Blameworthiness in Context: Inspired by Maya Angelou


Elsewhere, I have argued that blameworthiness cannot be understood independent of cultural context. While many philosophers highlight the role of the internal properties of the agent and the interaction of these properties with local features of the environment in moral appraisal, there is less attention paid to broader cultural factors. Though recent research shows that laypeople’s judgments of a person’s blameworthiness/ praiseworthiness depends heavily on context (forthcoming), this is less salient in the philosophical literature.

Reading Maya Angelou (1969) recently brought the role of cultural context into starker relief for me. Angelou relates memories of her parents’ friends sharing stories about duping and defrauding ignorant white people, in one case selling a white man worthless property in Oklahoma for $40,000 (pp. 313-320). In all of these cases, the con artist exploits the white person’s racist belief that Black people are infantile and intellectually inferior, which makes the racist particularly susceptible to being blind-sided and conned. It is also notable that, while these cons are often crimes according to U.S. law, they do not have the ordinary (or expected) effect of undermining social justice; rather, they often (1) debunk anti-Black myths, (2) punish racism with financial penalties, and (3) increase the socioeconomic status of successful Black con artists and, by extension, their communities, since (on Angelou’s description) Black communities tend to be far more interdependent and communitarian than white ‘communities.’ For this reason, when reading about these financial crimes, one shares Angelou’s sense of vindication and humour (at the victim’s expense), whereas when reading about, say, Donald Trump selling people fake college degrees, one feels exactly the opposite sentiment: moral indignation.

This reveals that the same action, thinly described (e.g., defrauding someone), can be blameworthy or praiseworthy (or more or less of either) depending on the context. We see ‘thin’ and ‘thick’ description explained by Davidson, Geertz (1973), and Williams (1985), amongst others. Donald Davidson (2001), for one, explains that one and the same action can be explicated under different descriptions: the action of flipping a light switch, for instance, can alternately be described as turning on a light, or, if there is a burglar outside, alerting the burglar that he is being watched. The second and third ‘thicker’ descriptions depend on the agent’s conscious intentions (to turn on a light, to scare off a burglar). That said, the normative significance of a given action cannot be defined simply by reference to the agent’s conscious intentions, as George Sher (2010) has shown. (Sher, for example, argues that unwitting omissions can be blameworthy, though unintentional). This implies that, even if the Black con artist’s only conscious intention was to make money, the moral import of her action is not exclusively, or even primarily, economical – it intrinsically involves the disruption of a racist social order. This contextualized-thick normative description of the action abstracts away from the agent’s mind, and homes in on the action’s functional role in the body politic. Similarly, even if Trump’s only intention is to make money, his actions cannot be described in purely economic terms – they function to undermine social justice. To paraphrase Putnam (who was talking about semantic content), moral significance ain’t in the head. Nor is blameworthiness, which derives from the contextualized-thick description of the agent’s action.

Angelou’s description of Black social mobility in postwar America reminded me of an article by Malcolm Gladwell about social mobility amongst immigrant crime factions in the U.S. Gladwell explains that Irish gangsters created organized crime rings in the mid- to late-19th Century, climbing the ‘crooked ladder’ to socioeconomic prosperity, followed by Jewish gangsters, and then Italian gangsters (as famously, albeit stereotypically, depicted in ‘The Godfather’). These immigrant gangs used the proceeds of crime to bribe politicians and regulators, and then to run for political office and open legitimate businesses, thereby sociopolitically enfranchising their ethnic communities. That is, European immigrants, to a great extent, used organized crime as a means of disrupting the xenophobic social order and gaining political representation. Perhaps the most notable thing about this historical progression is the fact that African Americans were systematically barred from climbing the ‘crooked latter’ to socioeconomic prosperity and enfranchisement, unlike European gangsters. While 20th-century European immigrants could use fake I.D.s, bribe police officers, and sell drugs with virtual impunity, Black people were segregated and targeted by racial profiling, police brutality, and biased sentencing norms. That is, there was a racist double standard. Thus, Black people were barred from the ordinary historical channels to social mobility. The same racist barriers that prevented the Black community from effectively mobilizing into criminal factions also barred them from pursuing legal routes to social mobility (e.g., buying property in white neighborhoods due to red-lining policies, getting well-paying and flexible jobs), and similar constraints factors continue to protect and amplify white privilege to this day.


Now, I’m not arguing that crime is justified – I’m merely reiterating Gladwell’s point that organized crime historically functioned (in part) to enable disenfranchised groups to achieve social mobility, forcing American society (especially cities) into a closer approximation of equality. Angelou’s narrative reveals that African Americans managed to climb the crooked ladder to a point, but their path was blocked by a glass ceiling of systemic anti-Black prejudice – as were all available legal channels. When legal paths to equality are blocked, this inevitably drives disenfranchised groups into the black market.

If we look at crimes in context, we see that the self-same crime can be more or less blameworthy/praiseworthy depending in its functional role in the broader social fabric. Some crimes promote social justice (even if they also cause distinct harms) while others reinforce racial inequality (while also causing distinct harms). This goes some way toward explaining why committing a crime of fraud by selling worthless property to a white supremacist is not morally on a par with committing a crime of fraud by selling worthless university degrees to vulnerable people. While there are several notable differences between the two cases (e.g., one victim is a white supremacist whereas the other is a decent person), surely one salient moral difference is that one crime contributes to social justice while the other subverts it. To put it succinctly, one con artist is punching up while the other is punching down. This holds even if we imagine two exactly identical crimes (in legal terms), e.g., two people defraud someone of $40,000: the moral valence of each crime depends on its role in the broader system of social relations.

At the moment, the U.S. Justice System operates on exactly the opposite principle: Black defendants get significantly harsher sentences than white defendants, even when the severity of the crime, the circumstances of the arrest, and the number of prior convictions is identical in both cases. That is, instead of giving harsher sentences to white perpetrators who exploit and entrench white privilege, courts do the opposite – they give white people more lenient sentences across the board. This can have no other effect than to undermine confidence in the justice system and weaken citizens’ sense of shared responsibility. This state of affairs reveals the justice system to be closer to legal scholar John Austin’s sanction-imposing model, as opposed to H.L.A. Hart’s ideal of civic engagement, on which the law does not threaten people, but rather instills a shared democratic sensibility. Indeed, we are remarkable far from Hart’s ideal of shared civic duty.




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