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When to Hold Your Friends’ Feet to the Fire

Jordan Myers argues, against Christine Korsgaard, that we shouldn’t always hold our friends morally responsible.

I would not like to be friends with the Harvard philosopher Christine Korsgaard. I don’t wish to pursue a friendship with her, not because she isn’t (presumably) a lovely person and a deep thinker, but because being a close friend of hers may entail a level of commitment I am not prepared to engage in. This is because Korsgaard holds that she ought to always and totally hold her friends morally responsible, regardless of any external considerations. And while this would certainly be a welcome status quo most of the time, I have good reason to believe her insistence on such a standard would end up straining our relationship as friends. For I believe it is not only permissible, but sometimes necessary, to withhold or suspend responsibility from others, even those to whom we are close.

Christine Korsgaard
Christine Korsgaard in 2019

The concept of ‘responsibility’ is being used here in a specific way. A physicist may say something like “The sun’s gravity is responsible for Earth’s orbit around it”, or an accountant may say, “The sales department is responsible for the bloated expenditures this quarter.” Neither of these usages get at the core of moral responsibility; they merely identify the proximate cause of some event. Instead, for this discussion, ‘moral responsibility’ refers to the holding and expressing of certain attitudes towards others. In her 1992 paper, ‘Creating the Kingdom of Ends’, Korsgaard defines holding responsible as being prepared to “exchange lawless individual activity for reciprocity… to accept promises, offer confidences, exchange vows, cooperate on a project, enter a social contract, have a conversation, make love, be friends, or get married… to risk your happiness or success on the hope that she will turn out to be human.” So holding someone responsible means we blame them for wronging us, praise them for their good deeds, forgive if it’s warranted, hold in contempt if fitting, etc. These attitudes give us the wonderfully messy, connective life that’s defined by relationships with others. What I will aim to rebut in this piece, however, is Korsgaard’s argument for the necessary constancy of this attitude.

Understanding Korsgaard’s View

Korsgaard derives her view largely from Kantian moral philosophy. Kant’s categorical imperative famously states: ‘So act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always and at the same time as an end, never merely as a means’. Put simply, we should never use someone merely as a means to an end, but always as an end in themselves, which means recognising that they’re a person with their own desires and goals; the utmost respect for people’s autonomy.

Agreeing with this imperative, Korsgaard links treating someone as an end in herself with holding her morally responsible, as this is to respect her as an autonomous moral agent. Under this framework, Korsgaard argues that treating someone as an autonomous individual requires that one hold them morally responsible.

Korsgaard arrived at this position by considering what it means for someone to be autonomous and to have agency, or in other words, to have free will.

She says in her book, Creating the Kingdom of Ends (1996): “The point is not that you must believe you are free, but that you must choose as if you were free.” To illustrate this idea, she imagines a thought experiment in which an electronic device is implanted in your brain. It doesn’t cancel out your thought processes, but rather continually injects thoughts into the flow of your consciousness seamlessly, as if they were your own. This way, your thoughts and subsequent actions feel as they normally would, even though your ‘decisions’ have been influenced by the device. Korsgaard elaborates: “perhaps you get up and decide to spend the morning working. You no sooner make the decision than it occurs to you that it must have been programmed. We may imagine that in a spirit of rebellion you then decide to skip work and go shopping. And then it occurs to you that that must have been programmed.” The point of this thought experiment is to persuade the reader that we have no choice but to regard ourselves as having free will, because even in a scenario where we know we’re programmed, we cannot function unless we accept that we must act as if we’re free agents.

Korsgaard concludes that, given the fact that we must act as free agents, we must always hold individuals morally responsible for their actions, since it is this holding responsible that keeps morality itself alive and well for putative free agents. I understand this as committing Korsgaard to always and without exception holding individuals responsible. For instance, even though how we developed - our genetics and our upbringing - was to some extent beyond our control, this is no ground to excuse us from responsibility, since this does not directly affect our subjective deliberations on our actions.

Critiquing Korsgaard’s Absolutism

My critique of Korsgaard stems from a challenge to her assertion that I must act as if I have free will. I believe there are cases wherein we really do view ourselves as determined or deterministic. For instance, I might choose to write this paper in the university’s public library, since I know I will be more motivated to work there, as others will be judging me. Here to some extent I am seeing myself in deterministic terms: I know that if I go the library and work around others, I will get more work done. If I go home and work from my couch, I’ll get less work done. Therefore, I’ll go to the library to work, as the setting will determine that I work more effectively. Or I might refuse to buy chocolates at the store if I know I will (determinatively) lack the willpower to consume them in moderation. Or I may act now to divert a portion of my paycheck to a locked savings account because I know that if I don’t, I will frivolously spend more than is wise. Or I might say no to dinner if I have an early start tomorrow, because I know that if I go to dinner, I will consume more wine than is advisable… These are instances where I recognise myself both as an agent – I am making the plans for my day – and as a determined actor – for instance, if I do action X now, I will be helpless but to do Y later. But everyday cases like these provide grounds to deny Korsgaard’s argument. Recall, Korsgaard makes an absolute claim about how we experience our own intentional actions. I believe I have raised exceptions to her claim. Now I must demonstrate that viewing ourselves or others as deterministically caused can itself be morally permissible.

Objective & Reactive Attitudes

Injecting ideas from Peter Strawson’s landmark paper ‘Freedom and Resentment’ (1974) may help elucidate the differences between my view and Korsgaard’s.

In his paper, Strawson posits that we can take two generally different types of attitudes towards others: reactive attitudes and objective attitudes. We take reactive attitudes when seeing another person as an appropriately free agent target of our moral reactions, which can be positive or negative: forgiving, blaming, resenting, being grateful towards, holding in high esteem, empathizing with, being embarrassed in front of, etc. Objective attitudes require the suspension of this interpersonal involvement. This attitude can take a person and degrade him from a free agent with whom we may have a relationship, to an object of deliberation, something to be accounted for deterministically. Basically, Strawson’s reactive attitude is analogous to Korsgaard’s recognition of responsibility, while the objective attitude is a withholding or suspending of the other person’s responsibility.

Korsgaard would agree with Strawson that holding the reactive attitude towards people is something we do naturally as beings engaged in relationships and that it’s central to our daily lives. But Strawson claims that sometimes we take the reactive attitude to people, and other times we take the objective attitude.

While Korsgaard’s commitments make it quite clear that taking the objective attitude to people is always wrong – we must never view others (or ourselves) as not free, as objects – Strawson’s view is more difficult to parse. He states we simply cannot give up the reactive attitudes altogether because they are too engrained in us, but that sometimes we do in fact suspend reactivity – which is to say, take the objective attitude towards people instead.

I believe that Strawson and Korsgaard are mistaken in different ways: Korsgaard is too absolute in her adherence to the reactive attitude, and Strawson is not clear on just when the objective stance may rightly override the reactive. So the vital question to explore here strikes me as: Under what conditions is the objective attitude permissible or even obligatory? This is the question I want to unpack now.

When is the Objective Attitude Appropriate?

So when is a suspension of reactivity appropriate? When is it okay to be objective? First, alongside Korsgaard and Strawson, I concede that the answer cannot be ‘always’. A life fully immersed in the objective attitude would be a lonely existence. But I would argue there are (at least) three cases in which it is morally permissible to hold the objective attitude.

The first case arises when one holds the objective attitude towards oneself in a moment of deliberation or reflection. As we saw, viewing oneself through an objective, deterministic lens is not only occasionally accurate, but can be extremely useful in practical planning. Knowing my personal quirks, habits, tendencies, and compulsions, and recognizing my inability to escape them, and taking this into account when planning, is clearly beneficial. Or I might retrospectively view myself in deterministic (externally-influenced) terms to discover what produced certain outcomes in my life; or prospectively view myself deterministically in order to create a better future. And if I’m only taking myself into consideration, I cannot be violating the autonomy of others, as Korsgaard worries.

The second appropriate application of the objective attitude comes when interpersonal relations have been sufficiently degraded by the person whom you might otherwise hold a reactive attitude towards. If your boss or neighbor, for instance, routinely fails to treat you as a person, then you cannot be morally obliged to engage with him under the duty of treating him as an autonomous person. That’s not functionally possible, let alone worthwhile. Imagine such a scenario: you might be morally angry with someone who could not understand your anger; or you might be forced to reason with someone who could not or would not accept your reasons on specious grounds; or you might try to reconcile your differences with someone who’s not interested in the relationship. These situations illuminate the impracticality of an unwavering grasp on holding another person responsible. However, I agree with Korsgaard that with the status of personhood comes responsibility, so deciding to rescind this status, even temporarily, is a moral peril one must undertake with caution.

The third case is one in which the reactive attitude is inappropriate due an intrusion of a detail which demands a suspension of reactivity. This is the only case in which I would argue that the reactive attitude is impermissible. Here, there’s something about a situation or the constitution of an individual that renders him an inappropriate target of the reactive attitude. This detail must be something such that, if it were not present, the reactive attitude would be appropriate.

Perhaps explaining this is best done by returning to Korsgaard’s thought experiment. Recall that she used the idea of a machine implanted in your head which might determine your every move for that day, but without you detecting its influence. Consider a variation of this experiment where the machine induces half your actions and leaves the other half totally unaffected. Crucially, the machine does not indicate to its host or the outside world which actions were induced and which not.

Imagine now that your friend had this device installed for a day as part of a research study, and during that day, your friend attacks and kills a stranger for insulting his appearance. Obviously, the act of killing someone over mere insults is morally abhorrent; but Korsgaard’s idea that a determined action would feel identical to a free one does not help to clarify moral responsibility in this situation. What we want to know – need to know – is whether the murder was induced by the machine, or if it was the act of the unaffected individual. Capturing this information would be the top priority of any judge or jury. Imagine what it would take to deny that such information was relevant to how the case proceeded. However, because of her arguments, Korsgaard is committed to denying that deterministic details like this matter, since one is committed to acting as if one is free, and so the ascription of moral responsibility is continually required.

I contend that Korsgaard must either abandon the arguments which tie her to this conclusion, and admit that there clearly are cases where a person is compromised beyond reasonable standards of agency, or she must accept her view as absurd. But if she chose the latter, I could no longer understand what she means by ‘responsible’; if my thoughts and actions can be perfectly altered without my consent, or even knowledge, and yet I am considered no less responsible for their outcome, then moral responsibility ceases to mean anything substantial. We maintain concepts of responsibility because we do (and should) recognize that cases exist where someone either may or may not be responsible for their actions. Korsgaard’s view is too simplistic to capture this difference, and is therefore unacceptable.

Concluding Thoughts

I agree with much of both Korsgaard’s and Strawson’s projects. I agree with Strawson that holding someone responsible is something we do when we view them as an agent; and with Korsgaard, that this is required for viewing them as a person with whom we might hope to maintain a relationship.

However, I differ from Korsgaard because I think that under certain conditions the suspension of such ‘reactive’ attitudes is morally permissible, or even obligatory. I pointed out three cases in which I believe this to be the case. The first, permissible, case, is when I hold an objective attitude towards myself in moments of deliberation. Here I view myself, in the past or future, as a determined thing to be examined. The second permissible case occurs when I suspend my reactive attitudes towards someone who will not or cannot engage with me in a way that warrants such an attitude. This person has degraded the relationship and has thus brought the objective attitude on himself. The third case is one where deterministic circumstances demand the objective attitude. These are cases in which a key variable negates even Korsgaard’s grounds for practical responsibility. I raised a variation of Korsgaard’s thought experiment to illustrate this third case.

I find great value in what Korsgaard and Strawson assert, but push against Korsgaard’s absolutism and for a bolder stance than Strawson’s. Holding people in our lives responsible is central to interpersonal relationships, but it is not morally advisable for us to unwaveringly hold to this attitude.

© Jordan Myers 2024

Jordan Myers is a philosophy master’s student at the University of Houston.

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