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Causal and Moral Responsibility

Pascale Willemsen
Institute of Philosophy II

My PhD Project

Project: Causal and Moral Responsibility

In philosophy it is widely assumed that in order to be morally responsible for an event, one also has to be causally responsible for it. If your boss blames you for deleting important data from his computer, we would be quite surprised you had nothing to do with the date being deleted, and we would reject his moral judgment as somehow faulty. The legal system operates in a similar fashion. For someone to be charged for an accident, the court has to prove their causal involvement. So causal judgments seems to play a particularly important role for justifying moral judgments that someone has to be blamed, punished etc. Remember your mother saying: You cannot be blamed for what you haven’t done!
But who of us has not been tricked by this assurance? At least I had many a conversation with my mother about not cleaning my room, failing to walk the dog or not paying enough attention at school. “Hey, mom! Why are you blaming me? I haven’t done anything!” – nobody ever bought this excuse. So is it really true that we cannot be blamed for what we haven’t done? Some people argue that we can, for we can be causally responsible for the things we failed to do as well. My omission to rescue a drowning child might be causally relevant to her death. Even though this has a lot of plausibility at first sight, philosophers have been struggling for centuries with what causation is and whether t applies to omissions as well.
In my dissertation, I aim to understand how people reach their causal judgments that support their moral judgments. How do people understand who or what caused an accident? And how is this judgment linked to their moral judgment? To answer this question, I present people with short scenarios in which I manipulate various factors. I then test how people change their moral and causal judgments as a response to these manipulations. On this basis, I develop a new understanding of causal responsibility and its role in moral reasoning. This understanding will be based on how people actually think about causation, rather than telling people how they should think about it.

My Internationalisation Strategy

I am now in the third year of my dissertation. My overall strategy was to get in touch with the international community working on moral cognition in what is called experimental philosophy. Since experimental philosophy is a very new discipline (about 10-15 years old), not many people in Germany work in this field. So to get substantial feedback on my work, going abroad was absolutely essential. But without money that is easily, quickly and flexibly available, going abroad or attending international conferences is difficult and requires repeated application writing – something I knew I would have time to do. An IRB thus seemed like exactly what I needed.
Before I applied for an IRB I thus proceeded in four steps: First I tried to come up with a quite specific idea of what my dissertation was going to be about. This way, I could go on to identify the leading experts in these fields. Thirdly, I started to get in touch with some of these people to get a first impression of how easy it would be for me to actually work with them and receive feedback. Finally, I talked to some of these people about conferences I might want to attend – specialized conferences where presenting my work would have as big an impact as possible. My supervisor, Albert Newen, was a big help with all these steps.
I quickly identified Joshua Knobe as one of the most influential authors in experimental philosophy and one of the first to apply psychological tools to philosophical questions. Since most research in my field was done in English anyways, I thought it would be a great idea to talk to him about a research visit at a more advanced stage of my PhD. In accordance with my supervisor, I envisioned such a stay for my second year. I talked to Joshua Knobe who communicated his interest in inviting me to work with him once I feel ready.
In addition to this research stay, I also planned to participate in several conferences in Europe, and, if possible, one conference in the United States. For the future, I would be happy to be offered a post-doc position in the US, even though I prefer to stay in Europa if possible. So my strategy was to gain a good reputation in Europe, but to also try to get a food in the American door. I therefore identified two yearly conferences: the conference of the Experimental Philosophy Group UK is the most important conference in experimental philosophy in Europe. So far, no other country is specialised in this area. So I took this to be the first conference at which I needed to give a talk. In the US, there is a similar event in Buffalo every year and a bi-annual conference on moral responsibility in New Orleans. Even though I wasn’t sure in which of these conferences I would be able to get in, I planned to keep a close eye on both.


Below you find a list of activities that were founded by Research School Plus. As you can see, my overall strategy was so far quite successful. I participated in five international conferences – one of which was a conference in the US. I also managed to spend three month at Yale University, under supervision by Joshua Knobe. Here are some of my impressions and reflections as to how I benefited from these experiences.
Impact of my international experiences on my work

Experimental Philosophy Group UK, Oxford, September 2014

At this conference, I did not actively participate. I had recently been invited to give a talk at a conference in Vilnius and I was curious – and terrified – what I had to expect. So this conference was a first chance for me to get to know some key figures in my field of research, but also to get an impression of how things are done.

The Moral Domain. Conceptual Issue in Moral Psychology, Vilnius, October 2014

At this conference I gave my first talk. Even was a comparatively large conference (which for philosophers means 20 talks), but all of them were in my field of research. Thus, I had the chance to meet a lot of interesting people and present my own research to them. It was really helpful to get some external feedback and new perspectives on some issues I had been struggling with. I’m still in touch with many people I met there.

Experimental Philosophy Group UK, Nottingham, June 2015

With a different and more advanced project I participated again in the conference of the Experimental Philosophy Group UK. It’s not only a great conference with outstanding researchers, but also an important opportunity to maintain previously made contacts.

ESPP, Tartu, August 2015

The conference if the European Society for Philosophy and Psychology was a huge conference. When I got accepted I was super excited and hoped to speak in front of hundreds of people. That was obviously a very silly and naïve wish. In fact, the conference was so big that on the fourth day when I gave my presentation, people’s motivation was already quite low. From my experience, the conference also covered too many topics to really gather many people in my field of research. In sum: I met a lot of old academic friends, I had a great time intensifying these relationships, but I’d gotten much better feedback at more attention at smaller conferences before.

Yale University, New Haven, September-November 2015

I would like to spend a bit more words on my research stay because I would like to encourage everyone to do the same. During the three months I stayed there, I spend my time with both taking classes and doing research. It might be surprising that after having gone through the German educational system, I was still willing to take classes. However, the Yale University is, just as advertised by the label ‘Ivy League’, an awesome place to study and do research. Classes are quite small and students are very active, clever, but also super motivated. And so were my teachers. Some of my teachers were the authors of the most exciting papers I had ever read. And American professors also do a much better job in entertaining their students, in addition to just pass on knowledge (please check out some TED Talks by Paul Bloom who was my professor in psychology).
Working with Joshua Knobe was maybe the highlight of my time as a PhD student so far. He was incredibly supportive and willing to help with any issues, be it methodologically, philosophically or personally. But it was not just the frequent conversations with him, but also his ability to help me get in touch with people who might be interesting for me to talk to. So I met a couple of other PhD students and post-docs who I had great conversations with and who substantially improved many of my ideas, arguments and texts.
Another reason why I am so grateful for this experience is the lack of any distraction one has at home. It was incredibly easy for me to focus in this new environment. In addition, thanks to the great support I had, I quickly developed my first thoughts on an issue to a substantial idea. Many other visiting students there felt the same way.

Experimental Philosophy Group USA, Buffalo, October 2015

During my stay in the States I gave a talk at a conference in Buffalo. As I said before, this was one of the yearly events I’d planned to attend. The conference was not only a chance to present my research outside of Europa, but I also got important feedback on a paper I’d been working on. I’m still in touch with many of the researchers I had the chance to meet there.

Experimental Philosophy Group UK, Reading, April 2016

In April I will present the most recent work I’ve been doing on omissions at the annual X-Phi conference, this year hosted by the University of Reading. I’m already exited to meet a lot colleagues and also a few good friends I made.

Other Conferences

In November 2015, I organized the first conference of the Experimental Philosophy Group Germany which Prof. Albert Newen, Dr. Kevin Reuter founded. This event, however, was not financed by my IRB, but by a successful PR.INT application. Conferences, especially those with international guests from overseas, can be very expensive. But luckily enough, Research School Plus also offers PR.INT applications which might be combined with an IRB in cases like this. We invited Joshua Knobe, my host at Yale, Edouard Marchery, Aaron Meskin as keynotes – all of which I had the pleasure to meet at other conferences. We also invited many other international speakers and managed to also get German researchers involved. In my view, this conference is the result of a successful internationalization strategy which I was able to realize thanks to Research School Plus.