The Jacksway Collective: Philosophy & Fiction

Life After Arts Degrees

Blame & Responsibility: A Response to Ted's Email

The Jacksway Collective


The show is fun. Keep making it so that I can keep listening to it.
I have a question. In both the Kevin and Usher episodes there was a general impulse to talk about whether or not the characters in the stories shouldered the blame for what was going on. I want to hear more about that

Namely, the chemistry of Kevin and Usher's brains seemed to exempt them from blame. Isn't the chemistry of our brains who we are? If we can't be blamed for the things that make us us, is blame even a helpful thing to talk about? And if it's not helpful to talk about, why is there such an impulse to talk about it?

Maybe you can find another bit of fiction where you get to talk about blame and I get to listen.

Keep having fun,


Jhana: I just had to respond to this great listener email. It's a topic that I love to think about and I can articulate my thoughts most clearly in a blog post. Cheers, Ted

It seems to be in vogue to point to brain states as the definitive factor for emancipation from moral responsibility and blame. After all, you didn’t choose your brain state, so how can you be held responsible for it and the actions it causes you to take?

The thought process goes like this: “That person didn’t choose brain state X, and therefore can’t be responsible for consequences of brain state X”

In his essay, “Moral Luck” Thomas Nagel brilliantly shows two things:

  1. That the domain of “things beyond our control” extends FAR FAR beyond brain states and into every single fibre of our being and action we take.

  2. We don’t really seem to care about the “degree to which someone did or did not have control over factor X” when examining our intuitions regarding blame & responsibility.

Example of 2: Even though two identical acts were taken by two people, and the actions were 100% beyond their control, if the consequences are worse for one of the two, we attribute more blame/responsibility to them.

Take two truck drivers who, on their way home, forget to check their brakes. One gets home safely, the other, when he is going down a hill has a little girl on a bike come out of nowhere and gets hit by the driver (due to his broken brakes). Both of these drivers have committed the exact same amount of negligence, yet we harbour so much more ill will towards the latter. Even though the only difference in these two cases is luck, we hold different attitudes towards each.

This is one of the four types of Moral Luck Nagel identifies.

  1. Resultant Moral Luck (consequential): Two identical actions, different consequences (seen in example above).

  2. Circumstantial Moral Luck: Different surroundings and environment leading to diff actions (ex. Regular person in Nazi Germany getting swept up in the regime and committing awful crimes vs a person in a safer environment, say Argentina, who, may be of similar character, but commits no such acts)

  3. Constitutive Moral Luck: Differences in personality, temperament, upbringing, etc. lead to different behaviour. Along with brain states, all of the above listed are outside of the control of the individual.

  4. Causal Moral Luck: basically the problem of free will & cause/effect. Less important for this blog post.

Ted astutely points out that brain states are a part of who we are, and questions why, in the case of Kevin and Usher, our analysis emancipates them from responsibility. (We called Kevin the equivalent of a tsunami).

If we do this, then we must also be able to take a non-psychopath who commits a crime, and emancipate them from blame & responsibility for the very same reasons (ie. they didn’t choose their brain state, they didn’t choose upbringing & temperament, they didn’t choose the environment they were birthed into and bred within).

So now, the question becomes:

  1. Do we bite the bullet and emancipate all (psychopath or not) bad actions committed by agents because ultimately none of the causal factors of those actions are within control of the agent? Then we can throw out the concepts of blame and responsibility too!

  2. Do we not emancipate Kevin for his deeds because Kevin is no different from the rest of us (in the sense that none of us choose anything, brain state being no different)?

  3. Or do we use different criteria aside from the degree-to-which-something-is-within-one’s-control in our evaluation of blame and responsibility?

If you accept 3, then, (in my view) you can choose to not emancipate the regular non-psychopath for his bad deeds even though everything he did was out of his control, but you can STILL emancipate the Kevins of the world.

This is because the criteria I use for emancipation is NOT, the degree to which something is in his control, but instead, the fact that his neural chemistry is sufficiently deviated from the norm of normal brain states that there was no chance for him to begin with.

Even though all of us as human beings live a life of things being outside of our control, we still exist within a very tight range of the “base rate” of conditions (ie. functioning brain, stable personality, decent upbringing, etc).

If you are close to the base rate, you can still be held responsible, the further you deviate from it, the less likely I am to hold you responsible.

We use brain states in this case to emancipate Kevin (constitutive moral luck), but, in my opinion, the same principle applies to the poor man who grew up in the projects commits a theft (who you then find out had an awful upbringing and shitty parents, etc.). Albeit, to a lesser degree.

The man described above deviates from the "mean" in a different kind of moral luck (circumstantial), yet, I am okay with emancipating him (although, again, to a lesser degree than Kevin). This means that there is a spectrum or gradations of responsibility dependent on how close or far someone is from the mean of all of these factors beyond our control.

This is opposed to leaning on a binary system of: within control = responsible, outside control=not-responsible.

I hope that's a good enough answer from me, Ted. There are some additional answers to your question in the podcast itself (like the utility of blame as a concept when implemented in a society) that we dive deeper into. Again, thanks for your email, you are amazing.

Send us your thoughts on the podcast at We'll read it, discuss it, and maybe even respond to it.

Thanks to all your support,


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