Blame, the self and self-understanding

by Katrien Schaubroeck

According to Nomy Arpaly’s whole-self account of moral responsibility, the extent to which an agent is to be blamed/praised does not depend on whether he deliberately and knowingly chose to do what is bad/good but on how well his motive is integrated in his overall personality. It follows that poor integration below some threshold is an excusing condition on moral responsibility, which explains why we excuse an agent who acted on the basis of a compulsion or ignorance.

Yet the whole-self view does not explain why we feel uncomfortable and unsure about blaming people with a personality disorder (after all, a psychopath’s murderous activity fits frighteningly well with his whole self). This indicates a problem with the whole-self view: it does not provide a principle of unification that determines what belongs to an agent’s self.

Exploring the difficulties of providing such a principle, I investigate the comparative roles of first-personal and second-personal perspectives on the self. The relation between blame and agential self-understanding seems overlooked in many accounts of blame (Strawson, Scanlon, Arpaly).

Elaborating on Susan Wolf’s insightful discussion of moral outcome luck, I argue that there are more and less virtuous ways of relating to oneself, and that the role of agential authority pertaining to the question of what an action means, is easily misunderstood.