[SydPhil] UOW Philosophy Seminar Series

Sarah Sorial sarahs at uow.edu.au
Thu Sep 13 11:21:34 AEST 2012

Professor Jeanette Kennett 

Title: Folk psychology, the reactive attitudes and responsibility. 

Jeanette Kennett and Nicole Vincent


This paper will explore the connections between the folk psychological project of interpretation, and the reactive attitudes. In the first section we will argue that the reactive attitudes originate in very fast and to a significant extent, non-voluntary processes involving constant facial feedback. These processes allow for smooth interaction between participants and are important to the interpretive practices that ground intimate relationships as well as to a great many less intense interactions. We will examine cases of facial paralysis (Moebius Syndrome and Botox studies) to support the argument that when these processes are interrupted or impaired, the interpretive project breaks down and social relationships suffer. 

 But do failures of interpretation lead, as Strawson suggests, to the suspension of the reactive attitudes? We suggest that in many important instances they do not. Here we consider the cases of children who murder, alien cultures, and psychopaths.  We argue that interpretive frustration often results in attributions of ill-will, resentment, and correspondingly harsh moral judgments (which may not be warranted) rather than adoption of the objective stance.  The reactive attitudes misfire. 

The second part of the paper explores in more depth the relation between the reactive attitudes and responsibility. We suggest first, using the example of psychopathy, that susceptibility to the central reactive attitudes may in part constitute us as moral agents and in this way be important to responsibility, and second that the reactive attitudes themselves play an important role in moral discourse as expressive of our values and as an epistemic tool or cue. We then draw a (hopefully intuitive) distinction between character and capacity and argue that the primary target of the interpretive project is character.  That is what matters most in relationships. Thus attitudes such as anger, resentment, and even contempt may be at least partially warranted even when the agent to whom they are directed is not morally responsible. We argue that the warrant for attributions of responsibility however is not the same as the warrant for the reactive attitudes; it rests rather in the capacities which are implied by the excuses and exemptions Strawson acknowledges.  Judgments of responsibility are thus not conceptually tied to the participant stance. (Indeed there is some evidence to suggest that our moral assessments of others is more accurate when we disengagefrom the participant stance and view them from a more objective perspective).  

Date: Tuesday 18 September
Location: The University of Wollongong, Building 19.1003
Time: 5.30-7pm.

Dr Sarah Sorial
Senior Lecturer
The University of Wollongong
Wollongong NSW 2522
+61 2 4221 5034

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