Responsibility and sympathy?


Tonight I was thinking about the relationship between responsibility and sympathy, and more specifically, whether there is one.

I could be wrong, but I don’t think that a lot of people have written about whether sympathy should affect our reactive attitudes. A lot of people have written about whether sympathy (or empathy) is required for someone to be a responsible agent – that is, for someone to be susceptible to moral address at all; but not much has ben said about whether, when contemplating someone who is unambiguously a moral agent and has done wrong, sympathy ought to mollify our blame, indignation, or resentment toward that person.

It might be natural to think that sympathy ought to mollify blame, but this isn’t obvious at all. On a strict retributivist view, a person deserves blame just in case she has done wrong and possesses certain agential capacities (rationality, reasons-responsiveness, second-order reflection, or what have you); whether the person has suffered pitiable hardships (which have not undermined her agency) has no bearing on whether she deserves blame. On a strict retributivist view, if you know that Smith is a moral agent and Smith has committed a murder, and you find out that Smith has had a wretchedly abusive childhood, and you feel sorry for him on this account, this is no reason for you to revise your original moral stance. Your natural sympathy is just a meaningless emotional effluence. Smith deserves blame because he satisfies all the retributivist criteria for blame: he committed a violation and he’s a moral agent. Your feelings about his plight are irrelevant.

As I’ve noted in earlier posts, Strawson did think that ‘peculiarly unfortunate formative circumstances’ could attenuate blame, but not because they elicit our sympathy. (At least, he never talks about sympathy). His rationale seems to be that these kinds of circumstances can prevent someone from developing any moral personality at all, and from being responsive to the reactive attitudes. Such people don’t satisfy the agency conditions of retributive blame – they’re not moral agents. But here, I’m talking about people who are responsible agents, but who had really challenging lives. Not necessarily such bad circumstances that they turned out to be psychopaths, but still really hard lives.

Watson (1987) wrote an interesting paper on the reactive attitudes with a section called ‘sympathy and antipathy,’ where he notes that murderous psychopaths like Robert Harris (a famous case) elicit a mix of sympathy and antipathy in us. We feel ambivalent because we see Harris as both a villain and a culprit. But Watson doesn’t take this to mean that sympathy should move us to excuse Harris. He thinks that whether we should blame him depends on whether he’s capable of responding to moral address, which is a lot like Strawson’s view. So it doesn’t seem like sympathy should play any role. All that matters is (a) whether the individual has done wrong, and (b) whether the individual is a moral agent. Sympathy doesn’t play a role in this equation. It’s just an irrelevant moral remainder.

But what if we don’t take a retributive stance? What if, like Vargas (2013), we think that blame functions to enhance moral agency? Well, then I think that sympathy is relevant, because if we lack appropriate sympathy toward someone, this can damage the person’s moral agency. Suppose that Salima has had a wretched life, but is still, by all appearances, a moral agent. In fact, Salima is surprisingly sensitive. But Salima has committed an infraction. If we blame Salima unsympathetically, it might make her a worse person; it might alienate her further from the moral community. People who have had wretched lives are usually already alienated, since wretched lives typically have alienating features: neglect, abuse, etc. Being unsympathetic to such people can push them of the fold. Towards traumatized people, we might decide to attenuate our blame, or suspend it altogether.

Should we adopt a stance of universal sympathy, and eschew the reactive attitudes altogether? Strawson seemed to think that this was impossible. On a forward-looking account, it might not be desirable, inasmuch as some people might benefit from blame. Maybe over-privileged people who are too self-entitled. Maybe people with ‘affluenza’ like Ethan Couch, who have never been properly held responsible. This doesn’t mean that they’re not moral agents, just that they’re very irresponsible moral agents. Perhaps, unlike people with wretched lives, they suffer from too much privilege, and blame would correct that.

This is obviously very speculative. Whether blame accomplishes anything is an empirical question. We need to study the effects of blame – blame as a reactive attitude – to see if it’s justified on an agency-cultivation model. This is a separate question from whether punishment accomplishes anything – punishment such as locking someone up in prison. I doubt that punishment is ever as effective as rehabilitation, and so I doubt that punishment is ever strongly justified. But theorists who write about the reactive attitudes aren’t talking about punishment, they’re talking about cognitive-conative states. It would be worth studying and writing about whether deploying these kinds of attitudes can be effective in certain types of cases, and if so, which types. Unfortunately I can’t do that here.



4 thoughts on “Responsibility and sympathy?

  1. Blame and sympathy may not go together well, but like love and anger they can co-occur. We don’t need to blame Salima unsympathetically; we can blame her while remaining sympathetic to her plight. Such sympathy may lead us to attenuate our punishments, but that, as you pointed out, is a separate matter.

    As attitudes, I don’t think that sympathy should attenuate blame: you should be sympathetic to those who deserve your sympathy, and you should blame those who deserve your blame. Their circumstances may arouse your sympathy, and might attenuate their blame. But whether your sympathy should be aroused or not, it is their circumstances that would attenuate their blame, not your sympathy or lack thereof. Unsympathetic people don’t get more moral scope for blaming people (or should not, in my opinion).

    If blame is justified by its function of enhancing moral agency, then Salima needs to be blamed. Without blame, she will come to take her (wrongful) actions as appropriate to her circumstances — her moral peers hold that her actions are not blameworthy because of her circumstances. But if they are wrongful (an infraction, as you say), then they must accurately be identified as so by her peers — and by her. They and she must hold that, despite her circumstances, her action is still an infraction — something that per hypothesis (she is still a moral agent) she should have refrained from. Our sympathy for her wretched history should (I think) moderate how we present our blame to her, but the attitude itself should be unmodified.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Mark. Thanks for this, I really appreciate it. I wonder if allowing sympathy to affect how we express blame can mean allowing sympathy to ‘mollify our reactive attitudes.’ I wrote about this in earlier posts: I take blame qua reactive attitude to have both cognitive content (a judgment) and affective content. Can allowing sympathy to affect the expression of (1) our judgment (the words we use, etc.) and (2) our emotional stance toward the target, constitute a ‘mollification of blame’? This is a complicated question! I really need to read and think more about how the reactive attitudes work. Thanks you for post – it helped me refine my thinking on this question.


  3. Hi again. I believe I’m a cognitivist: I don’t consider affect to be part of blame. But that doesn’t mean I consider affect to be independent of blame. I take the relationship to be more like that between weight and height. If you were to tell me that you were 6’10” and weighed 25 pounds, I wouldn’t believe you. I don’t think that’s humanly possible. Similarly if someone told me they blamed Joe for the deaths of their children but they were never the least bit angry at him, I wouldn’t believe them. I don’t think that’s humanly possible.

    But the height-weight analogy is not perfect. I believe forgiveness is humanly possible. That parent could judge Joe to be morally responsible for her children’s deaths, but might no longer be angry at him, nor even indignant at him. The judgement of blame is still present, but the affect is gone. In that case I’d say that she blames him still, but she’s no longer angry at him. I need to add the modifying clause because there is a strong implication from blame to negative affect that needs to be cancelled.

    But I’m well aware that words’ meanings vary from person to person. If you tell me that when you say ‘blame’ it includes negative affect, then I can accept that. I understand that you’d say the mother no longer blames Joe for the deaths of her children. OK. So now I interpret your question as to whether sympathy should moderate blame as a question regarding affect — should we be less angry or indignant with malefactors who come from terrible backgrounds?

    I think it’s natural to be less angry or indignant when we have sympathy for their circumstances, but I wouldn’t say that we *should* be. Nice, but not necessary. The mother has forgiven Joe; the father is still livid. Neither is morally the worse, in my opinion: Joe murdered their children, so we should have sympathy for each of them and not … um … judge them … too harshly.

    You’re right! It is a hard question!


  4. PS: On further consideration I think I’m still back where I started. The parents’ circumstances are such that they are not morally culpable for their (separate) affects regarding Joe. (That is, they are not to blame in either of our systems.) But Joe is (per hypothesis) morally culpable for the deaths of their children — his circumstances do not excuse or exempt his actions. Thus the father is morally free to judge Joe harshly (and the mother to forgive him), while we are not morally free to judge either parent harshly. Joe is to blame in my system and is open to blame (IMO) in your system.


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