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Saturday, October 5, 2013

Building Better Beings: A Theory of Moral Responsibility

Manuel Vargas, Building Better Beings: A Theory of Moral Responsibility, Oxford University Press, 2013, 345pp., $55.00 (hbk), ISBN 9780199697540.

Reviewed by Tamler Sommers, University of Houston & Very Bad Wizards

We all like to believe that the problem we happen to work on is "particularly intractable," more resistant to resolution than debates in any other area of philosophy. The free will debate has a legitimate claim to this title. (Of course, I work in this area myself so I would say that.) The source of the intractability is that our intuitions about freedom and especially moral responsibility do not come in a neat consistent package. It is enormously difficult to develop a coherent view that satisfies our own set of commitments and intuitions, let alone those of other cultures or time periods. Yet a successful theory is supposed to do precisely that: offer a set of general principles that can unify our seemingly inconsistent intuitions. One of the many contributions of Manuel Vargas' book is to offer a principled way of embracing a conception of free will and moral responsibility that does not require even the pretense of success so defined.

Vargas calls his approach revisionism because "it insists that what we ought to think about responsibility conflicts with important threads of how we do think about responsibility." (p. 15) His book is divided into two parts. The first defends his revisionist methodology against the more traditional way of theorizing in the existing literature. The second offers a revisionist theory of responsibility -- the "agency cultivation model" -- that is grounded in the revisionist approach defended in Part One. The volume is long and extraordinarily rich, the culmination of a project Vargas has been developing over many years. I will not pretend that I can address the book in all of its complexity. I will divide my remarks into three sections, each focused on a critical question for Vargas' project. I hope I can elucidate some central aspects of his arguments along the way.

The entire book review is here.
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