In the paper, I try to cast some doubt on traditional attempts to define,
or explicate, moral responsibility in terms of deserved praise and blame.
Desert-based accounts of moral responsibility, though no doubt more
faithful to our ordinary notion of moral responsibility, tend to run into
trouble in the face of challenges posed by a deterministic picture of the
world on the one hand and the impact of moral luck on human action on
the other. Besides, grounding responsibility in desert seems to support ascriptions of pathological blame to agents trapped in moral dilemmas as
well as of excess blame in cases of joint action. Desert is also notoriously difficult, if not impossible, to determine (at least with sufficient precision). And, finally, though not least important, recent empirical research on people’s responsibility judgments reveals our common-sense notion of responsibility to be hopelessly confused and easily manipulated.
So it may be time to rethink our inherited theory and practice of moral
responsibility. Our theoretical and practical needs may be better served
by a less intractable, more forward-looking notion of responsibility. The
aim of the paper is to contrast the predominant, desert-based accounts of
moral responsibility with their rather unpopular rival, the consequence- based accounts, and then show that the latter deserve more consideration
than usually granted by their opponents. In the course of doing so, I assess, and ultimately reject, a number of objections that have been raised
against consequentialist accounts of moral responsibility: that it (i) doesn’t do justice to our common-sense theory and practice of responsibility; (ii) ties responsibility too closely to influenceability, thereby exposing itself to the charge of counter-intuitivity; (iii) assigns undeserved responsibility (praise, blame) to agents; (iv) confuses ‘being responsible’ with ‘holding responsible’‚ and (v) provides the wrong-kind-of-reason for praise and blame. My negative and positive case may not add up to a knockdown argument in favor of revising our ordinary notion of responsibility. As long as the considerations adduced succeed in presenting the consequentialist alternative as a serious contender to a pre-arranged marriage between moral responsibility and desert, however, I’m happy to rest my case.