April–June 2020

During the last three months, all of the project’s activities have taken place online, and as everyone reading this will know, the cost of losing informal, unplanned conversations and chance meetings is huge—like visiting a city without being able to wander aimlessly, and lose one’s way. But there have been gains as well as losses. Prof. Victor Tadros (University of Warwick) gave our first guest lecture of the year, ‘Treatment and Accountability’, on 21 May. The text was pre-circulated, the presentation was relatively brief, the discussion relatively long, the audience were in half a dozen countries, and numbered a little shy of 100. Thanks to Victor’s virtuosity and stamina and the audience’s enthusiasm, it was a tremendous event. The second guest lecture of the year will be given by Anton Ford (University of Chicago) in October. At present it seems likely to be held online, but even if we are able to hold it in a lecture theatre with an audience, we shall ensure that remote participation is possible as well.  —John Hyman

This term I have been thinking about subjectivity as it relates to criminal culpability. In particular I have been considering two versions of subjectivity: epistemic and perspectival. The former is understood in terms of the facts that are known or knowable to the agent, while the latter concerns the value the subject places on those facts in their practical reasoning. I have been exploring how these concepts of knowledge and perspective relate to one another in culpability determinations. I have also completed my first year of teaching Jurisprudence and Criminal Law at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. This was an unexpectedly busy and online term due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  —David Campbell

Apart from my teaching at St John’s College (which has taken me from readings on death to classes on causation), I have focussed my attention this spring on a paper on obligations and excuses. In particular, I questioned the relation between PAP (Principle that responsibility implies Alternate Possibilities) and OIC (“Ought” Implies “Can”) in the light of the distinction between excuses and justifications. I have benefited from discussions with the other members of the project on this controversial distinction, which is drawn differently by epistemologists and legal theorists. In epistemology, justification is often seen as conformity to a primary norm: my belief is justified only if it is what I ought to believe. In the law, justification is often seen as a defence: we offer a justification when we have infringed a prima facie obligation but which we claim we were right to infringe. I suspect that whether we understand justification in the first or in the second way matters to the plausibility of PAP and OIC. I have also finalised a paper (forthcoming in the Pacific Philosophical Quarterly) on whether free will sceptics can deliberate rationally about what to do. I have, in the past year, received tremendous feedback from the RoR members on this piece.  —Simon-Pierre Chevarie-Cossette

I decided to embrace some of the benefits of online life and started planning a workshop on Mistakes, Ignorance, and Blameworthiness, which will take place entirely online in September. Although it won’t be the same as having it in person, it is nice to be able to invite people from as far away as California. In my own research I’ve been working on two papers: one on recklessness and what makes a risk reckless (that is, unjustified)—something that has been particularly on my mind in the times of COVID-19, and one on whether epistemic normative ignorance is blameworthy in the same way that moral normative ignorance is thought to be (I think, yes!). —Claire Field

Karamvir Chadha and I organised a workshop on the ethics of consent and successfully invited Mollie Gerver and Neil Manson as speakers. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 outbreak forced us to postpone the event and we are currently looking for an alternative date. Concerning my own research, I presented a paper on consent and nudging in the WEH/ETHOX Seminar Series at the University of Oxford, published an opinion piece on consent and COVID-19 challenge trials in The Conversation, and continued with my work on responsibility, answerability, and consent.  —Max Kiener

Deleuze writes: ‘Spinozism in its entirety can be seen as a movement beyond the infinitely perfect as a property, towards the absolutely infinite as Nature’. Reading Spinoza's Ethics is a dizzy and dazzling exercise in which one is invited to make sense of absolutely everything, as if by stretching one's arms around the entire universe, touching and embracing every minutest part of it. It has been a pleasure and privilege to study this text in the RoR reading group, while also teaching Nietzsche, who said he recognised himself in Spinoza's key teachings. —Yuuki Ohta

Past Updates

The principal event during this period was the research seminar, which I convened this year with Maria Alvarez (KCL), who has been a member of the Roots of Responsibility Advisory Panel since its inception. Graduate students from UCL and KCL participated, along with several senior colleagues from philosophy departments and law schools in and near London. The seminar certainly achieved its aim of fostering dialogue between philosophers and lawyers, and I personally learned a great deal. The complete programme of the seminar can be found here. The last two meetings were held online, because real—is that the opposite of virtual?—meetings were no longer feasible. Yuuki organised this with exceptional skill, and has ensured that the project as a whole has adapted to current circumstances with minimal disruption. All of the participants in the project are greatly indebted to him. —John Hyman

This term I continued my work on the two topics of (1) the blameworthiness of legal negligence and the (2) the role of defences—in particular justificatory defences—in tort theory. While most criminal theory on negligence focuses on whether or not negligence can be blameworthy, I have made the slightly different claim that the current legal tests are insufficient to give us such a determination but could be developed to do so. Regarding tort theory, I have been attempting to rehabilitate Gardner’s theory of justification to meet some of the challenges levelled at him in that sphere, most particularly by James Goudkamp in his influential work on tort defences. —David Campbell

I spent the first part of this year continuing some older projects and developing some new ones. I continued some work on developing an error theory for the Enkratic Principle in epistemology, and work on a symmetrical account of ignorance as an excuse—I suspect the usual distinctions made between moral and factual ignorance are undermotivated. I also began a new project on how we justify risks, and when risks are reckless. Finally, prompted by Nathan Ballantyne’s book Knowing Our Limits, I began thinking about the epistemic significance of unpossessed evidence—why should and important epistemic notion depend on what I actually believe? —Claire Field

I started 2020 by presenting revised versions of my work on coercion and deviant causal chains in our RoR group as well as at the universities in Karlsruhe, Warwick, and Oxford. Later, my paper “Fictionalising Kelsen’s Pure Theory of Law” was published in a special issue of the Archive for the Philosophy of Law and Social Philosophy, alongside a contribution by the late John Gardner. Finally, I wrote a new paper on how the use of un-explainable artificial intelligence in medicine affects patients’ informed consent, a topic which has now led me to focus on the relation between unexplainability and answerability more generally. —Max Kiener

Annette Baier's ‘Actions, Passions, Reasons’, in her Postures of the Mind (1985, Minnesota UP), was not the most popular reading we had for the research seminar this term. But I liked it very much. Baier does not hide her (now unfashionable) struggle with Davidson: there's something there, but also a lot that's rather wrongheaded. Meandering, tentative, uncertain, exploratory, all over the place—all her ramifying thoughts are left on the page. Most papers published today are much more polished, polite, and professional; and much of the magic has gone. —Yuuki Ohta

As I mentioned in my last update, three research fellows joined Roots of Responsibility in September: David Campbell, Claire Field and Max Kiener.  Taken together, their updates provide a clear picture  of the range of fascinating work the project is supporting, and the value of collecting it together under a single roof.  Together with our weekly meetings, the most rewarding event in this period was our December workshop, Responsibility, Knowledge, and Belief, jointly sponsored by Dr Alexander Greenberg’s Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship project, Belief in Philosophy and the Criminal Law.  The workshop brought together an extraordinary group of scholars from the UK, Europe and US, and explored the ways in which ignorance can excuse wrongdoing, wilful ignorance, responsibility for belief, the presumption of innocence, and witness testimony.  More information about it, including a link to abstracts, can be found here — John Hyman

This term I have been considering two main issues: (1) Negligence is a controversial inclusion in the mens rea schema for crime; my research has been testing the possibility of understanding negligence as a determinant of blameworthiness; (2) The distinction between denials and defences is well known in criminal theory and has recently been incorporated into tort theory; however, I have been questioning whether this criminal division and the further division between justifications and excuses can be fittingly exported to tort theory. — David Campbell

I have been developing the (surprisingly controversial!) view that moral ignorance is mundane. Just like other kinds of ignorance, it sometimes excuses. Whether it excuses, I think, depends on the agent’s epistemic capacities. So, not just what she does actually believe or know, but what she could believe or know. This determines what it is appropriate to expect of her, and so whether she should have avoided the ignorance. Of course, the relevant notion of ‘could’ is important. I have been experimenting with different understandings of this, and considering their implications for when ignorance, of all kinds, can excuse. – Claire Field

I completed an article on coercion, which I was commissioned to write for the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy and which provides an overview of the current debate. In my subsequent research, I focused on two more specific aspects about coercion. Firstly, I revised an earlier paper on the effect of coercion on a person’s consent (e.g. to a medical procedure) in cases involving a third-party, i.e. cases in which the person exerting the coercion and the person receiving consent are no longer the same. Secondly, in a separate paper, I analysed how coercion can fail to be successful in cases of deviant causal chains but still vitiate consent and avert liability for wrongdoing. —Max Kiener

The difference between believing and not believing is obviously significant. But what is, and how do we tell, the difference between having a belief that is however 'stored away' so that one needs a prompt to 'activate' it, and not having that belief but having all the doxastic wherewithal (e.g. concepts) so that one would right away form and activate the belief if only one is prompted? Epistemologists, I have learned, distinguish subtly different doxastic states; I often struggle to understand the criteria of possession or ascription of such states. —Yuuki Ohta

I attended several conferences and workshops during the summer.  First, a workshop on knowledge how in Erlangen, where I gave a paper comparing knowledge of rules with knowledge of facts; next, a workshop in Berlin, hosted by Jay Wallace, where I commented on a draft chapter by Ulrike Heuer—a member of the Roots of Responsibility advisory board—about responsibility for action that has unintended outcomes; then a large-scale conference in Oxford entitled Culture and Value after Wittgenstein—generously supported by the Czech philanthropist Luděk Sekyra—where I spoke about Wittgenstein’s Spenglerian views about culture and civilisation; and finally the annual conference of the British Society for Aesthetics, where Elisabeth Schellekens and I formally relinquished the editorship of the British Journal of Aesthetics—a hugely enjoyable collaboration for twelve years.  September was a particularly enjoyable month, because three research fellows joined the project, and our collaboration began.  More about this in the next update! — John Hyman

Summer is a season of conferences and workshops for researchers. At the beginning of July, I went to a workshop on knowledge-how in Erlangen, then another on agency and norms in Berlin. Both events were stimulating in many respects, and in the coming years we at RoR will host various academic events that we hope will be as productive and convivial as these. At the end of August there was a big international conference on Wittgenstein in Oxford, where I responded to one of the talks; I tried to connect recent debates on ‘trans’ to Wittgenstein’s discussion of aspect perception, and to the importance (I think) he places on our common struggle with language. I spent a greater bulk of September back in Japan, meeting friends and families, and working on a paper on knowledge, control and intentional action, inspired by some ideas that I had during my visit in Germany earlier. —Yuuki Ohta

The principal events during the second three months of 2019 were the appointment of three post-docs, who will be joining the project in the autumn, and two guest lectures.  Our advertisement for the post-docs attracted applications from highly talented philosophers and lawyers, and in the event, we were able to appoint three research fellows: David Campbell, Claire Field, and Max Kiener. This post in the Resource section introduces them. The guest lectures, in May and June, were given by the distinguished legal theorist Peter Cane and the leading philosopher of biology John Dupré. There are brief reports of these events in the resources section (here and here).

Shortly after I drafted this update, I learned that John Gardner, a member of the project’s Advisory Board, had died of oesophageal cancer, at the age of 54. John’s friends and colleagues had been expecting this news for a few months, but that does not lessen the shock or diminish the sadness. A touching tribute to John by Annalise Acorn can be found here. —John Hyman

It is difficult to believe that the first year of the RoR project is coming to close. We have put the project into top gear: after a long selection process, we have appointed two post-doctoral research fellows, who will begin working for the project in autumn; in May and June we had our first two invited lectures; also in June, John and I were lucky to have been invited to participate in a conference on themes from Bernard Williams. Paul Russell and András Szigeti, the organisers of this fantastic conference, are also leading a research project on responsibility at Lund and Göthenberg; there will be various exciting opportunities for us to collaborate with them, for which please watch this space! Meanwhile, for my own research, I have been trying to work on a couple of papers, on the nature of philosophical claims, on logical individuation of actions and psychological states, and on the explanatory power of explanation in terms of powers. —Yuuki Ohta

The seminar series was enjoyable and rewarding. Dennis Patterson (Rutgers and the University of Surrey) made a tremendous contribution, and several participants travelled from Oxford regularly to attend our meetings, along with UCL staff and students, and colleagues from institutions across London.  I’m greatly looking forward to the two post-docs we appointed in March joining the project—one based at UCL, the other at The Queen’s College, Oxford—and to others working at or affiliated with UCL participating as well.  News about this will follow shortly. —John Hyman

The academic highlight during this period was the project’s research seminar, consisting in ten meetings where we examined some classic and recent significant works in the philosophy of action, jurisprudence, metaethics, and metaphysics. My learning curve for topics in the philosophy of law was steep, but rewarding. The administrative highlight during this period was the advertisement and the selection of two research fellows funded by the project. I was overwhelmed by the quality of very many of the applications, and by the wide range of exciting themes across philosophy and law that the applicants proposed to work on. We had the interviews for the posts at the end of March, and will be able to announce the appointment in May. —Yuuki Ohta

A substantial part of this period was devoted to getting the project off the ground.  Yuuki Ohta was appointed to the post of Project Administrator, and once Yuuki was on board, we planned the first seminar together.  It will begin in January, and will involve several colleagues, some already involved in the project as members of the Advisory Board.  Since October, I have also attended the annual conference of the American Society for Aesthetics in Toronto, written a review of Jonathan Dancy’s new book, Practical Shape for Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, given a lecture entitled Responsibility and Liability for the Linacre Philosophy Seminars series, and given a departmental seminar on the concept of functionalism in the theory of architecture at UCL. —John Hyman

I started working as the project administrator at the beginning of November, and have been engaged with a large number of administrative and logistic tasks that the project’s take-off required since then, not the least of which is the building of this website. I have also given tutorials in Oxford on aesthetics and on a special set of topics at the intersection of ethics and philosophy of action. For my research, I have been reading on and thinking about the nature of a state of affairs—something (ens) being (esse) thus and so (essentia). —Yuuki Ohta