Bioethics Blogs

Situations and responsibility

I think this is true: my behavior, and your behavior, and all human behavior, is shaped in a wide range of ways by the environment. What do I mean by the environment? Here are some examples.

Being in an environment with loud noise levels might make you less likely to help strangers in need (Matthews and Cannon 1975).

Being in a pleasant smelling environment might make you more likely to help strangers in need (Baron 1997).

Wearing sunglasses might make you behave more selfishly (Zhong et al. 2010).

Should we be worried about these kinds of environmental influences?

Many philosophers think that we should be. The fundamental problem is that these kinds of environmental influences seem to suggest that in many cases we do not act for good reasons, in part because the forces that shape our behavior have very little to do with reasons.

In a forthcoming paper I argue that if that is right, then the following kind of view is undermined.

Reasons-Driven. In any given circumstance, the capacities that undergird free and responsible behavior track almost all relevant reasons for action, almost always successfully implement rational plans of action, and do so untainted by low-level, reasons-irrelevant mechanisms and processes.

Should we be worried about this? It depends on the kind of behavior in question. The law seems to give human agents a break in some cases depending on the circumstance – witness the ‘heat of passion’ defense. And we seem comfortable admitting that factors like stress and exhaustion render us less than perfectly responsive to reasons for action.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.