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.