Moral Responsibility

Fall 2014
TR 2:45-4:00 118 Lawrence

Prof. Marie Jayasekera
110 Hascall Hall
Office Hours: W 1-2, R 4-5, and by appt
(315) 228-6171


Course Description

This course is an advanced, focused inquiry into contemporary philosophical work on moral responsibility. In particular, we will focus on a prominent, influential, and lively strand of the literature: P. F. Strawson’s landmark paper, “Freedom and Resentment” (1962), and the discussion that has engaged with and debated the issues he presents in that paper. As background to Strawson’s account of moral responsibility, we will begin with an overview of the issues and main positions in the free will and determinism debate. We’ll then turn to Strawson’s paper, developments of his position, and critiques of his account. Lastly, we will explore two related issues that will not only tie together our discussions of the preceding material but are also fascinating topics in their own right: (i) the nature of blame and (ii) the phenomenon of the psychopath and the question of whether psychopaths are morally responsible.


Weekly Reading

The expectation for this seminar is that you will come to class having read all of the assigned texts.

Weekly Writing

Each week (except for the week you are responsible for leading discussion, see below) you will write a short (250- to 500-word) response to the readings for that week. Your responses will structure and guide our discussions. In your responses, you should engage critically with the texts for that week. You can do this in a number of different ways. For example:

(a)  You might point out something that you find something puzzling or unclear, and explain why;
(b)  You might reconstruct a difficult argument;
(c)  You might develop an objection for claim or argument and respond to it;
(d)  You might bring two distinct views in conversation with one another by bringing out some               unnoted commonality or tension;
And so on. You should view these responses as a way of formulating and testing out your ideas about the readings: you will have opportunity in class discussion to receive feedback on your ideas from me and your colleagues in the class. Although your responses do not need to be polished, they should be well thought-through. These responses will also serve as the springboard for the written assignments for the course (see section ‘Papers,’ below).

The class will be divided in half. Starting at the second week of the semester, for one group, responses will be due by Saturday at 9pm; for the second group, responses will be due by Tuesday at 9pm. All responses will be shared with the class (online through Moodle) and all of you will be expected to read them before our class meetings. These responses will not be graded, but missed responses will count against you in your final grade.

Group 1 (Responses due Sun, by 1pm)
  • Matthew Carter
  • Steven Evans
  • Mariah Jones
  • Samantha Karp
  • Michael Orcutt
  • Miles Ronbeck
Group 2 (Responses due Tue, by 9pm)
  • Jason Bressler
  • Christelle Boursiquot
  • Amanda DiDomizio
  • Luke Luttmann
  • Schuyler Lyon
  • Amanda Molinari
  • Wendy Nicolas

Leading Discussion

Each of you will be responsible for serving as the point person for the discussion for our class meetings for one week. You will synthesize your own thoughts on the material with your colleagues’ responses to generate a set of significant questions, problems, or issues that you would like the discussions for the week to cover. The week you are responsible for leading discussion, you need not share a written response online before our class meetings.


You will write three papers for this course: two short papers and a seminar paper. You will write the first short paper on a topic assigned by me; you will generate your own topic for the other two papers. The weekly reading responses should help you to discover which questions and issues grab you, and they should provide a starting point from which you can use to develop your ideas into more sustained arguments.

Short Papers (4-6 pages)

The first paper is due Mon, October 13th, at 9am. The second paper is due Wed, November 25th, at 5pm. Late papers will be penalized a third of a full letter grade for each 24-hr period after the due date. After you have turned in your short paper, I will schedule an individual meeting with you to discuss your short paper, and sources, arguments, and ideas for the seminar paper.

Seminar Paper (10-15 pages)

The seminar paper is due Wednesday, December 17th, at 5pm. The seminar paper may cover any of the questions, problems, and issues raised in this course. It may also cover the same general topic as either of your short papers (although it must make substantial advances beyond the short paper).


Your final grade will be determined as follows (with adjustments for missed and late work):

20% — First short paper
20% — Second short paper
50% — Seminar paper
10% — Seminar participation (weekly writing, in-class participation, leading discussion)

Schedule and Readings

Note: Brackets indicate texts we’ve already read, but you should read them again for the class meetings they are re-assigned. All course readings will be distributed in class, through the course site (, or will be available through the Colgate Library web site.
    The syllabus is a flexible organism: readings may change over the course of the semester as we narrow or widen our interests. Any changes to the schedule or readings will be posted on the Google course site, and you will have plenty of notice.

Introduction and Background

Week 1 (Sept 1, 3): Determinism, Free Will, and Moral Responsibility

  • Thomas Nagel, excerpt from What Does it All Mean?, “Free Will”
  • Peter van Inwagen, excerpt from Metaphysics, “The Powers of Rational Beings: Freedom of the Will”
  • “A Brief Introduction to Some Terms and Concepts,” excerpt from Four Views on Free Will

Week 2 (Sept 8, 10): Incompatibilism vs. Compatibilism

  • Mon: Moritz Schlick, “When is a Man Responsible?” from The Problems of Ethics  [PDF, see chapter 7 (143-57)]
  • Wed: C.A. Campbell, “In Defence of Free Will” (handout)

Strawson and Strawsonian Accounts

Week 3 (Sept 15, 17): Strawson’s “Freedom and Resentment”; 

Discussion Leader: Steven Evans


Week 4 (Sept 22, 24): Strawsonian Accounts

Discussion Leader: Christelle Borsiquot

Guiding reading questions for the issues in the Sommers piece: 
  • First, refamiliarize yourself with Strawson's (66-7) and Wolf's (390-1) characterizations of the objective attitude.
  • Where does Sommers think Wolf goes wrong in her characterization of the implications of adopting the objective attitude? Do you agree with Sommers' assessments of Wolf's characterization?
  • Are Sommers' characterizations of the objective attitude in the particular cases (resentment, gratitude, forgiveness, love, etc.) accurate, or do they leave anything out or mischaracterize the cases? If the latter, which cases do you take to be the most problematic? 
  • Is Sommers' Joshua case truly analogous to denying moral responsibility and adopting the objective attitude? 

**Fri, Sept 26 2-4pm, in 328 OIin HallTalk by Prof. Pamela Hieronymi, UCLA, on Strawson’s “Freedom and Resentment"   (Note that this is a last-minute change in location.)

If you cannot attend the talk because of a conflict, please review at least the handout for the talk [PDF]. Here is the paper the talk is based on: [PDF]. We will discuss the talk on Monday.

Week 5 (Sept 29, Oct 1): Strawsonian Accounts continued 

Discussion Leader: Mariah Jones

Guiding reading questions for Watson:
  • What gap in Strawson's account is Watson taking himself to fill?
  • How does he do this?
  • What is the import of the Robert Harris case? What does Watson take it to show?

Here is the document we started in class today: [Google Doc]

  • Wed: No new reading; Review previous readings, especially Strawson, "Freedom and Resentment," and Watson, "Responsibility and the Limits of Evil: Variations on a Strawsonian Theme"
Preparation questions for class:
  • How successful is Watson in supplementing Strawson's account?
  • In light of the Bennett, Wolf, and Watson readings, what issues remain unaddressed? What problems remain?   

Challenges, Critiques, and Alternatives

Week 6 (Oct 6, 8) Challenges and Critiques

Discussion Leader: Matthew Carter

Guiding reading questions for Pereboom/preparation questions for class: 
  • NB: Pereboom is a "hard incompatibilist": he holds (1) that incompatibilism is true and (2) we lack free will. See the second italicized paragraph at the start of the chapter for his  description of his position on the free will debate.
  • What are Pereboom's "three points of disagreement"  (what I will call "objections")  with Strawson? 
  • What could Strawson, or a Strawsonian, say in response to Pereboom's objections?
  • Which of Pereboom's objections, if any, do you take to be a significant problem for Strawson? Why?
  • What does Pereboom take the Robert Harris case to show? What would Watson say about Pereboom's analysis (see Watson, 131ff)? Whose analysis do you favor about the case--Watson's or Pereboom's? Why?
  • According to Pereboom, what would a commitment to hard incompatibilism have on the reactive attitudes and our relationships? (Compare with Sommers's position on this.)  
  • Wed: Excerpts from R. Jay Wallace, Responsibility and the Moral Sentiments (handout): If you are short on time, focus on §§ 4.1, 4.2, and 4.4 (on the "generalization strategy": a) first two paragraphs and b) p. 112. second full paragraph–p.115, first full paragraph))
Guiding reading questions for Wallace:
Section §4.1:
  • Notice on p. 87, what Wallace means by a "metaphysical interpretation of the question" of what it is to be a morally responsible agent.
  • What does Wallace take to be the problem with the metaphysical interpretation? The pragmatist approach (the view that holds that there are no facts about the matter)? 
  • What does schema (N) have going for it, according to Wallace? (see p. 91).
  • How do moral norms enter into the discussion?
Section §4.2:
  • What is "Strawson's naturalist argument"? Why, according to Wallace, is it insufficient as a response to the incompatibilist's worries? (See pp. 96-99.)
  • What is "Strawson's pragmatic argument"? Why, according to Wallace, is it insufficient as a response to the incompatibilist's worries? (See pp. 99-103.)
Section §4.4: 
  • What is "the generalization strategy"? How is it a problem for Strawson's view? 

*Mon, Oct 13, 9am: First short paper due

Week 7 (Oct 15): Challenges, Critiques and Alternatives

Discussion Leader: Jason Bressler

Reading questions:
  • What are responsibility ascriptions/ascriptions of responsibility?
  • How does Oshana think the Strawsonian account goes wrong/what does it leave out?
  • What does Oshana mean by “accountability”?
  • What is Oshana’s conception of responsibility?
  • Why should we favor the accountability approach over the Strawsonian approach?
  • In your opinion, what are the strengths of the accountability approach? What are its weaknesses?

The Nature of Blame

Week 8 (Oct 20, 22): Alternatives to Strawson and resources for a cognitive account of blame; Conative accounts

Discussion Leader: Michael Orcutt

Reading questions:

On responsibility:
  • What are the titular “two faces of responsibility,” according to Watson?
  • What is “the self-disclosure view”/ “real self view” of responsibility?
  • What is attributability? 
  • What is moral accountability, as Watson understands it (which is different from Oshana's notion)? 
  • What is the difference between attributability and moral accountability?
  • What does Watson mean by "aretic perspective/evaluations/appraisals"? What work does this cluster of notions do for Watson’s discussions of moral responsibility?
  • How are Watson's two notions of responsibility explanatorily helpful? 
On blame:
  • What do you think is involved in blame?
  • Watson presents two related, but distinct, conceptions of blame. What are they? (See §2 and §§7-9.) 
  • How does Watson think the distinction helps explain what many experience when faced with a case of a vicious criminal who is the victim of an abusive childhood? 

  • Excerpts from George Sher, In Praise of Blame (handout)
Reading questions:
  • Sher argues that none of 1-4 on pp. 2-3 is what blame adds to a belief that someone has acted badly or has a bad character (B). Do you agree?
  • What does Sher think is problematic about the dispositional account of blame?
  • What does Sher think blame adds to B?

Week 9 (Oct 27, 29): Conative and Strawsonian accounts

Discussion Leader: Miles Ronbeck

Reading questions:
  • Note the difference, for Scanlon, between a claim or judgment of blameworthiness and blame.
  • What is Scanlon's account of blame? Identify all of the elements involved in his conception of blame.
  • How does Scanlon conceive of a relationship? (See his conception of friendship as an example.)
  • In what sense does Scanlon think we have a relationship with everyone whom it makes sense to blame? 
  • What do you take to be the greatest strength of the account? The greatest weakness?

Reading questions:
  • What essential feature does Wallace think Scanlon's account of blame leaves out?
  • In which respects does Wallace take the friendship case to be disanalogous with the moral case? Who do you side with--Wallace or Scanlon?
  • What is Wallace's account of blame?
  • Why does Wallace think the reactive emotions/sentiments are a necessary component of blame? 

A Case Study: Are Psychopaths Morally Responsible?

Week 10 (Nov 3, 5): The Phenomenon and the Philosophical Issues

Discussion Leader: Amanda Molinari

Reading questions:
  • What is wrong with the psychopath? How is he or she deficient in a way that bears on moral responsibility?
  • Wed: Excerpts from R. Jay Wallace, Responsibility and the Moral Sentiments
Reading/preparation questions:
  • A note about Wallace's terminology: "A-conditions" are "accountability conditions"--"facts about a given agent that make that agency morally accountable", whereas "B-conditions" are "blameworthiness conditions," which "render the agent responsible for some specific moral wrong" (see the excerpt from October 8th, Responsibility and the Moral Sentiments, 84).  
  • What are the conditions of accountability (A-conditions), according to Wallace? What is involved in each?
  • How does Wallace think the powers of reflective self-control might be impaired? 
  • Why does Wallace think it would be unfair to hold someone accountable in the absence of the powers of reflective self-control?
  • What kind of moral relationship does Wallace think is necessary for accountability?
  • Do you agree with Wallace that the psychopath lacks the powers of reflective self-control? If so, how exactly? Do you think this exempts him from accountability? If not, where does Wallace's account go wrong?

Week 11 (Nov 10, 12): Blame, Reasons-Responsiveness, and Psychopaths

Discussion Leader: Schuyler Lyon

Reading/preparation questions:
  • Review from Wednesday’s class: Why does Wallace think that, on his Strawsonian account, psychopaths are not morally accountable?
  • How does Talbert conceive of the psychopath?
  • What does Talbert think makes someone an appropriate target of blame? Why? 
  • Why does Talbert think it is appropriate to blame the psychopath?
  • What is Watson’s objection? How does Talbert respond? Is the response adequate? 
  • What does Talbert take the function of blame to be?

  • Wed: Excerpt from T. M. Scanlon, What We Owe to Each Other (handout), and Introduction, I, and II of Gary Watson, "The Trouble with Psychopaths" (handout)
Reading questions:
  • Note: by "the Causal Thesis," Scanlon means "the thesis that all of our actions have antecedent causes to which they are linked by causal laws of the kind that govern other events in the universe, whether these laws are deterministic or merely probabilistic" (250).
  • What are the categories of conditions in which Scanlon thinks moral blame is inappropriate?
  • What capacities does Scanlon think agents need in order for blaming them to be appropriate?
  • What objection to Scanlon's account to you take to be the most problematic? Do you think Scanlon's response is adequate?

Week 12 (Nov 17, 19) Blame, Reasons-Responsiveness, and Psychopaths continued

Discussion Leader: Wendy Nicolas  

  • Mon: Bring proposed paper topics to class. If we have time, we will talk about: [Gary Watson, “Two Faces of Responsibility”], [Excerpt from T. M. Scanlon, What We Owe to Each Other], and Gary Watson, "The Trouble with Psychopaths" (handout).
  • Wed: [Gary Watson, “Two Faces of Responsibility”], [Excerpt from T. M. Scanlon, What We Owe to Each Other], and Gary Watson, "The Trouble with Psychopaths" (handout)

(Week 13 (Nov 24, 26): Thanksgiving recess)

*Wed, Nov 25: Second short paper due at 5pm.

Additional Case Studies: Wartime Atrocities, Autism, and the Case of the North Pond Hermit

Week 14 (Dec 1, 3): Wartime Atrocities

Discussion Leader: Samantha Karp

  • Mon: John M. Doris and Dominic Murphy, "From My Lai to Abu Ghraib: The Moral Psychology of Atrocity" (handout)
Reading questions:
  • Take note of Doris and Murphy's argument at p. 27.
  • What are the excusing conditions Doris and Murphy think are relevant for the agents in question ("individuals in combat", broadly speaking)? And why do Doris and Murphy think that excusing conditions, rather than exempting conditions, are appropriate in this case?
  • What empirical features of war do Doris and Murphy take to support Premise 2 of their argument?  
  • What “distal,” or “wasting” (39) influences do Doris and Murphy think contribute to cognitive degradation of individuals in combat? 
  • In what ways do Doris and Murphy take individuals in combat to be cognitively degraded?
  • Why do Doris and Murphy think that the situational factors constitute excusing conditions and not the weaker mitigating conditions?
  • What do you make of the argument? Where are the pressure points (places where one might reasonably disagree)? 
  • Wed: Matthew Talbert, "Situationism, Normative Competence, and Responsibility for Wartime Behavior" (handout, distributed in class on Wed, Nov. 19, also [PDF] here)

Week 15 (Dec 8, 10): Autism and the Case of the North Pond Hermit

Discussion Leader: Amanda DiDomizio


*Wed, Dec 17: Final paper due