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Drawing on research in anthropology, psychology, and a host of other disciplines, Sommers argues that cross-cultural variation raises serious problems for theories that propose universally applicable conditions for moral responsibility. He then develops a new way of thinking about responsibility that takes cultural diversity into account. Relative Justice is a novel and accessible contribution to the ancient debate over free will and moral responsibility.

Sommers provides a thorough examination of the methodology employed by contemporary philosophers in the debate and a challenge to Western assumptions about individual autonomy and its connection to moral desert. Can we be responsible for the actions of relatives or members of our community? In this provocative book, Tamler Sommers concludes that there are no objectively correct answers to these questions.

Drawing on research in anthropology, psychology, and a host of other disciplines, Sommers argues that cross-cultural variation raises serious problems for theories that propose universally applicable conditions for moral responsibility.

He then develops a new way of thinking about responsibility that takes cultural diversity into account. Relative Justice is a novel and accessible contribution to the ancient debate over free will and moral responsibility.

Relative Justice: Cultural Diversity, Free Will, and Moral Responsibility

Sommers provides a thorough examination of the methodology employed by contemporary philosophers in the debate and a challenge to Western assumptions about individual autonomy and its connection to moral desert. Project MUSE promotes the creation and dissemination of essential humanities and social science resources through collaboration with libraries, publishers, and scholars worldwide.

Forged from a partnership between a university press and a library, Project MUSE is a trusted part of the academic and scholarly community it serves. Built on the Johns Hopkins University Campus. So women are held responsible for outcomes they did not intend or control.

Relative Justice

And in Greek dramas, Agamemnon is held responsible for choices he has made while compelled to do so by the gods and when the gods have manipulated him. All these practices seem to involve attributions of moral responsibility or holding people morally responsible in ways that violate what members of institutionalized cultures regard as the correct norms for attributions of moral responsibility. Sommers is sensitive to the fact that honor and institutionalized cultures exist along a continuum -- our own, largely institutionalized culture, has elements of honor practices, for example, in retribution for beanballs in baseball -- and that there is variation among individuals within cultures.

However, it is still true that cultural differences significantly predict different intuitions on appropriate attributions of moral responsibility.


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If intuition must be appealed to in defending views of moral responsibility, it appears that divergent perspectives on moral responsibility are inevitable. If this is right, what resources does a universalist have with which to respond?

Relative justice : cultural diversity, free will, and moral responsibility

In perhaps the most important chapter of the book, Sommers considers whether the universalist can explain away the dramatic cultural variation in intuitions about the appropriate assignment of moral responsibility. For the universalist might well accept the existence of the variation Sommers catalogs, but argue in reply that the variation exists due to factors like the influence of problematic biases or cultural authorities acting to preserve their own interests. Perhaps competent judges free from these problematic influences would have intuitions that coalesce in common ways.

The universalist can thus argue that the variation in intuitions about moral responsibility might be regarded in a way similar to how disagreements regarding astronomy, evolution, or even the rules of logic are regarded.

Mere variation of views does not entail metaskepticism about any of these discourses so long as there is or could be general agreement among competent, informed judges who are relatively free of problematic bias. Sommers responds to this line of argument with a two-stage challenge to the universalist. The universalist's position relies on the assumption that once people agree on non-moral facts and conceptual confusion is eliminated, human beings in any social environment will achieve at least rough consensus about the criteria for appropriate assignments of moral responsibility.

Relative Justice

Sommers points out first that many of the norms of responsibility attribution he has canvassed have been subjected to internal debate and criticism People regarded as competent judges in Saga Iceland, for example, respond to Sam's torture of Hrafnkels by refusing to prosecute Hrafnkels' revenge killing of Sam's brother. The universalist needs to do more than suppose that further reflection would change minds -- the universalist must say what grounds would lead to changing the minds of the Icelandic judges, not simply suppose that there must be some. The second stage of Sommers' reply is to argue that recent empirical work on the psychological acquisition and transmission of norms suggests that responsibility norms will inevitably vary with certain variances of social structure If this is correct, then we cannot expect fully rational people who come from different cultures to converge on judgments about moral responsibility.

Sommers argues that human beings possess a common psychological architecture that allows for norms to be easily internalized as the result of social influence.

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Different social influences result from different social and environmental circumstances, so we should expect that norms of moral responsibility attribution would vary with differences in environment. Importantly, Sommers claims that this variation is not only well-entrenched against change but is a rational response to differences in environment. Thus, an appeal to what competent judges would say does the universalist no good, as we should expect competent, rational judges from different environments to have very different views on the norms for proper responsibility attributions.

I think universalists can make better replies than Sommers allows. To do so, they should first appeal to the fact that while Sommers is a metaskeptic about moral responsibility, he is not a metaskeptic or relativist about morality. For example, while he uses the example of honor killings to argue that some cultures do not think control is required for properly holding people morally responsible, he condemns honor killings as wrongful A universalist about moral responsibility can demand of Sommers that when we examine societies for variance in intuition, we focus on cases that do not involves the biasing influence of mistaken moral norms.