Moral incapacity and moral ignorance

Elinor Mason

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)peer-review


A problem for the pure quality of will account of blameworthiness is that it seems that agents whom we would normally think of as exempt can have bad wills: children, psychopaths and so on. The most common justification of exemptions appeals to lack of moral capacity – as Wolf puts it, a capacity to see and be guided by the true moral reasons. In this paper I argue that talk of capacity is not very useful in this context. It is not what an agent has the capacity to do or be that matters, but their actual quality of will. Capacity is relevant only insofar as it affects quality of will. I argue that what exempts agent from ordinary blameworthiness, and indeed praiseworthiness, is a lack of moral knowledge. In the first section I argue that when we consider the broad range of cases where it is plausible that agents are exempt it becomes obvious that we do not have a clear way to fix the counterfactuals relevant to capacity. In the second section I argue, via a discussion of Wolf’s asymmetry thesis, that the knowledge component is much more important to exemptions than the motivation component. Finally, in section three, I address the worry that moral knowledge may include the capacity to be motivated by morality. I argue that to understand morality is to understand that it is reason giving, but that doesn’t necessarily entail motivation.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationPerspectives on Ignorance from Moral and Social Philosophy
EditorsRik Peels
Place of PublicationNew York
Number of pages23
ISBN (Electronic)9781315671246
ISBN (Print)9781138945661
Publication statusPublished - 14 Jul 2016

Publication series

NameRoutledge Studies in Contemporary Philosophy


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