Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Moral Responsibility and Morality in We Need to Talk About Kevin

by Jules Holroyd, School of English Communication and Philosophy

One of the issues raised by the film, and in Lionel Shriver’s book, ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’, is that of moral responsibility. Is Kevin morally responsible for the massacre? Is Eva responsible for her child’s behaviour? Is she rational to feel responsible?

One of the ways that philosophers have approached the question of moral responsibility is in terms of the conditions for free actions, and the metaphysical conditions necessary for freedom. For example, some argue that a causally deterministic world would not be consistent with our being morally responsible. If all our actions are causally determined, such that at any point in time, we could not do otherwise, surely we would not be free in any of our actions, and if not free, then not morally responsible.

On this way of thinking about things, whether we are free and morally responsible, or not, depends upon the truth of some metaphysical thesis about the world. If causal determinism is true, then so much the worse for freedom and moral responsibility: our practices of treating each other as free and responsible cannot be theoretically supported (van Inwagen 1975). Were this view correct and causal determinism true, then the landscape of moral responsibility is flattened: neither myself, nor the fictional Kevin, nor anyone else, has the kind of freedom of choice and action necessary for moral responsibility.

Questions about whether one’s upbringing affect one’s responsibility are also debunked on this view: if all of us are causally determined, and if that is what accounts for our lack of freedom, then it matters not whether we were causally determined in one way (to become an Olympian archer) or another (a massacring one).

In our usual practices of holding and regarding each other as responsible, we tend to allow for more nuances than this. Our concern is not with the truth of some metaphysical thesis, but with more immediate issues: did she intend to harm me? Was her action accidental? Was she suffering undue stress, or other psychological distress, such that we can say ‘she didn’t really mean it’?

Philosophers who have emphasised these aspects of our practices have rejected the condition for moral responsibility identified above: we’re not interested in whether we are causally determined. Rather, we’re interested in each other’s quality of will: whether that person demonstrated malice or ill will towards us in her actions (Strawson, 1974). Part of the fabric of our practices are the reactive attitudes that, often, we cannot but feel, in response to the quality of will of others: attitudes such as resentment, or (in response to good will) gratitude.

On this view, some of us may be morally responsible, some of the time; others not. Much will depend upon whether there are conditions which – temporarily or permanently – prevent our actions from manifesting the quality of our will towards others. In the absence of such excusing conditions, we can treat each other (and cannot but treat each other) as morally responsible.

What would such views say about Kevin? If all that matters is quality of will, we might think that Kevin pretty unequivocally demonstrates ill will – outright malice – towards his fellow human beings. But much of the discussion surrounding this book (including that scheduled for the sciSCREEN event), focuses on the question of whether Kevin is properly diagnosed as psychopathic, and how this diagnosis itself should be understood. It may be that psychopathy is one of the conditions which we take to modulate the reactive attitudes of resentment we might otherwise have. If so, we might need to consider some revision to this understanding of moral responsibility; it is hard to deny that his actions display malice and hatred, or at best a gross indifference to the interests of others.

One might think that individuals who are psychopathic are not able to act otherwise – unable to act well and take others’ interests into account because of some pathology of the mind: but doesn’t this just take us back to the first kind of condition for moral responsibility, according to which we aren’t free if we cannot do otherwise (the condition which leaves all of our moral responsibility vulnerable)?

Some have argued that this kind of 'could have done otherwise' condition for moral responsibility is asymmetrical (Wolf 1980). What matters is not that individuals are not causally determined, but rather than they are not causally determined in a way that prevents them from acting well. If nature or nurture prevents an individual from being able to grasp moral reasons, from appreciating the interests of others, from cherishing the value of other human beings – as surely some brutalising childhoods or psychological impairments may do – then it is unfair to hold individuals responsible for failing to give regard to such values.

Proponents of this view argue that determination itself is not a problem. For what matters for moral responsibility is that individuals are determined in the right way; that is, in whatever way is psychologically necessary for the appreciation of moral reasons and interests and values. If psychopathy prevents individuals from grasping moral reasons or considering other persons’ interests, then it may well, on this view, exempt from moral responsibility.

Psychopaths may use moral terms, but unless they can fully grasp moral reasons and their force, they are using such terms in ‘the inverted commas sense’ – that is, as merely descriptive of what others might say, and without proper acknowledgement of the force of moral terms that other users typically have (Hare, 1952).

Debates about the conditions for moral responsibility, then, have implications for whether or not individuals such as Kevin are to be regarded as blameworthy. Accordingly, whether psychopathy undermines moral responsibility is in part dependent upon philosophical questions – what are the conditions for moral responsibility – and in part on empirical research: what kinds of capacities do individuals diagnosed as psychopathic have (whilst such diagnoses themselves remain a site of contention)?

But there are further philosophical questions concerning capacities are needed in order to be responsive to reasons, which turn on how we might understand moral judgement and morality itself. For example, where sits the distinction between conventional and moral reasons? In what way, if any, does grasping moral reasons and making moral decisions involve emotions?

Some have suggested, for example, that psychopaths are unable to distinguish between moral and conventional reasons, and that this is indicative of an inability to grasp the important and special kind of normative force that resides in moral claims (Levy 2007, Matravers 2007). Others have argued that psychopaths lack the kinds of emotional capacities that are important in moral decision making (Hare 1993, Nichols 2002). Others have suggested that psychopaths suffer other forms of practical rationality also, such as failing to monitor and react to information that is relevant to the achievement of their goals, for example (Hare 1993).

Whether any of these features of psychopaths renders them unable to grasp moral reasons or behave morally will depend in part on how we understand morality and moral decision making itself. On this latter question, some philosophers, such as Hume, have emphasised the importance of empathy (in his terminology ‘sympathy’) in our moral decision-making – in deciding whether we ought, or ought not, reveal an unkind truth, say. If this characterisation of moral judgement is right, then certain emotional impairments will indeed hinder an individual’s ability to make moral decisions.

Other philosophers – rationalists – see moral judgement as a matter of exercising our rational capacities (where this excludes emotional capacities): in particular, can I universalise my intention to do this action, for this reason, in this context? If this is the correct characterisation of morality, then emotional impairment may matter less to whether an individual is capable of moral decision. Other deficits in practical irrationality may matter much more (Maibom, 2005).

Kevin’s responsibility, then (and indeed, the moral responsibility of psychopathic individuals), may rest on a complex set of judgements about the conditions for moral responsibility and the nature of morality, as much as empirical facts about his capacities and competences.

That the emotions may have an important role in morality foregrounds another important dimension of We Need To Talk About Kevin. Whether or not Kevin’s parents are, in part, responsible for his actions, one important feature of Eva’s character, as she is presented to us in the book and film, is that she feels responsible, and she takes responsibility. Are such feelings and judgements misplaced?

Whilst some moral philosophers have given little place to the emotions in morality, others have thought it important to focus on emotions such as guilt or self-blame in response to acting wrongly. But others have emphasised the importance of a wider range of moral emotions. We often do things which, even if morally right, implicate us in such a way as to give us reason for regret: philosophers give us examples of saving some at the cost of others, although few of us encounter quite so dramatic scenarios, if we are fortunate. Or we might feel deep regret for events in which we are causally implicated whilst clearly not morally responsible: the careful driver who nonetheless could not avoid hitting the child unexpectedly in the road (Williams, 1981). Indeed, we would think someone callous who failed to do so. These kinds of emotions have great importance in the ethical domain.

Our ability to identify with this kind of regret is perhaps what makes Shriver’s characterisation of Eva so powerful, and emphasises the importance of moral philosophers’ focus on these emotions, even though they don’t correspond to moral failings (Eva may have been guilty of some bad parenting (the film brings this out more than the book, I thought) but she isn’t guilty of murder). Shriver’s rich characterisation and open-ended novel enables us to wonder whether Kevin might be able to feel – eventually – such emotions as guilt and regret; and what the implications of this might be for whether we can fairly hold him morally responsible for his actions.


Hare, R.M. 1952 The Language of morals. NewYork: Oxford University Press.

Hare, Robert 1993. Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of Psychopaths among Us. New York: Pocket Books.

Hume, David 1777/1975. Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Levy, Neil 2007. The responsibility of the psychopath revisited. Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology 14,no. 2:128–138

Maibom, Heidi, L. 2005. Moral Unreason: The Case of Psychopathy. Mind and Language, Vol. 20 No. 2: 237–257.

Matravers, Matt 2007. Holding Psychopaths Responsible. Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology, Volume 14, Number 2:139-142.

Nichols, Shaun 2002. How psychopaths threaten moral rationalism, or is it irrational to be amoral? The Monist, Vol. 85, 285–303.

Strawson, P.F 1974. Freedom and Resentment and Other Essays, London: Methuen.

van Inwagen, Peter 1975. The Incompatibility of Free Will and Determinism. Philosophical Studies 27 (March):185-99.

Williams, Bernard 1981. Moral Luck, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wolf, Susan 1980. Asymmetrical Freedom. Journal of Philosophy 77:151-66.

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