Definitions of Responsibility and the Elusiveness of Moral Properties: A Critique of R. Jay Wallace's Metaethics of Responsibility


This is a paper I wrote for my class about free will and hell. The primary text for the course is R. Jay Wallace’s Responsibility and the Moral Sentiments, a defense of compatiblism in the Strawsonian tradition. My paper is a critique of Wallace’s metaethics of responsibility:

In chapter four of Responsibility and the Moral Sentiments Wallace considers several accounts of how to classify facts about moral responsibility, settling on the “appropriateness” view. In this essay, I will criticize his arguments for this account based on the alleged conceptual obscurity of the metaphysical account, and the radical skepticism it supposedly leads to. I will argue that the obscurity accusation can be leveled equally well against his understanding of the “appropriateness” criteria for holding a person responsible, and that his account leads to skepticism about moral properties unless supplemented by a priori knowledge, which the metaphysical account also must use; hence his arguments give no reason for preferring his account to the metaphysical account.
In section 4.1 of his chapter “Methodological Interlude”, Wallace defines and explains the motivation for the “metaphysical” account of moral responsibility as follows:

A natural suggestion [for how to choose the right account of moral responsibility] is that we should favor the picture that is true … One possibility would be to interpret these facts as conceptually independent from our practice of holding people responsible. On this… metaphysical interpretation of the question… there is a fact of the matter about responsibility “in itself,” a fact about what it is to be genuinely or really responsible, and that this fact is prior to and independent of our practice of treating people as morally responsible agents. That practice would then be in good order to the extent that it succeeds in tracking or meshing with the prior and independent facts about moral responsibility.[1]

This account is realist. As opposed to reducing ascriptions of moral responsibility to our tendency to hold people to expectations, or to useful tools in maintaining social order, this account says that moral responsibility is a feature of the world that exists prior to our ascriptions of it, and that our ascriptions of it can be more or less accurate. The intuitive appeal of this account lies in the fact that we want to say there is a truth about who is morally responsible; other accounts lack this virtue.

The metaphysical account of moral responsibility is contrasted with Wallace’s preferred account. According to this account, to say that a person is morally responsible means that it is appropriate to hold him or her morally responsible. There are thus two kinds of facts about responsibility: facts about the obtaining of conditions that make it appropriate to hold a particular person responsible, and resulting facts about whether or not it is in fact appropriate to hold the person responsible. However, this is not the same as the metaphysical account. Wallace distinguishes it in the following way:

…the facts by reference to which the debate is to be decided are specified in terms of our practice of holding people responsible: they are facts about whether it would be appropriate to adopt toward people the stance of holding them responsible, if determinism is true.[2]

On Wallace’s preferred account there is an inherently normative quality to judgments about moral responsibility. There is an objective norm to which our judgments can be compared. However, this is not based on some prior and independent realm of facts; rather it is facts about whether our ascriptions of responsibility would be appropriate.

Wallace proceeds to articulate appropriateness in terms of compliance with moral norms. He uses the incompatiblist appeal to “fairness” to define appropriateness. There are two possible analyses of fairness: reasonableness and desert. According to the reasonableness analysis, it is fair to hold a person responsible if it is reasonable to do so. The desert analysis states that the fairness of holding a person responsible is based on whether or not they deserve to be held accountable.

The problem with Wallace’s analysis of moral responsibility is that similar criticisms to those leveled against the metaphysical analysis can be given against the “appropriateness” analysis. First I will offer criticisms about obscurity similar to those that Wallace used against the “metaphysical” account; then I will deal with the objection that the metaphysical account entails skepticism, and apply this objection to the appropriateness account.

Wallace’s first reason for rejecting the metaphysical account is that it is too vague to be philosophically helpful. The objection is that it is hard to “see how to make sense of a prior and independent realm of moral responsibility facts.”[3] The obscurity of a “prior and independent realm” of facts about moral responsibility is a real worry that could potentially justify rejection of the metaphysical account. It is legitimate to ask what these facts are as a class, and how each one of them should be defined. If nothing can be known or said about them, then this is a problem; for then there can be no application of moral principles to situations.

However, Wallace’s account can be subject to the same critique. The property of “appropriateness” seems just as vague as “being morally responsible” taken as an irreducible property. It is hard to see why “fairness” is clearer than “appropriateness” in getting at the meaning of what the facts about moral responsibility are. Neither does it help to articulate “fairness” in terms of “reasonableness of holding a person responsible” or “a person’s deserving to be held responsible”. The reasonableness being spoken of is peculiar because it differs from other kinds of reasonableness. It is not “believing in accordance with evidence” or “accepting the conclusion of a deductive argument where the premises are more likely true than false” or some other familiar notion. The concept of “deserving to be held responsible” is similarly unclear; what does it mean to “deserve” something? What conceptual content can be given to the notion of “desert”?

Wallace suggested that the facts about moral responsibility are dependent on whether or not it would be appropriate (or fair, reasonable, or deserved) for us to praise or blame a person for their actions. There are two possibilities with respect to the grounds of this appropriateness. First, it could be based on factors internal to human individuals or communities about what constitutes responsibility. Second, it could be based on factors that exist independently of the thoughts, beliefs, and decisions of individuals and communities about what constitutes responsibility. The first account would be relativist, and it seems unlikely that Wallace would want to endorse it; it is too similar to the pragmatist and dispositional accounts, and seems to eliminate the importance of the debate between compatiblists and incompatiblists. It would have the advantage of being analyzable in terms of the beliefs, desires, and decisions of individuals and communities, and hence would not have to appeal to novel metaphysical entities in explaining what appropriateness is. The second account, though it would not dissolve the debate between compatiblists and incompatiblists, lacks the virtue of comprehensibility. Because it refuses to reduce the concept of appropriateness, it seems to be little different from the metaphysical account insofar as it postulates a novel property called “appropriateness” to ground judgments about moral responsibility. Wallace’s account seems subject to the same objection about vagueness as the metaphysical account; indeed, his account is metaphysical, insofar as it postulates an irreducible quality called “appropriateness”.

Wallace’s second objection is that a metaphysical understanding of moral responsibility will inevitably lead to skepticism. He states that “this metaphysical assumption seems to lead inevitably to a kind of radical skepticism…we might be systematically and irremediably mistaken about what it is to be morally responsible.”[4] Wallace seems to be saying that if an account of moral responsibility postulates the existence of metaphysical facts about responsibility, then these facts will be things that we can know nothing about. What he is trying to say can be articulated as follows:

1. If an account of something is based on metaphysical assumptions, then it will lead to radical skepticism.
2. The metaphysical account of moral responsibility is based on metaphysical assumptions.
3. Therefore the metaphysical account of moral responsibility will lead to radical skepticism.

This argument is clear enough. But what is the motivation for Wallace’s thought that a metaphysical account will lead to skepticism? Most likely, the presupposition is that a metaphysical account of some philosophical concept would postulate a realm of facts that would be unknowable according to an empiricist epistemology. If types of entities are situated in a transcendent, unobservable, non-physical realm, then the empiricist is at a loss to explain how we can know about them.

In order to ground moral knowledge in his account, Wallace appeals to moral truths about which we have high confidence. Wallace explains that on his view, we should assess moral principles on the grounds of “their ability to account for considered convictions in which we have a high degree of confidence” and that these considered convictions anchor “our moral principles.”[5] He denies (or at least denigrates) the place of immediate intuition, and opts instead for a ground of moral knowledge that is more closely connected with our actual practice of making moral judgments.

However, Wallace’s account seems to carry the same epistemological implications as the so-called metaphysical account. No matter how it is fleshed out—whether in terms of appropriateness, fairness, reasonableness, or desert—the moral entities postulated are non-physical. They cannot, therefore, be objects of empirical knowledge. Furthermore, there is no necessary connection between our practice of holding people responsible and the fact of the matter about what is appropriate (fair, etc.). There is no guarantee that because we have a practice of holding a person responsible if he or she does some action y, that this practice is actually appropriate. Appropriateness (or fairness, etc.) seems like it would be just as difficult to identify as one of the qualities postulated by the “metaphysical” account. As a moral realist, Wallace cannot be a pure empiricist. Without postulating something akin to a priori moral knowledge, he cannot explain how we can accurately identify appropriateness, which is a non-physical quality and is not connected by any necessity to our own practice of making moral judgments. But if Wallace must assume we can have a priori knowledge of moral truths to avoid falling into skepticism, he seems to have no reason to reject the so-called metaphysical account, which would itself appeal to a priori knowledge.

In conclusion, Wallace’s “appropriateness” account of moral responsibility can be criticized on the same grounds as the “metaphysical” account. It postulates immaterial, undefined basic entities and is thus no more conceptually clear than the “metaphysical” view. Furthermore, unless it is supplemented by an epistemology that includes a priori knowledge, it leads to skepticism; but the proponent of the so-called metaphysical view could make the same appeal to avoid skepticism. Hence, Wallace’s articulation of moral responsibility facts in terms of “appropriateness” is no better off than the “metaphysical” view; indeed, it can be classified as a version of it.


[1] R. Jay Wallace, Responsibility and the Moral Sentiments, p. 87

[2] Ibid., p. 92

[3] Ibid., p. 88

[4] Ibid., p. 88

[5] Ibid., p. 88


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