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 evaluation, whether moral, epistemic, or practical. People who excel in these capacities, particularly in the face of adversity, are praiseworthy, epistemically virtuous, or self-efficacious. They deserve laudatory treatment. These exceptional individuals, too, are capable of having functional relationships and achieving worthy goals, and for this reason, they are likely to enjoy higher wellbeing than those who lack these dimensions of human agency. These are people we want to invest in because they are reliable, versatile, 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. For example, 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 precisely those groups. If Jeff is epistemically insensitive to women’s credibility, he is not only epistemically flawed, but also morally flawed (sexist, misogynistic). If Jeff is a CEO who wants to run his company effectively, but he discounts feedback from women due to epistemic insensitivity (an epistemic flaw) or sexism (a moral-epistemic flaw), he is going to discount valuable perspectives in corporate decision-making, undermining his own pragmatic goals as CEO (see Sandra Harding 2015 on the collective effects of ignorance). 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 across circumstances and time. If Huck Finn had rebuked slavery (instead of thinking it was justified), he would have been disposed to act appropriately in response to all African Americans, not just his friend Jim. He helped Jim, which was virtuous on Nomy Arpaly’s view, 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 their epistemic profile affects oppressed groups, and how their epistemic deficits could potentially be remediated (e.g., by education, exposure to countersterotypical exemplars, the adoption of evidence-based policies, etc.). And epistemically flawed people are likely to treat marginalized groups in immoral ways because they don’t care to cultivate epistemic virtues. Furthermore, morally and epistemically irresponsible people will be poor at achieving their pragmatic goals just in case they discount evidence or distrust experts and knowledgeable people on prejudiced grounds. Clearly, those with volitional deficits (e.g., low self-efficacy) will be poor at initiating and executing morally and epistemically responsible plans, just because they are poor at executing any plans. In this way, the three salient dimensions of responsibility 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 facet 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 weaker than Socrates’ 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. A person could be morally responsible in one domain without epistemic or pragmatic responsibility, but in an unfamiliar situation, epistemic sensitivity to the demands of the situation and self-efficacy could serve to enhance moral responsibility. For example, I might be morally upstanding in my day-to-day life, but if I were to move to a different country with radically different cultural norms, I would have to learn the ropes pretty quickly to avoid committing unintentional norm violations. Jeff might have grown up in a culture infused with toxic masculinity, but he had better pay attention to changing cultural standards if he wants to avoid committing workplace harassment, and he should apologize for past transgressions. In both cases, the agent has to update his epistemic profile to respond sensitivity to accessible moral norms. In this way, heightened sensitivity across each dimension of agency enhances the robustness of the other aspects.

That said, none of these dimensions of agency is reducible or eliminable; each aspect can be individuated on the basis of its object, or the thing it tracks (moral, epistemic, or practical facts). While these capacities are ontologically distinct, they are, in effect, implicated in a positive feedback loop in which each dimension positively reinforces the others.

Responsibility across all three 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 impair 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, rooted in ACES, undermine the achievement of moral, epistemic, and pragmatic goals, and in this sense they can be seen as deficits in responsibility. Identifying these factors helps us predict and diagnose responsibility-relevant deficits in populations with responsibility-umpiring causal histories. 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 less satisfied than people high in responsibility. But more importantly for out purposes, responsibility mediates our interpersonal relationships and influences how we respond to others—whether with kindness or antisociality, with trust or distrust, with avolition or engagement. Hence, responsibility 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. When people experience responsibility deficits because of misfortune or injustice, they are entitled to community support and public health resources.

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); and it can have 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 other groups on the Project Implicit IAT, and they benefit from implicit bias against people of color, which creates de facto affirmative action for white people). 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, motivated irrationality and moral indifference are not public health problems that call for rehabilitative interventions. The government should intervene to reduce the prevalence of implicit bias in our social institutions (see Hurley 2006), but this is not because privileged people deserve public resources; it is because disadvantaged people do.

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 we can, in principle, do both, there are putative 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 her addictive impulses or for past alcohol-induced behaviour, if blame would hinder the person’s recovery. Furthermore, blame may be unwarranted 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 to childhood trauma. ACEs are a paradigmatic example of a non-culpable deficit, as children have little autonomy or volitional control, so their psychological development is not up to them. For traumatized and oppressed people, the rehabilitative approach may be more fitting.

Privileged people who lack responsibility due to their own life choices, on the other hand, are better candidates for blame, as they may not want to be rehabilitated, they may not respond well to rehabilitative interventions, and they are the authors of their own destinies (if anyone is). Blame, exclusion, and sanctions are perhaps the best approach to such people.

These claims highlight important considerations, but they fall short of providing a systematic method for attributing blame and praise. I propose the following framework, which fits with the above 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, if these interventions enhance the person’s responsibility. Privileged people who lack responsibility, on the contrary, have more than their fair share of status, respect, and resources, and may be insensitive to rehabilitative interventions, making blame the fitting response. A blaming response may also serve to condemn their role in hierarchies of oppression and alert others to their motivational deficits, contributing to an egalitarian social narrative, and protecting potential victims from their vicious behaviour. The role of praise and blame in these cases supports egalitarian aims, and this is what justifies its differential deployment.

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  about what types of response are fitting for what type of person and in what context. That said, when we hold people responsible in our daily lives, we typically do so on the basis of incomplete data. So, schematic, ambivalent attributions might be okay, and even inevitable, if we are acting under time constraints (as we do). 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, that purpose is to construct and reinforce relations of equality. To be responsible critics, we should keep this in mind when blaming and praising people.

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 byproduct of responsibility, not its end goal.


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