Thursday, April 11, 2013

Blameworthiness and the Awareness of Consciousness

** This is from guest blogger, Talia S.**

In class, we briefly discussed the concept of blameworthiness in out discussion of intentions, PAP, and OIC. I think that there is an interesting line here to toy around with. At what point do we begin blaming an individual for their actions? Given the baby puking on Jesse's shirt example, I'm inclined to say that we would begin blaming a child for their actions once they've learned what typically classifies as courteous behavior, i.e. not puking on someone's shirt. However, there are cases in which individuals past this stage still might not be held accountable. For example, those who are psychologically disturbed have most likely been taught the distinction between what is "nice" and "not nice", yet we often allow their brain wiring to come to their defense when trying to hold them accountable for, say, committing murder. So, we must re-distinguish the point at which, or which types of people, we can hold accountable for their actions.

Here's another way to think about it:

In my Philosophy of Mind class, we're talking about different levels of consciousness. Basically, you can either be aware you're conscious of something or you can simply be conscious of it. For example, imagine yourself driving home from work. There are days when you've got nothing else occupying your thoughts and, upon approaching a stop sign, you think, "okay, I should stop now." Now, there are also days when you're distracted/on the phone/thinking of other things and you somehow manage to successfully get home, at which point you think, "hmm… did I stop at that stop sign on Main St?" Well, you must have, given the fact that you got home safely. So, in the first case, you are aware of your consciousness of the stop sign, whereas in the second, you're simply conscious of it. Make sense? Okay, so, given this distinction and our discussion of blameworthiness, maybe we could say that people who are actively conscious of the things they're doing should be held accountable, yet those who are simply experiencing them, but not "fully" conscious, should not be. This awareness of consciousness is something that infants, animals, (possibly) the mentally disturbed lack, making it plausible that this is what accounts for when an individual isn't blameworthy.  The baby who isnt thinking "I'm gonna puke on Jesse's shirt now" isnt held accountable, whereas a 21 year old who very well knows what theyre doing would be responsible. Similarly, you don't hold your dog morally responsible for ripping up your couch, though you might be mad at them and say it was "wrong" (yet another distinction to draw), because they weren't actively thinking, "You know what would piss my owner off? Tearing the crap out of this couch." Now, this is where it gets tricky. How far to we extend this lack of awareness or consciousness? To people who are drunk and not fully aware of what they're doing? Are they held morally responsible? I'm torn, so I'd be curious to hear other's thoughts on the matter.


Jordan Bowe said...

Hey Talia,
I think being actively conscious of what you're doing could work for children and perhaps the mentally disturbed who are out of touch with reality. However, kleptomaniacs are aware of what they're doing when they steal.

I think a possible way to "solve" this issue is to separate the ideas of wrongness and blameworthiness (i.e. moral responsibility), which we touched on a bit at the end of class.

Consider a kleptomaniac. At what point do we blame them for their actions, which are caused by a biological affliction? Do they actually have the capacity to refrain from what they're doing? Stealing is still wrong, but should they be held morally responsible for it?

I think this separation is clear in the case of a high schooler with major depression, say Nick, who chooses to not go to school and says really hurtful things to his family. But he can't do otherwise because of a chemical imbalance in his brain, even if he wants to! The cause for Nick's actions is his illness, not his intentions-- although his intentions may also be influenced by his illness. No one caused Nick to have major depression (it's genetic), so who do we blame for those actions? Is Nick morally responsible?

Later, if Nick looks back on his actions in high school, he would know his actions were wrong, but he knows he could not have done differently. I'd argue in this case, Nick was wrong but not blameworthy. This separation seems to be due to differences in the cause of someone's actions which was also displayed in our different cases of Jones and Jesse.


Chelsea R. said...

This seems great! But how do we know if someone is actively conscious or not? There is way to know! Which means the person who shot Jesse from last class could just lie about being passively conscious.

Talia said...

Chelsea, someone is actively conscious if they identify, either out loud or in their head, I presume, that they are conscious of whatever object. So, the person who shot Jesse would have to be thinking "I'm about to shoot Jesse now" to be held responsible.

Jordan, I think thats a really interesting distinction as well. There is a definite divide between something being wrong and someone being blameworthy; I dont think the two are mutually exclusive. If we're following the consciousness line of reasoning, then I guess Nick would still be blameworthy, though this seems intuitively incorrect. Maybe the consciousness idea only applies to certain cases and not others. It just seemed relevant to the topic at hand so I wanted to introduce it! I think the wrong vs blameworthy discussion is parallel to the act-based vs. person-based judgments we were talking about in class. I think the distinction between the two is important to point out when debating how to judge the morality of an action.

Dan S said...

I often take a "conscious" debate when arguing with somebody on topics of abortion, but I don't think I've ever actually pondered it in regards to blameworthiness. I think, as the first commenter on this post suggested, that this would work REALLY well with kids, but not so great with adults who are permanently or temporarily consciously impaired. As you suggested at the end of your blog post, I really don't think we can extend this courtesy to a drunk driver who blew through main st and hit somebody. We would still hold them responsible for their action. Same goes with the person who does drugs and isn't at the same level of consciousness as a sober person. It then falls to determine when is the cutoff for knowing when someone is conscious enough to be morally responsible? Do we set an arbitrary age such as 18 years old, or do we somehow test the kid's conscious level of thought. I propose that if a child can give an adequate account and understanding of Kant's categorical imperative, he's morally responsible.