Tuesday, 15 December 2020

Narrative Capacity and Moral Responsibility

This post is by Meghan Griffith (Davidson College).

Meghan Griffith

In “Narrative Capacity and Moral Responsibility”, I argue that our ability to understand and tell stories plays a role in moral responsibility. One standard approach to moral responsibility involves “reasons-responsiveness.” If we can recognize and react to reasons for acting, then it seems that we are in control of our behavior, and therefore responsible (see Fischer and Ravizza 1998 for an influential account). I think “narrative capacity” enhances our sensitivity to reasons.

Narrative capacity is a way of making sense of the world (Velleman 2003, 1) and involves understanding the “meaning-affecting” relation between events (Rosati 2013, 34). In other words, we come to understand and interpret the events in our lives within the context of a story. Each event is not interpreted on its own. Instead, its meaning is “conditioned by” its relation to other events (Schechtman 2007, 162). For example, an event might be interpreted as disappointing or ironic only because it is understood in a particular context (Velleman 2003).


There is fascinating research in psychology that discusses narrative skill as a social and cognitive achievement. Learning to “read the world” begins early. Children first develop an understanding of life events in a problem-resolution structure (Habermas and Bluck 2000, 752), later developing an understanding of their own and others’ inner mental states (Nelson 2003). They begin to see goals, motivations, and reasons for action (Rubin and Greenberg 2003, Hutto 2007). Typically, in adolescence, children begin to see their own lives as an entire “life story” (McAdams 2001).


I think narrative capacity enables us to recognize reasons we wouldn’t otherwise see, and also enables us to weigh reasons differently than we otherwise would. A philosophical account of this capacity engenders a more nuanced understanding of degrees of blameworthiness. According to traditional philosophical accounts, children are often thought to be exempt from blame because they do not know better or because they have problems with self-control.

But these traditional explanations, while not entirely incorrect, are problematically oversimplified. In some cases, what children cannot do is feel the full weight of a reason the way a typical adult would (or should). Improper weighting can result from lacking context and perspective; a young child knows it is wrong to harm but is less able to feel the full force of this as a reason. As children develop, their ability to properly weigh reasons improves. Their degree of blameworthiness therefore increases as it becomes less difficult for them to properly evaluate. There is also evidence that psychopaths struggle with narrative skills (Kennett and Matthews 2009), which might explain a reluctance to hold them fully blameworthy.


Furthermore, narrative capacity may illuminate inner psychological barriers to agential control by helping us understand why an agent encounters relative difficulty (from the inside) at seeing or responding to reasons. Past reasons-responsiveness accounts have been criticized on the grounds that they don’t illuminate inner psychological barriers to action (see McKenna and Van Schoelandt 2015).

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