Marginal responsibilty and somnambulistic killings

My co-edited article titled Pushing the Margins of Responsibility: Lessons from Parks’ Somnambulistic Killing (with Ezio Di Nucci) has just been accepted for publication in Neuroethics.

The paper can be read here.

I have been interested in hard cases in the theory of responsibility for many years now; and I have always been intrigued by the tragic story of Kenneth Parks, the Canadian man who, in a state of somnambulism, drove 23 kilometres to the home of his parents-in-law; entered their house, strangled his father-in-law into unconsciousness and stabbed his mother in law to death. My original source of inspiration on the topic of responsibility and somnambulism was Bernard Williams’ paper The Actus Reus of Dr Caligari, and I had already briefly discussed Parks’ case (and Caligari) in my book Per Colpa di chi and in another article co-written with Ezio: Who is Afraid of Robots. However, in this paper we try to give some more depth and structure to our reflection on moral responsibility for things done while in state of (partial) unconsciousness.

In Responsibility from the Margins (2015) David Shoemaker has argued against a binary approach by claiming that this leaves out instances of what he calls “marginal agency”, cases where agents seem to be “eligible for some responsibility responses but not others” (4). In this paper we endorse and extend Shoemaker’s approach by presenting and discussing one more case of marginal agency not yet covered by Shoemaker or in the other literature on moral responsibility: our case is that of Kenneth Parks. Whereas we agree with Parks’ legal acquittal, in this paper we address the issue of Parks’ moral responsibility. In Parks’ case it seems difficult to say that he is morally responsible for killing his mother in law; but it seems also unsatisfactory to have to just equate his story with a random accident, for which no normative evaluation of the agent would be appropriate.

Our main claim is that Parks, while both falling short of fully satisfying our three conditions for moral responsibility – status, voluntary action, causation – and falling short of manifesting any bad will in any of the senses mapped by Shoemaker may be still seen as responsible in some way for his behavior. Parks, we argue, is a full moral agent whose clouded consciousness is both temporary and partial (status condition); his actions are not involuntary and goal-directed (voluntary action condition); the death of Parks’ mother-in-law is non-deviantly causally dependent on his actions (causation condition). That’s why, we argue, failing to be open to standard moral reactions like blame and condemnation, Parks can still be legitimately open to some resentment, at least from those who have suffered because of his actions.

Whereas admittedly unique, Parks’ case highlights one important general lesson: as generally competent moral agents we may be legitimately called to answer for actions we carried out without any bad will or even without any awareness, insofar as our actions directly affect the wellbeing of others.

The paper can be read here.

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, here with the beautiful music by Supershock

Posted in consciousness and moral responsibility, marginal agency, marginal responsibility, moral responsibility, Responsibility, Strawson and reactive attitudes

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