Blame and Brock Turner



This is *very* rough and there’s a lot going on, but here you go.

Trigger warning: this post contains information about sexual assault and/or violence that may be triggering to survivors.

Introductory Statements

I’m going to write about a sensitive topic with some reservations and apprehensions, but I think that it’s a case worth addressing from a philosophical perspective. I believe it’s a case on which philosophers can shed light, and a case that we can learn from. As I’m sure you know, Brock Turner raped a 23-year-old woman whom he met at a party. He was convicted of three charges of felony sexual assault and sentenced to six months’ jail time and 3 years’ probation by Judge Aaron Persky. This case has elicited a very vocal blaming response from the public, which I think is eminently appropriate. But it raises some questions for responsibility theorists. The main one that I want to address is the relationship between individual and collective responsibility, or more specifically, the responsibility that an individual bears when he is a member of a broader social group, and his actions reflect the (implicit or explicit) values of the group. I also plan to reconsider what can count as responsibility-relevant group membership, to include participation in ‘mere aggregates’ such as rape culture. I think that assessing Turner through the lens of collective responsibility explains the force of our shared reaction in a way that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. That is, I think that there is general consensus that Turner is blameworthy in a particularly strong way, and we can explain this reaction by considering his social position – specifically, his implicit affiliation with particular (loose) social groups.

Without saying too much about this, I take this analysis to be consistent with certain contemporary projects in responsibility theory, particularly Vargas’ emphasis of the ‘moral ecology’ (2013) – the social structures that enhance or limit moral agency. I don’t think that it’s possible to assess a person’s responsibility status without considering the moral ecology, since responsibility, properly understood, is a function not just of a person’s internal properties, but the dynamic interaction between those properties and the world. Individual responsibility, then, can’t be judged independently of person’s social context. While social factors can impair responsibility by cutting off deliberative possibilities (consider Wolf’s famous JoJo example [1986], or Beauvoir’s example of the cloistered sex slave living in a harem [1964]), I argue that social structures can also amplify a person’s blameworthiness if those structures enable antisocial behaviour by creating conditions of privilege.

Before proceeding, a few clarifications.

I favour the view of blame on which blame is more than just a judgment to the effect that someone is blameworthy or that blame is fitting; I take it to be a cognitive state (i.e., a judgment) plus a conative or affective response – a disposition to rebuke the target or feel negative reactive emotions under blame-conducive circumstances, or something along those lines. I won’t defend this picture here, but in any case, I think that what I have to say is probably compatible with different conceptions of blame. You can adopt your preferred view.

I also want to state in advance that in what follows I’ll be discussing ‘rape culture’ and a ‘culture of White privilege’ (CWP for short), by which I mean to denote an aggregate of persons that could be called a loose ‘collective’ or ‘social group,’ though there is no shared intentionality amongst its members (i.e., ‘intentional agency’), or well-ordered decision procedures, unlike structured organizations (e.g., Walmart, the US military). I think that these particular aggregates are ‘social groups’ in a morally-relevant sense (i.e., a sense that confers responsibility on group members) because they share a set of implicit attitudes that motivate characteristic antisocial behaviours – most importantly, misogynistic attitudes, and an assumption of racial superiority and relative immunity from legal and moral sanctions, respectively. Members of these groups implicitly hold these attitudes, though they probably would not explicitly avow them, nor would they self-identify with these groups – they may not even know that these groups exist. Nonetheless, I hold that people who harbour and act on these types of implicit attitudes form a responsibilty-releative collective, and their group-typical individual behaviours are inflected by their group membership. Specifically, they can be responsible for harms committed by group, even if these harms outstrip their individual causal contributions to the group.

With this in mind, I submit that Turner is responsible for an individual act of rape as well as participation in rape culture and CWP, and this group participation makes his individual act more blameworthy, because it is both more wrong (in deontic or acetic terms – take your pick) and more harmful (in its effects). To be clear, I’m not just saying that Turner is blameworthy on three counts: for committing rape, for participating in rape culture, and for advancing CWP; I’m saying that his act of rape is more blameworthy as an act of rape on account of his participation in these social groups. This makes his act different from similar acts committed in different contexts. Some people benefit from membership in privileged social groups without committing rape, and some people who commit rape don’t belong to these types of groups; the unique confluence of rape and membership in these privileged social groups has normative implications for members’ responsibility status.  Now, even if we were to deny that group membership impacts on individual responsibility in this aggregative way, it would still be useful and informative to characterise Turner as responsible for not only an individual act of rape, but also implicit participation in these groups, which requires attention to Turner’s moral ecology. Yet I think it’s more accurate and informative still to see his action as part of a collective activity, and thus imbued with an ‘extra’ layer of moral significance which makes it more blameworthy.

I will also argue that Turner was a particularly active, albeit implicit, member of these groups, which prevents us from seeing his membership as in any way coerced (contrary to what he would have us believe). His participation in these groups was, properly understood, fully voluntary, given that he (tacitly) promoted the implicit values of these groups.

This construal of the situation poses a challenge to some popular ideas about responsibility. For example, the idea that collectives must have shared intentional agency or formal decision-making procedures to be collectives in a morally-relevant sense, and to confer responsibility onto individual members; the idea that individuals can be responsible for implicit biases and unwitting social affiliations; and the idea that unwitting group membership can have inculpating effects rather than (just) excusing effects.

This is a lot to take in, but for the rest of this post I’m going to focus on three key claims: (1) Turner is an active albeit unwitting participant in rape culture and CWP, (2) rape culture and CWP are responsibility-relevant collectives in spite of falling afoul of the standard criteria (i.e., intentional agency and/or formal decision procedures); and (3) Turner’s membership in these collectives intensified his blameworthiness, because it makes his action both worse (inherently) as well as more harmful. Then I’m going to explain how this construal of the situation challenges some popular assumptions about moral responsibility.

Note: To avoid confusion, I want to clarify that even if Turner’s action hadn’t been part of a collective harm, it would still have been utterly blameworthy and offensive in its own right. But while admitting this, I want to draw attention to features of the case that have received less attention in the media, that are generally overlooked by philosophers, and that might challenge some of our assumptions, especially concerning individual responsibility and the relevance of collectives.

(1) Active implicit participation

There are different degrees of group participation, and correspondingly different degrees of responsibility. Most theorists agree that resistors are not responsible for the activities of the group, and reluctant participants may be less-than-fully responsible. Passive participants, who neither contribute to the group’s aims nor resist, may be somewhat responsible. By contrast, active participants, who advance the group’s aims, are more responsible than any other type of group member. It may seem paradoxical to say that an active participant can also be an unwitting participant – oblivious to the group’s aims – but I think that this is intelligible if we consider tactic promotion of the group’s aims to count as ‘active participation.’ When someone explicitly denies group membership but exemplifies adherence to the group’s values through his actions, we can consider the person a willing participant. This allows us to say that someone might be a member of a collective even if the person wouldn’t recognize the collective as such: all that matters is whether that the person embodies the group’s values, even if they are only implicit represented in the person’s motivational system. The person wouldn’t count as ‘decisively endorsing’ his values in Frankfurt’s sense (1971), but he ‘endorses’ them at the level of overt behaviour – either bodily actions or speech acts that tacitly invoke the group’s values.

I think that this is true of Turner, inasmuch as he tacitly invoked salient features of rape culture and CWP repeatedly in his court statement. For instance, he claimed that, ‘coming from a small town in Ohio,’ he ‘had never really experienced celebrating or partying that involved alcohol.’ These are salient features of rape culture, and when invoked as a defence against rape, they function in a stereotypical way – to obscure the normative import of misogyny and violence against women, and to protect group members against harsh legal and social sanctions. It’s worth noting that Turner never confessed to rape, nor was he ever convicted of rape; he was convicted of felony sexual assault on (what I would describe as) a technicality – because the prosecution couldn’t prove to the court’s satisfaction that Turner raped his vicim with his own ‘sexual organ,’ as California law requires. This law can be seen another artefact of rape culture, promoting the idea that the male penis is special, imbued with some magical power to transform a woman’s moral and legal status in a unique way. (Otherwise why treat it differently than any other penetrative object?) Next, Turner appealed to ‘the stress of school and swimming’ as an apparent excuse for his ‘lapse of judgment’ (which, again, he refused to describe as rape). This can be seen as an invocation of White privilege: White people disproportionally participate in varsity swimming and comprise a majority of Stanford’s student and faculty population, and disproportionally  take this to reflect special moral standing, which can potentially ‘offset’ antisocial behaviour in their private lives – like a carbon tax for ‘white-collar crime.’ Turner’s father’s testimony reinforces this notion, citing Turner’s swimming record as an excuse for his behaviour. (A commentator cleverly edited this letter to show what a red herring these details are; but it would be wrong to see them as mere non sequiturs, rather than characteristic appeals to salient features of CWP. Seen in this light, they’re not morally irrelevant – they reveal flaws in the speaker’s moral sense). The judge responded by giving Turner a lenient sentence – much less than the maximum of 14 years in prison – on grounds that “a prison sentence would have a severe impact” on the defendant. It might not be a coincidence that the judge himself went to Stanford and was the captain of the Lacrosse team. It’s not implausible to think that he, too, is a member of CWP, sympathized with Turner as a compatriot, rather than the plaintiff, who pleaded for a harsher sentence. In any case, the point of this section is that salient aspects of Turner’s testimony suggest that he is a spokesperson for rape culture and CWP, even if he would deny it.

One might object here that a lenient sentence is required by liberalism and a commitment to rehabilitation – and perhaps this is the right attitude to take toward crime in general, which is often committed by underprivileged members of society (especially in economically polarized countries like the United States); but when you construe the judge’s verdict as a concession to Turner’s invocation of White privilege and rape culture, it can no long be seen as an innocuous defence of rehabilitative justice: it begins to look more like a defence of White privilege, rape culture, and the misogynistic attitudes that flow from the intersection of these subcultures. While some lenient sentences might legitimately rest on rehabilitative principles, Persky’s verdict problematically legitimates the defendant’s ludicrous excuses, and ignores the plaintiff’s request for a harsher sentence. This reinforce the pervasive social narratives of rape culture and CWP. And while rehabilitative justice is meant to equalize social inequality, this verdict does the opposite: it actually reinforces social equality by favouring the interests of the most well-off.



It’s also worth noting here that Turner denied responsibility for rape, absurdly insisting, both before and after the trial, that his interaction with the plaintiff was ‘consensual.’ I don’t think it’s implausible to say that Turner didn’t know that he was committing rape, but surely he should have known, and (relatedly) he could have known – he could have learned what rape means. Turner says, and perhaps genuinely believes, that he was ‘coerced’ by Stanford’s party culture (into committing an ‘indiscretion’), and this is supposed to excuse him. But he wasn’t coerced in any meaningful sense of the word. He could have sought out a different peer group, but he chose note to. He’s not like Wolf’s famous lone psychopath (JoJo). He’s an exceptionally privileged members of a liberal democracy with unimpeded access to many forms of life, and so he had as much free choice as any living person could want. He was thus ‘free’ in any meaningful compatibilst sense.

(2) Responsibility in collective contexts

One of the controversies in the collective responsibility literature is whether responsibility for participation in a collective harm can transcend the contributions of individual members, such that the collective harm is greater than the contribution of each member – whether the sum can be greater than its parts. For example, there is a question about whether genocide can be worse than multiple individual acts of anti-Semitic murder. I think that it can, but we need to deny some classic assumptions about collective responsibility. Some theorists (methodological individualists) think that collective action, and thus collective responsibility, is metaphysically impossible, but I see this as a collectivist version of what Strawson called ‘panicky metaphysics,’ and I don’t want to get bogged down in metaphysical concerns, so I won’t. I’m concerned with developing a practical evaluation of the situation that makes sensible distinctions amongst people. Other theorists are worried about treating individuals unfairly by lumping them together, which might seem to contravene Rawls’ principle of the ‘separateness of persons.’ This may be why H. D. Lewis referred to collective responsibility as a kind of “barbarism” (1948). But this worry seems to jump the gun; if there is a compelling reason to see individual participation in a collective as (morally) different then individual action simpliciter, then we should treat them differently. This isn’t barbarism, it’s realism. Of theorists who think that collective responsibility is coherent, many take this to be the case only if the collective has either organizational mechanisms (decision-procedures), or collective intentionality – especially shared intentional aims (e.g., French 1984). Others have defended a more permissible notion of collective responsibility, on which group membership can be based on shared attitudes;  yet these attitudes are typically construed as reflective. Marilyn Friedman and Larry May (2985), for instance, hold that ethnic groups, such as White men, can bear collective responsibility, but they offer the following three conditions of group membership: self-identification, continuous primary relationships with members of that group, and a shared cultural heritage. I doubt that rape culture and CWP meet any of these criteria. Certainly ‘group identity’ (in the typical sense) is lacking, since involvement in rape culture tends to be implicit, and would be explicitly disavowed by most members if asked. Nor do members bear ‘primary relations’ to one another; they usually meet only sporadically, if ever. Nor do members share something that could be called, in substantive terms, a share cultural heritage – at least, not the kind of well-established heritage that most ethnic groups share. Yet I still want to say that these groups – rape culture and CWP – commit collective harms, and members can be held responsible for these harms (depending on their degree of participation). Furthermore, the wrongness and harmfulness of collective harms outstrips the contribution of any individual member, yet each member bears a degree of blameworthiness for the collective harm – that is, the individual’s blameworthiness for his group-typical behaviours – such as rape – is intensified by virtue of his relation to the group. This is true whether the person knows that his action is part of a broader harm, or whether he knows that he belongs to the group at all. This is also different from being part of an ethnic group per se because rape culture and CWP are smaller subcultures, making it relatively easy to avoid them. And on top of this, their core members are relatively privileged and autonomous, and can fairly easily use their privilege and self-determination to choose more pro-social peer groups.

These thoughts, however, go against the standard constraints on collective responsibility, which hold that group membership only confers responsibility if shared intentional agency or organizational mechanisms are present, rendering membership ‘voluntary.’ On my proposal, group membership can be a matter of shared group-typical implicit biases, in addition to the standard criteria. (This expands the definition of ‘collective’). This modification fits most closely, of all the views I can think of, with Larry May’s notion of ‘group intentions’ as “pre-reflective intentions,” which are “not yet reflected upon by each of the members of the group” (May 1987 p. 64); yet this description suggests that there is counterfactual reflective endorsement, i.e., that group intentions would be avowed upon adequate reflection. Implicit biases aren’t like this; they resist reflective access. Perhaps May’s view could be adjusted to accommodate implicit attitudes; but either way, I have a different reason for rejecting the condition of shared intentionality – the ‘intentionality constraint.’ The reason, very simply, is that we shouldn’t even have an intentionality constraint on individual responsibility, let alone collective responsibility.

Responsibility theorists who specialize in individual responsibility are increasingly moving away from the intentionality requirement (also referred to as the ‘epistemic condition,’ ‘knowledge condition,’ or ‘reflective condition’). For example, George Sher argues that we can be responsible for unconscious omissions such as forgetting about a beloved pet in the backseat of a hot car, falling asleep on duty in a combat zone, or crashing an airplane due to lack of proper attention (2010: 24). Angela Smith (2005) argues that we can we can responsible for forgetting about a friend’s birthday. Nomy Arpaly (2014) says that we can praiseworthy for doing the right thing unwittingly, i.e., ‘inverse akrasia.’ She cites  Huck Finn as an example, for helping his friend Jim escape from slavery in spite of naively thinking that slavery is justified. These examples illustrate the idea that people can be responsible for their behaviour even if they fail to grasp the normative force of that behaviour, provided that their actions are ‘characteristic’ in some sense. (Most of these theorists believe that actions have to be suitably connected to some subset of an agent’s motivational system – the person’s moral personality – to confer responsibility). Some of these arguments rest on the intuitive force of the examples, while others marshall theoretical arguments. Arpaly, for instance, contends that reflective judgments are not, as Kant believed, “non-accidentally” connected to the normative features of right action, such that they reliably produce right action (2014: 145); hence, non-reflective actions can be praiseworthy – and presumably, they can also be blameworthy. If this is right, then maybe we should reject the intentionality constraint.

Another rationale for rejecting this constraint is that empirical research indicates that many of our characteristic choices and actions are not the result of reflection. Yet these choices and actions seem to define us as persons – even as moral agents. For example, people are more likely to donate to an honour box if there are eyes posted next to it (Bateson 2006). Although this is a non-reflective (automatic) choice, it might reflect a person’s agency (characteristic values and beliefs). John Doris (2015) takes this kind of research to show that agency doesn’t require reflective control – it’s at most loosely connected with reflection. Extrapolating from this, we can infer that responsibility, too, doesn’t require reflection. Extrapolating further, we can infer that implicit biases, if expressed in a person’s characteristic behaviours, can be responsibility-imputing albeit non-reflective.

By rejecting the intentionality constraint, we allow that people’s implicit biases might be responsibilty-conferring, if those implicit biases are manifested in overt behaviour. We also allow, by the same token, that a person’s implicit participation in a social group can be responsibility-conferring, and further, that this participation can amplify the person’s responsibility for his individual implicit biases and related actions. I turn to this thought next.

(3) Blame amplification through group participation

Although I am not aware of an exact precedent for defining groups in terms of implicit biases, there are precedents in the collective responsibility literature for discussing individual responsibility in collective contexts, and we can modify them to fit our purposes.

I hold that a person’s action can be especially blameworthy if the person is a member of a harmful collective, even if the person doesn’t self-identify with the group. I’ll unpack this claim in four steps. This will partially summarize, and partially build on, what has already been said.

(1) A person is responsible for participation in a group harm if this participation is voluntary either in the classic sense, i.e., there are decision procedures or shared intentional agency, or the members share group-typical implicit biases and manifest those biases in their overt behaviour. It is also relevant whether there are alternative possibilities within the person’s cultural environment: a lack of alternatives can undermine the voluntariness requirement by practically necessitating a certain outcome. In liberal democracies, it’s relatively easy for most people to move from one subculture to another.

(2) A person’s action is more blameworthy when the person is part of an antisocial collective (and the person meets condition 1), because the action is more wrong (deontically or aretaically), inasmuch as it embodies rational flaws and/moral and epistemic vices, or both, over and above the person’s individual flaws; and it is more harmful, inasmuch as is it part of a group harm, which outstrips the individual’s causal contribution to the group. Rape culture and CWP embody misogynistic and racist attitudes, and they perpetrate harms not just against individuals, but against whole groups – women and racial minorities (directly). They might even be construed as committing harms against everyone, inasmuch as they promote pernicious cultural myths that normalise misogyny and racism and make it harder for ordinary people to see them for what they are. Yet individual members might not know or appreciate what they are doing. Nonetheless, I think that it’s reasonable to see these agents as responsible for these outcomes, even if they don’t explicitly intend or endorse them. And I also think it’s plausible to see members who promote the core values of the group as responsible for peripheral values that they don’t implicitly hold, inasmuch as promoting the core features of an ideological system supports the perpetuation of the system as a whole. So group members can, I think, be responsible for promoting values that they neither implicitly nor explicitly hold. In this way, group members who promote core ideological tenets can be responsible for more than their own implicit biases – they can be responsible for unwittingly promoting additional values; and they can be responsible more than their individual direct contrition to the group – they can be responsible for additional indirect harms.

(3) I don’t just want to say that members of antisocial groups who commit a group-typical harm are responsible for their individual action, in addition to their membership in the group – although this is an interesting claim in its own right, and it helps to counterbalance the tendency to ignore the moral relevance of context. But I want to say more than this, i.e., that a person’s individual action is coloured by his membership in the group. Turner, specifically, is responsible not just for an act of rape, but for an act of rape as an act of group-based misogyny and White privilege. The act itself has several moral ‘layers.’

This is where there’s a helpful precedence in the collectivist literature, and I’m thinking specifically of Tracy Isaacs (2011). She says that when an individual’s action makes a causal contribution to a collective harm, that action (in effect) inherits a layer of normative significance from its relationship to that broader harm. So for instance, when someone murders a Jewish person in a Holocaust context, this isn’t just an act of murder, or even an act of anti-Semitic murder; it’s an act of genocide. The action is thus transformed from a strictly individual action to part of a collective harm, and this has significance for the individual’s responsibility status – how blameworthy he is. This theory leans on previous accounts of agency (Williams and Davidson’s), but adds a new dimension to them. On Bernard Williams’ theory of evaluative concepts (1985), a single action can be described variably in ‘thinner’ or ‘thicker’ terms. For instance, saving a drowning child can be described more ‘thickly’ as an act of courage. On Davidson’s theory of reasons, actions admit of intentional and non-intentional description; the act of flipping a light switch can be redescribed (intentionally) as an act of turning on a light or (unintentionally) as alerting a prowler lurking outside that someone is inside (1963). These accounts exemplify ‘the accordion effect’ in Sheffler’s sense – action descriptions ‘expand’ and ‘contract’ to reveal different layers of meaning. What Issacs adds to these ‘accordion’ views is the idea that an individual action can have collective significance –  a thicker type of significance. This explains the Nazi example: the individual act of murder becomes an act of genocide when the agent is part of a Holocaust. Isaacs, however, is only talking about organisations and goal-oriented collectives (like military regimens), which satisfy the group intentionality constraint. But if you drop this requirement, her view can be made to suit my purposes: we can describe individual actions in terms of implicit group membership, yielding a ‘thicker’ description. So Turner’s act of rape is, properly understood, also an act of misogynistic violence and White privilege. These collective descriptions are part of the meaning of his action, and inform his moral status. Note that individual and collective descriptions don’t attach to different actions; they co-describe the self-same action. The description of rape as, in part, an endorsement of rape culture and CWP may not be as succinct or epigrammatic as the description, ‘an act of genocide,’ but I don’t think that semantic clumsiness should bother us; we happen to have a convenient word for a genocidal action, but not other types of group harms. Yet I think that there are many group harms beyond the classic compendium, and they are sufficiently analogous, although they may be more complex and multifaceted. If we fail to see Turner’s action as part of a group harm in the relevant sense, this may be due to a pervasive individualist bias.


(4) When I say that Turner’s action is worse because it casually contributes to these two collectives – rape culture and CWP – I mean that it’s worse than an equivalent action performed outside of these groups, ceteris paribus. The reason this action is worse is that the collectives are especially morally flawed and especially harmful. Rape culture represents a set of misogynistic ideas, including that it’s permissible to treat women as objects, that sex doesn’t require explicit consent, and so on. If someone holds a core subset of these values, the person implicitly promotes the whole evaluative framework – not just these attitudes, but connected ones closer to the periphery. These attitudes also become more plausible to people, by virtue of their relation to the ideological system. Furthermore, the group perpetuates a set of harms that no individual would be capable of perpetrating on his own, yet every member’s contribution helps to sustain the group. For these reasons, actions that contribute to the group are especially wrong and especially harmful.

People who commit wrongs individually often don’t bear the same degree of responsibility as group members, especially particular types of group members. For example, a lone psychopath might commit a heinous offence, but either the person had no choice due to severe, inalterable cognitive deficits, or the psychopath wasn’t causally implicated in a harmful collective, capable of causing collective harms and promoting pernicious and false beliefs and attitudes;  he acted on his own psychopathic ‘reasons.’ In either case, the psychopath’s responsibility it determined by his own internal properties. A child soldier, like Ishmael Beah, might commit atrocities as part of a group, yet not be responsible because the person was a child, indoctrinated into a pernicious ideology by force; or the person might have lacked alternative possibilities – Beah, after all, was captured by the Sierra Leon government army during a civil war, drugged, and basically brainwashed. Members of privileged groups in liberal democracies aren’t like this. They’re not psychopaths for the most part, and they’re not captured, forced, or coerced in the literal sense.

This explanation poses some challenge to standard accounts of responsibility, which I’ll address next.

Responsibility as theory and practice

Here are some theoretical and practical commitments that are challenged by my claims. I should be careful here because I suspect that many theorists would reject these commitments, but I think that there is a natural way of construing certain view such that they imply these commitments, and I also think that commonsense morality might be committed to some of them. To avoid controversy, I’ll avoid citing anyone unless there is a clear connection.

(1) What is a collective?

First, I challenge the idea that responsibility-relevant collective must have clear decision-making procedures and/or explicit shared intentionality. This broadens the scope of responsibility-relevant collectives, but not so much that pervasive, practically inescapable collectives count. I don’t want to say that whole cultures are collectives in the responsibilty-conferring sense. Subcultures seem like more apt candidates for group status.

(2) Atomism

I’ve argued that we can’t adequately describe an individual’s action without considering the individual’s relation to collectives, since certain collectives can confer moral significance onto their members’ actions. This goes against the atomistic view, on which only individual actions have moral significance. While people can be responsible for an individual action, and for participating in a certain collective, atomists don’t allow that group membership can affect the significance of the individual’s action in a qualitative way.

(3) Groups as excusing

There’s a pervasive line of thinking on which group membership is excusing, because it induces ignorance and undermines control. Milligram’s famous experiments (1963) purported to show that anyone could have been a Nazi under the wrong circumstances, which reinforces a ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ mentality. If people do bad things only because they didn’t know better and couldn’t have done otherwise, people aren’t blameworthy. But there are degrees of control, and some people have more of it than others. Turner invoked lack of control in his defence: he suggested that when he committed ‘a lapse of judgment’ (in his words), he was under duress from ‘party culture.’ Reinforcing this narrative is dangerous, and I think that the narrative itself is false. Turner had as much freedom and autonomy as anyone in this world could want; if he isn’t free, then who is? Appeals to coercion are legitimate in some cases (maybe Ishmael Beah’s, for example), but not everyone can legitimately appeal to them. There are morally relevant differences between getting drunk at a party and raping someone, on the one hand, and being kidnapped, drugged, and brainwashed during a civil war as a child, on the other. These differences, I think, are sufficient to say that one person is responsible and the other isn’t (or at least, that one person is significantly more blameworthy than the other).

(3) Implicit attitudes aren’t responsibility-imputing

There’s also a pervasive line of thinking on which implicit attitudes are not blameworthy (e.g., Levy 2014; H. Smith 2014). (I say blameworthy because the kinds of implicit attitudes that philosophers are generally interested in are morally problematic). But if we have to define a person’s responsibility status on the basis of either a person’s explicitly avowed commitments or the person’s conflicting implicit attitudes, where the latter are expressed in the person’s overt behavioural patterns, then it makes sense to go with the manifested implicit attitudes. This is especially true of people who implicitly promote certain groups by invoking or embodying their normative features, since their contribution to the group’s aims can intelligibly be construed as a kind of (implicit) endorsement of these aims. This is different from Frankfurt’s notion of ‘decisively endorsement,’ since ‘decisiveness’ is conspicuously lacking, but it better captures what Watson (2006) described as a person’s values.

(4) The Searchlight View

There’s yet another prominent line of thinking on which a person can’t be responsible for unwitting infractions. Sher (2010) calls this the ‘searchlight view,’ and says that it can be attributable to Kant as well as commonsense morality. In some cases, this logic seems to make sense: if someone does something under posthypnotic suggestion, he’s not responsible because he didn’t know what he was doing and couldn’t have done otherwise. But as we saw, Sher and other modern deep-self theorists reject this view, on grounds that unconscious infractions might reflect our moral personality more than our reflective beliefs. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that consciousness and control don’t matter at all, I think that in many cases of ‘unwitting wrongdoing,’ there is an element of control, albeit in a very indirect sense: specifically, the agent could have made different choices in the past, which could have conferred a stronger capacity for control. This is certainly true of Turner (on a very natural interpretation): he could have chosen different peers, different social groups, different ideological perspectives, different books, different movies. In any case, unwitting infractions seem responsibility-relevant, either because they reflect a person’s moral personality, or because the person could have made better choices.

(5) Actual-sequence control

Fischer (2012) famously defends a view of responsibility on which responsibility for an action A requires ‘actual sequence control’ over A, i.e., a person must have had control over A in the actual sequence of his deliberation. If the person could have exercised control over A only under different, counterfactual circumstance, the person isn’t responsible for A. It’s hard to apply this view to practical cases, because it’s hard to know when anyone has actual-sequence control over a particular choice, and this has led to an extended debate between Vargas (2005) and Fischer (2012). I think there’s a case to be made that Turner didn’t have actual-sequence control when he committed rape, because he was closed off to certain moral considerations, and couldn’t entertain or imagine them; but if that’s the case, then I think that this shows what’s wrong with the actual sequence control model. If this isn’t the case and Turner did have actual sequence control (sufficient to underwrite responsibility), then the actual sequence control model might be viable, but I would still worry that it artificially cuts off relevant parts of the moral ecology which might inflect a person’s responsibly, as I’ve argued in previous posts. But I won’t take this up here.


Conclusion: TBC.

Please comment in the ‘comments’ section above.


One thought on “Blame and Brock Turner

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