"Higher-Order Omissions and the Stacked View of Agency"
Forthcoming. Philosophical Issues.
Omissions are puzzling, and they raise myriad questions for many areas of philosophy. In contrast, omissions of omissions are not usually taken to be very puzzling since they are often thought to just be a fancy way of describing ordinary “positive” events, states of affairs, or actions. This paper contends that – as far as agency is concerned – at least some omissions of omissions are omissions, not actions. First, this paper highlights how our actions are accompanied by many first-order omissions – i.e., omissions to act – and that there already are many strong reasons to think that at least some of these first-order omissions are agentially distinct from simultaneous actions and from other first-order omissions. It then argues that our actions and first-order omissions are also accompanied by higher-order omissions – i.e., omissions to omit to act – and that higher-order omissions are distinct from actions and first-order omissions for similar reasons. Higher-order omissions also illuminate a more holistic picture of agency, which involves recognizing that our exercises of agency at a moment in time include all of our overlapping behaviors – our actions, first-order omissions, and higher-order omissions. This paper concludes by exploring the impacts of higher-order omissions.
Abstract: Philosophers have already recognized the importance of causal preemption involving “positive” events. First, preemption with positive events raises problems for counterfactual theories of causation. Second, theories of moral and legal responsibility rely heavily on the concept of causation, so accurately assessing responsibility in preemption cases requires correctly assessing their causal structure. However, philosophers have not discussed preemption involving “negative” events or omissions. This paper argues that cases of preemptive omissions exist and have important implications for theories of causation and for moral and legal responsibility. Of theoretical importance, the alterations made to counterfactual theories of causation to address preemption with positive events do not seem to work for accommodating preemptive omissions. Of practical importance, there have been actual legal cases involving preemptive omissions, and at least one such case was, this paper contends, decided incorrectly on erroneous causal grounds. This paper identifies what must happen for preemptive omissions to obtain. It then argues for the existence of preemptive omissions by constructing a series of cases and drawing structural parallels between preemption cases with positive events and cases with omissions. It ultimately presents a formula for generating preemptive omissions and examines both why “traditional” methods of generating preemption fail for omissions and why the proposed method avoids such concerns.
2021. Canadian Journal of Philosophy 51(4): 301-314.
Abstract: This paper warns of two threats to moral responsibility that arise when accounting for omissions, given some plausible assumptions about how abilities are related to responsibility. The first problem threatens the legitimacy of our being responsible by expanding the preexisting tension that luck famously raises for moral responsibility. The second threat to moral responsibility challenges the legitimacy of our practices of holding responsible. Holding others responsible for their omissions requires us to bridge an epistemic gap that does not arise when holding others responsible for their actions – one that we might often fail to cross.
2021. Philosophical Studies 178(8): 2665-2685.
Abstract: Many important harms result in large part from our collective omissions, such as harms from our omissions to stop climate change and famines. Accounting for responsibility for collective omissions turns out to be particularly challenging. It is hard to see how an individual contributes anything to a collective omission to prevent harm if she couldn’t have made a difference to that harm on her own. Some groups are able to prevent such harms, but it is highly contentious whether groups can be loci of responsibility. This paper takes an existing and plausible framework of moral responsibility – one based on abilities – and scales it up to accommodate responsibility for collective omissions. This centrally involves identifying what the relevant collective abilities are and how they work. One significant benefit of this approach is that we can do this while remaining neutral on the debates about collective agency and collective responsibility by showing how individualist and collectivist versions of the theory work. Finally, I explore several further upshots of the scaled-up ability-based account, including that degrees of responsibility can be cashed out in terms of strengths of the relevant abilities, which has both theoretical and applied implications.
2020. Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 101(4): 651-668.
Abstract: Moral responsibility requires that we are in control of what we do. Many contemporary accounts of responsibility cash out this control in terms of abilities and hold that the relevant abilities are strong abilities, like general abilities. This paper raises a problem for strong abilities views: an agent can plausibly be morally responsible for an action or omission, despite lacking any strong abilities to do the relevant thing. It then offers a way forward for ability-based views, arguing that very weak abilities can form the basis of moral responsibility for both actions and omissions.
2019. Social Theory and Practice 45(3): 452-470.
Abstract: An important but underexplored aspect of our negative agency is that it is fitting to regret only a limited subset of our non-doings even though there are many things that we fail to do. This paper examines why it is ill-fitting to regret certain non-doings, arguing that abilities form the primary constraint on the fittingness of this regret. There are many types of abilities, so a central aim of this paper is to clarify which abilities are relevant to such regret. Finally, virtues and further applications of the proposed ability-based account are explored.
Much to Do about Non-Things: Exploring Agency and Responsibility Through Omissions
Committee: Carolina Sartorio (chair), Michael McKenna, Jason Turner, Terence Horgan