently constructed terms also seem to call for FA treatments. So, the fearsome is fitting of fear and the awesome is fitting of awe, but also the amusing is what is fitting to find amusing. The terms are wide ranging but all naturally call for an attitude that seems fitting or appropriate to hold toward the object that possesses that property.

    What is especially relevant to DAF, however, is that the blameworthy and praiseworthy are also attractive candidates for FA treatments. Just as "able" terms seem to appeal naturally to specific attitudes, so do "-worthy" terms. Thus, the blameworthy is what is fitting to blame and the praiseworthy is what is fitting to praise. If FA accounts are a promising general strategy for explaining this wide range of normative properties--including blameworthiness and praiseworthiness--and if these terms are intimately tied to moral responsibility, then it is plausible to suppose an account of moral responsibility can meaningfully incorporate FA strategies in some way.

    The third thought concerns the structure of FA accounts, which are unified by a general schema: An object possesses a normative property, "phiability," just in case it is fitting to phi that object. But that fittingness relation is meant to be generic, and different FA accounts will differ in precisely how they characterize what fittingness amounts to. So, one version might take fitting attitudes to be those it is correct to hold, or that one ought to hold, or that are "fill in the blank" to hold. All such views will be FA accounts so long as the fill-in-the-blank relation is a normative relation that attitudes can bear to objects. (4) Thus, FA accounts rely on there being some normative relation holding between the properties being explained and the relevant attitudes. We can individuate FA accounts in part, therefore, by the normative relation that takes the place of "fittingness" in the general schema.

    The fourth and final thought is that the desert relation is a normative relation. Reasons bear on what things deserve what and that which is deserved by whom under the circumstances. It follows that the desert relation is the right sort of relation to assume the role held by the generic "fitting" relation.

    I hope it is fairly apparent how we get DAF out of these four thoughts. The basic idea behind DAF is that the desert relation is the normative relation operative in FA accounts. The admirable deserve admiration; the contemptible deserve contempt. Thus, we get a positive view of desert for use in theories of moral responsibility: Blameworthy (or praiseworthy) agents deserve or merit blame (or praise) in the same way that the admirable deserve admiration or the fearsome merit fear. This view connects moral responsibility with a notion of desert, but remains neutral on the conditions on moral responsibility and the conditions on what things deserve what. Moral responsibility remains the relation in virtue of which agents deserve blame or praise, and thus the concept remains significantly unrevised.

    I think there is something intuitively compelling about DAF. There seems to be something right in saying that the admirable merit admiration or that the fearsome merit fear. The blameworthy certainly merit blame and the praiseworthy certainly merit praise. So, as a matter of mere usage the view initially fits. However, I do not want to make too much out of this initial intuitiveness (especially because some readers may find it less compelling). Rather, I want to make clear that the view is characterized by employing what may amount to a stipulative notion of desert or merit, one that need not be independently motivated for all possible FA analyses. (5)

    As I noted at the outset, I am more interested in examining the prospects of DAF than arguing for its adoption outright. So, I will proceed as an investigator, seeking to determine whether this view warrants special attention. Obviously, I believe that it does. And while I will not claim that this is the true view about desert and responsibility, I will argue that DAF has some attractions in its favor. Chiefly, I argue that it does better than extant FA accounts of blameworthiness (and praiseworthiness) and that it is consistent with a plausible general picture of desert. While I do not suppose these reasons to settle the case for DAF, I do think they show it to be worth our consideration and justify DAF as providing a worthwhile strategy for further inquiry.

  2. FA Accounts of Blameworthiness

    DAF gives an FA analysis of blameworthiness and praiseworthiness. An agent is blameworthy just in case she deserves blame, and an agent is praiseworthy just in case she merits praise. The view treats these claims on a par with all other FA analyses. Thus, S is admirable just in case S deserves admiration, and S is fearsome just in case S merits fear. Generalized, we get the following statement:

    S is phi-able just in case S deserves/merits phi.

    It is a genuine FA account in that it explains the relevant properties in terms of the attitudes it is fitting to hold. In the case of DAF, that normative relation is desert/merit.

    But this view is not the only game in town. There are other FA accounts of blameworthiness; it is worth looking at the competition. In this section, I will argue that DAF does better than competing views.

    Alternative FA accounts of blameworthiness are best characterized by the normative notion used for the generic "fittingness." Most prominent among these are accounts that construe the appropriateness of blame in terms of fairness. (6) An agent is blameworthy just in case it is fair to blame him. An early proponent of this view, R. Jay Wallace, holds that since blame is connected to sanction-like behavior, considerations of fairness naturally arise. For Wallace, explaining blameworthiness in terms of fairness also allows us to connect the attitudes and practices of holding each other responsible more closely to the notion of moral obligation, providing a mutually supporting and illuminating account of all these terms.

    Likewise, a more recent proposal by Darwall construes the appropriateness of blame in terms...

To continue reading