Does moral responsibility require the ability to do otherwise? For example, must one have been able to refrain from an evil deed if one is to be appropriately blamed for it? The answer turns on the truth of a familiar principle:
(PAP) If S is blameworthy for doing X, S must have been able to do otherwise than X.
The traditional view is that (PAP) is true; Frankfurt argued that it was false, with a form of example which is still widely discussed. I’m going to argue for Frankfurt’s conclusion in a way that has nothing to do with Frankfurt-style examples. I’d be interested in feedback.
Blaming (or punishing) someone for failing to live up to a moral standard is a special case of a more general phenomenon. There are many cases where there is some kind of requirement, someone fails to live up to it, and negative consequences are imposed as a result. It is instructive to look at how we view “couldn’t have done otherwise” in these other cases.
Case 1. I give a class a logic exam. One student turns in a blank blue book. I ask him why. He says that he couldn’t do any of the problems. I ask him to elaborate. (Case 1a) He says, “because I haven’t understood anything in this class.” (Case 1b) He says, truly, “because I was sitting at the back of the row and never got a test. I tried to get your attention but you were playing Pacman.”
I take it that in Case 1a, the fact that the student couldn’t do the problems is not an excuse. He just fails. In Case 1b, the fact that the student couldn’t do the problems is a valid excuse. He should get a makeup test. What is going on?
Here is my view. I administer the test in order to see whether students have a certain level of knowledge and skill in logic. Ordinarily, their performance on a logic test is pretty good evidence of their knowledge and skill. In case 1b, this evidence is defeated: the fact that a student without a test cannot complete logic problems is no evidence that they lack knowledge or skill in logic. In case 1a, however, the evidence is not defeated: the fact that a student who doesn’t understand logic cannot complete logic problems is excellent evidence that they lack knowledge and skill in logic.
Case 2. A boss tells his secretary to type up a business letter. She replies that she is unable to. Case 2a: She is unable because she doesn’t know the format of a standard business letter. Case 2b: she is unable because the office computer is down.
In case 2b, the explanation of the secretary’s inability to type the letter defeats any inference from “can’t type a business letter” to “is a lousy secretary.” In case 2a, however, inability is no excuse, precisely because this inference is intact.
Now turn to the case of moral responsibility and blame. Suppose I promise to pick you up at the airport, but I don’t show. When you call me angrily, I explain that I couldn’t come. Case 3a: I couldn’t come because I was feeling incredibly lazy and couldn’t drag myself out of bed. (Alternatively: I couldn’t bring myself to come because I have developed a deep hatred for you.) Case 3b: I couldn’t come because my car had two flat tires and they had blocked off the main road to the airport.
It seems to me that case 3a is vastly different from case 3b. My psychological inability to keep my promise in case 3a is no kind of excuse, while the various physical obstacles in case 3b are a good excuse for not keeping my promise. Here is an explanation of the difference. Moral standards are a set of standards for good (enough) “quality of will.” What we care about is the quality of the relationships in which we stand, which has to do with the attitudes others take toward us. Failure to abide by behavioral standards like promise-keeping is generally good evidence that one does not have the proper, good-relationship-constituting attitudes toward another. However, this evidence can be defeated, and it is defeated in case 3b: I didn’t keep my promise, not because my will toward you is bad, but because it was physically impossible. In case 3a, however, the evidence is not defeated. The explanation of why it was impossible to keep my promise reinforces and confirms the initial impression, that my will toward you is bad. So “couldn’t have done otherwise,” in this case, is no excuse.
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.