This week we are talking about moral responsibility and whether humans are morally responsible for their actions. In other words, can we say that people are good or bad based on their actions? One version of skepticism about moral responsibility is the argument from incompatibalism, which says that we are not responsible because we do not have free will. Because the world is causally determined by past physical events and we are part of the world, we have no freedom to choose actions. Because we do not act freely, we are not responsible. Another version of skepticism about moral responsibility is Strawson's causal argument. He says that the kind of moral responsibility that we need to justify either heaven or hell is a very strong kind of responsibility. In order to have such a strong responsibility, we must not only cause our choices but also cause the conditions for our choices. In other words, we have to be the cause of our ability to choose. This means that you would need to be responsible for every choice and for every capacity to choose and on and on; this means that there is an infinite string of choices that we have to be the cause of. Since humans cannot be the cause of an infinite string of causes, humans cannot cause their choices in the way necessary for moral responsibility.
Scanlon denies skepticism about moral responsibility. He notes that severe punishment such as hell is not the appropriate standard for moral responsibility. We can blame people without punishing them. Scanlon thinks that we should think about blame in terms of relationships. We can blame someone when they detract from a shared relationship. For example, if a friend lies to you, this hurts your friendship. Because your relationship is modified in a negative way, you can blame your friend. This version of blame and responsibility does not require strong freedom of control. Because strong freedom is not necessary for moral responsibility, moral responsibility is compatible with determinism. Another virtue of Scanlon's view is that it can explain moral luck. We are morally responsible for unlucky bad consequences of our actions because those consequences worsen our relationships.
What is blame? In order to define blame, Scanlon first considers what it NOT blame. First, not all wrong actions are blameworthy. Some actions are "blameless wrongs". For example, if someone were to have an epileptic fit and injure a friend, he or she would not be blamed because he or she was not in control of any of those consequences. Also, some right actions can be blameworthy. Someone might do a "right action" for terrible reasons. For example, someone might be a very nurturing and caring Kindergarten teacher only so that they can fulfill a sexual desire to be close to young children. Second, blame is not merely a negative assessment of a person's character. This is because we can blame people for actions even if those actions are not indicative of a deeper character flaw. Also, if we describe blame as a character assessment, this diminishes the importance of blame. Other character assessments are not morally significant (he is shy or she is curious), whereas blame is morally significant. Third, blame is not a sanction or mild punishment. Galen Strawson thought that blame was associated with punishment, particularly the punishment of hell. But this is wrong, since we lack the freedom to deserve that kind of punishment. His father, Sir Peter Frederick Strawson, thought that blame was a reactive attitude such as resentment and indignation. Resentment and indignation arises from the relationships that we have with other people. Because friendships and other kinds of social relationships require good will, we blame people when they fail to meet the requirements of a relationships. Scanlon thinks that this is wrong because if only feelings and emotions matter, then moral luck is inexplicable.
Scanlon agrees with P.F. Strawson that blame is the result of a violation of a relationship. Unlike Strawson, Scanlon does not think that blame lies merely in an emotional response to a damaged relationship. You blame a person when (1) he or she impairs the relationship you have and (2) you respond by modifying the relationship. For example, say that you are in an exclusive romantic relationship and your significant other has sex with the whole soccer team. This impairs your relationship because the relationship is no longer exclusive. You may modify the relationship by breaking up with your lover or by limiting the scope of the relationship. For example, you may stay together but you do not trust your paramour and so the relationship has changed. Changing the relationship does not mean that you punish the person or that the person pays retribution. You need not even get angry or upset. The key elements of blame are that the relationship is impaired and in response, the relationship is modified. But what about people who aren't friends? What about strangers?
Moral responsibility and blame concern not only friendships but also interactions with strangers. Indeed, even if we are all ecologically related as members of this planet, we certainly don't have special relationships with everyone. Scanlon thinks that we do have relationships with all strangers. We are all members of the human race. Because we are all human, when we do interact, it is always an encounter between two humans, which is a very thin kind of relationship. Although we had no relation with a stranger in the market until we actually meet them, once the interaction begins, it is a relation between two humans. Because someone else is a human that you are in contact with, certain expectations follow. For example, you expect that a stranger will not spit on you or push you over in order to get ahead of you in line. When these expectations are violated, we modify our own behavior in response. This does not mean that we punish the person. Neither do we exclude this person from our "moral community". What matters is that someone (1) violates the expectations we have for fellow humans and (2) we modify our response to this person.