Moral Responsibility and Subverting Causes

Dissertation, University of Reading (2010)
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Abstract

I argue against two of the most influential contemporary theories of moral responsibility: those of Harry Frankfurt and John Martin Fischer. Both propose conditions which are supposed to be sufficient for direct moral responsibility for actions. (By the term direct moral responsibility, I mean moral responsibility which is not traced from an earlier action.) Frankfurt proposes a condition of 'identification'; Fischer, writing with Mark Ravizza, proposes conditions for 'guidance control'. I argue, using counterexamples, that neither is sufficient for direct moral responsibility. My counterexample cases are based on recent research in psychology which reveals many surprising causes of our actions. Some of this research comes from the field of situationist social psychology; some from experiments which reveal the influence of automatic processes in our actions. Broadly, I call such causes 'subverting' when the agent would not identify with her action, if she knew all the causes of the action. When an action has subverting causes, the agent is not directly morally responsible for it, even though she may meet the conditions specified by Frankfurt and Fischer. I also criticise the theories of Eddy Nahmias and John Doris, who have both engaged specifically with the threats posed to moral responsibility by situationist research. Against Doris and Nahmias, I argue that their conditions are neither necessary nor sufficient for direct moral responsibility. My final objective is to argue that there are many everyday actions for which we mistakenly hold agents morally responsible. I review evidence that there are many everyday actions which have subverting causes. Many of those are actions for which we currently hold agents morally responsible. But I argue that, in many of those same actions, the agents are not in fact morally responsible – they bear neither direct nor traced moral responsibility.

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