Freedom and Responsibility  in action.  Photo: H.L. Maibom: Jurmala, Latvia 2018.

Freedom and Responsibility in action.

Photo: H.L. Maibom: Jurmala, Latvia 2018.


When are we responsible for our actions? What makes us responsible? Is everybody responsible for what they do? Are psychopaths?

I first started thinking about responsibility in the context of psychopathy. Psychopaths are not currently thought to be legally insane, and so are usually punished as “ordinary” criminals. But given their pervasive emotional and decision making deficits, should they be? I think so (but I also think it is time for a serious criminal justice overhaul). Why? First, psychopaths do not lack the ability to make decisions. They have impairments. Notice that the insanity defence is usually ever only used in cases of murder. I don’t think the evidence shows that psychopaths are so deficient in their decision making abilities that they cannot help but murder others. Moreover, psychopaths engage much more in instrumental violence than do other offenders. Instrumental violence is premeditated. Second, psychopaths’ empathy deficit is quite subtle. For instance, Jean Decety found that when shown pictures of people in painful situations and asked to imagine that this is happening to someone else, psychopaths’ brain activity looked markedly different from that of ordinary people. If, on the other hand, they were asked to imagine that they are in the painful situation, their neural response was almost normal. This suggests that what is at the heart of psychopathy is some form of extreme self-centredness, not lack of capacity to empathize per se. Can we hold that very selfish people are not responsible for their actions? This seems implausible.

This got me thinking about an argument from Susan Wolf who holds that an ability to recognize the world for what it is, including what is right and wrong, is a precondition for sanity and, therefore, for responsibility. Who are excluded from sanity? Psychopaths, slaveholders of the past, male chauvinists in recent times, and so on. They simply didn’t have the opportunity to recognize the wrong they were doing, Wolf says. That doesn’t sit right with me. So I started researching. What I found was that even in Ancient Greece, 400 BCE and earlier, it was recognized that slavery was one of the worst fates that could befall you. Recall the lament of Andromache, Hector’s wife, at the end of the Illiad. Similarly, if we read Euripides Medea, we find a deep understanding of the suffering and seeming injustice of female subjugation. As far as I can tell, many of the ancients did have the opportunity to learn that these things were wrong. It was just very inconvenient for them to do so, because to follow up on their new beliefs they would have to change the way that they lived. But affected lack of imagination does not amount to not having the ability to imagine. So we can hold (some of) the ancients morally responsible for the holding and taking of slaves, and for subjugating women. What is important is the ability to know that something is right/wrong, rather than actually subscribing to such norms. More precisely, if there is an inferential route from someone’s current beliefs, desires, and so on to knowledge of what she is doing is wrong, and this route is not too onerous to follow, she is responsible for doing wrong (or right, as the case might be).

Some people believe that there is something about our deep selves that is at the core of responsibility. For instance, Harry Frankfurt held that the ability to want to want (second-order volition) is what matters in responsibility. What has become central to the way that I think about responsibility is perspective. We need to be able to take a perspective other than our own on our actions. Why? Because, as Socrates pointed out in an early Platonic dialogue, nobody does wrong knowingly. Or perhaps some do, but most people who do wrong do not think of their actions as wrong. This may be because we are confused, ignorant, or something like that. But in many cases it is our self-love. We conceive of what we do relative to our own interests, and often forget to consider the interests of others and the consequences to them of our actions. It is rather inconvenient that actions do not come with moral labels. We have to do work to determine whether an action is right or wrong. The fact is that most of what we consider doing can at least appear to be fine. This is the reason that taking an outside view on our actions is central to our understanding not only that it is right or wrong, but to understanding what kind of action it is in the first place. For instance, my being honest may, at the same time, be my being gratuitously hurtful. But I would not have realized that, had I not attempted to see what I propose to do from another point of view. So, rather surprisingly, to know what we do we need to know how others would think of what we do.

Read more: Knowing What We Are Doing