Responsibilities (moral, epistemic, practical), and why they matter (relational equality).


There are various kinds of responsibility identified in the philosophical literature. These include moral responsibility (e.g., Strawson, Wolf, Fischer), epistemic responsibility (e.g., Fricker, Medina), and responsibility as a kind of self-efficacy (e.g., Waller). It may not be obvious how these dimensions of responsibility intersect, but they are all tied to personhood, and to evaluative attitudes that respond to features of personhood and relevant background conditions. Without these capacities, an agent is lacking in some critical feature of personhood, something that rational humans value—either moral, epistemic, or practical agency; and people who lack these features without an excuse or extenuating circumstance are amenable to negative evaluative attitudes, whether moral blame, or epistemic censure, or practical criticism. People who excel in these capacities, particularly in the face of adversity, are praiseworthy, epistemically virtuous, or self-efficacious. They deserve laudatory treatment. These individuals, too, are capable of having functional relationships and achieving worthy goals, and for this reason, they are likely to enjoy more wellbeing than those who lack these valued features of personhood. These are people we want to invest in because they are reliable and responsive to facts.


These three capacities are interrelated in that they all function to bring about a positive achievement—a positive goal or outcome; and a deficit in any one facet could undermine the attainment of this goal or outcome, as well as the cultivation of the other facets. If Jeff the Jerk is antisocial, he may also be sexist, because in a patriarchal society it is easier to be selectively antisocial to vulnerable groups like women, and to harass and discriminate against those groups. If Jeff is epistemically insensitive to women’s credibility, he is not only epistemically flawed, but also morally flawed (sexist, arrogant). If Jeff is a CEO who wants to run his company effectively, but he discounts feedback from women due to epistemic insensitivity or sexism, he is going to discount valuable perspectives in corporate decision-making, undermining his own pragmatic goals as CEO (see Sandra Hardin 2015). While a person can be good but epistemically flawed, like Huck Finn (see Arpaly 2016), epistemic sensitivity makes moral sensitivity more likely and more robust. If Huck Finn had rebuked slavery (instead of thinking it was justified), he would have been more likely to act appropriately in response to all African Americans, regardless of acquaintance. He helped his friend Jim, but how would he have responded to other enslaved persons, with whom he had no prior acquaintance? Epistemic sensitivity seems to reinforce moral virtue, and vice versa. People who care about morality are more likely to care about how epistemic deficits harm oppressed groups, and how their own epistemic deficits can be remediated (e.g., by education, exposure to countersterotypical exemplars, the adoption of evidence-based policies) in an effective way. And ignorant people are likely to be unethical in how they treat stigmatized groups. Moreover, morally and epistemically irresponsible people will be poor at achieving their goals, if they discount evidence, refuse help, or distrust people, on prejudiced grounds. Clearly, those with volitional deficits will be poor at initiating and executing morally and epistemically responsible plans, as they will be weak at executing any actions at all. In this way, the ‘responsibilities’ are deeply intertwined.


The upshot is that people who are strong in one facet of responsibility are likely to be strong in all facets, and a deficit in one is likely to impair the others. This is something akin to Socrates’ ‘unity of the virtues thesis,’ but applied to dimensions of responsibility; yet it is a weaker thesis, because it only claims that each dimension makes the others more robust, or more resilient across different circumstances, not that each dimension is a necessary prerequisite for the others. One might be morally responsible in one domain without the help of epistemic or pragmatic responsibility, but in an unfamiliar situation, epistemic sensitivity to the demands of the situation, and the exertion of willpower the integration of this knowledge, will be critical.


Thus, while each aspect of responsibility can be disambiguated and individuated on the basis of its object, or the thing it tracks (moral, epistemic, or practical facts), these capacities appear to be implicated in a positive feedback loop in which each dimension positively reinforces the others.


Responsibility across all dimensions is also vulnerable to the same undermining or defeating factors. These factors can be congenital, but more often than not they are environmental, and environmental factors always mediate the expression of overt behaviour. To give an example: there is mounting evidence that adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), such as emotional, physical, and sexual abuse, intimate partner violence, and poverty, can be aversive to responsibility across all three dimensions. People high in ACEs (i) are more likely to commit violent criminal offenses like rape and assault as adults (Craparo 2017); (ii) are less capable of participating in epistemically valuable trust relationships (Ijzendoorn et al. 2011), and (iii) are more susceptible to depressive disorders (Chapman et al. 2004), alcoholism (Rothman et al. 2008), attempted suicide (Dube et al. 2001), and other behaviours that impair self-efficacy and practical achievement. These dysfunctions undermine the achievement of moral, epistemic, and pragmatic goals, and in this sense can be seen as deficits in responsibility. Identifying these factors helps us predict and diagnose responsibility-relevant dysfunctions in relevant populations. These populations are also prone to adverse health outcomes like ischemic heart disease, cancer, and chronic lung disease (Felitti 1998). There are positive correlations, in other words, between ACEs and responsibility deficits, and between ACEs and poor health outcomes.


Responsibility may be a mediating psychometric factor between childhood conditions and certain life outcomes, just as self-efficacy is a mediating psychometric factor between situational adversity and avolition on social cognition theory (Bandura 2006). Unsurprisingly, people low in responsibility due to adverse experiences tend to be less healthy, and potentially less satisfied, than people high in responsibility. But more importantly for out purposes, responsibility mediates our interpersonal interactions and influences how we respond to others—whether with kindness or antisociality, with trust or distrust, with avolition or engagement. Hence, responsible agency enables us to maintain and promote relations of equality.


Further, responsibility on a social cognition model is a biopsychosocial capacity, sensitive to situational factors. Thus, while it can be impaired by ACEs, it can also be remediated by trauma-informed interventions, such as CBT, heathy relationships, community support, affordable housing, and so on. These interventions can enhance responsibility, and thus relational competency.


But people with functional childhoods and privileged lives can also have significant responsibility deficits. For example, many privileged white people with no history of trauma are high in implicit bias, and implicit bias can motivate prejudiced behaviour. This behaviour is unethical, and it can also have adverse epistemic consequences, such as prompting the hiring of unqualified white candidates (see Bertran & Mullainathan 2013), as well as adverse pragmatic consequences, such as undermining corporate decision-making. (This is not to say that all privileged white people are high in implicit bias, but white people show higher implicit racial bias than others on the Project Implicit IAT, and benefit from racial bias as a group). Moreover, many privileged people also have explicit biases, whether due to ill will or indifference to the interests of disadvantaged groups. These biases similarly cause or constitute moral, epistemic, and pragmatic deficits, undermining the attainment of relevant goals. Unlike the role of ACEs, however, ill will and indifference are not public health concerns that call for rehabilitative efforts.


Deciding how to respond to responsibility deficits is not a straightforward matter, particularly as there are two oppositional approaches recommended by research on agency and public health. We can blame someone for a responsibility deficit, or we can offer a remediating intervention. While in principle we can do both, there are (contingent) tensions between the blaming response and the remediating response. If someone is in treatment for an addiction, it may be counterproductive to blame the person for his addictive impulses or past alcohol-induced behaviour, if blame would undermine the person’s recovery. Blame may also miss the mark if the person’s deficits are due to oppressive circumstances such as ACEs. We would not blame someone for failing an academic test because the person was barred from attending school, and by parity of reasoning, we should not blame someone for lacking responsibility due only to childhood trauma. ACEs are a particularly salient example, as children have little autonomy or volitional control, so their psychological development is largely up to circumstances. For traumatized and oppressed people, a rehabilitative approach may be more felicitous.


Privileged people who lack responsibility due to their own life choices are better candidates for blame, as they may not want to be rehabilitated, and may not respond well to rehabilitative interventions. Criticism and exclusion are perhaps the best approach to people who are willfully ignorant.


These claims are impressionist, but they highlight significant correlations. However, they still do not provide a systematic method for attributing blame and praise. I propose the following framework, which fits with my impressions: blame and praise should serve the purpose of enhancing relations of equality (see Elizabeth Anderson 2013), and thus, of undermining oppression. This provides a way of systematizing our impressions across cases. Victims of ACEs are victims of a type of oppression—traumatic experiences and/or poverty—and to blame them, instead of their oppressors, may serve to reinforce systemic injustice, particularly if this is part of a broader victim-blaming narrative. Offering rehabilitative interventions, by contrast, may enhance the recipient’s ability to participate fully in relations of equal standing, esteem, and authority with others, by enhancing the person’s responsibility. Privileged people who lack responsibility, on the contrary, have more than their fair share of status and respect, and are not obviously sensitive to rehabilitative interventions, so blame may be the more fitting response. Further, this response may serve to rebuke their role in hierarchies of oppression and alert others to their motivational deficits, contributing to an egalitarian social narrative and protecting potential victims. The role of praise and blame in these cases supports egalitarian aims.


These claims are still rather impressionistic, and require empirical support to be validated. If praise and blame, as I claim, ought to serve relational equality, we need to know more about how these attitudes affect people in light of their motivational profile, learning history, and social circumstances. Then we can draw accurate generalizations or rules of thumb about what types of response are fitting for what type of case. That said, when we hold people responsible in our daily lives, we typically do so on the basis of incomplete data. So, impressionistic attributions might be okay, and even inevitable if we are acting under time constraints. That said, even if we cannot know everything about a person’s circumstances, we should at least be mindful of the purpose our reactive attitudes are meant to serve when deciding how to express them.


On my view, our reactive attitudes should enhance relational equality, and we should keep this in mind when deciding on policies for how to express these attitudes, and policies for how to cultivate or socially engineer responsibility through remediating interventions, as well as which approach (punitive or rehabilitative or both) is preferable based on the particularities of the case.


In sum, responsibilities are valuable because they enable us to participate in relations of equality; that is, responsible people are in a position to contribute to a society of equals, one in which people respect each other’s moral and epistemic standing, and take the initiative to pursue and protect egalitarian goals. Responsible people do not unfairly oppress others, or undermine their own agential capacities by pursuing irresponsible and counterproductive agendas. Responsibility is also valuable because it can improve health outcomes, if it enables us to respond to situations and relationships in an adaptive way, but positive health outcomes are a happy byproduct of responsibility, not its telos.


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