Response to the symposium on ‘The Stubborn System of Moral Responsibility.’


Hi all,

I’ve written a response to the symposium comments on Bruce Waller’s excellent book, ‘The Stubborn System of Moral Responsibility.’ You can find the symposium here:

I posted my comments there but am re-posting them here. Thanks for visiting.

Moral responsibility from a social feminist epistemology perspective

First, I would like to thank Bruce and all of the commentators for their engaging comments. I found all of the positions compelling in their own way. This is a wonderful platform for discussing responsibility.

I originally found myself on the side of eliminativism (during my PhD), in light of research in social psychology and cognitive science showing that we have less control and shallower character than we tend to think. But I could not break away from my concerns about epistemic injustice and the expressive role that praise and blame play, and could play, in our social imaginary (our shared set of epistemic resources and relationships). I came to the conclusion that, although moral responsibility is deployed in discriminatory ways in our culture—ways that harm and oppress historically disadvantaged groups—it is possible to reorient and reimagine our reactive attitudes, and deploy them in more healing and liberating ways.

In light of this, I’ve written responses to some of Bruce’s comments (and some other people’s comments as well), which bring to the fore concerns about social and epistemic injustice, and show how expressions of blame and praise can function in our discursive environment to repair and resist systems of oppression.

Thank you all so much for the interesting and enlightening discussion! I hope you will take my comments in the spirit of collegiality and cooperation in which they are intended.

  1. Origin story: Just world theory

Bruce describes moral responsibility as a system created by human beings “to deal with a basic problem: we have a just world governed by a just god, and in this just world we must punish.” But I see moral responsibility as designed to deal with exactly the opposite problem: we have an unjust world governed primarily by white men—the people who created and reinforced our current moral practices and the social imaginary in which these practices operate; and in this unjust world we must blame and praise, punish and reward people according to principles that promote social justice and correct imbalances of power.

By ‘social imaginary’ I mean “the shared modes of representing and relating, which are prior to… particular beliefs and affects” (Medina 2012), and this epistemic background is infused with implicit biases that harm historically disadvantaged groups. Miranda Fricker calls this state of affairs “epistemic injustice” (2007). Although these biases have well-known implications for epistemic responsibility—that is, responsibility for our beliefs and attitudes—they also have implications for moral responsibility—specifically, our moral beliefs and attitudes. In conditions of epistemic injustice (as I argued in my recent post on ‘Flickers of Freedom’), the responsibility system is systematically distorted in ways that disadvantage and discredit marginalized groups, who are therefore unfairly blamed and punished, and lack the reputational power to defend themselves against false accusations; while privileged social groups are given too much credit and praise, and are therefore not held accountable for perpetuating myths that bolster their unearned privileges.

I would describe the ‘origin story’ for responsibility very differently than Bruce, in a way somewhat akin to Nietzsche’s genealogy of morals, which ascribes mainstream morality to a Master Class that deems its own members to be good, while deeming members of perceived outgroups to be bad. That is, the Master Class institutionalized and systematized their own outgroup bias, to the extent that it became invisible to them and took on the appearance of objective fact. According to Nietzsche, Christians then appropriated Master Morality and turned it on its head, construing (certain) historically disenfranchised group as morally superior to the socially privileged. (They also believed that this moral order was sanctioned by god, but the genealogical description provides a naturalistic explanation that renders theistic appeals moot).

Nietzsche did not discuss how, within Christianity, perceived outgroup members such as women and racialized minorities (and the many other intersectionalities) were dehumanized and systematically excluded from the system of morality. These were the unrecognized slaves internal to ‘Slave Morality.’ In recent years, theorists have pointed out that these social demographics are still very much excluded from, or marginalized within, Western social practices and relations—including, on scrutiny, the responsibility system—and this calls for a collective reappraisal of that system. In particular, we need to scrutinize the historic myths and stereotypes embedded in the social imaginary, which prevent us from accurately judging people’s credibility and moral standing on unbiased grounds, consistent with social justice.

Bruce, of course, denies that there is such a thing as a ‘fair’ or ‘just’ responsibility attribution; but presumably he would admit that there is such a thing as a fair and just society. Social feminist epistemologists and other theorists who work primarily on social justice argue that our responsibility system—indeed, all of our social practices—should promote social justice, and are justified to the extent that they play this role. A fair responsibility attribution, then, is simply one that facilities justice.

There is nothing mystical or metaphysically weird about the notion of a just moral attribution in this sense, just as there is nothing mystical or metaphysically weird about the notion of a just society. ‘Justice,’ whether used to describe a complete social order or a nested set of social practices, is naturalistic and controlled by human beings.

  1. Systemic factors & collective responsibility

Bruce concedes in response to Ryan that we should focus more on collective agency as opposed to individual agency, but he takes this point to be compatible with responsibility eliminativism. Indeed, he thinks that belief in responsibility prevents us from inquiring into the deeper systemic causes of individual behaviour. This is parallel to the situationist claim (Doris 1998, Harman 1999) that ‘characterological explanations’ deter us from inquiring into the situational and systemic causes of human behaviour, which are allegedly more explanatorily potent and ecologically valid.

A more charitable way of interpreting the situationist challenge, however, is to see it as a reminder that we are highly susceptible to The Fundamental Attribution Error, which is a tendency to favour ‘internal’ explanations of other people’s behaviour, to the neglect of relevant ‘external’ or social factors. This claim implies that we should be more sensitive to situational/social explanatory factors, not (necessarily) that characterological and other ‘internal’ types of explanation are otiose. That is, it leaves open the possibility of “two-ply” explanations that include both moral/characterological/psychological dimensions and situational dimensions (Slote 2009: 288). As Michael Slote points out, when we describe a marble’s disposition to roll down a slope, we can appeal to external properties such as the angle of the slope and the force of gravity, as well as internal properties such as the sphericity and solidity of the marble (287). So too with human behaviour: neurophysiological constructs like ‘responsible agency’ (as it is typically described) admit of internal (psychological, neurocognitive, physiological) analyses as well as external (social, interpersonal) analyses. A robust explanation would include both ‘plies.’

In a similar vein, social feminist epistemologists like Helen Logino (2007) and Sandra Harding (2015) hold that there are multiple levels of explanation for any phenomenon, and that the epistemic value of an explanation is determined in part by our shared pragmatic goals. (This claim is justified in part by the underdetermination of theories by evidence). What are our pragmatic goals in constructing a model of human agency? Arguably, one of our goals should be to enhance people’s responsiveness to evidence of social injustice, to promote social justice and cooperation. If so, then a capacity for moral responsibility (howsoever cognitively specified) can be part of a valid model of human agency. This ‘internal’ level of explanation is compatible with a ‘situational’ level of explanation, where the latter identifies systemic factors (such as salient features of the social imaginary and social structures) that interact with our capacity for responsibility in various ways, both inculpating and exculpating. White ignorance (as described by Charles Mills) might be inculpating—that is, it might impute blame—for instance, when it enables a white person to rationalize his unearned white privileges and ignore countervailing reasons. This is what Fricker refers to as “motivated irrationality”—a kind of irrationality that is motivated by the person’s active investment in systems of oppression.

I will not provide a more extensive defense of this sense of responsible agency, but I think it is important to note that there is a prodigious literature that uses the terms ‘responsibility’ and ‘responsible agency’ in a perfectly intelligible sense and in ways mean to promote social justice and resist oppression. I am not convinced that these uses of responsibility are detrimental to society and should be eliminated.

A good collectivist model of responsibility, which leaves room for individual responsibility, is offered by Ann Cudd (2006). Cudd says that the justice system must dispense with the “individual actor thesis,” which “claims that crimes are committed by one person against another,” as well as the “level field hypothesis,” which holds that “criminal offenses are an upset in the existing balance of power between people” (210). The conjunction of these theses implies that men and women are equally situated, and men’s harms to women as a group are equal to women’s harms to men as a group. By dropping these faulty assumptions, we can change rape laws to introduce harsher sentences for rape, insofar as we can acknowledge that (1) women are a vulnerable social group that deserves extra protection, and (2) rape harms not only individual women, but women as a group.

Cudd’s collectivist position, in other words, increases individual liability for rape committed by a man against a woman, in light of systemic factors that affect the social meaning and consequences of this type of crime. The same logic extends to moral responsibility, viz., men who rape women deserve more individual blame because their action increases women’s vulnerability and harms women as a group.

It is far from obvious that collectivist explanations support, much less necessitate, eliminativism about responsibility. On the contrary, feminists and critical race theorists have by and large taken collectivist analyses to support a revisionary approach to responsibility (as well as legal liability) that maintains some notion of responsibility, but scrutinizes the biases embedded in our shared responsibility practices which harm historically disadvantaged groups. The assumption that responsibility exists is needed to identify those who are responsible for systemic discrimination and hold them accountable, while giving credit to active resisters.

In light of this, I would amend Ryan’s contention that “we all deserve blame for the failings of individual citizens, and it is our collective duty to try to rectify the situation” (Lake), to the more situated claim that members of privileged groups generally (though not always—it depends on the individual) deserve more blame and less credit than they typically receive, while members of disadvantaged groups generally (though not always) deserve less blame and more credit. The privileged have a special duty to rectify social injustice because they are disproportionately responsible for systems of oppression, and they also tend to have more access to epistemic resources (e.g., education), material resources, and reputational power, which they could (if they wanted) use to build coalitions and chained actions of resistance.

I believe that by changing our assumptions about who is responsible for what, we can promote social justice without dispensing with responsibility altogether. Indeed, revising and redirecting responsibility may be the more profitable course of action.

  1. The gap between criminal sanctions and nothing

Bruce and Gregg both seem to want to eliminate moral responsibility and focus on using criminal sanctions to contain or deter harmful behaviour, but I worry that this leaves a (fairly big) gap in which, when criminal sanctions are not licensed or enforced by the law, we have no way of sanctioning antisocial behaviours and promoting prosocial behaviours. This is what moral responsibility is supposed to do: hold people accountable for day-to-day harms that do not fall under the law.

Bruce argues that we should eliminate moral responsibility because belief in (retributive) responsibility supports limited market restrictions, economic disparities, a punitive justice system, and the other ills associated with neoliberal economics and the United States in general. He also seems to reject a consequentialist approach to responsibility, and instead defends a ‘take-charge’ model, which seems to reject moral responsibility in favour of (non-moral) self-efficacy.

Gregg offers a revisionary account of responsibility on which criminal sanctions should be allocated on the basis of a public health-quarantine model, which aims to promote the classic medical ethics principles of autonomy, beneficence, nonmaleficence, and justice. On this model, we would impose the least restrictive sanctions possible on “dangerous criminals” as well as those who commit “low-level” crimes (2016: 29-40). The public health-quarantine model also has implications for distributive justice, in that it implies that resources should be distributed according to medical ethics principles. This would shrink material inequality.

It is not clear to me whether Gregg is an eliminativist about moral responsibility or a revisionist who believes that moral responsibility attributions (praise, blame, etc.) should also be governed by medical ethical principles. If the latter, I am very amenable to his proposal. If, on the other hand, he is an eliminativist and is proposing a theory of criminal and social justice only, then I have concerns that are relevant to both his view and Bruce’s.

The main worry is that, while the criminal justice system is equipped to deal with some of the most egregious harms—like murder—(and unfortunately, in some jurisdictions, criminalizes benign actions like possessing small amounts of marijuana)—the law does not regulate the more banal (i.e., familiar, day-today) harms that many people face. For instance, although it is a hate crime in the U.S. to injure or threaten a member of a protected group on the basis of the person’s demographic attributes, it is not a crime to commit any of the innumerable ‘microaggressions,’ acts of casual misogyny and racism, and subtle as well as not-so-subtle exclusions that affect members of marginalized groups on a daily basis. If Bruce and Gregg want to shrink the prison system, then surely they would not want to criminalize these commonplace moral infractions; but if they are responsibility eliminativists, they also would not want us to hold people responsible for these banal harms.

We also cannot forget that the justice system does not treat everyone fairly. For instance, date rape is a criminal offense on paper, but most date rapists are never convicted. On some estimates, 94-98% of total rapists go free—including stereotypical ‘stranger rapists,’ who are the easiest to prosecute due to the greater availability of forensic evidence (Kim 2012). This means that women have very little legal protection against rape—in effect, we have to protect ourselves. Since most rapists are never prosecuted, the criminal justice system is neither a deterrent against rape, nor an effective ‘quarantine’ measure. This is another gap where moral responsibility would be useful: if we can’t prosecute rapists, we can at least censure and avoid them.

I’m not denying that we should fix the criminal justice system, but some harms will never be criminalized, and others will not be enforced in our lifetime. What do we do in the meantime?

This is where I see moral responsibility playing a role. When we blame people for ‘banal’ harms and un-prosecutable crimes, we express our disapproval to that type of behaviour. This kind of expression might be valuable in and of itself. As Barbara Houston observes, when we express blame we thereby “assert the correct relative value of the wrongdoer and the victim” and declare our affiliation with the victim and the victim’s social group (in cases of discrimination or group-related harms) (1992: 139). It is also notable that blaming takes on different meanings in just societies compared to unjust societies: in conditions of systemic injustice (like ours), failing to express blame can imply (i.e., be interpreted as) acceptance or condoning of the harmful act (Houston 1999: 138). The opposite of condoning is active resistance, which is often expressed in blaming attitudes and reactions, as well as in social justice movements that reconceptualise the role of blame and praise in our culture and deploy these attitudes in new ways. In our current social imaginary, there is a default presumption that rape survivors are to blame because they incite their rapist (on account of their appearance, attire, status, prior sexual history, or relation to the rapist), whereas rapists are either ‘ordinary men’ with innate, irrepressible (heterosexual) sex drives, or pathological cases. In either case, they are not seen as responsible for committing rape—women are blamed for being ‘too sexy.’

Similarly, racialized minorities are seen as more dangerous than privileged social groups, and therefore are more likely to be blamed for innocent behaviours. This is illustrated in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ where Tom Robison is accused of rape against a backdrop of pernicious stereotypes about black men and white women. While we could (in principle) eliminate blame and praise, it is not clear that this discursive strategy would be more salutary than redirecting blame onto those who abuse their unearned privileges and perpetuate harmful myths about who deserves what. Marina Benjamin (2017) recently noted that when we treat rape as pathological—which was the default assumption in the mid-20th century—we promote a mysoginistic, racist social script on which men—especially white men—cannot control their sexual appetites in the presence of women, and therefore, rape perpetrated by a man on a woman is excusable. The evidence, however, shows that rape is not pathological: rapists respond to sanctions and rewards. This explains why 14.9% of male college students in the U.S. between 1985 and 1998 self-identified as rapists, whereas 23% of those in China and 60.7% of those in New Guinea currently do. These differential statistics owe to changing attitudes about rape, including, I believe, changing attitudes about who bears the responsibility for rape.

I am suggesting, in effect, that expressions of blame and praise are a component part of the social imaginary, and when they are used in counter-discursive ways (to combat prejudiced assumptions), they can be “epistemic counterpoints” to these myths, and conducive to social justice (Medina 2012: 269). Insofar as they play this role in our epistemic ecology, they are—in a very natural and non-mystical sense—justified.

One might object here that it suffices to identify the underlying causes of prejudice; we don’t also need to blame/praise individual actors and groups. But sociological and collectivist analyses—though useful—do not suffice to protect vulnerable individuals and groups from harm. To see this, compare the function of the responsibility system to the function of the criminal justice system.

One of the functions of the criminal justice system—according to Gregg, the main function—is to ‘quarantine’ dangerous criminals. As we saw, some crimes are un-prosecutable or very difficult to prosecute, and other harms are not crimes. What is our response to these harms? The responsibility system can, I believe, function in an analogous way to the criminal justice system, to identify and ‘quarantine’ harmful agents who are not subject to criminal sanctions. It can do this via familiar social mechanisms such as criticizing, resisting, and excluding dangerous un-convictable offenders. The responsibility system can also function simply to identify harmful groups and identify resisters, and help resisters protest the actions of oppressive groups.

This version of responsibility has a consequentialist bent, but it does not preclude retributive blame—it permits retributive blame only insofar as this attitude facilitates social justice objectives. Maybe Bruce is right that retributive blame is harmful on balance, but this leaves open the possibility that token instances of retributive blame can be justified (in the naturalistic sense of the word), and that non-retributive types of blame can also be justified. Bruce’s view also says nothing about the justifiability of praise, which may or may not be ‘desert based,’ but is certainly not retributive. It seems quite possible to get ride of retributivism without getting rid of responsibility in some other sense—unless something in human psychology prevents this. But if human psychology prevents anything, it would seem to be a thoroughgoing practical rejection of blame, as Strawson argues (1962). It is hard to imagine a world where we don’t blame people for injustice and praise people for resisting. It may be easier to redirect responsibility than extirpating it from human psychology.

  1. Take-charge responsibility: Not necessarily a good thing!

Bruce proposes an alternative to moral (strike-back) responsibility, which he calls ‘take-charge responsibility.’ Take-charge responsibility is “the kind of responsibility we can have for a project, a role, or enterprise; or, to extend it further, the sort of responsibility we can claim for our own decision and our lives” (182). Notably, take-charge responsibility is not morally valenced—it appears to be a kind of (morally neutral) self-efficacy.

The issue I have with non-moral take-charge responsibility is that it is not necessarily a good thing (objectively speaking), although Bruce describes it as a positive good—something to be valued and promoted. Yet it is not hard to imagine scenarios in which take-charge responsibility is antithetical to social justice. Suppose, for instance, that Don is a businessperson as well as a malignant narcissist, and is very efficient at harming others for personal gain. Don has developed an exceptional degree of self-control, cognitive ability, and self-confidence (imagine), and he has also inherited a fortune from his late father. Don is also a white cisgendered male. Don uses his take-charge capacities, together with his wealth and his reputation power, to systematically lie and deceive people, objectify women, profit from illegal business transactions by counter-suing plaintiffs, threatening litigants, settling cases out of court, and making other ‘gentlemen’s agreements’ and seedy backroom deals, to preserve his privilege. Eventually he even obtains a well-regarded public office. In someone like Don, take-charge responsibility is not a valuable capacity—at least, not from the perspective of social justice. It would be much better if Don were lazy, ineffectual, and terrible as carrying out his antisocial plans.

This example is meant to show that take-charge responsibility in and of itself does not facilitate social justice; it is only socially beneficial when it operates in the service of pro-social aims. When combined with a distorted moral psychology, take-charge responsibility is positively harmful. Notably, if we combine take-charge responsibility with moral sensitivity, this dual capacity looks a lot like moral responsibility, in the familiar sense of moral reasons-responsiveness (see Fischer 2006, 2012). Morally reasons-responsive agents have take-charge responsibility (self-control, self-confidence, cognitive ability, etc.) plus moral sensitivity. Agents who lack self-efficacy have motivational deficits, while agents who lack moral sensitivity have moral-recognitional deficits. That is, neither capacity on its own is as valuable as the two combined. Indeed, self-efficacy by itself can be dangerous.

Now, people with moral reasons-responsiveness are also generally taken to be apt targets of praise and blame, inasmuch as praise and blame foster and reinforce this suite of capacities. On consequentialist models like Manual Vargas’ (and perhaps Gregg’s?), responsibility attributions function to enhance the reasons-responsiveness of minimally responsive agents, and this is what justifies these attitudes.

Curiously, it seems as if take-charge responsibility would also need external reinforcements to come into existence and evolve into a durable human capability, since complex human capabilities are not innate—they are shaped by social pressures, inducements, and relationships. The capacity to speak grammatically, for example, does not develop in children who do not engage in conversations with others. Self-efficacy would seem to require similar social supports. What are these social supports? Presumably, some form of non-moral praising and blaming attitudes. Bruce should be committed then, at a minimum, to non-moral praise and blame.

Now, if we think that take-charge responsibility should ideally function in conjunction with moral sensitivity, then we also need to posit moral blame and moral praise, to foster this additional relational capability. The idea that human capabilities require social incentives and disincentives is a given in developmental psychology, so the idea that praise and blame are developmentally useful should be fairly uncontroversial. If we want to encourage moral sensitivity, then moral praise and blame may also be developmentally useful. This is true not only for children, but also for adults, since we are sensitive to social influences throughout our entire lives.

  1. Shared end, different means

In spite of my objections, I am happy to say that Bruce and I are mostly in agreement! We are both concerned first and foremost with promoting social justice, and we agree that the responsibility system as we know it is deeply unjust. Our only point of disagreement is about the best means of accomplishing our shared goal. Fortunately, our efforts are largely complementary insofar as they both draw attention, in different ways, to sources of social injustice. I can say the same about everyone who contributed to this symposium. Thank you all for the illuminating discussion!




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