Document Type


Date of Degree

Fall 2010

Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Degree In


First Advisor

Jeske, Diane

First Committee Member

Albonetti, Celesta

Second Committee Member

Cunning, David

Third Committee Member

Fumerton, Richard

Fourth Committee Member

Hasan, Ali


In my dissertation, I explore the connection between cultural membership and moral responsibility. In particular, I consider what sorts of mitigating excuses, if any, are available to perpetrators of what we take to be serious wrong action due to their unique cultural circumstances. I utilize real-life case studies, and apply various philosophical theories of moral responsibility to these examples.

One such theory--offered by Susan Wolf--suggests that these "cultural defendants" may not be responsible for their participation in morally wrong practices due to the possibility that they may have been rendered by their cultures unable to recognize and/or appreciate that these practices were in fact wrong. This would supposedly allow us to claim that they were not culpable for their resulting ignorance or for their morally wrong actions which resulted from acting in accordance with their (actually false) beliefs. I argue that this approach to understanding the relation between moral responsibility and cultural membership is seriously flawed, and provides us with counter-intuitive results about the case studies in question.

Consequently, I next examine theories of responsibility which suggest that responsibility may be mitigated not because of an alleged inability to recognize the truth, but rather due to the alleged reasonability of the beliefs of the perpetrators. Lawrence Vogel and Neil Levy offer versions of this strategy. They argue that, because certain morally wrong practices (such as slavery) were endorsed by the societies of certain individuals, their resulting beliefs in the propriety of their actions were epistemically reasonable. It is argued that these persons should not be considered culpable for holding their actually false beliefs or for acting in accordance with them. I argue that the strategy is in many ways preferable to Wolf's inability thesis, yet it nonetheless suffers from ambiguity.

The final portion of my project explores the connection between the epistemic status of a belief and a person's moral culpability for holding and acting upon it. I outline the grounds upon which the subjects in the case studies can be held morally culpable for their epistemic mistakes and for their failure to develop and exercise epistemic virtues.


culture, insanity, moral responsibility, slavery


vi, 283 pages


Includes bibliographical references (pages 278-283).


Copyright 2010 Heather Elizabeth Libby

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