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Philosophy Moral Responsibility
by
Garrath Williams

Introduction

Moral responsibility relates to many significant topics in ethics and metaphysics, such as the content and scope of moral obligations, the nature of human agency, and the structure of human interaction. This entry focuses on compatibilist approaches to moral responsibility—that is, approaches that see moral responsibility as compatible with the causal order of the world. This is partly because they have more to say about the nature of moral responsibility and the practices associated with it, and also because there is a seperate entry on free will. The entry also focuses mainly on the debates considered most significant by contemporary analytic philosophers. However, it also points to some earlier contributions and to some significant contributions from outside those debates. In particular, it is interesting that contemporary debates often focus on the agency of the responsible person, without attending to the forms of interaction that person may participate in. However, as Peter Strawson points out in a seminal essay (see Responsibility and the Reactive Sentiments), moral responsibility is intimately related to our reactions to one another. Should those reactions be understood by reference to features of the person held responsible, or by reference to the relationship between persons where some action or outcome is at issue, or even by reference to wider social and political structures? Moral responsibility also borders on a number of topics of great practical importance. These include responsibility under the law, the responsibilities of groups and organizations, accountability within organizations, and how distributive justice and individual responsibility are related. Again, this entry focuses largely on individual moral responsibility and only mentions a few social and legal discussions of responsibility with especial implications for how we think about individual responsibility.

General Overviews

A number of recent overviews give useful introductions, but offer different approaches to the topic. Duff 1998 and Eshleman 2009 are relatively accessible introductions; McKenna 2004 is more demanding and technical. Kutz 2002 is the most intellectually penetrating but is orientated by concerns in law and jurisprudence rather than morality.

  • Duff, Antony. “Responsibility.” In Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Vol 8. Edited by Edward Craig, 289–294. London: Routledge, 1998.

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    Useful short outline of the issues. See also the encyclopedia’s entries on Praise and Blame; Determinism and Indeterminism; Free Will.

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  • Eshleman, Andrew. “Moral Responsibility.” In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009.

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    A useful short overview that gives some historical background and locates current approaches in the light of Peter Strawson’s influential contribution (Strawson 1962).

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  • Kutz, Christopher. “Responsibility.” In Oxford Handbook of Jurisprudence and Philosophy of Law. Edited by Jules Coleman and Scott Schapiro. USA: Oxford University Press, 2002.

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    Oriented toward legal debates. Nonetheless, a significant contribution arguing that the relational aspects of responsibility attribution are of critical importance. That is, we hold persons responsible within the context of particular relationships—personal, organizational or legal—and consider ourselves responsible to particular persons or bodies.

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  • McKenna, Michael. “Compatibilism.” In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004.

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    Lengthy, technical and proficient overview of compatibilist approaches to moral responsibility, with an appendix on the most recent debates.

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Anthologies And Textbooks

There are several useful anthologies. Watson 1982 is still very helpful, while the extensively revised second edition (2003) encompasses more recent debates referred to in subsequent sections of this entry. Schoeman 1987 is an important collection of original papers. Fischer and Ravizza 1993 reprints many influential contributions; these are cited frequently in subsequent sections of this article. The Determinism and Freedom Philosophy Website is a useful online collection of influential papers. There is no textbook specifically on the topic of moral responsibility. However, Lucas 1993 and Matravers 2007 offer interesting nontechnical discussions touching on several different facets of responsibility.

Free Will

As most readers will know, moral responsibility has often been discussed in connection with the question of free will. This generates the debate between incompatibilists (who believe that responsibility depends on a notion of freedom incompatible with natural causality, whether or not such freedom may actually exist) and compatibilists (who think moral responsibility is compatible with a naturalistic understanding of the world). A seperate entry is devoted specifically to the topic of free will, so this section gives only a few introductory pointers. Strawson 1994 provides a useful recent statement of a key argument for incompatibilism. Kane 2002 offers an advanced, authoritative overview of analytic approaches. Clarke 2000, O’Connor 2002, and Vihvelin 2003 are readily available and reliable encyclopedia entries. Finally, Levy and McKenna 2008 provides an up-to-date overview that requires familiarity with earlier debates.

  • Clarke, Randolph. “Incompatibilist (Nondeterministic) Theories of Free Will.” In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000.

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    First of three Stanford entries that together provide a comprehensive guide to the incompatibilist literature. Surveys the three principal forms that incompatibilist accounts may take so far as the causation of actions is concerned: those that hinge on an absence of causality, those that trace responsibility back to an uncaused event, and those that invoke a specific sort of “agent-causation.”

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  • Kane, Robert. ed. The Oxford Handbook of Free Will. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

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    A thorough, advanced collection of overview articles by some of the most influential contemporary authors. It focuses largely on incompatibilist approaches but also includes a number of useful articles covering compatibilist contributions.

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  • Levy, Neil, and Michael McKenna. “Recent Work on Free Will and Moral Responsibility.” Philosophy Compass 4.1 (2008): 96–133.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1747-9991.2008.00197.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Thorough, technical overview of debates within the last decade.

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  • O’Connor, Timothy. “Free Will.” In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002.

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    This article considers the variety of things that philosophers have meant in speaking of free will: that we have the power to choose rationally, that we own our choices and actions (see Identifying with Our Actions), or that we cause or control our actions. It also surveys some theological questions that originally prompted concerns about free will and responsibility.

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  • Strawson, Galen. “The Impossibility of Moral Responsibility.” Philosophical Studies 75 (1994): 5–24.

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    Trenchant restatement of the idea that moral responsibility depends on a notion of free will that is unavailable given our naturalistic worldview.

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  • Vihvelin, Kadri. “Arguments for Incompatibilism.” In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003.

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    Surveys the motivations for adopting an incompatibilist view. In addition to arguments based on intuition, it may be argued that determinism prevents us from controlling our actions in the right sort of way for moral responsibility, or that determinism deprives us of the ability to do otherwise (this being, so it is held, essential to moral responsibility).

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Classic Texts

This bibliography focuses mainly on contemporary approaches to moral responsibility and their immediate precursors, but many authors in the history of philosophy have addressed this topic. Setting aside discussions animated by theological concerns—such as problems posed by divine foreknowledge of how we will act—the most important contributions are arguably those of Aristotle, Hume, and Kant. Aristotle’s discussion of excusing conditions in the Nicomachean Ethics (Aristotle 2000) is justly famous. Broadie 1991 and Meyer 1993 show how this brief analysis connects with Aristotle’s wider theory of moral agency. Hume’s moral theory (Hume 1975) is explicitly based in the qualities of character that elicit our esteem and reproach and is an important inspiration for Strawson’s influential account (see Responsibility and the Reactive Sentiments). Russell 1995 shows the sophistication of Hume’s account and its place in his wider moral theory. Kant is often taken as the father of modern incompatibilist views about responsibility, because his view of moral obligation and moral character rests on the “noumenal” freedom of the rational agent—a freedom that can never be known from our sensory or scientific experience of the world. Kant’s account is deep and controversial, however, and he hardly discusses responsibility except in legal terms. His characteristic concern, explored at most depth in Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason (Kant 1998), is with how we should each regard all our actions as imputable to us, as reflecting an underlying and freely chosen moral disposition; but it is not clear that this provides any straightforward rationale for practices of blame and responsibility. Korsgaard 1996 draws on Kant’s views to explore these practices and suggests that he may even be read in a broadly compatibilist fashion. Hill 2002 discusses Kant’s account of punishment and shows that it does not invoke the metaphysics of free will.

  • Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Translated by Roger Crisp. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

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    Book 3, sections 1–5 investigate the conditions where blame is appropriate and the extent to which factors such as coercion, force of circumstances, and factual ignorance might excuse. As Broadie 1991 and Meyer 1993 show, however, these sections need to be read against Aristotle’s broader picture of moral agency.

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  • Broadie, Sarah. Ethics with Aristotle. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

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    In chapter 3, “The Voluntary,” Broadie argues that it is a mistake to read Aristotle as concerned with questions of determinism. His concern is with the distinctive power of adult human beings to act in accordance with virtue. To develop this power and guard against its corruption, we must recognize and judge vicious persons and less than virtuous conduct, as well as their opposites.

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  • Hill, Thomas E., Jr. “Wrong-doing, Desert, and Punishment.” In Human Welfare and Moral Worth. By Hill, Thomas E. Jr., 310–339. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

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    Shows that Kant’s account of punishment is not the retributivist account often attributed to him. In particular, Kant’s account is not based on the moral deserts of the free will, but rather on the need for a coercive authority to uphold people’s rights to a freedom of action that is compatible with a similar freedom for all.

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  • Hume, David. Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals. 3d ed. Edited by L. A. Selby-Bigge. Oxford: Clarendon, 1975.

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    In the Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, “On Liberty and Necessity” emphasizes the regularity of human conduct and that qualities of character are ascribed—whether in blame or praise—on the basis of this stability. The final appendix to the Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, “Of Some Verbal Disputes,” rejects any clear line between the virtues, if they are understood as voluntary, and the talents: both are objects of praise, while their opposites attract censure and disapproval.

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  • Kant, Immanuel. Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason. Translated by Allen Wood and George Di Giovanni. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

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    Book 1 offers Kant’s most extended discussion of our propensity to subordinate morality to inclination (if not in action then at the level of motivation) and why we must regard this propensity as imputable to us: “For if the moral law commands that we ought to be better human beings now, it inescapably follows that we must be capable of being better human beings” (p. 94, 6:50).

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  • Korsgaard, Christine. “Creating the Kingdom of Ends: Reciprocity and Responsibility in Personal Relations.” In Creating the Kingdom of Ends. By Christine Korsgaard. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

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    A sophisticated Kantian account of responsibility that goes beyond Kant’s own concern with self-imputation. Argues that responsibility pertains not to “theoretical” facts—about abilities to do otherwise, for example—but rather to the practical perspective that we must take in interacting with others as free and equal rational agents.

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  • Meyer, Susan S. Aristotle on Moral Responsibility: Character and Cause. Oxford: Blackwell, 1993.

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    Subtle analysis of Aristotle’s account of moral agency. Argues that Aristotle’s account does not invoke—as some readers have thought—a responsibility for character that would be at odds with his emphasis on training and habituation. Rather, it rests on the view that only moral agents can be the nonaccidental, efficient causes of morally significant outcomes.

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  • Russell, Paul. Freedom and Moral Sentiment: Hume’s Way of Naturalizing Responsibility. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

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    Shows that Hume’s view is more sophisticated than the “classic” compatibilist view: that uncoerced action is free, while compelled action—as opposed to action underlain by causal forces in general—is unfree. For Hume, our moral sentiments respond to qualities of character evinced by actions; it is qualities of character, rather than any liberty of the will, that underlie practices of responsibility.

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Contemporary Debates And Their Precursors

The following four subsections are based on four of the most influential articles that continue to act as focal points in present debates. These are: (1) Jack Smart’s utilitarian account of “Free Will, Praise, and Blame”; (2) Peter Strawson’s “Freedom and Resentment”; (3) Harry Frankfurt’s “Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person”; and (4) H. L. A. Hart’s “Legal Responsibility and Excuses.” Although there are important points of contact between the lines of thought set out in each of the original articles referred to, each makes a distinctive point and has inspired a distinctive set of contributions up to the present day. These four approaches do not exhaust the field, even within analytic moral philosophy, and the two following sections point to further sets of issues that have emerged or that combine concerns raised by the four approaches here. Although the first approach mentioned, the utilitarian approach, is now less discussed, it would be fair to say that all of the other topics continue to attract intense debate. That said, the basic idea that emerges when all of these approaches are taken together—that a compatibilist account of moral responsibility should be based in people’s capacity to appreciate moral considerations and to exchange moral reasons—may be considered a matter of consensus.

Utilitarian Instrumentalism

The utilitarian position—often referred to as an “economy of threats”—remains the position that contemporary moral philosophers love to hate. Smart 1961 offers an especially clear and succinct utilitarian account of praise and blame. This is also a clear example of an instrumentalist approach to responsibility attribution: praise and blame are tools that we use in order to encourage persons to make greater contributions to overall utility. Dennett 1984 is a refreshingly brusque confrontation with many intuitions that seem to support incompatibilism; it also sketches a basically utilitarian account of moral responsibility. Although most writers on responsibility now reject—largely following Strawson (see Responsibility and the Reactive Sentiments)—the idea that practices of responsibility are essentially instruments to secure social benefits, Arneson 2003 is important in revisiting Smart 1961’s contribution to suggest that it makes a point of enduring value.

  • Arneson, Richard. “The Smart Theory of Moral Responsibility and Desert.” In Desert and Justice. Edited by Serena Olsaretti, 233–258. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

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    Although critical of Smart, Arneson points out that Smart’s 1961 account gets something important right: practices of responsibility involve our exercising influence on one another in the cause of better conduct and outcomes.

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  • Dennett, Daniel. Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting. Oxford: Clarendon, 1984.

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    Sprightly run-through of the bugbears that, as Dennett holds, illicitly support intuitions about free will. Offers a broadly rule-utilitarian account of responsibility: we maintain practices of responsibility in order to support ourselves and one another in acting well.

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  • Smart, J. J. C. “Free Will, Praise, and Blame.” Mind 70 (1961): 291–306.

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    Contends that praise and blame are about (1) “grading” people and their contributions and (2) influencing them to do better.

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Responsibility and the Reactive Sentiments

Peter Strawson’s famous essay “Freedom and Resentment” (Strawson 1962) resituated the free will debate by highlighting the importance of “reactive attitudes” such as resentment or gratitude to “ordinary inter-personal relationships.” Against the proponents of free will and their resort to “panicky metaphysics,” Strawson urges that the ways in which we divide responsible persons and actions from nonresponsible agents and behaviors do not depend on anything so mysterious as an absence of causal determination. Instead, they depend on whether we are engaged in normal interpersonal relations—marked by such activities as quarrelling, loving, reasoning, and much more. Affective responses such as resentment and gratitude mark those relations, as they do not our relations with animals and the insane. (As Strawson observes, our relations with children occupy a crucial in-between place.) Against utilitarians such as Smart, Strawson points out that affective responses and practices of responsibility would not work in the way they do if we saw them as mere tools of enforcement or encouragement. To respond to agents in such a calculating way would mark an “objective” attitude, as opposed to seeing the person as a fellow “member of the moral community.” Strawson concludes, “These practices [of reaction and responsibility], and their reception, the reactions to them [such as remorse], really are expressions of our moral attitudes and not merely devices we calculatingly employ for regulative purposes.” Pincoffs 1988 and Murphy and Hampton 1988 develop parallel lines of thought without obvious debt to Strawson. Watson 1987 and Russell 1992 are two of many illuminating responses to Strawson 1962, and others are collected in McKenna 2007. Wallace 1994 is the most well-known and systematic development of Strawson and is also important among the approaches that are grouped together under Moral Reasons and Moral Address.

  • McKenna, Michael, and Paul Russell, eds. Free Will and Reactive Attitudes: Perspectives on P.F. Strawson’s “Freedom and Resentment.” Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2007.

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    Anthology reprinting important papers responding to Strawson 1962. Includes Watson 1987, Russell 1992, and an extract from Wallace 1994, as well as essays by Susan Wolf, Galen Strawson, and others.

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  • Murphy, Jeffrie, and Jean Hampton. Forgiveness and Mercy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511625121Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Thoughtful exchange of views concerned with our feelings of anger and resentment in response to wrongdoing, the reasons that should lead us to forgive, and where it may be appropriate to endorse retributive feelings. (Not a response to Strawson 1962 as such.)

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  • Pincoffs, Edmund. “The Practices of Responsibility-Ascription.” Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 61.5 (1988): 823–839.

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    Thoughtful but little-noticed essay that follows Strawson 1962 in emphasizing that practices of responsibility are a mode of responding to the infliction of harm. If we were to reject those practices—say because of philosophical doubts about responsibility—we would be bound to settle on some alternative set of practices to deal with harms caused: but there seem to be no plausible alternatives.

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  • Russell, Paul. “Strawson’s Way of Naturalizing Responsibility.” Ethics 102 (1992): 287–302.

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    Criticizes Strawson 1962 for arguing that the reactive sentiments are part of our “nature” and therefore do not require justification or permit reasoning about whether they are called for.

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  • Strawson, P. F. “Freedom and Resentment.” Proceedings of the British Academy 48 (1962): 1–25.

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    The single most influential essay on moral responsibility. Can be read as a direct response to the utilitarian instrumentalism of Smart 1961 and others. Argues that practices of responsibility are not tools by which we manipulate others; they are part of what it is to relate to others as members of a moral community. (Variously reprinted including Watson 1982 and Fischer and Ravizza 1993; see Anthologies and Textbooks.)

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  • Wallace, R. Jay. Responsibility and the Moral Sentiments. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994.

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    Highly regarded study indebted to Strawson 1962. Asks when it is fair to hold someone responsible and thus expose them to “reactive” emotions or various penalties. Suggests that this is fair where the person has actually done wrong (that is, his conduct is not excused) and where the person has the ability to respond to moral reasons (the lack of which, claims Wallace, exempts a person from responsibility).

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  • Watson, Gary. “Responsibility and the Limits of Evil: Variations on a Strawsonian Theme.” In Responsibility, Character, and the Emotions: New Essays in Moral Psychology. Edited by Ferdinand Schoeman. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1987: 256–286.

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    Asks whether some persons might be exempted from the Strawsonian moral community. Uses a particularly horrible real-life example of a wrong-doer: given his abusive upbringing, was he in a position to appreciate the wrongness of the murders he committed? Influentially concludes that “the boundaries of moral responsibility are the boundaries of intelligible moral address.” Reprinted in Fischer and Ravizza 1993 and G. Watson, Agency and Answerability: Selected Essays (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

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Identifying with Our Actions

Several essays of Harry Frankfurt’s have been highly influential in discussions of the agency of responsible persons, although Frankfurt says relatively little about responsibility as such. Whereas utilitarians emphasize social benefits and Strawson draws our attention to interpersonal relations, Frankfurt characteristically emphasizes aspects of selfhood (Frankfurt 1969, Frankfurt 1971, Frankfurt 1987). One surprising omission from Frankfurt’s work and most subsequent commentary on him is the question of the standards by which a person should govern her choices or desires: Wolf 1987 is important in observing this aspect. Arpaly and Schroeder 1999 suggests we should not necessarily look for the authoritative and responsible self in a person’s most self-conscious beliefs about what he or she should do—just as important, if not more so, are our habits and dispositions to respond to others. This point is also taken up by many of the accounts concerned with what should be attributed to a person, as discussed in Arguments Against Control. Buss and Overton 2002 is a major collection of original papers on Frankfurt’s work, many of which take up his concerns with the structure of the self and responsible agency.

  • Arpaly, Nomy, and Timothy Schroeder. “Praise, Blame, and the Whole Self.” Philosophical Studies 93 (1999): 161–188.

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    Points out that we may fail to endorse, as a matter of explicit belief, our good actions (“inverse akrasia”). Contrary to Frankfurt’s account, which seems to imply that this removes praiseworthiness or even responsibility, the authors suggest an “integrated self” account of responsibility, which suggests that we are responsible for all actions that more or less reflect our character.

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  • Buss, Sarah, and Lee Overton, eds. Contours of Agency: Essays on Themes from Harry Frankfurt. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002.

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    Important collection of essays on Frankfurt with replies by Frankfurt himself. Many essays relate to the hierarchical model of the self and its relation to questions of responsibility, including those by Susan Wolf, Richard Moran, T. M. Scanlon, David Velleman, Gary Watson, J. M. Fischer, and Eleanor Stump.

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  • Frankfurt, Harry. “Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility.” Journal of Philosophy 66 (1969): 828–839.

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    Advances the idea that a person might be fated to perform a particular act (that is, there are no “alternate possibilities”) and yet nonetheless wills to do so—and is accordingly responsible, even in the absence of “an ability to do otherwise.” Much discussed in subsequent debates about free will.

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  • Frankfurt, Harry. “Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person.” Journal of Philosophy 68 (1971): 5–20.

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    Suggests that the will is free when we are able to endorse or identify with our everyday, first-order volitions. Someone who is subject to a compelling addiction is free insofar as she endorses her will to take the drug, and, claims Frankfurt, is also responsible, even though she is, at another level, compelled to take the drug. Reprinted in Frankfurt’s The Importance of What We Care About: Philosophical Essays (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

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  • Frankfurt, Harry. “Identification and Wholeheartedness.” In Responsibility, Character, and the Emotions: New Essays in Moral Psychology. Edited by Ferdinand Schoeman, 27–45. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

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    One of several later essays in which Frankfurt develops the notion of identification. Here Frankfurt emphasizes that a higher-order process of considering and rejecting values can lead to a wholehearted identification with them. So a person “makes up her mind” and thereby takes responsibility for it. Says little concerning implications for our holding persons responsible, however. Reprinted in Frankfurt’s Necessity, Volition, and Love (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

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  • Wolf, Susan. “Sanity and the Metaphysics of Responsibility.” In Responsibility, Character, and the Emotions: New Essays in Moral Psychology. Edited by Ferdinand Schoeman, 46–62. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

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    Points out that a person may wholeheartedly identify with evil first-order desires, perhaps owing to a perverted upbringing, to the point where we would not consider that person responsible. Argues that a responsible agent needs to be morally “sane”—that is, able to know right from wrong—and hence to evaluate his or her character (or first-order desires) in a reasonable way.

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The Value of Choice and Contractualist Developments

H. L. A. Hart’s broadly rule-utilitarian account of excusing conditions in the law (Hart 1968) has been influential to contractualist accounts of responsibility, especially T. M. Scanlon’s. Hart himself strongly distinguishes between moral and legal responsibility; nonetheless, a similar analysis could be offered in the moral case: We excuse a person who lacked the ability to conform to a moral norm because morality is a system of requirements that is intimately related to our capacities to voluntarily govern our conduct. Scanlon 1998 develops this thought: in different ways, blame and punishment uphold moral standards, while upholding the value of our capacities of choice; Wallace 2002 and Williams 2007 respond. Lenman 2006 offers a slightly different take on the contractualist idea that practices of responsibility belong to reasonable terms of cooperation. Ripstein 1999 and Ripstein 2004 explicitly consider legal responsibility but should also be read as contributions to a wider political theory of responsibility (albeit one that is properly described as Kantian rather than contractualist).

  • Hart, H. L. A. “Legal Responsibility and Excuses.” In Punishment and Responsibility. By H. L. A. Hart. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968.

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    Hart points out that law is meant to regulate people’s conduct by acting on their capacities of choice. Where a person lacks the ability to meaningfully choose—as in cases of insanity or duress, for example—it therefore makes no sense to apply the same legal penalties.

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  • Hart, H. L. A. “Postscript: Responsibility and Retribution.” In Punishment and Responsibility. By H. L. A. Hart. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968.

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    Still useful as a discussion of the many different ways in which the words “responsible” and “responsibility” are used.

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  • Lenman, James. “Compatibilism and Contractualism: The Possibility of Moral Responsibility.” Ethics 117 (2006): 7–31.

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    Suggests that moral responsibility represents a good contractualist bet. Imagines the following question: If one did not know what sort of moral character one would have, what sort of social arrangements would one choose? Given that human beings have some ability to live up to moral norms, argues Lenman, arrangements based on practices of responsibility would be a fair bet.

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  • Ripstein, Arthur. Equality, Responsibility, and the Law. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

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    Important recent legal and political discussion. Disavows the “voluntarism” (the focus on individual capacities of choice that supposedly underlie practices of holding responsible) of many moral and legal accounts of responsibility, by suggesting that practices of responsibility are intrinsic to maintaining fair terms of interaction.

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  • Ripstein, Arthur. “Justice and Responsibility.” Canadian Journal of Law and Jurisprudence 17.2 (2004): 361–386.

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    Focusing on the law but again in light of a wider political account. Important in developing the author’s “reciprocity conception of responsibility, which supposes that responsibility must be understood in terms of norms governing what people are entitled to expect of each other.”

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  • Scanlon, Thomas M. “Responsibility.” In What We Owe to Each Other. By Thomas M. Scanlon, 248–294. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.

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    Attacks a simple account of retrospective responsibility in terms of choice (“the forfeiture view”) in favor of a more sophisticated “value of choice” view. We hold people responsible, not because they deserve whatever foreseeable consequences follow from their choices but rather because people’s capacity for choice is so important. But choice is only meaningful within a more or less predictable framework of consequences and responses.

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  • Wallace, R. Jay. “Scanlon’s Contractualism.” Ethics 112 (2002): 429–470; 510–513.

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    Interesting critique of Scanlon by the author of one of the most influential books in the field. Of special interest is the weight Wallace puts on a person’s capacity to respond to moral reasons, if he or she is to properly be considered responsible. By contrast, Scanlon emphasizes the authority of moral requirements, even if a person’s vices seem fixed.

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  • Williams, Andrew. “Liberty, Liability, and Contractualism.” In Egalitarianism: New Essays on the Nature and Value of Equality. Edited by Nils Holtug and Kasper Lippert-Rasmussen, 241–261. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

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    Critical discussion of Scanlon’s 1998 account.

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Moral Reasons And Moral Address

As noted under Identifying with our Actions, Frankfurt-style approaches do not tend to consider the question of what standards a responsible agent should follow, while the utilitarian picture tends to suggest applying social pressure rather than the exchange of reasons. By contrast, Strawsonians and contractualists emphasize how responsible persons respond to one another and to right reason. This section points to a group of approaches that relate to a prominent idea in Wallace 1994: that it is fair to hold a person responsible to the extent that he or she has the ability to respond to moral reasons (see Responsibility and the Reactive Sentiments). Wolf 1990 is an equally important statement of this idea. Darwall 2006 offers a recognizably Kantian account, developed more systematically as a theory of morality. These authors all emphasize that practices of responsibility involve addressing the wrongdoer with moral reasons. Watson 1987 is often cited as coining the term “moral address,” and the term is made more explicit in McKenna 1998. Hampton 1984 already suggested a similar idea with regard to punishment. Fischer and Ravizza 1998 is an influential work that also stresses the moral competence of the responsible person, although practices of moral address and mutual accountability play little role in their account. Like Frankfurt, Fischer and Ravizza are concerned with individual agency; Watson 2001 accordingly criticizes their subjective notion of “taking responsibility.”

Arguments Against Control

Many discussions of moral responsibility assume that we can specify what someone is responsible for in terms of what was under his or her control. This idea clearly relates to an important truth, but Merrihew-Adams 1985 and a number of more recent articles have offered devastating objections to any simple claim that we are only responsible for what was under our control. This issue arises from at least two directions. First, the emphasis on control has often motivated incompatibilist intuitions. Sher 2005 points out that the control-condition is more often assumed than argued for; Sher 2006a argues that it conflicts with a surprisingly wide range of cases where we would normally consider a person responsible. Second, questions about control arise in connection with the approaches mentioned in the last section—ones that emphasize the responsible person’s responsiveness to moral reasons. What should we say of the responsibility of the thoroughly selfish or obdurate person, whose vices seem so settled that it seems false to say that he or she can respond to a certain class of moral considerations? It would be odd to think that such a person is thereby exempted from blame, or that we should relate to him or her just as we do to someone who exhibits the opposing virtues. Sher 2006b examines and modifies the Humean view that we judge a person’s actions insofar as they reflect settled character traits. Smith 2005 and Scanlon 2008 develop parallel points. Such arguments are sometimes referred to as “attributionist” because they suggest that many wrongful acts—be they chosen or spontaneous, nondeliberate or acts of omission—reveal flaws in a person’s moral commitments. These actions and flaws are then attributed to the person, even if he or she seems unable to appreciate that they are morally faulty or to alter her conduct for the better.

  • Merrihew-Adams, Robert. “Involuntary Sins.” Philosophical Review 94.1 (1985): 3–31.

    DOI: 10.2307/2184713Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Argues that we can be responsible for states of mind such as jealousy, hatred, or ingratitude and that these cannot, in many cases, be plausibly traced to voluntary choices or omissions. Moreover, to overcome one’s tendencies to such states typically involves taking responsibility for them.

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  • Scanlon, Thomas M. Moral Dimensions: Permissibility, Meaning, Blame. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2008.

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    Account of blame based on the thought that, in general, we blame others within the context of particular relationships. To blame is to express our sense of the moral demands involved in that relationship and how it has been undermined by some form of wrongdoing. Such practices do not ride on the idea that the wrongdoer is necessarily able to control his or her wrongdoing.

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  • Sher, George. “Kantian Fairness.” Philosophical Issues 15 (2005): 179–192.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1533-6077.2005.00060.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Observes how little argument has been offered for the “Kantian principle” that it is unfair to hold people responsible for acts/omissions over which they lack control. Argues that we necessarily hold people responsible from a perspective that is not the actor’s own; our blame may therefore express moral demands that the actor fails to appreciate.

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  • Sher, George. “Out of Control.” Ethics 116 (2006a): 285–301.

    DOI: 10.1086/498464Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Points out how often we hold people responsible for actions even though they could not help performing them: for example, distracted or neglectful omissions, panicky or ill-judged actions, or actions based on lack of moral insight or appreciation.

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  • Sher, George. In Praise of Blame. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006b.

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    Advocates a modified Humean account of blame (see Classic Texts) whereby actions are blameworthy insofar as they reflect stable, nonvirtuous character traits. Sher argues that we (rightly) blame people for actions and outcomes that stem from “the interplay of the . . . desires, beliefs and dispositions that . . . make the wrong-doer the person he is.”

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  • Smith, Angela. “Responsibility for Attitudes: Activity and Passivity in Mental Life.” Ethics 115 (2005): 236–271.

    DOI: 10.1086/426957Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Argues that practices of responsibility attribution relate to “judgment-sensitive attitudes” rather than choices as such. Thus we can be responsible for forgetful omissions, failures to notice morally salient facts, involuntary reactions such as grief (or lack of), etc. All these are revealing of our attitudes to others and our evaluative judgments, and hence legitimate bases of moral appraisal.

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Earlier Contributions

This section points to a number of thoughtful contributions that do not, for the most part, attract attention in contemporary philosophical discussions, although some (such as Austin 1956–1957, Feinberg 1970, Williams 1993, and Williams 1997) are regularly cited. Often this neglect owes to their failure to fit some recognized school, or perhaps to a less technical approach than is currently favored. It may be, then, that they can help us to appreciate aspects of moral responsibility that contemporary discussions neglect. Joel Feinberg and Herbert Fingarette are both important philosophers who collected many of their essays into stimulating collections (Feinberg 1970, Fingarette 1967, Fingarette 2004). Austin 1956–1957, McKeon 1957, and Ricoeur 2004 are all revealing essays by important philosophers who otherwise did not write on responsibility as such. Bernard Williams often criticized the modern concern with voluntariness and choice (see Arguments Against Control); two of his most explicit treatments of responsibility are Williams 1993 and Williams 1997, the former being in part a response to Adkins 1960.

  • Adkins, A. W. H. Merit and Responsibility. Oxford: Clarendon, 1960.

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    Argues that the Greeks lacked modern, Kantian notions of duty and fairness in assigning responsibility. Important largely as a foil for Williams 1993.

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  • Austin, J. L. “A Plea for Excuses.” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 57 (1956–1957): 1–30.

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    A set of stimulating provocations rather than a theory or account of excuse. Probes the concept of action and how actions may go wrong through our ways of talking about this. Reprinted in Austin’s Philosophical Papers, edited by J. O. Urmson, and G. J. Warnock (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979).

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  • Feinberg, Joel. Doing and Deserving: Essays in the Theory of Responsibility. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1970.

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    A set of classic essays on action and responsibility, often inflected by legal concerns but usually with an eye to moral responsibility as well.

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  • Fingarette, Herbert. On Responsibility. New York: Basic Books, 1967.

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    A set of classic essays. “Acceptance of Responsibility” anticipates many later discussions, such as Susan Wolf’s, by taking the example of psychopathy and arguing that responsibility attributions are intelligible only insofar as they connect up with a person’s existing moral concern.

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  • Fingarette, Herbert. Mapping Responsibility. Chicago: Open Court, 2004.

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    A collection of beautifully succinct essays, summarizing a lifetime’s careful reflection on many aspects of responsibility.

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  • McKeon, Richard. “The Development and the Significance of the Concept of Responsibility.” Revue Internationale de Philosophie 11.39 (1957): 3–32.

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    A historical study of the concept, stressing that the original motivations for taking up responsibility as a topic of theoretical analysis were practical and political—in particular, to avoid controversial questions of metaphysics and moral psychology. Considers J. S. Mill and Max Weber, among others.

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  • Ricoeur, Paul. “The Concept of Responsibility: An Essay in Semantic Analysis.” In The Just. By Paul Ricoeur. Translated by David Pellauer, 11–34. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

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    Demanding and rich essay. Analyses the concept both in relation to the fundamentals of human agency and in relation to contemporary concerns with risk, indemnification, and—following Jonas 1984 (see Social and Political Approaches)—responsibility to future generations.

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  • Williams, Bernard. Shame and Necessity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

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    Argues that the ancient Greeks had a sophisticated account of responsibility attribution, which avoided the mistaken emphasis on voluntariness that Williams finds in modern morality. Contends that there may be different valid conceptions of responsibility in different contexts, but all combine four elements: cause of action or outcome, intention of the actor, state of the actor’s mind, and response required of the actor.

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  • Williams, Bernard. “Moral Responsibility and Political Freedom.” Cambridge Law Journal 56 (1997): 96–102.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0008197300017761Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Outlines Williams’s view that (1) responsibility rests on the four elements specified in Shame and Necessity, (2) political freedom rests on the state’s punishing only voluntary acts, and (3) the idea of “voluntariness” should not be regarded as metaphysically “deep.” The journal includes a reply by Antony Duff and Andrew von Hirsch. Reprinted in Williams’s Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline, edited by A. W. Moore, 119–125 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008).

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Social And Political Approaches

The social and political ramifications of responsibility are enormous and not often hinted at in contemporary philosophical discussions of moral responsibility. The following represent some exceptions to this tendency, in addition to those included in Earlier Contributions. Barnes 2000 stands apart as a contribution from sociological theory, while the others—for all their diversity—pose political questions about divisions and attributions of responsibility that are neglected when one focuses on the agency of individual persons, or frames matters in terms of “moral reasons” in the abstract. Jonas 1984 underlines modern human beings’ collective responsibility with regard to the existence of future generations, and the responsibility of the ‘statesman,’ but does not consider the division of responsibilities between individuals. Vickers 1973 and Williams 2008 are concerned with the institutional conditions needed for responsible conduct: how persons may obtain a concrete sense of the reasons and requirements they should act on, and how they should hold one another accountable. Richardson 1999 also emphasizes the importance of dividing responsibilities by allocating roles, and explores our individual and collective authority to reform those roles. Smiley 1992 highlights questions of power and belonging, while Bovens 1998 considers how individuals ought to be held accountable when organizations act badly, and how responsible conduct and responsible organizations can be encouraged. Miller 2001 and Young 2006 consider our collective responsibilities to act when social structures seem themselves to be agents of injustice.

  • Barnes, Barry. Understanding Agency: Social Theory and Responsible Action. London: Sage, 2001.

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    Barnes’s sociological background and frank relativism will deter most philosophers, but those who persist will find a wealth of insight and argument. Barnes’s central thought is that to consider a person “responsible” is to accord a social status—one that corresponds to effective rights to participate in social life.

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  • Bovens, Mark. The Quest for Responsibility: Accountability and Citizenship in Complex Organizations. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

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    Investigates how regulation, organizational reform, and different modes and channels of accountability can address irresponsibility on the part of institutions and their members.

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  • Jonas, Hans. The Imperative of Responsibility. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.

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    Argues that modern humankind’s new power to destroy nature creates a historically novel responsibility toward future generations.

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  • Miller, David. (2001) "Distributing Responsibilities.” Journal of Political Philosophy. 9.4: 453-71.

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    Explores the limits of backward-looking approaches to responsibility as means to rectify damage and injustice. Argues that people and collectives may have a relevant connection that gives rise to a responsibility to act, not only by virtue of causal or moral responsibility, but also by virtue of capacities to respond in the case at hand and communal ties to the persons affected.

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  • Richardson, Henry S.. (1999) "Institutionally Divided Moral Responsibility" Social Philosophy and Policy. 16.2: 214-49.

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    Stimulating and wide-ranging article that seeks to account for the deontological structure of role-based responsibilities, while locating limited individual and wide-ranging collective (or democratic) authorizations to revise those roles and responsibilities.

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  • Smiley, Marion. Moral Responsibility and the Boundaries of Community: Power and Accountability from a Pragmatic Point of View. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

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    Argues that judgments of blame and responsibility hinge, in ways that philosophical discussions do not usually acknowledge, on configurations of power, social roles, and the boundaries of community—that is, who we are expected to take into consideration, or to answer to.

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  • Vickers, Geoffrey. Making Institutions Work. London: Associated Business Programmes, 1973.

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    Vickers’s work fitted no recognized discipline, let alone any recognized school of philosophy. The essays in this book are an important contribution to understanding modern institutional structures, and in particular the contributions and qualities—the responsibilities and sense of responsibility—that they demand of their members.

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  • Williams, Garrath. “Responsibility as a Virtue.” Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 11.4 (2008): 455–470.

    DOI: 10.1007/s10677-008-9109-7Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Considers what is involved in praising someone as “responsible,” relating this to contexts of action that—at one and the same time—impose many moral demands on us and enable us to fulfill these.

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  • Young, Iris Marion. (2006) "Responsibility and Global Justice: A Social Connection Model.” Social Philosophy and Policy 23.1: 102-30.

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    Considers political and structural difficulties that arise if we focus on the backward-looking aspects of responsibility (such as blame and punishment) when complex social structures involve systematic injustice. Argues for a more political and forward-looking approach to responsibility, arguing that many persons should take responsibility for challenging and changing those structures, by engaging in collective action. (Reprinted in her Global Challenges: War, Self Determination and Responsibility for Justice, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2007: 159-186.)

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LAST MODIFIED: 11/26/2012

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780195396577-0079

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