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The Second Condition: Mentality

Control over one's behavior is not all that is necessary for responsibility. Gwen, a young child, may have control over what she does (for example, she may freely choose to yank the tail of the family cat), but that is no reason to hold her morally responsible for her behavior.

What is it that Gwen lacks? The obvious answer is that she fails to understand the moral character of her action and is thus not to blame for it. This suggests that one is blameworthy (in a way that imputes responsibility for one's behavior) only if one is aware that one is doing wrong. At least three reasons may be given for rejecting this view, however.

First, ever since Plato (c. 428–348 or 347 B.C.E.), philosophers have claimed that it is not possible freely to act in the belief that one is doing wrong, since this requires that one willingly do wrong, which is impossible. (Of course, many philosophers have rejected this claim. Indeed some, such as St. Augustine of Hippo [354–430], have gone so far as to suggest that it is possible to have wrongdoing as one's ultimate objective.) Although this claim may seem at odds with common experience, its plausibility may grow on reflection. For example, many apparent instances of willing wrongdoing may reveal themselves on inspection to be better characterized as cases of doing something that one merely believes that others take to be wrong.

Second, to be aware that one is doing wrong implies that one is indeed doing wrong, but some philosophers have claimed that blameworthiness merely requires the belief, and not the fact, that one is doing wrong.

Third, blameworthiness seems often to be incurred through negligence, which in many cases involves the failure to be aware that one is doing wrong; indeed, it is this very failure that seems to ground the attribution of responsibility.

On these arguments, it is doubtful that awareness of wrongdoing is necessary for blameworthiness. Yet, as the case of Gwen indicates, it seems that one must satisfy some rather sophisticated mental condition to be blameworthy; just what this condition is, however, remains unclear. Similarly, presumably some other rather sophisticated mental condition must be satisfied if one is to be praiseworthy (in a way that imputes responsibility for one's behavior). Again, it is controversial just what this condition is. Some philosophers appear to think that simply having good intentions will do; others, such as Kant, insist that one must have doing one's duty as one's ultimate objective.

Finally, there is the question of the relevance of mental disorders to responsibility. It is commonly said that suffering from a mental disorder relieves one of responsibility for one's conduct. But this is far too sweeping. While kleptomania may provide an excuse for theft, it surely provides no excuse for assault; similarly, pyromania may furnish an excuse for arson but not for theft. There must be some close connection between disorder and offense for an excuse to be in the offing. Even then, whether an excuse is indeed available is debatable. Suppose that Holly is a kleptomaniac; why think she therefore has an excuse for theft? One answer is that she literally cannot help stealing. But this seems dubious. More accurate would seem to be the claim that she finds it abnormally difficult, rather than literally impossible, to resist the impulse to steal. But if there is the possibility of resistance, why excuse her for failing to resist? Perhaps she is not to be excused after all, if she recognizes that it is wrong to steal. Or perhaps the unusual strength of the impulse to steal makes it justifiable for her to succumb to it, so that she is indeed not to blame for doing so. Or perhaps she is not justified in succumbing to the impulse but is still not to blame for doing so because of some aspect of her mental state that has yet to be identified; for it is noteworthy that we tend rather to pity people such as Holly than to judge them wicked.

It is safe to say that the grounds for attribution of moral responsibility are complex and that, despite Aristotle's lasting contributions, the discussion that began with him remains unresolved.


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Adams, Robert M. "Involuntary Sins." Philosophical Review 94 (1985): 3–31.

Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Translated with an introduction by David Ross; revised by J. L. Ackrill and J. O. Urmson. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Augustine, St. The Confessions. Translated with an introduction and notes by Henry Chadwick. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

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Hume, David. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, edited by Tom L. Beauchamp. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Kant, Immanuel. Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals. London and New York: Hutchinson's University Library, 1948.

Locke, John. Essay Concerning Human Understanding, edited by Peter H. Nidditch. Oxford: Clarendon; New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.

Mill, John Stuart. An Examination of Sir William Hamilton's Philosophy. Edited by J. M. Robson. Buffalo, N.Y., and Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1979.

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Reid, Thomas. Essays on the Active Powers of Man. 1788. Reprint, New York: Garland, 1977.

Michael J. Zimmerman

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Reason to RetrovirusResponsibility - The First Condition: Freedom, The Second Condition: Mentality, Bibliography