The Catch-22 of Forgetfulness: Responsibility for Mental Mistakes

Australasian Journal of Philosophy (forthcoming)
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Attribution theorists assume that character information informs judgments of blame. But there is disagreement over why. One camp holds that character information is a fundamental determinant of blame. Another camp holds that character information merely provides evidence about the mental states and processes that determine responsibility. We argue for a two-channel view, where character simultaneously has fundamental and evidential effects on blame. In two large factorial studies (n = 495), participants rate whether someone is blameworthy when he makes a mistake (burns a cake or misses a bus stop). Although mental state inferences predict blame judgments, character information does not. Using mediation analyses, we find that character information influences responsibility via two channels (Studies 3–4; n = 447), which are sensitive to different kinds of information (Study 5; n = 149). On the one hand, forgetfulness increases judgments of responsibility, because mental lapses manifest an objectionable character flaw. On the other hand, forgetfulness decreases judgments of state control, which in turn decreases responsibility judgments. These two channels cancel out, which is why we find no aggregate effect of forgetfulness on responsibility. Our results challenge several fundamental assumptions about the role of character information in moral judgment, including that good character typically mitigates blame.

Author Profiles

Zachary C. Irving
University of Virginia
Samuel Murray
Providence College


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