There have been a number of very interesting and insightful comments on my original post about responsibility and identity (regarding the fission case). In order to keep my sanity (and my day job!), I’ve had to force myself to refrain from commenting more than twice on any original post, so I’ve let the opportunity pass to talk about several of the comments made. Nevertheless, I think the conversation has been interesting and fruitful, and I thought that a recent comment by John Fischer deserved attention sufficient to warrant a new post. John remarked that we could perhaps find reason to doubt the original “platitude” (that one person can’t be morally responsible for the actions of someone else) by thinking of much more ordinary cases, specifically those involving children. So I as a parent would, it seems, be responsible for the actions of my child (say, if I let my 13-year-old drive the car around the neighborhood and he crashes into something). Ordinarily, those wanting to defend the platitude will say something like, “Well, you (the parent) are still responsible only for your own actions, which in this case were to allow your not-yet-responsible child to wreak havoc in the neighborhood.” I suppose this would be akin to letting your pet monkey loose: he’s not a responsible agent, so we attribute responsibility to you for letting him loose.
This answer doesn’t quite do justice to John’s case, however, because he seems to be insisting that you are responsible for the actions of the child (and not, as it were, responsible just for your lax parenting). But I actually find this to be not quite right. You are clearly appropriately subject to blame for allowing the child to do what he did, but are you really appropriately subject to blame for what the child did? This goes to the heart of the view on responsibility I really want to advocate (but won’t do so quite yet here), namely, that it’s a matter of being appropriately subject to the reactive attitudes (e.g., resentment, anger, etc.) with respect to your general character, and not necessarily with respect to any particular action you’ve performed. Now there’s much involved in that formulation that I won’t go into just yet, but for now I’ll simply say this: it seems that we don’t appropriately react with resentment towards the child because he has yet to develop a moral character, whereas we do react with resentment towards you (the parent) because you (ostensibly) have, and because the action of letting your child run amok reveals certain negative aspects of your character, ones that indicate a willingness to ignore the basic demand for goodwill towards your fellows. But in any event, we’re still reacting negatively toward you for that aspect of your character revealed in the (in)action of lax parenting, and not with respect to any aspect of your character revealed by your child’s actions. This is what distinguishes the parenting case from the original Adam/Brett/Carl case: we hold Brett/Carl responsible for the actions of Adam insofar as their character is exactly similar to his (and is causally produced by his); no such resemblance of character obtains between you and your child, though, so I think the parenting case can be accounted for by the defenders of the original platitude.