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Workshop on Responsibility, Conversation and Communication

Conversation, Communication, and Responsibility - Themes from Michael McKenna's Work

Gothenburg, May 29-30 2017

Venue: Olof Wijksgatan 6, Room T307

Open for outside participants; contact András Szigeti if you are interested.


Elinor Mason (University of Edinburgh)

Michael McKenna (University of Arizona)

Philip Robichaud (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam)

Seth Shabo (University of Delaware)


Monday 29th May

10.00-12.00 Elinor Mason (University of Edinburgh) ‘Extending the Conversation: Taking Responsibility for Negligence’
                   Commentator: Per-Erik Milam (University of Gothenburg)

12.00-14.00 Lunch

14.00-16.00 Philip Robichaud (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam) ‘Manipulation and agent-based reasons-responsiveness: Lessons from nudges’
                   Commentator: Robert Hartman (University of Gothenburg)

Tuesday 30th May

10.00-12.00 Seth Shabo (University of Delaware) ‘Manipulation and Basic Desert: A Conversational Perspective.’
                   Commentator: Kristin Mickelson (University of Gothenburg)

12.00-14.00 Lunch

14.00-16.00 Michael McKenna (University of Arizona) ‘Punishment and the Value of Deserved Suffering’
                   Commentator: Benjamin Matheson (University of Gothenburg)



Elinor Mason: Extending the Conversation: Taking Responsibility for Negligence

In this paper I discuss blameworthiness, (or culpability), for problematic acts that an agent does inadvertently, without having any sort of problematic motivation. I argue that if we accept a broadly Strawsonian, communicative account of blame, such as Michael McKenna’s, we have good grounds in some cases for extending the scope of blameworthiness beyond voluntarist and even non-voluntarist accounts. In other words, blameworthiness may not require any sort of bad will at all – not current self-aware bad will, not previous bad will, and not un-self-aware bad will.

I argue that, as McKenna says, the crucial point is that an agent is able to understand that her actions might be taken as having meaning. I argue that in the context of some social relationships, an agent should accept the apparent meaning of her act rather than focus on denying that her act has the meaning it appears to have. To put that a different way, she should take responsibility. I focus on personal relationships to argue that such taking on of responsibility can be essential to a relationship, and show that a social account of responsibility like McKenna’s can mandate extended responsibility in such cases.

Philip Robichaud: Manipulation and agent-based reasons-responsiveness: Lessons from nudges

Choice architects are everywhere. Members of so-called “nudging units” are exploiting our behavioral biases to manipulate choice situations in a way that leads to predictable effects. The result is that more people are registered organ donors, retirement savings accounts are larger, and productivity at work is increased. I’m interested in what kind of threat, if any, nudges pose to our moral responsibility for nudged actions. Is someone who is nudged to be highly-productive and well-prepared for retirement praiseworthy? I start off the paper by developing a formal characterization of nudges that distinguishes them from other, more standard modes of persuasion. Next, I consider the question of whether default nudges, which influence choice by exploiting status quo bias, are objectionably manipulative. Drawing on McKenna’s discussion of manipulation arguments against compatibilism, I consider a “hard-line” reply to the argument that the nudger’s interventions are incompatible with her moral responsibility. I argue that this reply ultimately founders due to an important disanalogy between nudging cases and the case of action performed under causal determinism. In the final section of the paper, I consider whether nudged agents are appropriately considered reasons-responsive qua agents. I develop an application of McKenna’s recent development of an agent-based reasons-responsive theory of moral responsibility and argue that it lacks the resources to analyze the issue at hand.

Seth Shabo: Manipulation and Basic Desert: A Conversational Perspective

I want to bring together two themes from Michael’s work. One is his conversational approach to moral blame, which he develops in his book Conversation and Responsibility. The second is his “hard-line” compatibilist response to the challenge from manipulation scenarios. Since the conversational approach is officially neutral between compatibilist and incompatibilist accounts of moral responsibility, as well as about whether blameworthiness should be understood in terms of basic desert, it is worth asking how smoothly these different elements fit together. As I hope to show, a broadly conversational perspective on blame—one that focuses on blame’s perceived reasonableness to the one who is blamed—should give the hard-line compatibilist pause about manipulation cases. For if the desert relation is basic, this perceived reasonableness will be our main evidence concerning whether blame is indeed deserved. And the hard-line compatibilist will be hard pressed to persuade some victims of manipulation that the history of their action makes no difference to how much blame they are due.

Michael McKenna: Punishment and the Value of Deserved Suffering

In this paper, I will develop a minimal retributivist theory of punishment built from the resources of my conversational theory of moral responsibility. As I see it, the more modest a retributivist theory of punishment is, the more difficult it is for skeptics about retribution to reject it, and my goal in what follows is to resist the skeptic—at least a certain sort of skeptic. In doing so, I shall argue that in special contexts, assuming realism about free will, the harm of punishment directed at a culpable wrongdoer can count as an intrinsic or noninstrumental good. I set aside the question of whether my proposal departs from a traditional understanding of retributivism. Insofar as it does, I am happy to embrace a form of revisionism.

Page Manager: Andreas Ott|Last update: 5/24/2017

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