Richard Marshall interviews John Martin Fischer [Photo: Stefan Klatt]:
3:AM: Most people hold themselves and others morally responsible. and you think we need a philosophical foundation for this. Others might say that its just biology, or culture, or education or psychological biases or a supernatural element underwritten by a deity that makes us do this and that there’s not space for a philosophical foundation. How do you think we should answer this mix of challenges?
JMF: In some ways it can be helpful to have an explanation of our responsibility practices. Perhaps in the end they are just “brute” or unexplained by deeper philosophical ideas, but I think it can be fruitful at least to explore ways in which our responsibility practices can be explained by simpler, more basic ideas (where these are distinctively philosophical ideas). If we have such an explanation, we can (perhaps, at least) answer certain moral responsibility skeptics, and we might be able to provide answers to questions about moral responsibility in “hard cases”, such as psychopathy and other disordered agents. After all, our actual responsibility practices can (and should) be called into question, and they don’t in themselves answer questions about certain contentious or difficult cases. Can a severely depressed individual be deemed morally responsible? An individual suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease? How about an individual with unusual or atypical brain structures (suggestive of a higher probability of violent behavior)?
Similarly, I think it is desirable to have a way of engaging more productively with the moral responsibility skeptics. That is, we want to take their worries very seriously, and seek to address them as much as possible on their own terms. This is perhaps a way in which I differ from the approach taken by Peter Strawson (although we both think that moral responsibility should be sequestered from certain metaphysical issues). I believe in a moderate sequestration of metaphysics, whereas Peter Strawson argues for a more extreme sequestration of metaphysics. Here (as elsewhere) I prefer the path of moderation.