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Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Stubborn System of Moral Responsibility

Bruce N. Waller, The Stubborn System of Moral Responsibility, MIT Press, 2015, 294pp.
ISBN 9780262028165.

Reviewed by Seth Shabo, University of Delaware

This book is a spirited and engaging broadside against ordinary belief in moral responsibility. Specifically, Bruce Waller challenges the entrenched belief that people bear the kind of moral responsibility for their conduct that would justify punishing them on the grounds that they deserve it. What needs explaining, in Waller's view, is why so many philosophers continue to defend this orthodoxy in the face of such powerful counterevidence. His proposed explanation encompasses a range of psychological and social factors that powerfully reinforce this belief. These include the animal impulse to strike back when harmed, an impulse that often inhibits deeper reflection into the causes of the offender's conduct; the desire to justify expressions of this strike-back impulse; the broader belief in a just universe in which wrongdoers have retribution coming to them; a heuristic tendency to substitute simpler problems for hard ones (in this case, the question of how we can correctly attribute bad qualities to people with the intractable problem of how people can truly deserve punishment); and the ascendancy of an individualistic, neoliberal political culture that downplays the role of societal conditions in shaping how people turn out.

The entire book review is here.