Suppose that a person is under a lot of stress from class and decides to unwind by going to a friend’s party. After everyone else leaves, their friend turns to them and is extremely angry. She is mad that their bad attitude ruined the atmosphere of her party. They apologize, but say, “I didn’t even realize that I was giving off such a negative vibe.”
Is the friend right to be upset? How much of the blame should the stressed individual shoulder for having ruined the party?
Professor Krista Thomason of Swarthmore College, on campus to be an outside examiner for a student’s Honors defense, described how a philosopher approaches such problems in a talk entitled “Accepting Responsibility,” which was given in the Alumni Room on Wednesday, May 15.
Thomason is familiar with Knox, as she studied for her doctorate in philosophy at the University of Illinois with Professor of Philosophy Brandon Polite, and also officiated at Polite’s wedding.
She walked the attendees through the various ways philosophers have attempted to deal with situations similar to that of the party, and what she views as the deficiency of their approaches.
“There are a number of cases,” she said. “Where we hurt people…without realizing we’re doing it.” It is in these sorts of situations, where someone unintentionally or unknowingly wrongs someone else, that she has made the focus of her current research.
According to Thomason, philosophy has previously been too focused on an agent’s intentions when they act as the criteria with which to judge responsibility. She argues that such an approach is too simplistic when dealing with many situations. Who, for example, is responsible in the case of a dog owner who forgetfully locks his pet in a hot car during the summer?
The first major question she examined was that of control versus responsibility. One camp, known as volitionists, argue that you can only be blamed for things that you chose to do. The other group, the attributionists, think that everything that happens as a result of a person’s actions, intentional or not, can be laid at their feet.
With the dog example, the attributionists would be willing to blame the owner for what happens to the dog, while the volitionists would not.
Another point she made was the difference between being worthy of blame and actually being blamed for something.
“Blame is a set of negative actions that we take towards someone when we decide they are blameworthy,” she said.
It does not necessarily follow from a person’s being blameworthy because they have wronged someone that they are actually blamed for that action. It lies in the hands of the wronged person to decide whether or not to assign blame.
The solution to the party dilemma is “to see ourselves in a wider way.” Thomason uses the concept of a “responsible self” as a way to understand the moral obligation to accept responsibility for unthinking actions. If others see a person as responsible for an action, it is on some level their responsibility regardless of any conscious intentions. They then must attempt to apologize or otherwise mitigate the effects of their action.
Thomason accepts that there are still some flaws with this model, as it fails to deal well with such questions as whether one can blame the dead for something. Overall, though, she views it as a far more comprehensive way to deal with questions that occur on an everyday basis.