Moral Responsibility and PAP: Can we uphold PAP and advance a “quality of the will” account of moral responsibility?

Posted on December 20, 2013 by

Recently, over at PEA Soup, Heath White blogged about an important question concerning moral responsibility and control. The question was: Does moral responsibility require the ability to do otherwise? PAP (or, the “principle of alternative possibilities) is the principle that says: If S is blameworthy for doing X, S must have been able to do otherwise than X. White ultimately denies PAP on theoretical grounds. Here is the conclusion from that post:

“Thinking about moral responsibility in these terms gives us a theoretical argument against (PAP).  Blame, as a negative response to the violation of a moral standard, is an instance of a larger family of similar cases.  Denying this is, I think, a fairly heavy theoretical cost.  If we accept it, however, we eliminate even the expectation that (PAP) will be true.  For then we should also accept that there is a reason for holding each other to moral standards, that is, a point to the endeavor, just as there is a point to giving logic exams and to making sure secretaries can type letters.  Whatever that point is for moral responsibility, there will be some kinds of inability to do otherwise which do nothing at all to excuse behavior that violates moral standards.  (I have suggested a Quality of Will account, but that detail is inessential.)  They will be the cases where inability to do otherwise is explained by an absence of whatever features the practice of holding each other responsible is trying to ensure.  So we have a good theoretical argument that “couldn’t have done otherwise” is not a universal excuse, and therefore that (PAP) is false.”

In response, Clayton Littlejohn offered this argument:

“It’s hard to say, but I think I can say something in defense of PAP that’s consistent with your broader approach to blame and responsibility. Here’s the argument:

1. S is blameworthy for doing X only if S did X.
2. X is a doing of S’s only if S could have done otherwise.
C. S is blameworthy for doing X only if S could have done otherwise.

The first premise seems trivial. The defense of the second premise will rest on considerations about the nature of action and the relationship between action and exercises of two-way powers (e.g., Steward’s account from her recent book). Since _that_ debate seems to have little obvious connection to debates about whether the quality of will account captures something important about blame, it doesn’t look like the truth of (2) will require abandoning that account. And if that’s right, it looks like there’s an account that upholds PAP that’s consistent with the quality of will account and an attack on PAP will require further attacks against the picture of agency that links action with the exercise of a two-way power.”

I tend to agree with Littlejohn here. A quality of the will account (an account argued for by White) leaves Littlejohn’s  defense of PAP untouched. However, as Gunnar Björnsson has rightfully pointed out to me via facebook  “it (the view espoused by Steward and suggested by Clayton) is also one that will need to grapple with Frankfurt style cases, as most seem to think that agents in such cases act” (this last claim also has some empirical support, see here).

So, how could premise 2 both be defended and speak to the intuition that most seem to have regarding agents acting in frankfurt-style cases? I offered this suggestion on the same fruitful facebook thread: “It seems that one could posit two different accounts of action to explain why many have the intuition that agents “act” in frankfurt-style cases”.  To say a bit more,maybe “doings” (as referred to in premise 2) are freely willed actions and not actions simpliciter? Björnsson offered a very nice response, he said “but then the step from the absence of one kind of action to the absence of moral responsibility would need some support.” Joe Campbell responded before I could with this: “What if the ability to act is logically connected with the ability to do otherwise? I think Aristotle held this view: If S does A, then S could have done otherwise”. This seems to do the trick. Björnsson agreed. Now, I am tempted to offer yet another response, one that does not have to appeal to dispositions as Joe’s comment seems to suggest. But, for now, I’ll hold off.

The point in discussing this here is two-fold. First, I think many readers might find the exchange illuminating. And, more importantly, it brings out an important answer to the question posed in the title. Can we uphold PAP and advance a “quality of the will” account of moral responsibility? I think the answer is clearly yes. If this is right then Heath White’s argument against PAP doesn’t seem to work.