Does Moral Responsibility Come in Degrees?

Posted on January 14, 2015 by

My 4th substantive post is up over at Flickers. You can find it here. I’ve copied and pasted it below for those who don’t feel like clicking the link.
Does Moral Responsibility Come in Degrees?


Many have assumed either implicitly or explicitly that moral responsibility comes in degrees, but why? For me, it seems quite natural to say that I am either morally responsible or I am not. I either meet the conditions of one’s particular view, or I do not. Oddly, this has been assumed often times with little explanation as to why moral responsibility is a degree concept and not a binary concept (by binary I simply refer to an either/or concept). Consider this quote from a paper by Al Mele:

Moral responsibility is very commonly and very plausibly regarded as a matter of degree. If young children and adults are morally responsible for some of what they do, it is plausible, on grounds of the sort I mentioned, that young children are not as nearly *as responsible* (my emphasis) for any of their deeds as some adults are for some of their adult deeds. (2008, p. 274)

He states further:

Normal parents eventually come to view their children as having some degree of moral responsibility for what they do. The word degree is important here. Normal four-year-olds are not as well equipped for impulse control as normal eight-year-olds, and they have less developed capacity for anticipating and understanding the effects of their actions (2008, pg. 271-272)

I think Mele is right to say that moral responsibility is commonly regarded as a matter of degree, but I’m not so sure that such an assumption is warranted. And, if the assumption is warranted, I think it’s worthwhile to get clear on why this is so.  Investigating this so-called degree feature might help to shed light on the nature of moral responsibility itself. Further, if one holds that moral responsibility does come in degrees it might limit what one can say about the nature of moral responsibility and this conclusion could be fruitful as well for those trying to uncover the the root of the differences between competing views.

The only published paper that I have come across that has tried to make sense of this degree talk in depth is a recent paper by Coates and Swenson (2013, Phil. Studies) though I have read a few unpublished manuscripts that have focused on this assumed feature of moral responsibility in depth (by Manual Vargas, Brandon Warmke, and Gwen Bradford). So, feel free to suggest further work on this topic that I may have missed.

So, the purpose of posting on this topic is simply to get a sense of how can we make sense of moral resposnibility as coming in degrees. Must we assume that blameworthiness and moral responsibility is the same thing to make sense of this? And, what does it even mean to say that moral responsibility comes in degrees?

At last year’s Pacific APA I had the opportunity to comment on Gwen Bradford’s very nice paper “Difficulty and Degrees of Praise and Blame”. In that paper, she argued that one of the most natural ways to make sense of degree talk is to posit what she calls the Blame-Mitigating Thesis (BMT): the difficulty of a morally required action can mitigate the blameworthiness for failing to perform it. She ultimately rejects (BMT) claiming that difficulty can’t do the work on it’s own (she also discusses a similar thesis with regards to praise). I agreed with her on this point but I took this point to be a knock against the degree feature altogether, a line she did not explore in her paper. If difficulty can’t do the work to make sense of when someone is *more or less* morally responsible for doing A then what can? Buildng off Fischer and Ravizza’s account of reasons responsiveness Coates and Swenson suggest that to make sense of the degree feature of moral responsibility we could appeal to the degree in which an agent can respond to reasons. But, for those who do not hold a reasons-responsive view how are they to make sense of degree talk? Further, should they try? I’d be curious to see how you all think about moral responsibility. Does it come in degrees? Overt blame surely does but does moral responsibility proper? I’m not sure why I find this degree talk puzzling, but I do nonetheless. I suggest that we can understand moral responsibility instead as a binary concept; we are either morally responsible for some act A or we are not. Am I wrong to think of MR in this way? If so, what would be a downfall for thinking of it in this way? Further, is such a project worthwhile?

So, I ask those that are compelled by this degree talk:  what is moral responsibility such that it*could* come in degrees, and further, what is lost if we give up such talk? Notice that in the quoted passage from Mele he says “The word degree is important here”. Should we think that degree talk is important and what would change if we gave it up?

Anyway, I raised lots of questions in this post. Feel freeto answer them all or none at all. I’m hoping to get at least one more post up this week and a handful more before the month is over.