1. What kind of functaionalism is the right kind?
An edited volume on moral responsibility entitled “Social Dimensions of Moral Responsibility” (2018) recently came on the market, and it is consistent with my current project of exploring moral responsibility as an interpersonal practice embedded in conditions of epistemic injustice. In this post, I will respond to Jules Holroyd’s endorsement of one species of functionalism over another: Victoria McGeer’s “scaffolded-responsiveness view,” in contrast to Manuel Vargas’ “circumstantialist view” (both of which I have discussed favourably in previous posts).
Both views hold that praise and blame should function to morally influence the target agent in positive ways; Vargas, however, believes that responsibility attributions should influence the target agent through the operation of the person’s reasons (as opposed to coercively), holding fixed the person’s motivational profile, while McGeer believes that responsibility attributions shouldn’t merely appeal to the person’s existing reasons, but should sensitize the person to new reasons. (Her view, in other words, hedges more closely to reasons externalism). McGeer’s view thus allows for a broader notion of blame: insensitive people are amenable to blame if they can be sensitized to relevant reasons by exposure to the right reasons or circumstances or people. Thus, on McGeer’s view, moral responsibility attributions are fitting if the audience is capable of “capacitating” the target agent (Holroyd 2018: 145). Vargas’ view, by contrast, deems agents non-responsible if they are insensitive to relevant reasons in the circumstances, which is the defining feature of “circumstantialism” (Holroyd 2018: 137). For example, if Bill makes a sexist joke because he was unaware of the impolitic nature of the joke, he is circumstantially non-responsible, and thus impervious to blame (on Holroyd’s interpretation of circumstantialism). McGeer allows that agents can be responsible (and blameworthy) if they weren’t sensitive to relevant reasons in the circumstances, but were sensitive to audience expectations. That is, she rejects the circumstantialist constraint.
In a co-athored paper with Philip Pettit, McGeer argues that reasons-responsiveness (the basis of the capacity for moral responsibility) entails not only a sensitivity to relevant reasons, but also the capacity to “adjust in the presence of [new] reasons and, after adjustment, to register and act on them” (2015: 174). This stipulation lends responsibility an appealing “ecological character” (ibid.). On this view, your responsibility status depends on both your reasons-responsiveness and your audience-responiveness. You ought to adapt to the expectations of your audience, and if you don’t, you may be responsible for an infraction precisely because you failed to exercise due audience-sensitivity.
Holroyd says that the scaffold-responsiveness view is more plausible than the circumstantialist view because (1) it fits better with our ameliorative aims, which include sensitizing people to moral reasons (McGeer’s view sensitizes more people across more contexts), (2) it is more consistent with our general belief that most people are responsible across various circumstances, as opposed to having domain-specific agential capabilities, and (3) it better coheres with our standard practice of holding almost everyone responsible, or of assuming what Strawson calls “the participant stance” toward virtually everyone except for young children and severely cognitively impaired adults.
I think that this response taps into a subtle but important difference between the two versions of functionalism, and I agree that an apt account of moral responsibility should be fairly broad, licensing us to blame more than just circumstantially reasons-responsive people, contra Vargas; but I think that McGeer’s view is, in some respects, too conservative, by which I mean that the scope of civilized blame is still too narrow. This is partly because McGeer, like most responsibility scholars, is concerned with restricting blame’s extension (rather than expanding it), because blame is seen as an ‘unruly’ and ‘dangerous’ emotional response to perceived norm violations and norm violators. To her credit, McGeer (2014) rejects the commonplace attempt to ‘sanitize’ blame by expunging it of negative emotional content (anger, resentment, indignation), and proposes a more psychologically realistic model that aims to ‘civilize’ blame by confining it to emotional and unemotional responses that effectively regulate behaviour – specifically, responses that inhibit antisocial practices and promote prosocial practices. Thus, the ideal of civilized blame preserves the affective character of ordinary blame, but confines blame to effective regulative interactions, i.e., interactions that positively influence the target agent(s).
I should also clarify that, while Holroyd describes McGeer’s position as one on which blame functions to ‘capacitate’ the norm violator, it’s not clear to me that civilized blame only serves this regulative function. In Civilizing Blame, McGeer describes blame as a “dynamic trajectory of unfolding events,” which “we recognize as having a normatively appropriate, even desirable structure because of the potential power it has to develop the moral understanding of all parties in a normative dispute—most importantly, the offender’s, but often as well the moral understanding of those who would call the offender to account.” (McGeer 2015: 175). The scope of blame is somewhat ambiguous here, but the passage seems to suggest that civilized blame could have a regulatory effect on people other than the transgressor – perhaps the blamer, and perhaps also witnesses to the exchange. If this is not McGeer’s understanding of blame’s extension, then I reject her view, for reasons that I will outline shortly.
Although McGeer’s account of blame is broader than most of the competing views (e.g., eliminativism, sanitizing, and circumstantialist approaches), it is, to my mind, still too narrow. It is too narrow because it still excludes many examples of ordinary, well-motivated, and effective regulative blaming practices – examples that we encounter in our daily lives, though they are arguably underrepresented in the philosophical literature. These are examples of individuals blaming reasons-unresponsive agents for norm violations that pose a threat to the community. While Holroyd champions McGeer’s view because it rests on the assumption that most people are rational, in reality there is abundant evidence that many people are reasons-unresponsive, and we tend to blame them (in the sense of affectively attributing negative moral traits to them). Indeed, when state interventions fail to defend people against violence and harassment, blame is our only resource for identifying and isolating wrongdoers, protesting their actions and values, and expressing due sympathy and solitarity with victims of the agent’s offenses.
In this post, I will propose politically important modifications to preeminent functionalist theories of blame – theories that define ‘apt blame’ in terms of negative reactive attitudes that can be reasonably expected to influence the rational faculties of the norm violator. I argue that this definition is too narrow as well as too politically conservative. In my view, apt blame doesn’t need to have expected or predictable effects – it only needs to have conceivable (hoped for) effects (section 2); it doesn’t need to influence the norm violator per se – it can serve epistemic and motivational aims that have nothing to do with the norm violator, including the aims of imposing costs on the perpetrator against that person’s will and expressing sympathy with victims (section 3); it rejects the premise that almost everyone is reasons responsive as an optimistic illusion (section 4); it accepts consequentialist interventions, such as conditioning, controlling, and confining recalcitrant agents, provided that these methods promote social justice and equality (section 5); and it rejects conventional ‘rationality’ constraints on blame – constraints rooted in the outdated racist and sexist paradigms of the Enlightenment (section 6).
On my definition of blame, blame is not necessarily a reaction to a reasons-responsive norm violator (though it can be); it can also be a contemptuous attribution of malignant attributes to a reasons-unresponsive norm violator. Thus, blame is appropriate for both reason-responsive and reasons-unresponsive wrongdoers. Blame is appropriate in both cases because in both cases it can serve epistemic, motivational, and moral purposes. In the second case (reasons unresponsive wrongdoers), the demand for accountability is suspended in light of the agent’s inability to respond sensitively, but negative emotions are not necessarily suspended. This is because negative emotions can (I shall argue) serve important moral functions. This account fits nicely with a functionalist reading of Strawson, on which participatory reactions demand accountability, whereas objective attitudes seek to isolate, manage, handle, or treat reasons-unresponsive offenders – precisely the things that blame in the contemptuous-attributive sense does, on my view.
2. Radical blame vs. expected blame
On McGeer’s scaffolded-responsiveness view, blame is civilized (and justified) if it serves a moral-regulatory function. This means that civilized expressions of blame can be expected to positively influence the target, either by connecting with the target’s subjective reasons, or by motivating the target to adapt to the audience’s expectations (McGeer & Pettit 2014). Holroyd describes the scaffolded-responsiveness view as one on which “responsible agency is constituted by the capacity for responsiveness to reasons directly, and indirectly via sensitivity to the expectations of one’s audience (whose sensitivity may be more developed than one’s own)” (2018: 137). People who lack sensitivity to reasons and/or sensitivity to audience expectations are therefore not amenable to blame, as blaming them would not have the desired regulatory effects.
My first, and most minor, objection is that the notion of expected regulative efficacy is too conservative, because it rules out radical blaming acts based on non evidential political ambitions – the kinds of motives that spark political movements. Instead of expected efficacy, I propose hoped-for efficacy as the minimal constraint on civilized blame. The reason is that counter-cultural blame tends to be culturally unintelligible when first deployed, but those blaming acts or tokens are a necessary precondition for radical epistemic and political change. For example, when Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi created #BlackLivesMatter, they couldn’t have foreseen the massive political impact that it would have, thought they surely hoped it would spark political change. The hope for regulative efficacy is sufficient, in my view, for a blaming act to count as civilized, whereas the expectation of efficacy is too politically conservative – it doesn’t allow legitimate blame to take place under conditions of severe political and epistemic oppression.
Hope differs from both expectation and belief in that it is not supported by the balance of evidence. McGeer, in fact, describes hope as a type of forward-directed “energy”, an “investment of our efforts toward some state or condition that has value for us” (2004: 109). Unlike expectation, hope isn’t based on evidence – it “renounces the very process of weighing whatever evidence there is in a cool, disengaged, and purportedly objective way” (McGeer 2008: 240). When political dissenters (appear to) blame harmful political actors, they often hope for uptake, even when uptake is unlikely – indeed, even when it is ostensibly epistemically impossible. Richard Lear demonstrates this aspirational state in his work on “radical hope,” a type of hope that “transcends one’s current understanding of the good” (2012: 92), and surpasses the boundaries of “practical reasoning,” allowing the hoper to imagine a radically different world (2012: 104). Lear applies this concept to Crow Nation, an Indigenous community that suffered cultural genocide under the American government. Despite the loss of their cultural touchstones, the Crow people summoned the courage to overcome despair and hope that “something good will emerge” (2005: 95) – something that they couldn’t envision in detail, but some new normative system that would make space for a positive “Crow subjectivity” (2012: 104). Radical hope was the motive that enabled the Crow people to protest the dominant cultural narratives of American exceptionalism, colonial conquest, and white supremacy that erased their agency. Their radical hope allowed them to survive as a culture in the midst of cultural oppression. This type of hope is a virtue – “a paradigm of courage,” “dignity,” and “ability” (Lear 2012: 65, 108). Although the Crow people couldn’t have expected uptake from the broader culture, they hoped to establish the epistemic preconditions for uptake for their cultural identity through hopeful political activity. Hope, and even more so radical hope, can motivate radical political and epistemic change. In my view, hope, in the absence of expectation, can ground legitimate moral claims.
In general, oppressed people living in conditions of severe epistemic injustice expect their moral claims – including blame – to be silenced because they don’t fit with the dominant cultural narrative. For Indigenous peoples to effectively blame the U.S. government for cultural genocide, they have to be recognized as persons; for African Americans to effectively blame the police for racial profiling, they have to be seen as people whose lives matter; for women to effectively blame employers for sexual harassment, ‘sexual harassment’ has to be an intelligible concept with negative moral valence, not a type of ‘innocent flirtation.’ In spite of the reasonable expectation of silencing, members of disenfranchised groups do express negative attitudes of resentment, indignation, contempt – that is, reactive attitudes – to people who commit normalized harms. These hopeful blaming acts are patently civilized, even if uptake is a long shot.
In his work in social epistemology, Jose Medina (2012) argues that initial acts of political resistance (that foment social movements) are typically culturally unintelligible, because the culture lacks the epistemic resources to make sense of nascent political statements as a type of protest. Not even activists themselves can fully grasp the transformative potential of their actions, which only gain cultural resonance through repetition. Medina argues that social networks (or ‘chained actors’) differ from ‘group agents’ (like corporations) in that they don’t share joint intentions or recognize themselves as part of a collective. Chained actors “are unaware that their action contributes to a particular performative chain through which they become linked to others. In this sense, there is an important distinction between a social network and an organized social group or movement: the former can be implicit, unconscious, spontaneous; but the latter has to be at least minimally explicit, self-conscious, and deliberate” (2012: 226). Chained actors are a “hybrid” category between a private individual and a group agent (ibid.). Even if chained actions aren’t recognizable as political symbols at first, they are “memorable and imitable,” and “have the potential to lead to social change” (2012: 225). Activists can’t predict whether their political actions will be recognized, understood, or imitated, so it would be wrong to say that they expect cooperation, or that they believe that others will support them; but surely they at least hope that their actions will be politically, epistemically, and morally efficacious, if not immediately then in the long run. Their hopes differ from the joint intentions of group agents because hopes don’t involve a belief that others will contribute to the chain, or even a belief per se (a hope isn’t a doxastic state); but, if we think that chained actors express blame in their political activism, then we must grant that hope, and not just expectations and beliefs, can ground blame.
The upshot is that hoped-for prosocial change – not just expected prosocial change – can be the basis of civilized blame. That said, I agree with McGeer that blame shouldn’t be useless or counterproductive: don’t blame someone if he’s holding a gun to your head. But if we restrict legitimate blame to contexts in which we can reasonably expect a prosocial response, we rule out courageous, dignified, and potentially transformative expressions of blame that call on the community to stretch its epistemic horizons. When our normative claims call for a paradigm shift – a radical departure from the ‘accepted wisdom’ – we might need to express those claims in spite of expected epistemic, political, and moral oppression. We can call these courageous, hopeful expressions of blame ‘radical blame,’ whereas blame based on the reasonable expectation of uptake is ‘expected blame.’ I contend that radical blame should be seen as a civilized response to social injustice, even though, by its very nature, it can’t be expected to product change.
3. Non-positional blame (educational, protest, & identification aims)
Holroyd characterizes both Vargas and McGeer as saying that blame is apt (agency-enhancing, civilizing) if it serves to “sensitize agents to the reasons at play in a moral exchange” (Holroyd 2018: 158). She also notes that Vargas and McGeer mutually reject consequentialist theories on which blame promotes positive behaviour through operant conditioning and other “coldly manipulative” strategies, which “subvert… the agential capacities that we might hope to be engaged in moral communications” (Holroyd 2018: 140). To avoid descending into consequentialism, Vargas stipulates that apt blame must exclude “cajoling, threatening, enticing, and so on” – that is, “influencing” methods that work on “infants and most non-human animals,” but are inappropriate for adults (Vargas 2013: 169). He holds that blame must influence the target agent through her rational faculties, not non-rational cognitive systems (e.g., unconscious states). McGeer similarly stipulates that blame must be expressed in ways that connect with the “rational faculties” of the agent, which should be the “proximate causes of the [desired changes] in the agent’s beliefs,” in contrast to non-rational conditioning techniques such as “hypnosis, drugs, neural tinkering,” and “rhetorical tricks” (2018: 179). These constraints are consistent with Strawson’s exhortation that the reactive attitudes should be authentic “expressions of our moral attitudes and not merely devices we calculatingly employ for regulative purposes.” (1962: 93). This is Strawson’s reason for rejecting earlier consequentialist models, including J.C.C. Smart’s (1961), on which blame motivates compliance through any utility-enhancing means whatsoever, including, in some cases, coercion.
For this precise reason, most modern functionalists hold that blame is justified only if it influences the rational faculties of the norm violator; blame is inappropriate if the norm violator is fundamentally irrational. A clinical psychopath, malignant narcissist, or child might be classified amongst paradigmatic non-rational agents. These individuals are, on Strawson’s view, proper objects of “the objective attitude,” a stance that includes the use of “behavioral conditioning and control” (McGeer 2018: 176) as well as “exclusion” from “ordinary adult human relationships” (Strawson 1964). Norm violators who lack rationality are not blame-susceptible on the standard functionalist approach because blaming them would not enhance their sensitivity to reasons, but would instead treat them as objects of control, conditioning, and social exclusion – aims that fall within the remit of the objective attitude, not the participatory stance. In a vague way, then, Strawson sees the participatory stance and the objective attitude as serving different purposes.
This is the standard interpretation of Strawson. The view that an irrational norm violator is not amenable to blame (as Strawson suggests) can be seen as a version of the “positional constraint,” on which the blamer must have the authority to hold the blamee responsible (Bell 2013). When the norm violator is fundamentally irrational, the victim lacks the authority (or standing) to express blame, i.e., the positionality constraint isn’t met.
Not everyone endorses this constraint. Macalester Bell objects that “the ethics of blame is not exhausted by considerations of fittingness and standing. As critics, targets, and third parties, we have special responsibilities” to blame (2013: 263) – responsibilities other than capacitating those who have wronged us. These are responsibilities to the victim or witnesses or each other (hence agent-relative or ‘special’ duties). Bell disputes the standard assumption that apt blame necessarily serves to sensitize the norm violator, and that this aim exhausts its functionality as a social regulator. She proposes several additional functions. Specifically, she says that blame can serve to (1) mark the damage done to our relationships through wrongdoing, (2) educate the target, (3) have motivational value for the target, (4) educate and motivate others in the moral community, and (5) constitute a way of standing up for one’s values or protesting wrongdoing (norm violations) or wrong-being (i.e., exhibiting character flaws) (2013: 267-8). The major points of departure from standard functionalism are (4) and (5), which postulate aims that have absolutely no value for the norm violator (in fact, they may harm the norm violator), but are beneficial to the moral community. Bell’s multi-functional proposal sees capacitating the norm violator as only one of blame’s functions, and allows that blame can also admissibly treat the wrongdoer as a moral example or pedagogical tool for the benefit of the community, or protest the wrongdoer’s actions, values, and ideals, without engaging with the agent at all. The fifth aim can be expanded to involve expressing sympathy or solidarity with the victim, as this is typically taken to be one of the central functions of protest. Sympathy, moreover, has long been regarded as a moral motivator within the sentimentalist tradition, and on this picture of moral psychology, expressing sympathy with victim-survivors can have communal moral value – it can unify people around a common moral cause and motivate people to defend the moral integrity of the community or group (Maibom 2009). Blaming reasons-unresponsive norm violators, then, can (contra the standard view) serve the purposes of (4) sensitizing community members, (5) protesting a type of offense, and (6) expressing sympathy and solidarity with victim-survivors. Although (4)-(6) don’t engage with the norm violator as a rational agent, they are justified as a response to harm done to members of the moral community. This view recognizes that the offender’s rationality is not the only object of concern to the community – the more important concern is the moral integrity of the group.
This multi-functional approach shares with consequentialism the idea that blame can have zero value for the norm violator – in fact, it can socially, economically, and epistemically harm the norm violator, imposing severe costs and constraints on that agent. Indeed, conditions (4), (5), and (6) can be expected, under epistemically hospitable conditions, to impose burdens on the norm violator, such as social isolation, reputational damages, lost earning potential, and so on, for the sake of indemnifying the community against the offender, educating the community about the offender’s moral character, protesting the offender’s actions and values, and denying self-identification with the offender.
Notably, this approach poses a bit of a problem for the Strawsonain view. If blame can serve to educate an audience and protest wrongdoing without conferring any benefits on the norm violator, then blame must be part of the objective attitude – the attitude that treats the norm violator as an object of treatment, control, coercion, or social exclusion. That is, if blame can be deployed toward or expressed about a reasons-unresponsive agent, then the objective attitude must be a form of blame, not its suspension, pace Strawson. Bell’s multi-functional account, in other words, necessitates a revision of Strawson’s demarcation between the participatory stance and the objective attitude.
If so, this wouldn’t be the first attempt to revise Strawson’s theory. Katrina Hutchison argues that we should see the “participant stance” (in which blame is fitting) and “the objective stance” as “opposite ends of a spectrum, with many social interactions involving a stance somewhere in between” (2018: 206). She rejects Strawson’s view that the objective attitude involves a complete suspension of moral respect, and proposes instead that the two stances involve two different kinds of moral regard (appraisal respect and recognition respect), with these attitudes lying on a continuum. This better accommodates the view that blame can be inclusive to the objective attitude, but the difference between ‘participant blame’ and ‘objective blame’ still needs elucidation. What, exactly, is suspended when we adopt an ‘objective blaming stance,’ so to speak?
One way of carving up the reactive attitudes can be found in Gary Watson’s proposal that there are two ‘faces’ of moral responsibility: the accountability face, on which we demand a response from a reasons-responsive norm violator, and the attributability face, on which we attribute a character defect to the norm violator, whether or not the agent is responsive to reasons (1986). The accountability face fits with the participatory stance, within which we demand a response from the norm violator. The attributably face, on scrutiny, fits better with the objective attitude, in the sense that, when we adopt this attitude, we necessarily suspend the demand for accountability. We do not, however, thereby suspend judgment of the agent’s moral qualities. Indeed, we may judge the agent to have a putative moral defect – a lack of moral accountability – in which case we attribute a moral failing to the agent. In addition, we may judge the agent to have more specific moral failings – psychopathy, malignant narcissism, Machiavellianism, etc. – which cause, sustain, or comprise the agent’s reasons unresponsiveness. This further judgment may, in turn, evoke moral indignation, contempt, and other negative emotions. (Conversely, we may judge the norm violator to be morally incompetent due to morally innocent moral deficits, such as being a child or being in a state of psychosis – the kinds of extenuating cases that Strawson focused on, in which case no hard feelings are warranted). In the case of sensitivity-defeating character flaws, negative emotional reactions are normal, natural, and perhaps even psychologically inevitable, if McGeer’s naturalistic account is correct. These hard feelings are also, according to Bell, motivationally and epistemically efficacious responses to unaccountable wrongdoers with malignant character traits (more on which in a moment). On this way of parsing Strawson, adopting the objective attitude is compatible with attributing moral deficits to the norm violator, and, in case those deficits are malignant, expressing negative moral emotions to the norm violator. Consistent with Strawson, this attitude involves a suspension of a core part of the participant stance: the demand for a response. ‘Objectivity blame’ as such involves hard feelings, but a suspension of accountability.
One might question whether the objective attitude ought to include hard feelings. The demand for accountability is suspended (on a functionalist reading) because it serves no purpose, but it is debatable whether hard feelings should be suspended as well. According to Bell, negative emotions do serve prosocial purposes, which justifies their deployment.
Bell argues that “hard emotions,” such as resentment, indignation, and contempt, “have positive roles to play in confronting injustice,” and in constructing “an adequate normative system” (2013: 9). Specifically, these emotions play a role in “holding people accountable for who they are [attributability responsibility] as well as what they’ve done [acountabilty responsibility]” (2013: 10). Resentment and contempt motivate two morally valuable responses to norm-violating behaviour: resentment “focuses the subject’s attention on the wrong done and motivates engagement—albeit hostile engagement—with the person. Contempt, on the other hand, motivates withdrawal” from the wrongdoer in sensitive witnesses and critics (Bell 2013: 154-155). Contempt in response to a reasons-unresponsive wrongdoer, she argues, has epistemic value because it disseminates information about the norm violations or character flaws in question; it has motivational value because it prompts onlookers to avoid and socially exclude wrongdoers and to protest the norms expressed in wrongdoers’ offenses; and it has moral value because it provides “an important way of maintaining our integrity as moral agents” (Bell 2013: 163). In expressing our moral integrity through contempt, furthermore, we thereby express “non-identification” with the wrongdoer and, conversely, identification with the victim-survivor – that is, we take the survivor’s side (Bell 2013: 49). These are all justifiable aims of a well-functioning responsibility system – aims that suggest that narrower reasons-responsiveness accounts are too parsimonious.
Bell acknowledges concerns about the value of contempt, including the legitimate worry that contempt is the basis of racial hatred and misogyny. But she argues that “the best response to being a target of race-based [and gender-based] contempt is to marshal a robust counter-contempt,” as this type of response can challenge and change cultural norms (2013: 22). Bell rejects the (recently popular) notion that all moral responses should be “civil” in the conventional sense of polite, temperate, and unemotional. She responds,
“it is far from obvious that respectful conversation is, in fact, the only way to achieve [normative] consensus. Consider a historical example: there is now broad agreement that chattel slavery is abominable, but 150 years ago there was difference of opinion and a great deal of debate concerning the morality of slavery. Did the progressive moral consensus we have achieved regarding this issue come about through a process of respectful conversation and civil argumentation?… Even a cursory look back at our history reveals that scorn, angry protest, bloodshed, and war played a much larger role than respectful conversation in bringing about our current consensus concerning the indefensibility of slavery” (Bell 2013: 222).
While moral interactions should, of course, be fruitful, it doesn’t follow that they should be ‘civil.’ In fact, conventional norms of civility and moral norms are often at odds (Calhoun 2000, Zurn 2013). When they come into conflict, morality should take precedence. In fact, on a functionalist account, norms of civility are only valuable when they promote prosocial aims. (For more on the defeasible value of civility, see my next post).
On careful reflection, Strawson’s view involves so few demarcations that it should be seen as an oversimplification, albeit a fruitful oversimplification because at least it recognizes the importance of social relationships, unlike its predecessors (mainly metaphysical accounts). In light of recent discussions, however, we should grant that blaming responses might not fit neatly into the bipartite moral psychology (participatory/objective) envisaged by Strawson. Revisionary approaches should be welcomed.
That said, which revisionary approach should we endorse? While there are many possibilities, functionalists are committed to defining the reactive attitudes by their primary functions. The participant stance functions to sensitize reasons-responsive agents to new reasons on the dominant view, whereas the objective stance functions to “manage…, “treat,… control” and “exclude” recalcitrant agents from “ordinary adult relationships,” according to Strawson (1963: 69). On scrutiny, the aims internal to the objective stance are consistent with attributability responsibility, which involves a suspension of accountability and an attribution of moral incompetence, as well as related (causal, sustaining, constitutive) moral deficits (e.g., malignant narcissism). While the objective stance is typically taken to involve a suspension of moral emotions as well as the demand for accountability, on a functionalist view, hard emotions such as contempt should be included in the objective stance in light of their epistemic, motivational, and moral value. If Bell’s account of hard feelings is right, then the objective attitude, as a regulative mechanism, should encompass efficacious hard feelings.
This approach carves up Strawson’s psychological model in a unique way, albeit in a manner consistent with a robust functionalism (in fact, a multi-functionalism). This view has the advantage of being both psychologically realistic and politically potent. It doesn’t restrict blame to interactions with reasons-responsive norm violators who can be expected to respond sensitively – these constraints are too apolitical. A theory of responsibility should be naturalistic but consistent with our moral and political ideals – our aspiration to foster a more equal, viz., less patriarchal, colonialist, and classist society.
In the next section, I address in more detail the values of realism vs. moral aspirations.
4. Psychological realism
Bell’s view is, I think, more psychologically realistic than the alternatives, because we actually do (in most cases, and certainly as victim-survivors) have hard feelings against reasons-unresponsive wrongdoers like unrepentant serial rapists. Psychological realism is taken as a desideratum by theorists like Vargas, McGeer, and Holroyd. Holroyd, in fact, says that McGeer’s view is preferable to Vargas’ because it captures our shared practice of assuming that almost everyone is capable of responding to blame. Vargas’ view, in contrast, involves “a form of skepticism about morally responsible agency that does not cohere with the plausible assumption that we can adopt the ‘participant standpoint’ in our daily interactions; that we can engage with each other as responsible agents—albeit imperfect, often defective responsible agents, with much to learn—much of the time” (2018: 152). Holroyd assumes that it is a psychological fact that most people are reasons responsive, and an empirically accurate theory should accommodate that fact. If her first premise is mistake, then her preferred version of functionalism is on shaky footing.
In contrast to Holroyd, I think that a lot of people are reasons-unresponsive. While it’s true that the people we interact with the most – our friends – are morally sensitive (as far as we know – otherwise be wouldn’t dignify them with our friendship), there’s also a lot of available evidence that quite a few people are reasons-unresponsive, and, in some cases, positively evil. The knowledge that someone is reasons-unresponsiveness, moreover, doesn’t seem to prevent us from blaming him in the affective-attributive sense.
Today, journalist Jeffrey Goldberg reported that a senior White House official described Trump’s doctrine, accurately, as “We’re America, Bitch” (June 2018). Goldberg also observed that “many of Donald Trump’s critics find it difficult to ascribe to a president they consider both sub-literate and historically insensate a foreign policy doctrine that approaches coherence.” Unlike Obama, “Trump possesses no ability to explain anything resembling a foreign-policy philosophy” (ibid.). But that doesn’t mean that we can’t attribute a coherent ideology to Trump, an ideology that is intelligibly sexist and racist. That is, we can attribute a malignant ideology to someone with ostensible rationality deficits. According to some mental health experts, Trump possesses a combination of “clear, dangerous mental impairment” (grandiosity, impulsivity, compulsiveness) and moral flaws (authoritarianism, contempt for the rule of law), which, in combination, make him a threat to democracy (Lee & Lifton 2018: 5-7). These critics defend their decision to violate the Goldwater Rule (which bars psychiatrists from diagnosing public figures whom they haven’t examined) by appealing to their democratic duty to alert the citizenry to a threat to the common good. That is, they appeal to the epistemic and motivating value of this kind of public statement. This statement, on scrutiny, has all the hallmarks of ‘objective blame’: it is an attribution of malignant character defects to an ostensibly irrational agent, expressed for the epistemic and political good of the community.
In a similar vein, feminist comedian Samantha Bee recently criticized Garrison Keillor, Harvey Weinstein, and Charlie Rose for committing sexual harassment, then disappearing for a few weeks, and then reappearing to stage a second act (relaunching his radio show, making a biopic, and producing a show about sexual harassment, respectively). After Rose’s grotesque attempt at professional revival, an additional 27 women came forward to accuse him of sexual harassment, which effectively shamed him back into obscurity. Bee offers Rose a piece of “advice,” which is really a critique of his male hubris: “No one knows better than you how many women you’ve assaulted or harassed. Maybe before you pitch a TV show about it, ask yourself, ‘have all the women I’ve non-consensually shown my penis to come forward in the press?’ If the answer is ‘no,’ go away.” Rose is an apt target of contempt because he is, by all appearances, completely unrepentant, remorseless, and insensitive to criticism – in fact, he perversely sees himself as the victim. Yet this doesn’t prevent Samantha Bee from ridiculing him in a spirit of contempt. This attitude, in effective, shows solidarity with Rose’s victims and non-identification with Rose’s perverse value system. It also motivates her viewers to treat Rose with disdain, creating a collective movement of rejection and social exclusion.
Not only is contempt in response to unaccountable norm violators justified, it is, on Bell’s view, often morally obligatory. She argues that failing to blame a norm violator can constitute complicity in the norm violator’s wrongdoing, as well as a failure in our duties as witnesses and third-party critics (2013: 268). To deny these third-personal blaming obligations would be an epistemic, political, moral, and ontological mistake. It is an epistemic mistake because it denies that our blaming acts have epistemic consequences that depend on cooperation. It is a political mistake because it denies that we have duties of allyship, i.e., duties to stand by members of marginalized groups and defend their rights and entitlements. It is a moral mistake because it treats our moral obligations as self-directed as opposed to collective, and this atomistic standpoint permits us to ignore the persecution of vulnerable groups, acting in the spirit of the banality of evil (Arendt 1963). And it is an ontological mistake because it treats people as atomistic entities instead of inherently interdependent beings, with intertwined capacities and duties. As interdependent agents, we have inviolable duties of solidarity, allyship, and collective action that require us to defend each other’s moral and epistemic standing within the community. Denying third-party blaming responsibilities perversely places the burden of moral condemnation, protest, and criticism on victims of injustice, who are already over-burdened. Our collective duties require us to blame with those who have been wronged. We all have a role to play in changing the moral ecology and scaffolding egalitarian values. Thus, blaming wrongdoers in solidarity with survivors is mandatory, not merely optional.
As I said, I think that McGeer would allow that civilized blame can serve functions other than capacitating norm violators, but this allowance nudges functionalism perilously close to consequentialism, a view that she rejects. I am more willing than she is to accept (limited) consequentialist methods, for reasons that I will outline in the next section.
5. Conditioning, control, coercion
Strawson’s account of moral responsibility makes it look as if the boundary of our moral relationships is state intervention, specifically incarceration, involuntary hospitalization, and other coercive mechanisms that (in theory) protect the moral community from unaccountable malignant actors (e.g., serial rapists, versatile criminals). We can call the use of state interventions “moral quarantining” (see Caruso 2017). The objective stance qua attitude doesn’t necessarily involve the use of state interventions, but it can involve the desire that state interventions be imposed on the norm violator, so as to “handle…, manage, treat…, cure” or socially isolate the recalcitrant agent (Strawson 1963; Sommers 2007). In an ideal world, if you can’t reason with a dangerous person, you can call the police or the local mental hospital to ‘handle’ the reasons-unresponsive offender in the appropriate (civilized) way. With the threat to the moral community safely ‘quarantined,’ you’re now free to pursue constructive interactions with your moral peers. Problem solved! On this idealistic illusion, the moral community is protected from moral threats by state interventions that non-violently detain and treat unaccountable offenders.
This is clearly not even close to how state interventions actually work. State interventions aren’t equally available to everyone, and they’re systematically biased against certain groups because they were constructed in conditions of gender, sexual, and racial injustice – conditions in which they still operate. As a result, state interventions disproportionally serve the political interests of cisgender white men, and oppress (e.g., underserve, persecute, brutalize, profile, antagonize, deport, kill, etc.) historically disenfranchised groups (e.g., women, POC, sexual minorities, refugees, etc.). Not only are marginalized groups harmed by state interventions, privileged people use their reputational clout and cultural capital to escape prosecution for crimes. Harvey Weinstein is a pertinent example: he sexually harassed and assaulted his female coworkers for years, creating a hostile work environment for women, and he easily got away with it for decades. Either his victims were “epistemically smothered” by forces of epistemic gender bias, or they were “epistemically silenced” by lack of uptake (De Cruz 2018: 21). In either case, Weinstein succeeded in committing crimes against women in his social network, and, by the same stroke, in contaminating the film industry with norms of toxic masculinity, male chauvinism, and white supremacy. What should women do when they (we) can’t depend on the state to defend their right to freedom from sexual violence and political oppression – indeed, when they can depend on the state to stand by their assailants? They can’t desire that the state intervene on their behalf, because they know that it won’t, and to desire the impossible is delusional as well as useless.
This means that legally disenfranchised people can’t simply ‘adopt the objective attitude’ in the sense of adopting a desire for the state to intervene to ‘handle’ their offenders. Their only recourse is to use attributability blame to as a substitute for state interventions. Blame can serve to condemn, protest, and socially isolate un-prosecutable offenders.
Strawson’s bipartite model of moral psychology (participant/objective) is misleading in the sense that it seems to suggest (though I’m significantly extrapolating!) that there are only two rational responses to norm violators: (a) an emotionally loaded response to a suitably sensitive person, and (b) an unemotional, impartial demand that the state intervene to contain a reasons unresponsive offender. In reality, there is, I think, a median space: The attitude that we take to irrational offenders who are immune from state interventions due to their cultural capital. There are, then, three types of response to norm violators: (a) the stance that we take toward morally sensitive people who participate fluently in moral exchanges, AKA the participant stance, (b) the stance that we take toward unaccountable moral incompetents who are susceptible to incarceration, involuntary hospitalization, and other state interventions, AKA the objective attitude as commonly understood, and (3) the stance that we take toward un-qurantinable moral incompetents who persecute vulnerable members of the community without compunction or fear of legal sanctions, exploiting their cultural status and contaminating the social imaginary with toxic norms, AKA (in my view) a pseudo-objective stance in which contempt is appropriate. The third stance is similar to the second except that it doesn’t include a demand for state interventions – one of the main elements of the objective attitude on the standard interpretation – since the state is against the victim-survivor due to identity prejudice. That is, the state is on the assailant’s side. This third stance includes contempt toward the unprosecuted wrongdoer as well as the unresponsive legal and social institutions that effectively take his side.
If you think that this account is unrealistic because people aren’t usually aware of unprosecuted sexual assailants and harassers in their social network,then you’re probably a man or a social recluse. Women have always warned each other about sexual predators. Journalist Alana Massey (2017) observes that women often circulate compilations of anecdotes about predatory men in their industry with names redacted for liability reasons (to avoid a defamation lawsuit); however, one day Massey surprisingly received a list of the full names and alleged transgressions committed by men in the publishing industry (which was later published by Vox Magazine). This is an industry example of a broader culture of “whisper networks,” by which women privately identify and condemn dangerous men and their transgressions as a way of protecting, educating, and standing by one another (Tolentino 2017). Women don’t usually confront their rapist/harasser because they know the person wouldn’t respond sensitively to their moral claims – the person’s violations reveal that they are indifferent to the moral status and moral claims of women. Moreover, accusers often face reprisals such as victim-blaming, slut-shaming, defamation litigation, and rape threats if the accusation is made public (‘epistemic suppression’). Sometimes, the rational response is to blame the assailant through a ‘whisper network’ until the culture’s epistemic norms change, making testifying against an assailing a constructive thing to do instead of social death wish.
This attributive-contemptuous type of blame seeks to ‘manipulate’ the wrongdoer in the sense of pushing him out of the community, imposing sanctions on him, containing his behaviour, or conditioning him to modify his behaviour through the use of punishments, incentives, and threats. These consequentialist strategies are rejected by functionalists as uncivilized and perhaps even barbaric. As methods, however, they are compatible with the (final) aims of blame identified by Bell: the production of epistemic, motivational, and moral gains for the moral community. It would, of course, be preferable to reason with an offender or, as a second-best solution, subject an unaccountable offender to state sanctions (in certain cases), but in the absence of such options, coercive blame may be the only way of repudiating an insensitive norm violator and siding with victim-survivors.
This is all to say that the consequentialist strategies of conditioning, coercing, and controlling norm violators are acceptable as means of protesting injustice and standing up for victim-survivors. J.C.C. Smart was wrong to think that these methods are appropriate for anyone, including reasons-responsive people, but he was right to recognize that these methods can be a part of a well-functioning responsibility system.
6. Against Enlightenment-rationality constraints on blame
While functionalists want their theories to be psychologically realizable, they also have normative aims. Holroyd says that her aims are not simply revisionary, but “ameliorative” (Haslanger 2000), by which she means, her “analysis starts by asking what we want the concept of responsibility for and what concept will serve those purposes, with no assumption that the answers we give will yield an analysis that closely tracks our existing understanding of moral responsibility” (2018: 139). Thus, psychological realizability must be balanced against our ameliorative aims. We don’t want a conservatively naturalistic account, nor an unrealizably idealistic one. The correct balance of naturalism and idealism are critical to the construction of a good theory of blame.
One of the values that academic philosophers prize very highly is rationality, and many functionalist approaches to moral responsibility putatively aim to ‘rationalize’ our blaming norms (even if theorists don’t explicitly say that this is their aim). The philosophical notion of rationality has changed over the years, but the classic Enlightenment paradigm sees rationality as pure, unadulterated cogitation, untarnished by emotionality or physicality. Rationality in the Enlightenment tradition was seen as antagonistic to emotions and the body, which were coded as feminine and racial, in contrast to the “rational ideal” of white masculinity. While the Enlightenment ideal of rationality prevailed in western philosophy for hundreds of years, it has been deflated by feminist philosophers. Debra K. Heinkes says that, because of feminist critiques, the Enlightenment paradigm of rationality as unemotional, un-embodied, “objective universal, [and] autonomous” is “no longer a live philosophical option” (2010: 4). That said, we can see residues of this tradition in many aspects of western philosophy, including blame.
The sanitizing approach can be seen as partaking in the Enlightenment tradition insofar as it seeks to expunge blame of all emotional content, a putative ‘contaminant’ of blaming cognition (which is a species of moral cognition). McGeer rightly criticizes this approach as psychologically implausible, but the sanitizing view is also amenable to critiques from feminist moral psychology (viz., Superson 2012). These include the objection that emotions are disvalued only because they are associated with femininty and (non-white) racial identity as opposed to on their own merit; that anti-emotion views discount the critical role of care and sympathy in moral reasoning; and that anti-emotion view ignore the motivational value of moral emotions such as contempt, disdain, and anger (Little 2007; Noddings 1984; Superson 2012). It is now widely accepted that emotions play a constructive role in the production of sound moral decisions, which is why people with severe emotional deficits make abnormal moral judgments (Koenigs et al. 2007).
Another problem with the Enlightenment paradigm of rationality (which has received slightly less attention) is the fact that certain demographic groups are coded as ’emotional,’ and are therefore particularly susceptible to being illicitly discounted from the ambit of ‘legitimate blaming interactions’ on the basis of the proposed emotionality constraint, simply because their contributions are disproportionally (on average) perceived as ‘too emotional’ or ‘extremely emotional.’ So, if we exclude (ostensibly) emotional expressions from the category of ‘admissible blame,’ we thereby discount or marginalize many of the legitimate blaming contributions of women and racialized minorities, who are stereotyped as ’emotional’ by our dominant cultural schemas. Their speech, in other words, will be classified as ’emotional’ and therefore ‘not-blame,’ while the contributions of cisgender white males, on average, will be coded as ‘rational’ and ‘blame.’ Salient examples of dominant cultural stereotypes that discredit marginalized groups include “the hysterical woman” and the “angry Black woman.”These false stereotypes have deep roots in western culture, and are encoded in our implicit biases. Thus, the emotionality constraint, in interaction with implicit biases, is likely to epistemically marginalize negatively stereotyped groups within the cultural space of blame.
The association between rationality and physicality is also problematic, for analogous reasons. First, physical processes play an essential role in ordinary cognition. For example, the gut microbiome influences cognition through the brain-gut axis, and microbiome disorders can cause mental disorders (O’Mahony et al. 2015). Second, the cultural associations between the physical and femininity/non-white racial identity can serve to discount women and racialized minorities from the space of ‘admissible blame’ if we accept a physicality constraint on blame. Those perceived as ‘too physical’ or ‘histrionic’ in their blaming expressions will be inadmissibly excluded from the space of blame.
The physicality constraint can be seen not only in theories that restrict physicality, but also, to a lesser extent, those that restrict non-cognitive or non-conscious contributions to blame. These theories confine ‘legitimate blaming tokens’ to those that interact with the blamee’s rational (reflective, conscious) faculties, barring operant conditioning, subliminal messages, “rhetorical tricks,” and other non-cognitive persuasive methods (McGeer 2018: 179). Interestingly, there is an entire literature of philosophical thought experiments that lay out creepy ‘manipulation cases,’ in which a helpless victim is brainwashed by a nefarious neurosurgeon or an evil Philosophy Department Dean, and we are asked to evaluate the victim’s subsequent responsibility status (e.g., Mele 2013). While these non-voluntary interventions are no doubt uncivilized (in every sense of the word), it doesn’t follow that any interventions that operate on the target’s non-conscious cognitive processes are uncivilized and inappropriate as means of sensitizing people. Manipulation cases are unacceptable types of moral intervention because they are non-consensual, not because they operate on the agent’s non-conscious cognitive systems.
We can imagine cases of admissible interventions that operate partly or primarily non-consciously. One salient example is the use of ‘nudges’ to capacitate people. While some nudges are morally problematic, many are patently benign. Placing an image of eyes near a coffee service non-consciously induces people to make more deposits (Doris 2015). Posting signs in guests’ hotel rooms asking them to “join [their] fellow guests in helping to save the environment” boosts the towel re-use rate by 10% compared to signs that merely ask guests to “help save the environment,” because the former signs appeal to the reader’s non-conscious social cognition systems (Gino 124). Erik Angner endorses ‘the nudge agenda,’ which urges governments to use non-conscious ‘nudges’ to enhance social wellbeing, provided that these nudges are non-coercive (Happiness Conference talk, 2018). There’s no obvious reason to take such nudges off the political agenda, or to see them as ‘uncivilized’ means of sensitizing people. Indeed, Susan Hurley has explicitly defended the use of imperceptible nudges as part of a functional political ecology (2012).
A more local example of a ‘nudge’ (so to speak) is the strategic adoption of Standard English as a rhetorical device (or “trick,” if you like) to persuade an implicitly biased speaker to trust one’s testimony, character, or standing. This code-switching tactic is similar to what Alison Bailee calls “strategic ignorance,” or the exploitation of cultural stereotypes by racialized minorities to advance an anti-racist agenda (2007); in the present example, however, the speaker exploits cultural stereotypes to seem trustworthy, competent, or intelligent (as opposed to ignorant) in the eyes of an implicitly biased person or community, thereby gaining trust, status, and other desirable ends – ends to which one is entitled, but denied due to identity prejudice. Appealing to people’s unconscious rhetorical biases in this way isn’t ‘uncivilized’ so much as strategic, clever, prudent, and, in some situations, perhaps even necessary for survival. To treat these code-switching tactics as ‘uncivilized’ or ‘tricky’ discriminates against linguistically oppressed groups who may need (and are certainly expected) to use code-switching to gain trust and respect in dominant cultural spaces. To disparage these rhetorical strategies as ‘uncivilized’ excludes linguistically oppressed groups from the space of blame.
Humour is another example of a rhetorical device that operates at least partly non-consciously, via heuristic and peripheral systems (Lyttle 2000). Although humour can influence the listener through non-conscious cognitive processes, no one (except maybe Plato) thinks that we should all stop watching comedy. Humour, too, can be part of a functional political ecology.
None of the non-conscious/imperceptible prods considered here is patently uncivilized, and many nudges are effective ways of influencing people to act prosocially. More importantly, ruling out non-conscious prods as ‘uncivilized’ has the perverse effect of discriminating against minorities, whose code-switching strategies are perceived as ‘tricky.’
Coercion, of course is even more of a departure from the ideal of ‘rational engagement’ on the Enlightenment paradigm, since it doesn’t even seek to persuade the norm violator – it only aims to manage the person. That said, non-violent coercive blame, which seeks to confine, condition, deter, or socially isolate a reasons-unresponsive norm violator, for legitimate epistemic, motivational, or moral purposes, is a justified blaming response.
Philosophers would perhaps be more amenable to rationality constraints on blame than most people, since philosophy gave rise to the Enlightenment notion of rationality, which was seen as the defining feature of human beings (rational animals). This construct has been used to marginalized women and People of Color ever since. The Enlightenment notion of rationality as incompatible with emotions and the body has perhaps left an indelible mark on academic philosophy, which seems reluctant to relinquish the disciplinary ideal of cool, impartial, purely reflective reasoning, in spite of hard-won victories by feminist critics. Some theorists assume that we should approach public discourse in an impartial, civil, and cooperative mood, and let the marketplace of ideas work its magic, fostering democratic ideals. This isn’t bad advice when we’re dealing with our epistemic peers, but sometimes our ameliorative aims require a very different response: resistance, conflict, and political activism (Medina 2013). Blame is a vehicle for these aims – when we blame, we often criticize, protest, and condemn (Bell 2013). If we are committed to a politically progressive, egalitarian, and resistant theory of responsibility, we should reject (or at least loosen) Enlightenment rationality constraints, as well as optimistic idealizations about human psychology (as universally reasons-responsive, paradigmatically unemotional, and emblematically un-embodied). These constraints are psychologically unrealistic and, in practice, subtly discriminatory.