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Aaron Brooks

Prof. Randy Clarke


24 October 2014

Introduction
In her forthcoming essay, Responsibility as Answerability, Angela Smith argues that a unified
theory of moral responsibility is implicit in our day-to-day moral practices; as the title of her
essay suggests, she labels this unified concept responsibility as answerability. Her essay
provides a possible way forward for the currently-splintered discussions about what it means to
be morally responsible. If her argument succeeds, it will be possible to talk about a persons
moral responsibility without qualifying the sense in which that person is responsible. For
instance, it would be unnecessary to distinguish whether an agent is attributability-responsible
and/or accountability-responsible,1 etc. This means that discussions of responsibility will be
simplified, while still allowing for meaningful disagreements about the conditions of
answerability.
The aim of this essay will be to explore possible objections to Smiths view. To do so, I
will first give a prcis of her account of responsibility, followed by a more detailed consideration
of some major objections to her account (some of which she has already addressed). These
objections will center on the ability of her account to provide necessary and sufficient conditions
for responsibility. My contention is that, though her account may rightfully be understood to
supply the sufficient conditions of moral responsibility, it is debatable whether her account
provides the necessary conditions. That is, her account is open to objections about whether or not
the conditions an agent must satisfy to be considered 'answerable' are the same as the conditions
an agent must satisfy to be morally responsible. My argument will be based on David
Shoemakers essay, Attributability, Answerability, and Accountability: Toward a Wider Theory
of Moral Responsibility. I will conclude with some ways in which Smith might respond to these
objections.

Responsibility as Answerability
In her essay, Smith is concerned to show that there is only one type of moral responsibility.
Using the notion of answerability, Smith gives us a compelling account of what it means to be
morally responsible:
[A]n agent is morally responsible for something [when] that agent is an
appropriate target, in principle, of requests for justification regarding that
thing she is eligible, in principle, for a variety of moral responses
depending upon how well or poorly she meets this justificatory request
(Smith, 5).
Here, then, is an account that seems to play on a straightforward notion of responsibility. In a
slogan, we might say that an agent is morally responsible when that agent is morally responseable. That is, if an agent can appropriately be asked to answer for the thing in question, then
that agent is responsible. Further, being morally responsible entails that an agent is open to moral
1

Smith points to Gary Watsons essay, Two Faces of Responsibility, as the primary example of someone who
makes this distinction. She also acknowledges a host of other ways of distinguishing types of responsibility, none of
which figure as prominently in her essay as Watsons original distinction (Smith, 2).

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responses on the part of the person(s) requesting justification. These moral responses on the part
of the interlocutor(s) will depend on the nature of the thing in question, as well as how well the
agents response justifies this thing (Smith, 5). Of course, all of this is in principle, for Smith
does not think it necessary that an actual interlocutor enter the picture in order for a person to be
morally responsible (Smith, 9).
In response to her account, a number of clarifying questions may be asked, such as what
the nature of these moral responses is, what it means to be eligible, or what the nature of the
justification must be. For the purposes of this essay, however, we will put these questions aside
and focus on two features of her view: 1) whether there are cases in which an agent, though an
appropriate target of requests for justification, may not be morally responsible; 2) whether there
are cases in which an agent, though not an appropriate target of requests for justification,
nevertheless is morally responsible. In the first case, we want to know whether Smith's account
of answerability is sufficient for moral responsibility. In the second case, we are concerned with
whether Smith's account of answerability supplies the necessary conditions of moral
responsibility. In other words, we are looking for counter-examples to the following two
conditional statements:
1. Sufficiency condition: If an agent is answerable (in Smith's sense), then that agent
is morally responsible.
2. Necessity condition: If an agent is morally responsible, then that agent is
answerable (in Smith's sense).
But first, what does it mean for an agent to be an appropriate target? Though Smith
does not cash out a response in terms of targets or appropriateness, she does clarify what it
means for an agent to be answerable:
In order for an agent to be answerable for something, it seems that thing
must be connected to her in such a way that it makes sense to ask her to
rationally defend or justify it. This, in turn, suggests that the thing in question
must in some way reflect her own judgment or assessment of reasons (Smith,
6).
What is important to note is that answerability hinges on an agents judgment about the thing in
question. If the thing in question reflects an agents judgment, the agent is answerable for it, and
therefore responsible. If the thing is not connected to the agents judgment, then it is unfair to ask
the agent to rationally defend it, and thus, the agent is not responsible.
Debate about the conditions of agency may arise at this point. For instance, Smith makes
it clear that she believes the agent in question must be a normal, competent adult. Further, she
thinks a person can be considered an agent on the basis of his or her desires, emotions, and
attitudes, because these things can be taken to reflect rational judgment (Smith, 6). However,
neither of these qualifications is vital to her account. She leaves room for debate about who can
meet the conditions of agency, and refrains from taking a strong stance on this issue in the paper
(Smith, 6-7, 30). In fact, she believes that discussions about the conditions of agency are what
philosophers of moral responsibility should be having (Smith, 4).
So let us take it for granted that although it is unclear who may qualify as an agent, Smith
is right to assume that those persons who do qualify as agents are connected to their actions in at
least one important sense, viz., their actions reflect their judgments and assessment of reasons.
Assuming that agents may sensibly be asked to justify something because that thing reflects their
judgments, does this mean that all cases in which an agent is answerable in this way may

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appropriately be described as cases of moral responsibility? In terms of our first conditional
statement: does answerability imply moral responsibility?

Objections to the Sufficiency Condition


Gary Watson, in Two Faces of Responsibility, gives cases in which an agent may be
answerable in the way that Smith requires (an appropriate target of requests for justification), but
not morally responsible in at least one important sense. Take the case of a woman who fails to
live up to her vocational ideals in favor of a secure occupation. He argues that we do not hold her
responsible, though we might hold her to be responsible (Watson, 266-67). In this way, Watson
introduces two faces of responsibility. He believes her behavior may be attributed to her
(responsibility as attributability), but that she may not be held morally accountable for her it
(Watson, 271, 265). Thus, this woman is responsible in the sense Smith requires the woman
has reasons for acting in the way she does and may be considered answerable for them but she
is not morally responsible in the sense of being accountable to us for her behavior. Thus,
answerability is insufficient for determining whether or not the woman is morally responsible.
But Smiths argument requires greater care. While she agrees with Watson's basic
contention that practices of accountability differ from those of attributability, her point is that
these practices do not require positing a different sort of moral responsibility. That is, although
someone who is answerable is eligible for a range of moral responses, the appropriateness of
these responses depends on the nature of the action and our relation to the agent, not a different
type of responsibility (Smith, 16-17). In principle, then, this woman is eligible for certain moral
responses to her reasons for acting the way she does, i.e. she is eligible to be held accountable
because she is morally responsible. Further, Smith concedes that Watsons example does have
two concepts of responsibility at play. First, the woman is morally responsible in the sense that
Smith argues this is the concept at play in classical debates over moral responsibility. Second,
the woman has a responsibility or moral obligation to others. But these are separate notions. In
the first case, we are concerned about the general conditions under which we are morally
responsible for our conduct; in the second case, we are concerned about the specific obligations
we have to others to do something (Smith, 17). The second case is not at issue in debates about
being morally responsible.
Smith addresses a second case raised by Watson the case of the victim-criminal.
Suppose a criminal, who was severely abused as a child, commits horrible crimes. Watson
believes it possible that we might attribute responsibility to the criminal for his actions (because
it expresses the criminals moral capacities), but not hold him accountable or blame him in any
strong sense (Watson, 281-82). But if we fail to take account of the reasons such a criminal
might give for his actions, as Watson seems to argue, this patronizing dismissal would be a
failure to treat the criminal as a fully rational human being. Smith wants to argue that if the
victim-criminal is rational enough to give reasons for the way he acted in a certain way, he is
morally responsible. But just because he is answerable in this way does not make him liable for
any particular kind of blame (Smith, 23-24). Instead, there is still room to consider excuses and
justifications for his actions that may attenuate our moral responses.
The crux of the matter is this: for Watson, just because a person is answerable for a thing,
this does not mean that person is beholden to us for that thing (Smith, 27). That is, answerability
does not imply accountability, and thus an important sense of responsibility lies untouched by
Smiths account. Smith, on the other hand, believes that persons can be asked to answer for

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their attitudes and conduct to provide a rational justification for them and they are
appropriate targets of positive and negative responses depending on the quality of the reasons
they can appeal to in answering justificatory demands (Smith, 29). That is, the very nature of
rational justification implies some level of accountability for the reasons given. Our responses to
those reasons will vary depending on our relationship to the person being asked to answer for
their conduct and the quality of the persons reasons. But in any case, answerability implies some
level of accountability, and thus answerability is sufficient to cover all cases of moral
responsibility. In other words, there is unity at the level of basic responsibility (Smith, 19).
Thus, when considering the sufficiency condition, a unified account of responsibility under the
heading answerability is in order.

Objections to the Necessity Condition


Despite Smiths success at meeting Watsons implicit demand for sufficient conditions of moral
responsibility, objections still arise in relation to conditions of necessity. David Shoemaker
argues that Smith's account of answerability fails in cases of irrationality (he gives the case of
emotional commitment as well, but Smiths account seems to easily defeat this objection). Take
the case of arachnophobia: the arachnophobes irrationality about spiders may express an
inconsistency between the judgment that spiders are not dangerous and a continued attitude of
fear. This attitude of fear may be taken to be an expression of an underlying judgment that
spiders are in fact dangerous. Hence, the arachnophobe may simultaneously hold two conflicting
judgments. Smith, who originally provides this case in a different essay, argues that the
arachnophobe may be answerable for both judgments. Shoemaker concedes that this analysis
may be correct, but wonders how the arachnophobe can be answerable for the overall state of
irrationality. Plausibly, the arachnophobe may judge that such a state is undesirable and should
be avoided. Shoemaker concludes that "a demand for justification [in this case] would be
pointless" (Shoemaker, 608).
Shoemaker believes Smith may respond to this worry by simply positing that irrationality
is a state of the psychic system for which an agent is not answerable. But such a strategy is liable
to the following implication: "to the extent that one's irrationality constituted or was the source of
one's immorality ... one wouldn't be morally responsible for one's immorality." In other words,
all cases of irrationality would imply a lack of moral responsibility. Shoemaker appropriately
thinks this conclusion should be avoided. Moreover, he believes for Smith to pursue this strategy
would be to concede that the irrational state of the arachnophobes psychic system is still
attributable to the arachnophobe, though the arachnophobe may not be answerable for it
(Shoemaker, 608-9).
Thus, Shoemaker poses Smith with a dilemma: either we require that an agent answer for
a state of irrationality, which seems pointless since the agent would plausibly judge such a state
undesirable; or we acknowledge that an agent cannot be morally responsible for immorality
stemming from irrationality, which seems like a conclusion to be avoided. In either case, we still
attribute irrationality to the agent. In terms of my argument thus far, it would seem that
Shoemaker has provided a case in which an agent might be considered morally responsible (in
the sense of attributability), but not answerable. If Shoemaker's argument is right, Smith has
failed to provide the necessary conditions for moral responsibility.

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Response
Smith has at least one obvious response to Shoemakers objection. She might argue that
Shoemaker is wrong to assert that when we require an agent to answer for irrationality, we want
a justification for the overall state of the agents psychic system. Instead, we expect an agent to
answer for each of the conflicting judgments, respectively. In fact, Smith has responded in
precisely this way elsewhere (Smith 2012, 579). But this response seems to neglect or at least,
not take seriously the concession that Shoemaker has already made. He concedes that it may be
the case that when we demand reasons for an agents irrationality, we are interested in the
reasons for each of the agents conflicting judgments. But in order for an agent to be responsible
(in Smiths answerability sense) for the overall state of irrationality, the agent would still need
to provide a reason for the state of irrationality in question, not simply the judgments
contributing to the irrationality. Such a contention is justified, for Smith herself has said the
thing in question [irrationality] must in some way reflect [the agents] own judgment (Smith, 6).
But as Shoemaker stipulates, the agent judges it best for the irrationality to disappear. Thus, it
would seem that Smith and Shoemaker have reached an impasse: Shoemaker thinks that the
answerability requirement entails that an agent must justify states of irrationality; Smith believes
the answerability requirement only entails that an agent justify the individual judgments
contributing to the irrationality.
However, Smith might respond in a different way that gives greater weight to
Shoemakers objection. If she were to stipulate that an agent is responsible for irrationality
insofar as it relates to that agents actions, a compromise might be reached. In the case of the
arachnophobe, we need not demand reasons for the arachnophobes irrationality qua irrationality;
the arachnophobe has none. Rather, we might demand reasons for the arachnophobes
irrationality insofar as it is reflected in his behavior. But in that case, we care about his reasons
for the behavior, not the irrationality. Suppose the arachnophobe refuses to enter a dark room
because of his fear of spiders. In such an instance, we would arguably not require an overall
account of the arachnophobes psychic state. Instead, we would simply ask why the
arachnophobe refuses to enter the room. He would presumably answer that he is afraid. He may
find his own fear to be irrational or against his better judgment, but it would be his answer
nonetheless. Further, he would be responsible for his refusal to enter the room, though we may
choose to respond to him with grace and understanding.
But perhaps Smith (and Shoemaker) has reasons not to commit to such an actional
account of responsibility. In fact, we have seen Smith is committed to an account of
responsibility that makes an agent answerable not just for actions/behavior, but also the
underlying attitudes, emotions, desires, etc. In the end, then, it seems that we might be debating
the conditions of agency after all.

Conclusion
After a brief summary of Angela Smiths account of responsibility as answerability, this paper
addressed two objections. The first, from Gary Watson, surrounded the sufficiency conditions of
moral responsibility. It was argued that Watsons proposed distinction between accountabilityresponsibility and attributability-responsibility ultimately relies upon a notion of answerability
that supports Smiths claim. The second objection, from David Shoemaker, called into question
the necessary conditions of moral responsibility, arguing that there are some cases of moral
responsibility not covered by Smiths account. This objection resulted in a stalemate, with

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neither side completely agreeing on what it means for an agent to be answerable. If this is the
case, the way forward may be through discussions of the conditions of agency. And that seems to
be exactly what Smith wants (Smith, 30).
Bibliography
Shoemaker, David. "Attributability, Answerability, and Accountability: Toward a Wider Theory
of Moral Responsibility." Ethics 121, no. 3 (2011): 602-632
Smith, Angela M. "Attributability, Answerability, and Accountability: In Defense of a Unified
Account." Ethics 122, no. 3 (2012): 575-589.
Smith, Angela M. "Responsibility as Answerability" (unpublished paper, 2014).
Watson, Gary. Two Faces of Responsibility. In Gary Watson, Agency and Answerability:
Selected Essays, 260-288. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.