Dec. 21.15: on the origins of the idea of moral responsibility in relation to moral theory

I am uncomfortable with the idea of moral responsibility. Not because I deny there is such a thing, or because I don’t know what it entails, but because I’m not sure where it comes from.

We might want to say that moral responsibility emerges naturally from the facts, and is not dependent upon our other moral convictions. So, moral responsibility is a kind of gloss on causal responsibility, which can itself be read off of the world, and which subsequently forms an indispensable part of a complete moral theory. If that were the case, we should expect non-confused convictions about the nature of responsibility to be relatively insensitive to the contents of normative moral doctrines. Evidence of its truth might be the fact (if it is a fact) that people really do think that responsibility has some important connection to agency, consciousness, and control.

Lately I have been teasing myself with another idea. Maybe the idea of moral responsibility plays no antecedent part in a moral theory at all — perhaps it is the output of such theories in practical application. If that were the case, we should expect our non-confused convictions about the nature of responsibility to be very sensitive to the contents of theory. Evidence of its truth might be the fact that utilitarians endorse a theory of responsibility that will be wildly at odds with a Williamsian theory of responsibility.

I suppose that another possibility is that the notion of responsibility is just a convention which contingently functions as an input to our moral theories, and which itself has no moral significance. That is a confused relativistic position that I find upsetting, but I suppose it’s possible.

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