The Defence-First Approach to Responsibility

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Defences are explanations of why a subject is not—or less—culpable. They range from fatigue to coercion, from ignorance to self-defence, from necessity to dementia. But they can be categorised in just three groups: justifications, excuses, and exemptions. Roughly, a person is justified when she did no wrong; excused when, although she did wrong, she had no ill intent; and exempted when her handicap or inability makes her act less morally significant. Defences are a common currency is our day-to-day interactions and in the law. And yet moral philosophers—with the notable exception of Austin (1956), Strawson (1962), and more recently Watson (1996), Baron (2005; 2007), McKenna (2005), and Hyman (2013; 2016)—have underused them in the study of moral responsibility. While they very frequently use terms like ‘to excuse’ and ‘to justify’, they are yet to unleash the full philosophical power of defences.

This project aims to use defences to tackle questions of responsibility, and more specifically questions of culpability, afresh. The standard approach (e.g. Fischer and Ravizza 1998; Nelkin 2011) first identifies conditions for culpability or responsibility, such as choice and knowledge, and then applies these conditions to more concrete questions about who is responsible for what. Our defence-first approach turns the table. Instead of asking whether a condition X is required for responsibility, we ask whether the absence of this condition X exculpates—that is, whether it provides a defence such as a justification, an excuse, or an exemption. For instance, instead of asking whether explicit choice is necessary for responsibility, we ask, first, whether not having explicitly chosen justifies, whether it excuses, and whether it exempts. If the answer is “no” for each, then explicit choice is not necessary for responsibility (or culpability). The main contribution of this method is to turn thorny questions into three more tractable ones.

The project first investigates the nature of each type of defence. The specific aim is to argue for a simple but plausible theory of justifications, excuses, and exemptions, where each can be full or partial and where each plays a distinct role. Armed with this theory, we tackle (at least) three of the most important questions about responsibility in the contemporary literature:

To be responsible for a wrong act…

(1) Must we be responsible for our character?

(2) Must this act be the result of an explicit choice on our part?

(3) Must this act have been avoidable?

Each question touches on a major theme, respectively: history, choice, and alternatives. The defence-first can provide refined answers by assessing whether each defence is concerned by history, choice, and determinism. The expected result is a positive answer for each question, the first (history) because of exemptions, the second (choice) because of excuses, and the third (alternatives) because of justifications.

Full project description


Primary investigator: Prof. Simon-Pierre Chevarie-Cossette

The project is funded by the SNSF.