Bioethics Blogs

David Shoemaker, Responsibility from the Margins, Oxford University Press, 2015

David Shoemaker’s highly innovative and intricately argued new book draws on much of his previous work together with substantial original material to form a detailed and cohesive treatment of responsibility. The book is engaging, crisp, and admirably clear. It is marvelously ambitious in its strategy and framework, engagement with multiple literatures, and decidedly novel approach to Strawsonian theory. Moral philosophers, psychologists, clinicians and practitioners, and anyone who has ever wondered about “marginal agents” – people with dementia, autism, (manic-)depression, OCD, and psychopaths – will find much to entice them in this thorough and accessible treatise.

Shoemaker’s starting point – the phenomenon he aims to explain – is the observation that many of us feel a certain ambivalence toward marginal agents of the sort mentioned above. When we interact with or read case studies of marginal agents, we feel a “profound unease,” which Shoemaker diagnoses as caused by the fact that “these agents seem worthy of some responsibility responses but not others, which suggests that they are responsible in some ways but not in others” (3). This is the foundational premise of the entire book. For Shoemaker, responsibility responses include but are not at all limited to the standard praise, blame, and resentment; admiration and contempt, approval and disapproval, pride and shame, anger and regret are all brought in under this unusually wide conception of responsibility responses (a point I’ll return to in my final remarks). The idea is that psychopaths may deserve contempt but not anger, patients with dementia may deserve admiration but not resentment, and so on and so forth.

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.