Responsibility as a non-ideal conversational practice in non-ideal social conditions: 3 mediating variables


  1. Introduction: Responsibility as a non-ideal conversational practice 

On one influential school of thought, moral responsibility is an interpersonal practice in which someone deploys the reactive attitudes of blame, resentment, approbation, forgiveness, and so on, to another person (P. F. Strawson 1963). Michael McKenna (2013) describes this practice more precisely as a conversational exchange with three paradigmatic stages: (1) a moral contribution, in which someone performs a morally-relevant action, (2) a moral address, in which someone deploys the reactive attitudes, and (3) a moral accounting, in which the addressee responds to the addressor, by, e.g., taking responsibility or denying responsibility.

I think that we can hold people responsible outside of standard conversational contexts, as I have argued elsewhere, but I think the conversational model captures a paradigmatic and very familiar mode of holding-responsible, so I will use it as a basis for the present inquiry.

There are debates about whether the reactive attitudes are purely cognitive (Smart 1961), affective (Wallace 1994), or conative (Sher 2006). These debates concern the internal contents of these states, i.e., those experienced or invoked in the addressor and addressee. One of the objections to non-affective accounts is that they are ‘too sanitized,’ and do not present a realistic picture of moral psychology: even if negative affect is not an essential feature of blame, it is a characteristic feature, experienced by normal human beings in response to perceived moral violations (McGeer 2013). Non-affective accounts are often driven by normative concerns, particularly the concern that we construct a ‘civilized’ account of blame that reduces strong emotions (ibid). Whatever the benefits of this approach, it is reasonable to worry that this conception of blame is not ecologically valid.

Moreover, eve if blame is ideally unemotional, it is undeniable that blame is typically influenced (if not constituted) by affective and automatic processes, which can distort ideal judgments of blame. Thus, it is worthwhile to consider the role of these cognitive mediators. I will propose that affective and automatic states play an integral role in blame and praise.

What is even more neglected in the literature is the fact that responsibility is not simply a set of internal agential states, but rather a complex social practice, influenced by the visible attributes, body language, and lexical preferences of the interlocutors. If the reactive attitudes are part of a conversational practice, as McKenna says, this practice has lexical contents and modes of expression chosen by, or characteristic of, the speakers. Some of these are internal contents of speech (lexical), while others are expressive features of speech (vocal intonation, body language); but all of these variables, whether ‘internal’ or ‘external,’ influence how we perceive and respond to speakers in our conversational encounters. Because we respond to one another quickly and relatively automatically in quotidian conversational exchanges, we are liable to respond to the vocal and lexical mannerisms, and visible appearance, of our conversational partners.

This is already an important departure from the idealized picture of blame as a rational and impartial judgement, but it still misses an important mediating variable: social conditions. Our lexical preferences, body language, and visible appearance are not value-neutral features of our selves, accorded equal weight in our day-to-day conversational exchanges; rather, these traits are valued more or less depending on how closely they approximate to the patriarchal, colonialist, Eurocentric, heteronormative, cisgender cultural norm. The “ideal speaker” – the speaker whose practices and attributes are most respected and valued – is a social construct rooted in a historical value system that favoured, and still favors, cisgender white males, and silences or marginalizes other groups in most contexts. (There are exceptions – for example, men are seen as less credible care-takers). To this day, the speech of historically disenfranchised groups is not given the same credit or respect as the speech of cisgender white men on average (Fricker 2007). This is the source of “mansplaining” (Sonit 2012), “whitsplaining,” and other communicative practices in which the same speech content is more valued when expressed by the “ideal speaker.” If responsibility is a conversational practice, then it is a practice informed by dominant perspectives on the value of gendered, sexed, and raced speakers.

Once we see the reactive attitudes as part of a complex social practice, embedded in and informed by conditions of social injustice, the scope of analysis expands vastly beyond mere psychological investigation. Blame and praise are subject to (not only normative and psychological, but also) anthropological, sociological, linguistic, and historical analysis. Responsibility, understood as a non-ideal conversational practice embedded in non-ideal social conditions, stands at the intersection of myriad fields of inquiry.

In this post, I will explore three (I believe) somewhat under-theorized variables that inform “our responsibility practice,” by which I mean the practice in which we express and respond to praise and blame: (1) the role of empathy, (2) the lexical preferences of speakers, and (3) the physical attributes of speakers. I will discuss these variables at the level of social groups, eliding individual differences amongst groups, for the purpose of depicting general trends, in the spirit of social anthropology or feminist sociology. Since I have discussed the role of implicit bias in blaming and praising elsewhere, I will not emphasize this variable here, except when it plays a mediating role in variables (1)-(3).

2. Caveats & clarifications

Some caveats are, of course, in order. The ‘contextualizing’ or ‘situating’ of responsibility – by assessing it as a socially embedded conversational practice – is essentially a project in social anthropology, sociology, or standpoint epistemology. This means that I will be making generalizations about how empathy and group-level communicative habits affect social groups. For example, I will be saying that empathy is disproportionally experienced and enacted by women, and patterns of empathic concern disproportionally benefit cisgender white men, somewhat indemnifying them against blame and punitive sanctions. This does not mean that every individual within each group fits the operant generalization, but these generalizations point to significant social trends – trends that tell us something about responsibility as expressed and experienced by groups in our society.

Second, I will be discussing very broad groups, and will not be giving every social group equal attention, simply due to lack of space. I also will not talk much about how converging intersections of oppression compound disadvantages (particularly, susceptibility to blame), while converging intersections of privilege ramify advantages (especially indemnity against blame and penalties). But these intersections are implied if not explicit.

Third, by “our responsibility practice” I mean to refer to a conversational practice involving the reactive attitudes, where the reactive attitudes are essentially communicative acts, conveying attitudes of “resentment, gratitude, forgiveness, anger,” love, indignation, approbation (Strawson 1963: 66), antipathy (Watson 1982), as well as trust and distrust (McGeer 2008, Helm 2014). These responses mediate our interpersonal relationships in positive and negative ways, depending on how they are enacted. While these reactions likely involve emotional contents in the typical case, I am not committed to saying that conscious affect is a necessary component. As others have argued, we can communicate resentment, distrust, anger, etc., in a dispassionate way, e.g., by unemotionally “unfriending” a contact on FaceBook (viz., Smith 2013: 32). More importantly, however, we can, and often do, communicate resentment, distrust, and hostility toward others in our overt behavior, without consciously experiencing the concomitant emotions, when the resentful/distrustful/hostile (etc.) behavioural response is provoked by unconscious cognitive processes (e.g., implicit bias), without accompanying conscious affect or belief. For example, if a physician deems an African American patient insufficiently responsible to use prescription pain-killers as directed, the physician may be communicating distrustantipathy, or hostility to the patient, without consciously feeling these emotions or holding relevant beliefs about African Americans. These “attitudes” are nonetheless conveyed in the physician’s prescriptive decisions. This interpretation of the reactive attitudes accommodates many of the criticisms of both “emotional” accounts and “sanction” accounts, and resembles Smith’s communicative approach (2013), which is a good fit for the conversational model. Conversation is, after all, an essentially communicative exchange between speakers. (I am not, however, committed to Smith’s protest account, as will become clear in section 6).

Fourth, my analysis of social variables that distort our responsibility practice extends to other, non-conversational practices of holding-responsible, such as praising someone in absentia and blaming the deceased. But for this particular project, I am focusing on the conversational account as delineated by McKenna, as this is an important locus of analysis.

 3. Empathy

It is reasonable to think that empathy plays a role in our responsibility practice. (I use the term empathy broadly to encompass a range of emotional responses to what others are feeling, including sympathy and vicarious joy and anger, following Heidi Maibom 2017).  In Watson’s influential article on the reactive attitudes (1982), he surveys possible explanations for Strawson’s most controversial excuse, viz., having had peculiarly unfortunate formative circumstances. Watson says that sympathy can play a role in softening our sense of blame toward a victim of childhood trauma, but this is not a rational basis for clemency: it is, rather, an unreflective emotional response with no normative weight. Still, he suggests that sympathy plays a role in ordinary moral cognition.

Erin Kelly (2017) similarly contends that compassion is naturally elicited in response to excusing conditions, such as childhood abuse, and this emotion mollifies ordinary feelings of blame. But Kelly believes that clemency is justified because the perception of an excuse provides rational grounds for suspending or modifying or ordinary sense of antipathy. This view sees compassion as a natural, as well as normatively significant, aspect of blame.

More recently, Jesse Prinz (2011) has argued that empathy is not necessary for moral judgment, but there is an observed correlation between empathy and moral competence, or facility with making moral judgments. Antti Kauppinen (2017) argues, similarly, that even if empathy is not necessary for moral judgment, it is typically implicated in this process. Indeed, “people who lack the ability to put themselves in the place of others and feel for them… appear to have trouble with moral insight and appreciating the grounds of pro-social moral principles, even if their rational powers are largely intact” (2017: 20). If we see the reactive attitudes as a species of moral judgment – which seems nature – then there are good empirical grounds for seeing the reactive attitudes as mediated by empathy.

Notably, empathy is not elicited directly in response to the feelings of others, without mediation by other factors. Rather, its role in moral cognition is influenced by cultural stereotypes. This is shown by research on empathy and judgments of guilt or innocence.

For example, when asked to rate the guilt of a rapist in a scenario about date rape, male subjects rated the rapist as less guilty after watching a music video with high levels of female sexual objectification, and they also exhibited less empathy to the victim-survivor (Melina & Sandra 2012). That is, there was a correlation between empathy for the victim-survivor, and blame (measured by attribution of guilt) ascribed to the rapist. The experimenters surmise that the sexual imagery elicited implicit rape myths and sex role stereotypes in the male subjects, priming them to blame the victim. Although this study shows only a correlation between empathy and judgments of guilt, it is reasonable to conjecture that empathy plays a characteristic role in such judgments, and that this relationship is characteristically mediated by salient cultural stereotypes and myths.

Similarly, researchers on racial bias find that “adults view black girls as less innocent and more adult-like than their white peers, especially in the age range of 5-14” (Epstein et al. 2017). This helps to explain why Black girls are five times more likely than white girls, and twice as likely as Black boys, to be suspended at school, three times as likely as white girls to be referred to juvenile detention, 20% more likely to be charged with a crime, 20% more likely to be detained, and so on. Black boys, too, are seen as less innocent than white boys (Goff et a;. 2014), but Black girls are still twice as vilified. This is probably because Black girls stand at the intersection of two types of bias: gender and racial. Both femininity and Blackness are stigmatized (albeit in different ways) in our culture, due to the pervasiveness of stereotypes rooted in European colonial patriarchy. There is also evidence that empathy mediates judgments of guilt and innocence in general; for example, when people are given more personal information about a victim (e.g., the victim’s name), they exhibit more empathy for the victim, and blame the victim less, while blaming the perpetrator more (Phyllis & Costa 2004). This does not capture all of the dynamics of blame, of course, but it suggests that empathy, mediated by cultural stereotypes, may play a role in the cultural vilification and collective blaming of Black girls.

 Supposing that empathy mediates our attributions of guilt and innocence in a way that, on balance, vilifies women, Black people, and (especially) Black women (when relevant stereotypes are salient), what can we infer about the characteristic role of empathy in our responsibility practice? Prima facie, the interplay between empathy and cultural stereotypes produces a system of relations that, on balance, disproportionally punishes historically disenfranchised groups, and disproportionally rewards privileged groups (i.e., cisgender white males) – at least in contexts in which implicit biases are salient. (For example, women are seen as less innocent when gender bias is primed). While individuals may be more or less susceptible to empathy-mediating cultural stereotypes, the data show that responsibility as a social practice disproportionally favors the privileged. This means that they are relatively indemnified against blame and punitive sanctions.

We can trace still more general trends by evaluating the role of empathy in broad social structures. Who bears the burden of empathizing with others in our culture? And who receives the benefits of that empathic investment in the common good? This will tell us something about social roles, and how those roles influence our blaming and praising habits.

There is evidence that white people are less empathetic to Black people than other white people. For example, research indicates that white observers show less physiological arousal in response to Black people’s pain than white people’s pain, and their lack of arousal correlates with their level of implicit racial bias (Forgiarini et al. 2011). This supports the theory that there is a “racial empathy gap” that favours white people on balance (ibid). This theory, in turn, helps to explain why Black people have less access to analgesics for a range of painful heath problems, and have trouble accessing needed prescriptions (Silverstein 2013). In another experiment, subjects reported greater empathy for a white defendant than a Black defendant in a larceny scenario, as well as making attributions that were more situational (and less characterological), and assigning more lenient punishments to the white defendant (Dovido & Reed 2002). This may be why Black people are more often subjected to police searches, police violence, drug-related arrests, mandatory minimum sentences, longer sentences, felony disenfranchisement, and so on (Quigley 2016). These practices highlight the problem of systemic racism in judicial, sentencing, and enforcement norms in the U.S. (ACLU 2014). The retributive attitudes that underlie these judicial norms are part of our broader responsibility practice. It is a reasonable conjecture, then, that the racial empathy gap distorts our responsibility practice, resulting in disproportionate blame toward Black people.

Next, who is expressing empathy in our culture, and who is caring for the vulnerable? On balance, women. Longitudinal research spanning almost 40 years shows that women demonstrate higher empathic response scores than men of the same age, and the difference increases with age (Mestre et al. 2009). Empathy is expressed in the activation of mirror neutrons, and women show more activation in the inferior frontal cortex, which involves mirror neurons, when asked to focus on their own feelings or the feelings of others, compared to men (Schult-Ruther et al. 2008). Women also demonstrate more contagious yawning, which implicates mirror neurons (Norscia et al. 2016). Is it any wonder, then, that daughters provide more care to their elder parents than sons, and invest more time and resources in caretaking (Grigoryeva 2017)? Or that women still do a majority of the domestic labour, even when they earn more than their male partner in a heterosexual relationship (Layonette & Crompton 2014)? The balance of evidence shows that women are the primary empaths, and primary caretakers, in the U.S.

Who are the beneficiaries of women’s disproportionate investment of empathy and care? Predominantly cisgender white men (CWM, for short), and other white women – but, notably, CWMs are contributing far less than their fair share to the “empathy economy.” In fact, when we consider white men’s socioeconomic status (SES), it becomes apparent that they are contributing far less than they owe, and collecting far more than they deserve, generating a massive imbalance in the distribution of empathic goods and services.

White men are the wealthiest social demographic; for every dollar earned by a CWM, white women earn 82 cents, Black men earn 73 cents, and Black women earn 67 cents (Nelson 2017, Patten 2016). This is significant because there is evidence that class bias, in addition to racial bias, plays a significant role in the justice system and other social institutions. The Sentencing Project (2013) reports that poverty exacerbates racial bias: poor black defendants received sentences on average 13% longer than other defendants. Obviously rich Americans have better healthcare and better access to medicine than poor Americans, even with the Affordable Care Act. Furthermore, one study purports to show that differential empathic responses to pain in Black and white people are due to class-bias, not racial bias per se (Trawalter et al. 2016). It is reasonable to think that empathy is mediated by class bias, resulting in a system of relations that favours the wealthy, i.e., predominantly CWMs. Thus, CWMs benefit indirectly from financial privilege.

High-SES individuals benefit more, but contribute less than other groups to the empathy economy. There is abundant evidence that wealthy people are empathically impaired. For example, the wealthy are less attuned to others’ “motivational relevance”; higher-SES people pay less attention to other people in everyday contexts, and become less attentive when primed with a human face, compared to less wealthy people (Dietze & Knowles 2016). Wealthy people report less compassion, and show less heart-rate deceleration (a common empathic response to others), in response to videos depicting suffering in others (Stellar et al. 2012); they rate low in scores of empathic accuracy, judge the emotions of others less accurately, and make less accurate inferences about emotions from images of facial movements (Kraus et al. 2016); they’re more likely to cut off other drivers at intersections and pedestrians at cross walks, even after making eye contact with the person (Piff et al. 2010); and so on. This suggests that wealthy people are not contributing fairly to the empathy economy, and they may even lack the reflective capacity to do so. (These studies measure relatively automatic, unconscious responses to social cues, which are not under the agent’s immediate reflective control). The critical point is that wealthy people – predominantly CWMs – are less empathic on average than other groups.

The resulting picture is an empathic economy (so to speak) in which women do a disproportionate amount of the empathic labour, CWMs receive a disproportionate amount of the empathic rewards, and Black people are relatively empathically disenfranchised. This “secondary” economy mirrors the financial economy in that CWMs are at the top. It also, by the same token, reinforces the financial economy, encouraging women to perform low-paying, undervalued empathic (caretaking) labour, and situating wealthy white men as the normal and nature recipients of this labour, as persons whose pain matters, who deserve better healthcare, and who are presumptively innocent and credible.

If empathy mediates our blaming attitudes and practices, as the evidence suggests, this is very troubling indeed, since these imbalances will tip the scales in favor of white men. They will result, that is, in an emotional economy that unfairly blames and sanctions Black people, while offering compassion, forgiveness, and indemnity against sanctions to CWMs.

The key implication for responsibility as a social practice is that the characteristic role of empathy in our system of social relationship is to encourage unfair and disproportionate blame toward Black people, and unfair tolerance and clemency toward CWMs, on balance. Women, meanwhile, are being (in effect) emotionally extorted, but their undervalued empathic labour, while beneficial in many context (such as when elder care is needed), reinforces this racist hierarchy, at least when racial stereotypes are salient. Women should not necessarily cease empathizing, but should carefully redirect their empathy.

Some would say that we should eliminate empathy from our moral lives, including our moral responsibility practice. Perhaps most notably, Paul Bloom, the author of “Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion” (2016), argues that we should excise empathy from moral decision-making, but allows that empathy may play an important role in other aspects of social life (Robinson 2017). Whether eliminating empathy is a realistic psychological proposal, it is clear that we must, at the very least, recalibrate empathy to respond less strongly to privileged groups, and more strongly to historically disenfranchised groups, as well as encouraging men to bear more of the empathic burden. This recalibration/redistribution approach may be combined with a program of limiting the role of empathy in moral cognition, to whatever extent possible. Yet I worry that we cannot excise empathy from moral judgment without thereby excising it from social life, since the two are intimately reticulated; moral judgments are principally judgments about our relationships to other people: what we owe others, how we should treat them, etc. But the cultivation of “rational compassion” could perhaps mediate empathy in positive ways, in which case rational compassion and empathic recalibration would be complementary.

4. Communicative habits

If responsibility is indeed a conversational practice involving two or more speakers, it must involve communicative habits, such as lexical preferences and vocal register, used by the speakers involved in the exchange. This is clear enough. But these practices are not equally demographically distributed or value-neutral. On the contrary, they are unevenly distributed across demographics, and unequally valued based on their distribution patterns, and how closely they approximate to the idealized cisgender male norm. On scrutiny, these value imbalances generate inequalities in our responsibility practice.

In “Language and Woman’s Place” (1973), Robin Lakeoff argued that women have distinct (average) lexical habits, acquired through sex role socialization, and these habits are generally socially disvalued. Examples include: “weaker expletives (oh dear versus damn); trivializing adjectives (divine versus great); tag questions used to express speakers’ opinions (The way prices are rising is horrendous, isn’t it?); rising intonation in declaratives (as seen in the second part of the sequence, What’s for dinner? Roast beef?); and mitigated requests (Would you please close the door? Versus Close the door) (Tannen 1975: 10-18, cited in Kendall & Tannen 2015: 549). Later, Zimmerman and West found that men interrupt women more often than the reverse in ordinary conversations (1975, cited in Kendall & Tannen 2015: 549). Recent sociolinguistic research confirms that women’s communicative habits enhance cooperation whereas men’s enhance social dominance in general (Leaper, 1991; Mulac, Bradac, & Gibbons, 2001), and that, “on average, women use more expressive, tentative, and polite language than men…, especially in situations of conflict” (Basow & Rubenfield, 2003, cited in Merchant 2012). Furthermore, women are still interrupted more than men (Hancock & Rubin 2014), including in judicial arguments, even when controlling for seniority (Jacobi & Schweers 2017).

 Women also use distinct, acculturated vocal registers, which are also socially disvalued. These registers include creaky voice (“vocal fry”), breathy voice, whisper, and certain stylized intonations (Sicoli 2017). High instances of creaky voice have been observed amongst Chicanos as well as “upwardly mobile urban American women,” and this register is often criticized as being “annoying, irritating, or a fashion fad” (ibid., cf. Yuasa 2010, Wolk, Abdelli-Beruh & Slavin 2012). Research finds that people hold negative attitudes toward voices with vocal fry and positive attitudes to those without it (Abbey & Alison 2014). In addition, breathy voice is perceived as feminine (Borsel et al. 2009), and this perception can trigger implicit gender bias in contexts in which femininity is stigmatized, e.g., leadership positions (Hoyt & Burnett 2013) and job interviews (Latu et al. 2015).

There is also evidence that people find speakers with lower-pitched voices (i.e., predominantly male voices) more attractive, competent, and trustworthy on average (Garber 2012).

In addition to lexical and vocal patterns, speakers can express emotions in their voice. It is well known that when women express anger, they are seen as less competent, whereas when men express anger, they are seen as more competent (Brescoll & Uhlmann 2008; Brescoll & Uhlmann, 2008; Tiedens, 2001). In one study, women who expressed a dissenting opinion with anger were perceived as less convincing, whereas men who expressed the same opinion with anger were perceived as more convincing (Salerno et al. 2016).

Women are not the only group to face discrimination as a result of their acculturated vocal habits. African American Vernacular English (AAVE), spoken by many Black people, is distinguished from so-called “Standard English” (spoken primarily by white people), and is given second-class status in the popular imagination. Standard English (SE) is “valued by the general public as being more logical, more precise, and even more beautiful than other varieties,” whereas “other, nonstandard varieties are stigmatized as corrupted forms of the standard and [in most jurisdictions] kept out of the classroom” (Siegel 1999: 701). (There are some exceptions, such as the Oakland Ebonics Resolution of 1996, which mandated instruction in AAVE for native vernacular speakers; but this policy was extremely controversial and met strong resistance [CNN 1997]). Many researchers believe that preference for SE in the classroom partly explains the racial gap in average reading achievement scores (Gill 2013); AAVE speakers essentially face discrimination because their native language is not accepted as legitimate in institutional contexts, and they are forced to conform to the white vernacular standard. White children, by contrast, are not expected to do all schooling in a non-vernacular second language.

Indeed, prejudice against AAVE extends to virtually all American social institutions. Research on housing discrimination finds that applicants face discrimination even when they never meet the rental agent in person, when the applicants use AAVE or have a feminine voice on the phone; Black women were found to face the greatest discrimination (Massey & Lundy 2001). Another study finds that both Black and white managers discriminate against job applicants who use AAVE, or SE with some elements of AAVE, in phone interviews; they rated the Black applicants as being less intelligent, less ambitious, and less qualified (Henderson 2001). It is likely that Black and white managers showed similar levels of implicit racial bias (IRB) because IRB is acculturated in everyone, though white people demonstrate higher IRB on implicit association tests (Project Implicit), particularly those who live in southern and eastern states, since IRB is geographically concentrated (Mooney 2014). Bias against AAVE may also, according to linguist John Rickford, give rise to systematically racist judicial norms, as evidenced in the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin (Rigogliosi 2014).

 Trans people also face discrimination on the basis of their vocal quality. Trans folks may may or may not have gender-normative voices, but in either case, they face high rates of discrimination on the basis of vocal style. If they have non-normative vocal qualities (e.g., speaking frequency, resonance, pitch, breathiness), they face characteristic transphobic discrimination, such as refusal of medical care, housing, goods and services, workplace discrimination, and high incidences of violence (Whittle et al. 2007). If they have normative feminine voices, they face the kinds of discrimination characteristically experienced by feminine women. Those with normative masculine voices are most likely to escape voice-based discrimination, but this still leaves a majority of the trans population open to unfair treatment on the basis of their communicative habits.

Because communicative habits are largely gendered, sexed, and raced in our culture, and the characteristic communicative practices of CWMs are perceived as the normative ideal in most contexts, all other social groups face relative discrimination on the basis of their characteristic speech habits. Speakers of African American Vernacular English receive lower academic scores, are perceived as less intelligent, ambitious, and qualified for jobs, and are seen as less worthy of housing, amongst other indignities; women are perceived as less attractive, competent, and trustworthy than male speakers, and are interrupted and silenced more often, indicating that their speech is less valued and less believed; trans people face discrimination in housing, healthcare, employment, and so on. These group-level inequalities suggest that we see CWMs, on balance, as more responsible than other groups across a variety of key dimensions: as renters, homeowner, medical patients, employees, students, academics, coworkers, and knowers, or communicators of valuable information (see Fricker 2007). We see this group as presumptively responsible in these respects, and are reluctant to blame, distrust, or sanction them.

Hence, our responsibility practice is tipped in favour of speakers whose lexical habits, vocal register, and diction is stereotypically cisgender, white, and male.

5. Non-verbal communication & the body

Conversation can take place on the phone or a voice chat app, but it often occurs in person. This makes room for habits of non-verbal communication and physical appearance to play a role in speaker perception.

Feminist philosophers have analyzed how women’s physical embodiment is inscribed by patriarchy, in such a way that women’s bodies, on average, are smaller than men’s, and take up less space (Beauvoir 1964); women’s gender-normative clothing, including dresses, fitted clothing, long hair, and high-heel shoes, are more constraining, and women’s normative body language is confined, tentative, and uncertain (Young 1990: 145-147). Women do not “manspread,” or extend their bodies in space, to the same extend as cisgender men. Fat women are perceived as “unruly” and “problematic,” because they do not conform to the ideal of femininity: small, delicate, and “disciplined” (Gay 2017). Weakness, childishness, and vulnerability are sexualized in women but not in men (Wade 2013).

Women who violate the norms of feminine embodiment – who take up physical space – are punished. Weight-based discrimination affects people’s employment prospects, educational experiences, romantic relationships, health care accessibility, and mental health treatment, but it disproportionally harms women (Fikkan & Rothblum 2012). For example, men report significantly less desire to work with a fat woman, but show no similar bias against working with a fat man (Jasper & Klassen 1990). Anecdotally, it appears that women who “manspread” attract more stares and glares, whereas men who do the same are seen as more attractive (Petter 2017). Women who wear high heels (Gueguen 2016) and have long hair (Mesco & Beresczkei 2013) are more sexualized by straight men.

This suggests that women who violate feminine norms of non-verbal communication and physical embodiment are perceived as being less responsible across several key domains, including; as homeowners, tenants, employees, and coworkers. They also are seen as less eligible sexual partners, meaning that they are punished or sanctioned as sexual agents. While this population may not be explicitly criticized for defying binary gender norms, they are, in effect, treated with distrust and antipathy in relevant domains.

In addition, people with gender-nonconforming mannerisms – such as men with feminine body language and bodily comportment, or women with masculine features – are liable to similar kinds of discrimination, viz., in housing, employment, and relationship opportunities. They face similar distrust and antipathy in central aspects of their lives.

6. Relational equality

I have argued that the role of empathy, lexical preferences, and physical embodiment in our responsibility practice – defined as an interrelated network of conversational exchanges – biases this practice in favour of CWMs and against other social groups, at least, in contexts in which relevant stereotypes are salient. (For example, women are disfavored in leadership roles, but not in caretaking roles, since women are perceived as “natural caretakers”). These inequalities create biased responsibility attributions across key institutional domains (medicine, the law, education), as well as our interpersonal relationships.

How can we rectify these distorting biases? Clearly, we cannot treat our responsibility practice as independent of our broader context of institutional and social interactions, since it is a constitutive part of this human “ecosystem,” and cannot, in practice, be dissociated from it, or analyzed in isolation without remainder. The biases that affect broader social systems necessarily affect responsibility as a part of that network. Attempts to isolate constitutive features of responsibility, without taking into account this broader picture, may be illuminating in their own right, but they are necessarily incomplete.

There are various proposals for how to address inequalities and biases, some of which I have discussed elsewhere, but addressing these questions is beyond the scope of the present analysis. Instead, I will make some closing statements about the relation of responsibility to equality.

While philosophers have devoted much time and attention to analyzing the nature of excusing and exempting conditions and the psychology of blame and praise, they only recently revived the idea that responsibility is for something, i.e., has a particular function in our shared social life. Functionalist proposals include that blame enhances moral agency (Vargas 2008), protests moral violations (Smith 2012), expresses certain moral values (Franklin 2012), and shields moral communities from harm (Bell 2012). These proposals are all prima facie compelling, but we might seek a unifying thread that ties them together. If I am right that inequality systematically distorts our perceptions and judgments of responsibility, then one of the central aims promoted by any moral conversationalist should be equality, or the reduction of bias. Hence, at least one of the functions of responsibility – perhaps the main function – should be to cultivate equality, in order for the practice of holding-responsible to be fair, equal, and mutually respectful. If this practice is not fair, then disenfranchised groups have no good reason to want to participate in it, and the “moral community” that Strawson envisioned is impossible. As things stand, many people are morally disenfranchised and have very little reason to trust others or expect responsibility attributions to be rational. Hence, enhancing equality is a primary goal for anyone interests in having a legitimate responsibility practice, as opposed to a weak facsimile in which blame and praise reinforce historical oppressions.

Moreover, enhancing equality helps to enhance other, higher-order goals, including: enhancing the moral agency of the group, protesting moral violations (insofar as they pertain to fairness, equality, and the dignity of persons), expressing a commitment to important moral values, and shielding the moral community from systemic injustice. So, enhancing equality enhances the aims touted by other functionalists. Indeed, this aim may be logically prior to the others, insofar as having a community in which trust and cooperation are expected and exchanged is prerequisite to realizing these other moral goals.

The importance of equality outside of financial transactions is defended by Elizabeth Anderson (2015), who promotes the value of relational equality, or equality of authority, esteem, and standing. Relational equality ensures justice on an institutional and interpersonal level. This view is distinguished from classic distributive theories of justice (e.g., Ralws), which focus narrowly on the fair distribution of financial resources, ignoring non-monetary values such as dignity and respect. These distributive theories, on scrutiny, are condescending and disrespectful to the socially disenfranchised and marginalized, who are viewed as, in effect, charity cases who need handouts from generous benefactors. Instead of seeing the vulnerable as pitiable and wretched, justice in the true sense requires that we see the least well-off as equal citizens, deserving of equal respect and standing with other citizens. This perspective on what we owe to others treats the historically disenfranchised with the dignity that they deserve as persons.

Notably, one of the social practices within the purview of relational equality is our responsibility practice, and this practice fails to treat historically disenfranchised groups with the respect that they deserve, due to the influence of hegemonic stereotypes. To achieve the ideal of relational equality, then, we need to rectify inequalities within our responsibility practice. But these two goals are co-implicated in a positive feedback loop, since achieving relational equality requires purging our responsibility practice of harmful biases, and eliminating biases from our responsibility practice requires relational equality. We must pursue these ends, then, at the same time. The thing to do is to be vigilant about cultural stereotypes and myths, and debunk them whenever possible, and as effectively as possible, as this will advance both ends simultaneously. In other words, to advance relational equality within our responsibility practice and elsewhere, we need to look beyond any individual context, to the role of cultural stereotypes in broader cultural narratives and public discourses. The project, then, is an extremely copious and interdisciplinary one, which requires cooperation and constant effort.

7. Concluding remarks



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.

Charlottesville and the responsibilities of political actors: A resistance model of responsibility

Written as an ally.

The Charlottesville white supremacy rally

trump comment charlottesville.jpg

In response to the white supremacy rally in Charlottesville yesterday, Donald Trump stated that he condemned the “hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides” – which is just the kind of tepid and dithering statement that we’ve come to expect from the President. This is the same man who received the endorsement of former KKK leader David Duke during his campaign, and, rather than reject the endorsement outright, prevaricated and pretended ignorance, stating that he “would have to look at the group… I mean, I don’t know what group you’re talking about.” Duke participated in the Charlottesville rally, and publicly reaffirmed his support for Trump.

Later, Trump rebuked the white supremacists in a press conference, but it was 48 hours after the event, in an apparently prepared statement, written by someone else. Not 24 hours later, he re-affirmed his original claim that there was wrongdoing “on both sides.”



In contrast, the mayor of Charlottesville, Michael Signer, immediately rebuked the white supremacists to the press, and held Trump partly responsible, saying, “I’m not going to make any bones about it. I place the blame for a lot of what you’re seeing in America today right at the doorstep of the White House and the people around the President.” Later, Signer said that Trump has emboldened white supremacists to rally and commit violence in his town, pointing to “the campaign he ran” as evidence of culpability.

Signer is not the only one to assert that Trump is responsible for inflaming racism and emboldening racists to commit violent acts, increasing the level of overt racism in America. In fact, this claim seems relatively uncontroversial. (This is not to say that there is quantitatively more racism than before, but that racism is becoming more explicit and, hence, more violent). This claim has interesting implications for theories of responsibility that treat blame and praise as responsibility attributions, expressive acts, or ‘reactive attitudes’ (Strawson 1963).

In this entry, I’ll explore the ability of competing theories of responsibility to make sense of Signer’s claim that Trump is responsible for the rally in Chalottesville. I’ll suggest that a resistance model of responsibility, akin to the resistance model of epistemology, better captures how activists hold political actors and public figures responsible for wrongdoing. Blame and praise, on this model, function to promote relations of equality, which in turn allow us to hold one another responsible in a fair and proportional manner.

The alternative theories that I will consider are (what I will call) control theory, character theory, agency-enhancement theory, group agency theory, and finally, my preferred theory of resistance.

Four theories & a proposal

Very early in this blog, I distinguished between two classic theories of responsibility: one that ties responsibility attributions to control, and another that ties responsibility attributions to character. On the control view, people are only responsible for choices that are under their control, or traceable to past instances of voluntary choice, while on the character view, people are responsible for actions that express their deep-seated character traits, regardless of whether or not they have control over those traits. Many philosophers hold views that approximate to one or the other of these descriptions, which resemble the ‘accountability view’ and ‘attributability view’ as described by Watson (1996).

There is also a third prominent view, on which responsibility attributions function to enhance the target agent’s reasons-responsiveness, and are justified insofar as they serve this purpose. This view is consequentialist, whereas the previous two are typically construed as desert-based.

In contrast to these direct, face-to-face models of responsibility, in which praise and blame are addressed directly to the target agent (at least, in the paradigm case), there are group theories of responsibility, which hold individuals responsible for the collective actions of the group. One prominent example is List and Pettit’s theory of corporate agency.

I will argue that none of these theories succeeds in underwriting the claim that Trump bears responsibility, in a substantive sense, for the rally in Charlottesville. More broadly, these theories are not capable of underwriting our shared practices of holding public figures (publicly) responsible for their normatively significant choices – shared practices that we engage in regularly, and that make substantive democracy possible. I urge that we move to a resistance model of responsibility, on which praise and blame serve to foster a shared sensitivity to moral facts and, correspondingly, a shared democratic sensibility.


The control view holds agents responsible if they are capable of exercising control over their choices, past and present, and capable of foreseeing the consequences of those choices.

At the present moment, Trump cannot, by his own choices, restore the country to the lower decibel of overt racist resentment that existed prior to his inauguration, simply because racist factions have taken on a life of their own, and cannot now be reined in by any single actor. (This speaks to the general inadequacy of ‘atomistic views,’ so-called by Vargas [2013], to which I will return shortly). So, Trump can’t control the effects of his actions.

It is also unlikely that Trump could have foreseen these effects, even in coarse-grained detail, since he could not even have foreseen his election win based on prior poll results, much less the multitude of consequences that followed, down to the (very specific) rally in Charlottesville. There is also a substantive question as to his reflective capabilities, which many commentators have remarked on, and this casts doubt on his ability to project realistic future scenarios and make viable plans. If he cannot do these things, then he cannot be responsible for subjectively unpredictable eventualities like racist rallies. But even a more reflectively capable person could not have foreseen an event as specific as the Charlottesville rally, nor the incident of  domestic terrorism that took place there.

Notably, the influential control theorist J.M. Fischer (2012) has debated M. Vargas (2005) on the degree of foresight needed to be responsible for an action outcome. The two philosophers question whether a hypothetical jerk named Jeff could have foreseen his gradual descent into jerkdom, evolving from a relatively benign teenager into a hostile middle manager. Vargas argues that even medium-grained foreseeability is too much to expect of human beings, who have extremely limited epistemic capacities – which is not to mention that we are highly susceptible to cognitive biases that undermine our forecasting abilities, such as affective ignorance (see Haybron 2008), planning fallacy, and self-serving bias. These biases can lead us to misjudge how things will go for us and how we’ll adapt to different situations. Another confounding factor in predictive reasoning is the possibility of transformative experiences, which L.A. Paul describes as character-changing but difficult to anticipate and impossible to forecast in full (2015). A transformative experience could turn someone from a saint into a jerk and vice versa quite expectedly.

At the end of the day, we can’t know for sure whether someone like Jeff the jerk was capable of foreseeing his jerky future self, since we can’t see into his mind; but I think that Vargas’ argument wasn’t meant to solve this problem, so much as to call into question the utility of a metric that requires this high a degree of second-person access to another’s subjective states. We blame and praise people every day without knowing much about them – especially public figures, whose lives are a mystery besides their curated online profile.

Trump seems to be a lot like Jeff, except that he became president. Could Trump have foreseen that he would become, not only POTUS, but a POTUS who fuels explicit racism and violence against historically disenfranchised groups, eventuating in a white supremacy rally and an act of domestic terrorism in Charlottesville? It would be difficult for anyone to predict this outcome, since it depends on the sympathetic cooperation of many other people, some of whom typically operate under a low profile. Surely it doesn’t require a comprehensive sociological analysis to determine whether a public figure is responsible for collective harms, perpetuated by his supporters and committed in his name. Trump in particular seems incapable of this degree of analytical rigour, but this has not prevented people from blaming him for his negative influence on the political climate.

Trump is an interesting case study because, as president, he has such a wide sphere of influence. The paradigm case of responsibility attribution – particularly in Strawsonian accounts, but also more generally – is a dyadic interpersonal exchange between two people: A harms B and B blames A if A has the requisite capacities or traits. In the Jeff scenario, Jeff directly harms his employees, who are in a position to hold him directly accountable. (They might hold him accountable through an intermediary such as the HR department, but this is still just one remove from a direct dyadic relation). If Signer is right that Trump has emboldened white supremacists to commit harassment and violence, then he has provoked a set of negative effects indirectly, through the sympathetic choices of many intermediary agents, and he has harmed entire social groups, also indirectly via intermediaries. This marks a significant departure from the paradigm dyadic scenario. When someone’s sphere of influence is this wide, it becomes much harder to envision the likely consequences of the person’s choices in any grain of detail, since the effects of the person’s choices depend on the uptake or sympathetic response from the community, and it is difficult to anticipate this scale of collective activity.

These complications make it difficult to assess a political actor’s responsibility in terms of control.


Character theory holds an agent responsible for his* character traits or moral personality.  On this view, it doesn’t matter if Trump could have foreseen the consequences of his actions – he’s responsible for his ingrained virtues and vices.

This view might support the contention that Trump is partly to blame for the rally in Charlottesville, but only if we trace those events to Trump’s character flaws. A similar problem arises here, since Trump did not directly cause or expressly endorse the Charlottesville rally, he merely incited sympathetic actors to express bigotry according to their own values and means. But if Trump in fact emboldened them to act more overtly than they otherwise would have, there is at least a relation of counterfactual dependence  between his choices as president and the choices of sympathetic white supremacists. This counterfactual relation could, theoretically, ground a blaming response that links Trump’s character to the Charlottesville rally.

There are salient weaknesses to this analysis, however. Perhaps the main one is the indirectness of the relation between Trump and the actions of the white supremacists. Since Trump didn’t explicitly endorse the rally, he doesn’t seem to have the (robust) character traits required to be deemed responsible in characterological terms, except in the most indirect and diluted sense. Once again, it’s hard to say for sure, since most philosophical examples deal with direct causal chains between character traits and consequences, such as helping your friend out of fellow-feeling (Arpaly 2014) or forgetting your pet in the backseat of a hot car due to lack of appropriate consideration (Sher 2010). In these well-trodden examples, the agent’s character is embodied and expressed in her own physical form. It is not clear that we can hold someone attributability-responsible for character traits expressed and enacted, not through the primary agent’s embodied actions, but through a chain of actors acting in sympathy with him, or in a spirit of cooperation and rapport with him. In the multi-actor case, the causal link is extended and ramified indefinitely in social space, and can take unpredictable twists and turns, depending on the composition of the chain. It is not clear how to evaluate these cases of sympathetic action on the basis of either the choices, or the character traits, of the principal actor – the one who sets in motion the chain of action.


Manuel Vargas provides a third perspective (2013). He says that responsibility attributions are appropriate insofar as they enhance the recipient’s agency through the exercise of his rational faculties. (One cannot simply cajole or coerce the person – these manoeuvres are not constitutive of responsibility-holding per se). On this model, we should hold Trump responsible only if doing so is likely to positively influence his behaviour. Since Trump seems fairly non-responsive to criticism in general, blame is generally inappropriate. Moreover, since normal people don’t have a direct relationship with the President, we can’t influence him directly; we can only publish, tweet, blog, etc., favourable or unfavourable comments about him, which he probably won’t read and wouldn’t take seriously anyways. But then, what are doing when we express these attitudes? We might be engaging in editorializing practices or political resistance, but this doesn’t count as ‘holding responsible’ in Vargas’ sense: it is external to the ‘responsibility system’ within which we address each other as rational peers.

Strawson holds a similar view on which the reactive attitudes must be addressed directly to the primary actor – otherwise these acts are external to the ‘participatory stance’ in which we address one other as rational agents. Indirect criticisms may serve the purpose of excluding, treating, or managing the object of censure, but not of holding that person responsible. These indirect expressive practices putatively help to consolidate the moral community and banish outsiders, so they serve an important regulatory function, but it is not a function that ‘responsiblizes’ ingroup members – rather, it keeps out bad apples.

In ore specific terms, Strawson says that we should take ‘the objective attitude’ toward a non-responsive person, as a way of excluding the person from our social sphere. One can see how the is attitude would serve an effective regulatory function in intimate social circles, since ingroup members would be encouraged to cooperate and respect one other, while excluded individuals would be outcast and ‘quarantined,’ so to speak. I can expel someone from my social group and never see her again. But the objective attitude doesn’t work this way when addressed to public figures whose choices affect everyone’s lives through expansive institutional channels, whether we like it or not. The objective attitude, by definition, excludes blaming attitudes, which are reserved for peers. But excluding and isolating political actors is useless, since there is no direct interpersonal relationship linking the offended individual or social group to the offensive political actor.

This raises the question: what pragmatic function can silence and ostracism serve in a society in which political actors are untouchable, and silence has enabled generations of racial oppression and white privilege? At a vigil for the Charlottesville victims last night, a participant held up a sign saying, “white silence = violence.” Many participants also denounced Trump’s tepid response and inaction. In other words, vigil-holders blamed Trump and his cabinet, even though they were not present. Activists rejected silence as a form of complicity in racial injustice. The rationality of taking the objective stance is called into question when social exclusion is impossible, and withholding judgment amounts to complicity.

It is worth mentioning that this critique also speaks against responsibility nihilism, the view that we should do away with praise and blame altogether. Activists demand that we ‘speak justice to power’ rather than remaining silent and allowing the status quo to roll forward.

Group Agency

It might be useful to look at Trump, and other political actors, through the lens of group agency.

List and Pettit influentially describe a group agent as a collection of intentional agents who (1) intend to collectively perform a given goal, (2) intend to do their part to achieve that goal, (3) believe that others share the same group intention, and (3) each believe that the first three conditions are met. In a very loose sense, a nation state could satisfy these conditions, inasmuch as citizens are (ideally) working together toward democratic goals held in common and intend to foster those goals. Like corporations (paradigmatic group agents), nations are hierarchically structured and stratified; but in nations, this is a serious problem, since established hierarchies are colonialist and patriarchal, not desert-based, rational, or conducive to democratic ideals. As a result, nations barely quality as group agents (if at all), since socially privileged groups are actively undermining the common good and subverting the rational grounds for cooperation. This was evidenced in Charlottesville, where white supremacists rallied to preserve the unearned historical privileges to which they were never entitled – privileges that fundamentally undermine the functioning of democratic institutions and the cultivation of a shared democratic sensibility. Nonetheless, the U.S. officially (on paper) aspires to be a group agent in which all citizens are equal and committed to justice, even if the reality is a far cry from the ideal.

Trump’s cabinet might be a better candidate for group agency, since it is more coherent, coordinated, and interdependent. The pertinent question concerns how responsibility should be allocated to Trump and other members of his cabinet, seen as a group agent.

 On List and Pettit’s view, group agents can be held responsible for their actions, and members of those groups can bear different kinds of responsibility depending on their role in the group. ‘Designers’ are responsible for laying down the group’s operating procedures, ‘members’ are responsible for performing their designated role within the group, and ‘enactors’ are responsible for what they do in the group’s name. Even if particular members have no control over the actions of the group as a whole (e.g., actions taken by the administration), they bear responsibility for those actions by sheer affiliation (List & Pettit 2011, p. 164). One of the reasons for loosening the constraint of individual-level control for members of a group agent (compared to individuals) is that attributions of corporate responsibility, according to List and Pettit, serve a partly ‘responsiblizing’ function: even if “it may not be strictly appropriate to hold [the group responsible, since some of the conditions necessary for fitness for responsibility are missing… holding it responsible may actually prompt the grouping to incorporate and organize against the condemned behaviour” (p. 169). That is, we do not restrict blame to principal members of group agents (like administrators, managers, and boards of directors), since holding the entire collective responsible, even when individual-level control is lacking, incites members to enforce codes of conduct within the organization. The posited ‘responsibilizing’ function of corporate responsibility is similar to the agency-enhancing rationale of Vargas’ model, except that corporate responsibility can influence principal agents via ancillary group members, whereas responsibility in Vargas’ sense must target the principal agent directly.

If the U.S. is seen as a (barely cohesive) group agent, then every citizen is responsible for the current state of racial injustice and specific incidents like the Charlottesville rally. But this analysis doesn’t make much sense, since many citizens are engaging in active resistance, including the counter-protestors in Charlottesville. Blame should be restricted to racist groups and their sympathizers instead of blanketing the population indiscriminately.

Instead, Trump’s cabinet might be held responsible, as a group agent, for failing to intervene adequately to combat racial oppression, inciting racist demonstrations. In his role as president, Trump may be especially blameworthy for the collective choices of his cabinet, while each cabinet members is responsible for his or her contribution. These layers of responsibility (leader versus member) do not dilute or cancel our one another, but are, according to List and Pettit, compatible and non-interfering. This is justified by the responsibilizing function of corporate responsibility.

This analysis expands the scope of Trump’s responsibility, since he can be held responsible for the actions of his cabinet (including, for example, Steven Bannon, his appointed White House Chief Strategist and former Executive Chair of Breitbart News). But it does not seem to license us to hold him responsible for the Charlottesville rallies, any more so than the dyadic paradigm. The limit of Trump’s responsibility is demarcated by the limits of the coordinated groups to which he belongs on group agency theory. Even if Trump’s choices incite full-fledged group agents (like white supremacist organizations) to express and enact overt racism, he is not an inclusive member of those groups, so he cannot be held responsible for their actions in corporate-responsibilty terms. This is not to say that holding him responsible would not have a ‘responsibilizing’ effect on him as an individual, but this is outside of the scope of List and Pettit’s model, which confines the responsibilizing function of corporate responsibility attributions to group agents.

It might be worth looking at responsibility from a political perspective, taking as a starting point the role of the individual as political agent embedded in structures of oppression.

The resistance view


Epistemic responsibility plays an important role in theories of epistemic justice, which take social injustice as the starting point for theorizing about the production of knowledge. Social epistemologists also write about moral responsibility, typically as a metric different from, but connected with, epistemic responsibility. Moral reasons-responsiveness requires, but outstrips, sensitivity to epistemic factors (i.e., epidemic responsibility). In particular, epistemic responsibility requires sensitivity to a person’s epistemic qualities, and awareness of stereotypes that interfere with this sensitivity, while moral responsibility requires sensitivity to a person’s moral qualities (goodness, badness), and awareness of factors that confound moral sensitivity. But these capacities are interrelated. If we distrust someone of the basis of her demographic attributes, we are likely to perceive the person as less innocent, and to respond irrationally to her moral testimony. This undermines Strawson’s ideal of a moral community in which moral agents treat each other as rational peers, as well as the possibility of relational equality.

More straightforwardly, if we are insensitive to a person’s epistemic status due to implicit racial bias, we are, by the same token, racist, and racism is a moral failing, not just an epistemic failing. Deficits in epistemic responsibility are therefore deficits in moral responsibility. Deficits in both capacities undermine the possibility of substantive equality.

Theorists like Jose Medina (2015) are aware of these links between political, epistemic, and moral responsibility, and treat these aspects of agency as deeply interrelated and interdependent. On Medina’s view, political, epistemic, and moral agency are all implicated in the capacity for ‘democratic sensibility,’ which makes a functioning substantive (not merely procedural) democracy possible. The telos of this triad of capacities – or at least a central telos – is a shared democratize sensibility –  a suite of traits that enables people to achieve relational equality, in Elizabeth Anderson’s sense (2016). Relational equality is not just procedural democracy, but an ideal of democracy characterized by equality of standing, esteem, and authority. The triad of agential capacities overlap and intersect in democratic agents, creating the human potential for relational equality.

Epistemic and moral responsibility are capacities that enable agents to respond to epistemic and moral reasons, respectively, in a way that enhances democratic participation and relational equality. These sensitivities enable us to cooperatively pursue democratic ends.

Of course, moral responsibility serves more than these democratic ends, but democratic ends are central. It is hard to know how to act morally responsibly outside of a sphere of democratic relations in which citizens respect each other’s agency. Moreover, it is impossible to hold one another responsible in a fair and rational manner outside of relations of substantive equality. So relational equality and moral responsibility are interdependent. They interact in a positive feedback loop in which each value enhances the other.

On Medina’s view, fostering a shared democratic sensibility requires that we give people the credit they deserve – that is, that we respond sensitively to their epistemic characteristics, practising epistemic responsibility. Only this will allow us to participate in the communicative engagements that underwrite substantive democracy. But if moral responsibility is also required for substantive democracy, then we must also respond sensitively to people’s moral characteristics, cultivating moral responsibility. Medina does not address this capacity at length, but it’s not hard to see why moral responsibility is required for relational equality. In the U.S. (and elsewhere), Black children are seen as older and guiltier than white children. Personifying this bias, the President recently dismissed his son’s (possibly treasonous) meeting with Russian officials by referring to Trump Jr. as a “good kid” and a “good boy,” exemplifying the discrepancy between society’s treatment of white versus Black children. This discrepancy continues into adulthood, with African Americans being incarcerated at nearly five times the rate of white people, and at least ten times the rate in five states. These are just two examples; one could fill encyclopedias with statistics about racism in America. These examples show that our shared practice of holding one another responsible is undermined by racial injustice, which similarly undermines the potential for relations of equal standing, esteem, and authority. That is, racial bias corrupts our responsibility system and our democracy.

In this climate, no one is as morally responsible, or as democratically fit, as they should be.

Medina’s response to this problem is an “epistemology of resistance,” which aims to foster a shared democratic sensibility by focusing on dissensus rather than consensus. Historically, the principles of a just society were thought to derive from a rational process that fosters consensus –  a process epitomized in Rawls’ ‘original position.’ Medina rejects the consensus approach on grounds that it is homogenous, non-interactive, and static. This model fails to take into account the changing realities of real people, and fails to make use of the diversity of epistemic positions available in the polis, instead forcing diverse perspectives into a homogenizing formula – a kind of ‘binding arbitration’ that favours the majority and marginalizes dissenting voices. Medina prefers a ‘resistance model’ that seeks out conflict and prioritizes marginalized perspectives, treating them as untapped sources of epistemic insight. Within this model, we do not treat all knowledge claims as equal – we give more space and attention to marginalized testimony.

In developing this approach, Medina shifts the focus of epistemic theorizing from Descartes’ atomistic model (‘armchair philosophy’), to the sphere of real-life interactions, in which knowledge is the result of concrete interpersonal interactions which can be knowledge-preserving or knowledge-undermining depending on whether epidemic currency is fairly distributed. Strawson similarly situates responsibility attributions in a shared social environment – a ‘moral community’ – but he says nothing about inequalities within this sphere. What would it mean to theorize moral responsibility against a backdrop of social injusitce? What would a ‘moral responsibility of resistance’ look like?

I’m going to try to imagine that theory here.

To begin, it would take social injustice as a focal point, and would concentrate on the unequal distribution of moral currency in our society – a distribution that gives white people presumptive higher moral standing, esteem, and authority than people of color, thwarting the prospect of relational equality. Moral responsibility would be conceived, at least in part, as a sensitivity to people’s moral qualities, as well as the systemic factors that undermine our sensitivity to these qualities, such as racial injustice, sexism, homophobia, etc. Within this system, blame and praise would function to resist oppression and restore substantive equality. That is, the reactive attitudes would serve to alert people to their unchecked white privilege, insensitivity to racial injustice, and role in systems and processes that oppress disenfranchised groups. These attitudes would target those who incite racism and embolden racists to act unjustly and oppressively on their behalf.


This contextualized, historicized, and politicized notion of moral responsibility is particularly adept at holding political actors responsible for the indirect and mediating effects of their choices and actions. It allows us to blame unfit leaders for their role in tainting the public discourse with their toxic beliefs, attitudes, and values, and does not require us to diagnose their cognitive states in precise terms or undertake complex sociological prognoses. It redirects our attention from the individual’s embodied self to the person’s relation to to the group and role in fostering or poisoning relational equality and substantive democracy. It enjoins us to hold people responsible for advancing or undermining these democratic, moral, and epistemic ideals. Notably, his model of responsibility cuts across the competing model of responsibility, inasmuch as it doesn’t confine responsibility attributions to control or character or the limits of a corporate organization, though it may take these dimensions into account when formulation a specific expression of praise or blame (e.g., we might blame someone for not exercising due control). But resistance-based responsibility has a fundamentally ‘responsibilizing’ function, though it does not necessarily address the target agent directly; it can function to correct flaws in the public discourse or ‘social imaginary’ to promote relational equality.

On this view, it makes sense to hold Trump responsible for the events in Chalottesville, insofar as doing so plays a valuable remediating role in our social imaginary – specifically, it enhances relations of substantive equality, improving our prospects of becoming morally responsible as a group, and promoting substantive democracy.

Medina’s work is instructive in other ways. For one, he talks about the role of the social imaginary, or shared set of interpretive resources, in promoting or undermining shared knowledge. A flawed social imaginary, in which racism is promulgated and naturalized, undermines epistemic responsibility and the accumulation of knowledge. But what is the effect of a flawed social imaginary on moral responsibility? In brief, this state of affairs prevents us from exercising our capacity for moral responsibility in a responsible or adaptive way, i.e., a way that is sensitive to people’s moral and epistemic qualities. It prompts us to respond unfairly to people on the basis of their demographic attributes instead of their character. To foster moral responsibility, we need to correct imbalances in the responsibility system, meaning we need to combat systemic discrimination. This includes blame and praise people for their role in fostering or frustrating relations of equality.

Another interesting feature of Medina’s account is the notion of ‘chains of actors,’ which are not quite group agents, but are nonetheless ontologically and morally substantive entities (on my reading). Chains of actors are a precursor to group agents; they are often incipient or embryonic group agents, which are not yet cohesive and self-aware social collectives, but are on the path to coordinated activity. The civil rights movement, in the earliest stages, is a salient example. Chains of actors don’t satisfy the requirements of group agency, as they are not coordinate, interdependent, or aware of belonging to a coordinated group, but they are a critical developmental stage in the formation of a group agent. They are the process through which individuals mobilize into politically efficacious groups.

Notably, people can belong to chains of actors without having any substantive relationship or direct contact with one another. They only need epistemic and moral affinities. That is, to belong to a chain of actors, one only needs to share values and attitudes with a critical mass of others. These attitudes can be implicit or explicit, so long as they are expressed in overt behaviour. Hence, people who express racist values but deny being racist can still belong to a chain of actors. Because the inclusion criteria of chains is lower than that for group agents, it is easier to label ordinary citizens as members of chains. In fact, chains are a pervasive part of modern democracies, since they encompass the myriad subcultures and informal social groups in which we are immersed.

 Returning to the Charlottesville rally: while active participants in the rally may have qualified as group agents, a broader range of sympathetic actors who did not participate in the rally, but condoned it in spirit or shared sympathies with the participants, could be qualified as belonging to a chain of actors, including but not limited to the active participants. The limits of chains of actors are necessarily blurry, since it is hard to identify members of uncoordinated and dispersed collectives who may not even identify themselves as part of the chain – indeed, they may sincerely deny that there is any such chain, since many members of rape culture do (because they do not admit that rape is a pervasive problem).  However, enlightened third parties can sometimes identify members of chains on the basis of their isomorphic actions, which may expresses certain sympathies or affinities shared in common. As with group agents, members of chains bear responsibility not only for their own embodied actions, but also for the actions of the chain, since they are voluntary participants and constitutive elements of the collective. Their sympathy with the chain enables the chain to exist, thrive, and have an effect.

On this view, Trumps’ response to the rally, and general attitude toward racial injustice, situate him in a chain of actors that includes the rally participants. This makes Trump partly responsible for the rally even though he did not participate or explicitly endorse it.

Indirect blame and praise

On the view that I have proposed, reactive attitudes do not need to be addressed to the named agent, unlike the paradigmatic dyadic model. But why should I take this to be the case?

One reason is that social agents are capable of responding to mediated blame in diffuse contexts just as well as to direct blame in dyadic contexts. Thus, there is no principled reason to confine blame to the face-to-face paradigm. If I blame someone through an intermediary, I manage to express my reactive attitude to the person, albeit indirectly. In the digital age, mediated blaming responses are more ubiquitous than ever. In fact, social media arguably makes mediated blame the norm, i.e., the paradigm case. When we blame someone in person, we typically also blame the person in our social media interactions – by unfriending, restricting, blocking, or otherwise modifying the virtual relationship. Sometimes the first and definitive blaming response is virtual, as in the practice of ‘ghosting.’ In political contexts, virtual blame is the only option for ordinary citizens, since we never directly encounter most politicians, particularly at the federal level. Likewise for celebrities and public figures. But these people have the largest sphere of influence and the largest impact on the social imaginary. When Jennifer McCarthy promoted the idea that vaccines cause autism, many people decided not to vaccinate their children, and the rate of infectious diseases increased. Notably, Trump has also spread anti-vaccine rhetoric. This campaign hurts children and vulnerable groups the most. If blame is to serve the function of promoting relations of equality and respect, thereby enhancing collective responsibility, we ought to blame public figures for damaging statements by any means possible. In many cases, the only means is social media.

When we blame people in virtual reality, even if we do not expect our message to reach the intended target, we might reasonably expect our message to contribute to a chain of opposition, constituted by a multitude of sympathetic commentators or political activists. Even if the ordinary citizen’s individual voice is never heard, the formation of a collective with critical mass and visibility will most likely attract the attention of the media, who will echo the conversation in public platforms such as newspapers and television. In the modern age, blame is often a collective phenomenon, vocalized by chains of actors, and delivered via social media, the press, and sympathetic public figures.

Another reason to think that blame and praise do not need to be direct and unmediated is research on the psychological effects of the reactive attitudes. For example, there is evidence that praise positively affects not only the target, but also bystanders. Researchers reported that when teachers praised the top performers on a mid-term exam in front of the class, those who fell just short of the top scores improved on the next exam, compared to students who had not witnessed any public praising (2017). One of the researchers explains the results by conjecturing that “student performance is influenced not only by personal benefits, such as grades or passing an exam, but also by the existing performance norms,” which are expressed in the teacher’s praising attitude. The lesson is that praise motivates both the object of praise and bystanders who are in close reach of achieving the commended norm. Similarly, praising and blaming people in virtual space could motivate witnesses to approximate to the norm endorsed in the statement.

List and Pettit’s theory of corporate responsibility points to the potential responsibilizing function of collective responsibility attributions, which hold all member responsible even if they did not contributed equally, or at all, the the conglomerate’s operative decision. The rationale is that holding members responsible for the group incites them to take an active interest in the company’s ethical protocols, preventing a descent into corruption, akin to what happened in banks and Government Sponsored Enterprises during the subprime mortgage crash of 2007-2010. Holding people collectively responsible is supposed to prevent the diffusion of responsibility that afflicts many collectives, leading to internal corruption and moral anomie. The same thing can happen to governments if no one takes responsibility for the government’s collective decisions, or intercedes to prevent corrupt members from eroding democratic norms. At the moment, G.O.P. insiders like Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell can be held responsible for enabling Trump’s anti-democratic behaviour – the Muslim ban, the racist proclamations, etc.

These considerations suggest that blame and praise do not need to be addressed directly to the object of the attitude to be psychologically efficacious – they have indirect and diffuse effects, motivating bystanders, witnesses, and group members to conform to endorsed norms.

Public shaming: collective blame gone wrong

The opposite of silence in the face of injustice is unjust or disproportionate public blaming, which can include ‘virtue signalling’ and ‘public shaming.’ ‘Virtue signalling’ refers to superficial or self-serving public expressions of blame, and ‘public shaming’ refers to collective acts of blame that are unfair, false, or disproportionate to the offence.

While judicious public blaming, which recruits chains of actors to disseminate the message and positively shape public discourse, serves to promote relational equality and shared moral responsibility, unfair and disproportionate public blaming does exactly the opposite – it promotes and retrenches injustice, and can seriously harm the target agent. While there are significant differences between blame and shame in psychological terms, the phrase ‘public shaming’ in popular discourse is used to denote a collective action or campaign aimed at holding someone responsible for a putative normative violation. This is what I mean by mediated or collective blaming, so, on my view, public shaming is a species of collective blaming.


In the digital age, blame can have serious negative consequences, both on individuals and on social institutions and practices. In ‘So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed’ (2015), Jon Ronson draws attention to the perils of public shaming campaigns, which can target innocent people or severely punish people for relatively benign transgressions. He traces the history of public shaming through the Middle Ages, when it was common for convicted criminals and ‘undesirables’ to be pilloried or hanged in the town square, to the digital age, when online shaming campaigns can result in people losing their jobs, reputations, and social standing. Ronson focuses on errant shaming campaigns, like the online shaming of a U.S. care worker who jokingly took a picture of herself yelling in front of a ‘silence and respect’ sign in a cemetery. The shaming response was, in Jonson’s view, greatly out of proportion. Although Jonson doesn’t develop a philosophical position, his point seems to be that social media enables a magnitude of resentment that is out of proportion to the offence, and this is unjust to the targeted individual, and can also distort our shared norms. If we outcast someone for a practical joke, we’ve seemingly lost the ability to discriminate between benign violations and core moral ones like assault.

Although Jonson is critical of public shaming in the book, he can’t possible mean that we should never publicly shame people. In fact, when questioned about the Twitter campaign devoted to outting people who participated in the white supremacy rally (@YesYourRacist), he approved of the campaign, saying, “They were undisguised in a massively contentious rally surrounded by the media..[there is] “a big difference between making a thoughtless or offensive comment online and marching in the name of white power.” Publicly shaming public figures and very heinous people (like Nazis) is, in his view, morally permissible. Evidently, he does not want to eliminate public shaming, but to caution people to exercise epistemic and moral sensitivity (in effect) in deciding whether to shame someone.

This view balances the need to hold public figures accountable, with the mandate that we not ruin ordinary people’s lives for relatively benign normative violations.

Of course, it can be difficult to anticipate whether a post on social media will gain support, so the safe bet might be to confine public censure to public figures, while holding private citizens responsible in the traditional way, i.e., in face-to-face interactions. This would ensure that the magnitude of the response fits the severity of the offence, in general. Face-to-face blame modifies the interpersonal relationship without triggering institutional consequences – consequences like firing, expelling, and outcasting. These responses are typically more fitting for highly influential public figures than private citizens, whose impact on social and institutional norms is fairly limited.

That said, there can be exceptions for private citizens who commit very serious offences, particularly offences that reinforce social inequality, and exceptions for offenders who escape fair sentencing due to inequalities in the justice system. In  such cases, public blame serves as a substitute for criminal sanctions, and compels legislators to amend the law.


*I’m using mostly masculine pronouns because this analysis is about Trump, a man.

Hate as a type of prejudice: Luke Roelofs.

Hi. I’m going to take this opportunity to promote Luke Roelofs’ philosophy blog:

His latest post analyzes ‘hate’ as a discriminatory attitude. He describes hate – specifically, the type involved in misogyny, homophobia, racism, and so on – as a holistic pattern of de-valuation that targets a group of people.

He says that hate on this description can encompass both hate as a feature of individual psychology and hate as a set of institutions and practices that function to devalue historically disenfranchised groups (or something to this effect). He also says that this description is compatible with seeing hate as both a psychological state and a matter of consequences. Finally, this definition explains why ‘reverse racism’ isn’t real: because racism as a feature of individual psychology can only exist against a background of systemic racism.

This is a compelling proposal, though not immune from criticism. One might argue that there can be real instances of inconsequential hate – for example, someone making a racist remark that no one hears. Still, racism can simply be re-defined by reference to an action’s tendency to cause harmful consequences to the targeted group under certain conditions. One might also argue that a person who doesn’t embody the psychological features of hate can still commit a hateful act, defined as such by its consequences. Relatedly, one might argue that the psychological definition of hate is redundant, since once you’ve defined hate as a feature of institutions, any action that contributes to discriminatory institutional arrangements is hateful as such, regardless of the agent’s psychological profile.

That said, I think that the psychological-systemic definition is useful because it illustrates how systems of relations are embodied in intentional agents, the metaphysical bedrock of those institutions. This dual description also covers cases of white ignorance and indifference, in which an agent’s moral character is defined by what it lacks – suitable responsiveness to morally salient contours of the environment. If we see moral psychology as a set of patterned responses (both conscious and unconscious) to morally-salient conditions, then hateful people lack patterned sensitivity to conditions of inequality and injustice.  Hate, in other words, is a disposition to respond insensitively to morally significant social cues – a flaw in the structure of the agent’s moral psychology. And this attitude contributes to, and partly constitutes, a broader system of social relations. As such, a person can be hateful (racist, misogynist, etc.) without knowing it, and can be hateful without causing harm – e.g., if he is stranded on a desert island, though the agent’s hateful disposition would be harmful under ordinary (i.e. unjust) social conditions.

This, at least, fits with some influential accounts of moral responsibility and its lack (e.g., Fischer 2012, Sher 2010), of ignorance and insensitivity (Mills 2007, Medina 2012, Fricker 2007), and of implicit bias (e.g., Levy 2016).

On this view, ‘reverse racism’ is a myth because one cannot be insensitive to systemic discrimination against white people, since this kind of discrimination doesn’t exist – ‘reverse racism,’ that is, only makes sense on a grossly distorted social ontology. However, one can be reasonably wary of white ignorance and patterned indifference to the plight of Black people, which is a rational attitude, not an instance of discrimination. This is why racism and ‘reverse racism’ are not equivalent – indeed, reverse racism is impossible.

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. 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. Donald Davidson (2001) explains that one and the same action can be explicated under different descriptions: the action of flipping a light switch, for instance, can be described as turning on a light or, if there is a burglar outside, as alerting the burglar to one’s presence in the house. The second, ‘thicker’ description depends on the agent’s conscious intention. The normative significance of any given action, though, cannot be reductively defined by the agent’s conscious intentions, as George Sher (2010) and other anti-reflectivists have shown. Hence, even if the Black con artist’s only conscious intention is to make money, the moral import of his/her action is not exclusively, or even primarily, economical – it intrinsically involves the disruption of a racist social order. This 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 also are not exclusive or even primarily economical – 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 thick (contextualized) 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 eventually run for political office and open legitimate businesses, thereby sociopolitically enfranchising their communities. That is, European immigrants, to a great extent, used organized crime as a means of disrupting the xenophobic social order. 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 enfranchisement, unlike European gangsters. While 20th-century European immigrants could use fake I.D.s, bribe police officers, and sell drugs with near impunity, Black people were segregated and targeted by racial profiling, police brutality, and biased sentencing norms. Thus, they were barred from the ordinary historical channels to social mobility. The same racist barriers that prevented them from effectively mobilizing into criminal factions also barred them from pursuing legal routes to social mobility, and these factors continue to shore up historical 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 morally salient 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 varies depending on its role in the 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 Austin’s sanction-imposing model than one might want to admit, in contrast to H.L.A. Hart’s ideal of civic engagement, on which the law does not threaten, but rather instills a shared democratic sensibility. Indeed, we are perilously far from Hart’s ideal of shared civic duty.


Richard Spencer, white ignorance, and white guilt


Richard Spencer, the infamous American white supremacist, fundamentally misunderstands biology, history, and social anthropology, resulting in a deeply flawed moral economy. Although his racist beliefs are extreme, I think that we can take them as a point of departure for evaluating less conspicuous, but more prevalent, forms of insensitivity, including the denial that white people should feel guilty for benefiting from white privilege. After surveying these attitudes, I argue that white guilt is an appropriate affective response to knowing that one is unfairly benefiting from an economy of racial injustice. It is also a constitutive part of taking responsibility for one’s role within this system.

Spencer, in case you’re not familiar, is a white supremacist – in his preferred terminology, a ‘racialist,’ – who believes that white people are a superior ‘race.’ He takes a race to be “something between a breed and an actual species.” He espouses an ‘identitatian’ politics on which white people have a collective identity rooted in their genes and shared history, and this history is something to celebrate. He claims that “race is the foundation of identity,” meaning that race confers morally-relevant character traits – traits that constitute a person’s deepest self. He supports the creation of an exclusively white nation or a “white ethno-state.”

This system of beliefs is so distorted on so many levels, it’s difficult to know where to begin, but I’ll start with what I take to be a basic axiom– the belief that there are separate races with separate and distinct biological traits, and these biological traits are linked to moral properties that determine each group’s moral character. This belief is doubly unscientific, as there are, in fact, no biologically distinct races, and phenotypic traits do not correlate with moral properties. Kwame A. Appiah pointed this out in his 1990 essay, so I won’t elaborate, except to say that there is general consensus that race is a social construct.

Next, Spencer believes that European people’s history of oppressing other races is a mark of strength and moral excellence, rather than a geographical accident, combined with moral and political corruption on the part of the beneficiaries. To begin, Europeans were able to develop agricultural surpluses because they happened to live in a fertile geographical location with easily-domesticated animals; this surplus of crops enabled a division of labour and accelerated technological progress, including the production of steel and guns; and these developments allowed Europeans to slaughter and oppress other peoples, whom they encountered on their voyages. Their advantage lay not so much in their fighting ability as in their acquired immunity to transmissible diseases, conferred by their close proximity to livestock, together with their location in a hospitable climate. In other words, Europeans were able to develop a hegemonic imperialist culture by virtue of a series of geographical accidents, not due to innate properties. All of this was pointed out by Jared Diamond in ‘Guns, Germs, and Steel’ (2007), but anyone with a passing familiarity with anthropology and a modicum of common sense could have figure out the basic premise.

This isn’t the end of the story, of course, because Europeans weren’t just lucky: they exploited their geographical good fortune to oppress differently-geographically-located groups, and this was a conscious choice and an act of political will. Far from being heroic, this political decision was one of the most shameful acts of terrorism in history.

If Spencer truly wanted to reclaim his European ancestors’ heritage, he would apologize on their behalf to historically oppressed groups and demand that governments of white-majority countries pay reparations to these groups out of taxpayer dollars. He would also admit that European hegemony is rooted in a historical accident that was then exploited by Europeans who, after committing cultural genocide, rewrote history to favour their interests, and created racist policies to protect their privileged status. These historical myths and social practices have been passed down to the current generation, and are being revivified by Spencer and his followers.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Spencer holds homophobic and misogynistic beliefs that are similarly rooted in false biological assumptions, misrepresentations of history, ignorance about social anthropology, and false generalizations about the targeted social groups. Apparently Spencer holds an M.A. in the Humanities from the University of Chicago, but what knowledge he could have gained during this degree is truly a mystery for the ages. So misguided are his beliefs about every aspect of human nature, it beggars belief that he was deemed competent at any single discipline in the Humanities.

Spencer’s claims that European culture is admirable and ought to be ‘reclaimed’ and championed are widely rejected because they are embedded in a broader racist belief system. What surprises me is that a lot of people seem to think that European culture is dissociable from the institution of slavery, in a way that Nazism is not dissociable from the Holocaust. Europeans are a larger and more diverse group than Nazis, of course, but to think that European history can be expunged of, or bracketed from, the politics of slavery is just another example of Eurocentric historical revisionism. If you are going to claim derivative responsibility for the positive accomplishments of European peoples, you must also, by the same token, claim derivative responsibility for the system of oppression that enabled those developments and is intertwined with the politics and morality of that culture. That is, if you are going to feel pride about your European inheritance, you must also feel, by the same token, shame. You cannot cherry-pick flattering elements of your cultural legacy and tout them as emblematic, while pretending that institutionalized, race-based terrorism is not part and parcel of that same legacy.

A common objection to this line of reasoning is that slavery is a thing of the past and therefore has no bearing on the image or self-conception of contemporary white people. But this logic is flawed for two reasons. First, if you are going to claim that ‘white culture’ exists at all, you must admit that oppressing other races is a defining feature of this culture’s historical legacy. Second, even if you wanted to draw an arbitrary line in the historical record and extol ‘white culture’ as it now exists (ignoring the history that led up to it), you would be denying the fact that white people currently reap the rewards of historical white imperialism, because this legacy is enshrined in our current systems of legal and social practices. For example, red lining and anti-black credit policies throughout the 20th Century banned Black Americans from purchasing valuable property, resulting in a 21st-Century economy in which white households are worth 20 times as much as black households; Black American are incarcerated at five times the rate of white Americans; Black Americans are paid less than White Americans at every level of education; and so on and so forth. These are current injustices enforced by our current social institutions (not to mention the countless microagressions that Black Americans face on a regular basis). Thus, if ‘reclaiming white culture’ means anything, it means taking responsibility, if not for Europe’s legacy of cultural genocide, then at least for profiting off of the fallout of this legacy, viz., the systems of racial injustice in which we are presently situated. It also arguably means agreeing to pay reparations to historically disenfranchised groups, who continue to bear the burden of white cultural imperialism.

Even many people who are not proud of European history or ‘white culture’ deny that they ought to feel guilty in light of the fact that they are participating in a system of racial injustice that unfairly favours them. This refusal of collective guilt is weaker than ‘white pride’, but still, in my opinion, a kind of bad faith, because it denies the reality that white people are profiting off of racism and, for the most part, doing remarkably little to foster change. Oddly, justice theorists like Jose Medina and Althea Prince (who are not white) argue that white people need not feel guilty, we simply need to acknowledge the existence of white privilege in order to discharge our moral-epistemic obligations. But how can we dissociate these two states? Being aware of your (unearned, historically contingent) privileges surely entails some negative affective response. Turning to philosophy, on some theories of responsibility (e.g., Arpaly), benefiting from injustice may be sufficient for feeling guilty; on others (e.g., Fischer), benefiting from injustice together with being in a position to grasp and respond to this situation may be sufficient for guilt. There is good philosophical reason, I believe, to feel guilty as the beneficiary of white privilege – unless you are making a momentous effort to foment political change. For the average white person, lack of guilt for one’s status in the social order is a reliably sign of (what Charles Mills calls) white ignorance as well as moral insensitivity, and is therefore grounds for blame.

Relatedly, people who lack adequate guilt are notoriously defective in their capacity for moral responsibility, i.e., their capacity to respond to moral facts. This applies not only to psychopaths and clinical narcissists (who are incapable of guilt and sympathy), but also to relatively neurotypical people who are in denial about certain facts of life. Responsibility deficits can be global or domain-specific: psychopaths lack guilt entirely, while ordinary people who are in denial have circumscribed insensitivities, which allow them to retain their rosy self-conception while denying the reality of their role in systems of social injustice. Having these traits makes one an appropriate target for blame and censure.

Another objection to the argument for ‘white guilt’ – feeling guilty for benefiting from systemic white privilege – is that white privilege is simply an accident, not something over which we have control and can bear responsibility. (This objection assumes a control-based theory of responsibility, which is relatively stringent, but I will grant it for the sake of argument). Perhaps white privilege is an instance of moral luck, over which we can feel, at most, “agent-regret,” not guilt. Agent-regret is a term coined by Bernard Williams (1979) to describe the feeling a moral agent experiences in response to causing harm purely by accident. If a trolley driver hits and kills a child who darts out into the road, the driver feels ‘agent-regret’ if he is a competent moral agent, but he is not responsible for the tragedy – perhaps no one is responsible. Maybe white people are in the position of the trolley driver, in that they lack control over their privileged status, though this status imposes harms and limitations on historically disenfranchised groups. Notably, this analogy already entails a concession, which is that we should feel, at least, agent-regret about benefiting from white privilege. But white privilege is not actually a case of moral luck, because beneficiaries of white privilege do not simply cause harm, we also profit off of this harm: we gain substantive advantages in terms of economic security, perceived credibility, and so on. If the trolley driver had killed the child and subsequently been rewarded for doing so, and also kept the reward, he would then be implicated in a harm over which he had no control (warranting agent-regret), as well as responsible for an injustice (reaping the rewards of that tragedy). What he should do is transfer the rewards to the family of the deceased child to compensate for their loss. Benefiting from a system of racial injustice is like this: it is a state of affairs in which both agent-regret and guilt are fitting for beneficiaries. People who lack these sentiments may be morally /epistemically lacking.

Spencer’s belief system is riddled with such flaws – denials of reality, misconstruals of the historical record, mythical interpretations of contemporary social institutions, and so on…  White ignorance is a matter of degree, and Spencer is on the far end of the spectrum – the fringe of extreme ignorance. Spencer is also on the far end of the spectrum of white privilege, since he is seemingly well-off and directly profits from his ancestors’ enslavement of African peoples, as an absentee landlord (with his mother and sister) of “5,200 acres of cotton and corn fields in an impoverished, largely African American region of Louisiana.” This means that Spencer is both high in white privilege and high in white ignorance – a toxic combination of moral-epistemic flaws. Instead of feeling the guilt appropriate to a moral agent, he willfully denies responsibility, choosing to re-interpret biology, history, and social anthropology in a way that justifies his narcissistic worldview. He is not someone with whom moral agents can have a functional relationship – he is, in Strawson’s term (1963), outside of the boundaries of the moral community.

I’ve said a lot in this post, but the main points are: (1) Spencer is deeply delusional, not merely by accident, but by virtue of his own willful (white) ignorance; and (2) white guilt is a respectable philosophical concept – namely, the appropriate affective response to voluntarily benefiting from privileges conferred by social injustice. White guilt can also be seen as the content of an attitude of responsibility (following Strawson’s model), in which one takes responsibility for a wrong, in this case, accepting the proceeds of racial injustice.



Quasi-group agency: Chains of actors (influenced by Medina and List & Pettit).


I read some literature on group agency and decided to develop an account of quasi-group agency, somewhere between private agency and group agency. Readers’ comments are welcome as always.

This paper is related to my earlier post on Rape Culture, which you can find here. I tried to give substance to those arguments by doing more research on group agency. The results are below.

Also, can I just say that Jose Medina is brilliant? I did not read him soon enough.

Quasi-Group Agency: Chains of Actors

Abstract: Group agency scholars typically posit two distinct types of agents: private agents who act on uncoordinated intentions on the one hand, and group agents whose members share common goals on the other hand. In justice scholarship, we find examples of a third category of agent, whose members are neither completely uncoordinated nor unified by consciously shared goals and common awareness—quasi-group agents. A salient example is a nascent social network, which has not yet developed coordinating structures or transparently shared goals. In this paper, I provide an ontological account of this intermediary category, which I call a quasi-group agent, and I show that quasi-group agents are not reducible to either private agents or group agents, as they have distinctive motivational and normative properties and are an essential part of our constantly-evolving social reality. I show that this ontic category can be used to describe both beneficial quasi-group agents, such as modern social movements, and malignant quasi-group agents, such as Rape Culture.


Key Words: Group agency; quasi-group agency; chains of actors; resistance; oppression; responsibility


  1. Introduction


The literature on group agency typically focuses on providing conditions of group agency, which succeed in distinguishing group agents proper from uncoordinated collections of individual or ‘private agents.’ Few theorists discuss in-between cases in which a set of private agents share coordinating states without consciously subscribing to a shared goal. A notable exception is Tuomela, who writes about “intermediary cases” in which a “collection of persons” share a “group ethos-to-be” and “can be expected to become a [group agent]” (2013: 129). Tuomela intends for his conditions of group agency to apply to these intermediary cases unproblematically, with the caveat that these collectives share only a weak form of shared intentionality (as we shall discuss); but they must still knowingly contribute to a shared ethos.


I do not think that this goes far enough in distinguishing these loose collectives from group agents. I will argue that quasi-group agents are a third ontic category with distinct individuating conditions, and that ignoring this ontic category can lead to a naïve representation of social reality and correlative naïve beliefs about the normative status of members of these collectives. By focusing on quasi-group agents as a distinct ontic kind, and outlining what distinguishes them from either private agents, who are completely uncoordinated, or group agents, whose members are consolidated by the shared goals and common awareness of inclusive members, we can learn something about how collectives operate in a fluid social space.


In particular, we can debunk common myths about the production of coordinated social movements from the mobilizing efforts of remarkable private individuals (epistemic and moral saints) who have incredible epistemic powers, organizing capacities, and charismatic influence. In reality, social movements are not (except perhaps in the rarest of cases) fomented by private agents, but rather, they evolve through an intermediary stage of agency in which chains of actors, dispersed across geographic and epistemic space, share a subset of motivational states—hopes, aspirations, values, implicit attitudes, transformative ideals—but are not fully aware of: their place in the chain, the transformative potential of the chain, the symbolic significance of their chained actions, whether others will reliably contribute to the chain, which people are members of the chain, and so on. Thus, they do not harbour ‘shared intentions’ or ‘common awareness’ in the sense typically assigned to group agents.


Although concrete examples are largely absent in the group agency literature, we find them in justice theory (e.g., Anne E. Kane 1997, Sally Haslanger 2017, Jose Medina 2012). Medina provides a particularly compelling account of the evolution of social groups, and I will rely on this historical account to develop conditions of quasi-group agency, which should be of interest to group agency theorists. I take List and Pettit’s four conditions of group agency as a point of departure for developing a set of conditions for quasi-group agency, which can be applied to what Medina calls “chained actors”—the partly disjointed, partly unified collection of agents who foment social movements (Medina 2012: 225). This metaphor of ‘chains of actors’ vividly captures the notion of beneficial and transformative social networks. I will add to Medina’s social schemata ‘malignant quasi-group agents,’ which collectively promote injustice and oppression, but are not tightly-knit or coordinated. Malignant quasi-group agents are often the impetus for the emergence of beneficial quasi-group agents, which arise to combat their harmful counterparts. They both, on my view, share motivational features that loosely unify their members.


In this paper, I will propose that chains of actors (i.e., quasi-group agents) satisfy the conditions of group agency offered by most theorists, minus the conditions of knowledge (of a shared goal, participatory status, or interdependence) and common awareness shared amongst inclusive members. Specifically, members of quasi-group agents: (1) together promote a common goal, (2) each do their part in promoting that goal, and (3) participate in the group at least in part because others do, and depend on the participation of others to sustain the group; but they may not know that they are satisfying (1)-(3), contra the standard view in group agency theory.


Specifically, in sections 2-3 I will discuss chains of actors as quasi-group agents and develop conditions of quasi-group agency by modifying List and Pettit’s influential conditions of group agency (eliminating the knowledge and common awareness conditions); in sections 4-6 I will show that my proposal applies to both beneficial quasi-group agents, like the incipient members of Black Lives Matter (prior to coordination), as well as malignant quasi-group agents, like members of Rape Culture. And in section 7, I will justify my proposal on grounds that chains of actors, whether beneficial or malignant, are a distinct ontic kind (intermediary between private agents and group agents), whose members have distinct motivational and normative features. Recognizing this is crucial to understanding the nature of our social reality, which involves constant conflict and negotiation between competing elements.


  1. Chains of actors


Recently, we have seen salient examples of social groups emerging and coordinating in response to conditions of political, epistemic, and moral injustice. Examples include Black Lives Matter and the Women’s March. We have also seen salient examples of antagonistic collectives that perpetuate injustice and oppression, but lack coordinating structures and precepts. One example of the latter case is Rape Culture, which is becoming a widely recognized phenomenon (more on which later). It is a substantive question how we should theorize these loose collectives in ontological and normative terms, seeing that they differ in critical respects from paradigmatic group agents, such as corporations and clubs, as well as (seemingly) private individuals. This is an important and undertheorized question, which has not received much attention in the literature on group agency (see List & Pettit 2011, Pettit 2007, Bratman 2013, Isaacs 2011, Tuomela 2013).


One place where we find explicit reference to uncoordinated, dispersed, and nascent social groups is Jose Medina’s work on epistemic responsibility and resistance (2012). He introduces the term “chained action” to describe the isomorphic actions of members of uncoordinated collectives (224). We can extrapolate that these collectives are ‘chains of actors,’ whose members act together in some meaningful sense, in spite of being more or less unstructured. Medina introduces the notion of chained actors to address what he takes to be a lacuna in the literature on group agency and group responsibility: the omission of a “hybrid, middle ground” between fully-formed group agents on the one hand, and individual actors on the other (224). This interim category consists of social networks that are neither coordinated groups with shared intentions, nor isolated individuals with radically disjunctive intentions.


Medina does not explicitly discuss the ontology of this category, but it appears to be a type of quasi-group agent, with is a composite (in some sense) of group agency and individual agency. One of my aims is to provide an ontological grounding for this category.


But why posit quasi-group agency, rather than maintaining a more parsimonious ontology? We will explore this question in more depth later, but we can note here that Medina introduces the notion of chained actors to capture the emergence of resistant and revolutionary social movements through an intermediary developmental stage, between uncoordinated private agents and coordinated groups. These networks create the social, political, and epistemic conditions that make coordinated movements possible. Identifying this stage of development also helps to debunk the popular myth that social movements emerge from the discrete actions and private decisions of individual “epistemic heroes” and moral saints (25), who spark resistance movements using their own agential resources. This familiar ‘boot-strapping’ theory represents a false picture of the world—a false ontology—which is widely accepted within mainstream American culture (Medina 2012, Hood 2012).


On scrutiny, prominent social activists begin as part of a chain of actors who support one another and echo each other’s symbolic gestures. Rosa Parks, for example, was one of many activists to resist segregation laws, and her political activism was enabled and supported by others: these actions would not have been realistically imaginable, intelligible or effective without some degree of community support. Normatively speaking, when we buy into the boot-strapping myth of heroes and saints, we misconstrue the role of responsibility in social life, giving too much credit to perceived saints, and short shrift to supporters; similarly, we tend to vilify leaders of nefarious groups such as neoNazis, while ignoring the complicity of background members. This vilification is dangerous not because it is too harsh on leaders, but because it ignores the role of enablers and abettors who are equally counterfactually significant. The hero-villain picture (I shall argue) is an example of The Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE) (see Harman 1999, Doris 1998), which is a pervasive cognitive distortion that induces us to exaggerate the significance of perceived intentional traits (such as saintliness and wickedness) while neglecting ‘background factors’ such as supporting figures, communities, collectives, and infrastructure. FAE gives rise to misperceptions of reality (i.e., false ontological assumptions), which in turn give rise to naïve and distorted moral judgments. Thus, the reasons to posit quasi-group agents are both ontological and moral: doing so helps us understand social reality as a fluid space with competing elements, and this in turn helps us allocate responsibility fairly to private, quasi-group, and group agents.


This is still a rather cursory description of the problem. I will expand on these thoughts later.

In the next section, I will define a chain of actors as a quasi-group agent that satisfies some, but not all, of the standard conditions of group agency offered by group agency theorists. Then I will apply this account to salient examples of beneficial and malignant collectives, to justify this framework and perhaps also shed light on these collectives.


  1. Conditions of quasi-group agency

What is a group agent?


There is considerable overlap in contemporary theories of group agency, though some proposals are more stringent than others. I will consider three views that share commonalities, but differ in salient respects—those of List and Pettit, Tuomela, and Kutz. I will argue that even the most lenient of these views is too stringent to capture the unique motivational psychology of quasi-group agents, but an attenuated version of List and Pettit’s conditions (and similar proposals) will suffice.


All group agency theorists agree that a group agent is a collection of individuals with intentional states, but they differ in their view of how these agents are coordinated or incorporated into a group. List and Pettit offer an influential account of group agency, which has the following four conditions:


  1. Shared goal: The [members] each intend that they, [as] members of a more or less salient collection, together promote [a] given goal. (Each member has this intention).


  1. Individual contribution. They each intend to do their allotted part in a more or less salient plan for achieving that goal.


  1. Interdependence. They each form these intentions at least partly because of believing that the others form such intentions too.


  1. Common awareness. This is all a matter of common awareness, with each believing that the first three conditions are met, each believing that others believe this, and so on.

(2011: 33)


By comparison, Tuomela’s view is somewhat more stringent than this, while Kutz’ is somewhat more lenient.


Tuomela’s view is more stringent in that his notion of a ‘shared goal’ entails a ‘we-intention,’ which represents the individual as inherently, not merely incidentally, part of the group. This gives rise to obligations to favour the group’s interests over private interests in all cases, which in turn engenders a shared sense of solidary.


Kutz’s view is more permissive in that he rejects the common awareness condition in favour of a more lenient ‘participatory intention condition,’ on which an inclusive member does not necessarily intend to promote or realize the group’s shared goal—she may, in fact, refuse to promote the group’s goals in a particular case (or set of cases), but is still a member, and responsible for the group’s actions, as long as she knowingly holds membership status. Kutz offers the example of the 800+ pilots involved in the Dresden firebombing squad, some of whom may have participated in spite of strong reservations against the airstrike, and any one of whom may have made no causal contribution to the outcome, viz., 22,000 to 25,000 civilians killed. On Kutz’ account, even non-contributing and privately dissenting pilots are members of the firebombing squad, and bear responsibility for all of the civilian deaths.


Even this attenuated criterion of participatory intentionality, however, does not adequately describe many chains of actors, whose members may not even self-identify as members of the chain. Yet, chained actors also do not exhibit the motivational psychology of disconnected private agents, since they share motivational states in common, which impel or inspire them to perform parallel actions.


I propose that we see a quasi-group agent (or chain of actors) as satisfying some of the standard conditions of group agency, though in a modified form. Specifically, I submit that a quasi-group agent must satisfy the first three of List and Pettit’s conditions, minus the constraint of knowledge or full awareness embedded in those conditions. This allows people to count as members of quasi-group agents even if they do not know that they are participating in a chain of actors, consciously intend to perform a role in the chain, or expect others to share their intentions and goals; but chained actors must share a set of implicit or less-than-fully-aware motivational states.


To be more precise, my proposal is that members of quasi-group agents, or chains of actors, must satisfy the following modified conditions of group agency: They must (1) together promote a common goal, (2) each do their part in promoting that goal, and (3) participate in the group at least in part because others do, and depend on the participation of other members to perform their role in the chain; but they need not know that they satisfy (1)-(3). This implies that we must drop condition (4) entirely, since quasi-group agents may not share awareness of each other’s shared intentions.


Chained actors do not promote a common goal by accident, however: they share (at a minimum) implicit states that give rise to symbolic gestures that express and promote a common ethos or aim. Thus, they are not simply distinct private agents.


To show that these conditions apply to chains of actors, we will examine two types of quasi-group agents: beneficial chains, which promote beneficial aims (such as justice), and malignant chains, which promote malignant aims (such as the oppression of vulnerable social groups). Medina focuses on the first type of collective, but nefarious collectives also act homologously on the basis of shared states.[1] They are also a critical part of social reality, which involves ontological tensions.


  1. Beneficial groups: The nascent civil rights movement


To begin this analysis, let’s consider Medina’s example of the civil rights movement. Initially, various uncoordinated actors, including Rosa Parks, decided to resist segregation laws by enacting various forms of public protest, including refusing to sit in designated bus seats. These initial resistors were not part of a coordinated and self-aware group of social activists, but were chained actors who acted in a largely uncoordinated fashion, though with the same general goal in mind: resisting segregation. At this early stage, however, they may not have recognized their actions as part of a shared ethos, common to a chain of actors, or they may have had only partial and embryonic awareness of the collective saliency of their actions. Nor could they have understood, at this stage, the transformative potential of their chained actions, which were the initial conditions for consolidating into a coordinated movement. Thus, although these early activists were “unaware of [their] membership” in the chain, their chained actions comprise a retrospectively identifiable and “traceable performative chain, with each action in the chain having (subsequent) traceable effects in the subsequent actions of others” (Medina: 225-226).


How can we understand the common motivational features of these chained actors? In psychological terms, they can be seen as sharing a hope or aspiration for transformative change, but surely not knowledge or clear foresight of their action’s role in social change and the edification of mainstream society (more on which shortly). Thus, while chained actors share certain values, hopes, and (perhaps) incipient recognition of the transformative potential of their actions, they do not satisfy the conditions of shared goals and common awareness attributable to group agents.


Medina concurs that chained actors do not necessarily, or even characteristically, participate in a chain of actors in a fully conscious way. Parks, for example, is described by many historians as having been ‘selected’ by the community to represent the civil rights movement, rather than having consciously chosen to do so. The community itself, moreover, ‘selected’ her in a not-fully-conscious way, in part because she had characteristics that were viewed favourably by mainstream America (modesty, charm, intelligence, etc.). Thus, Parks’ role in the movement was not analogous to the appointment of a CEO to company, in which the candidate applies for the position and is considered by a hiring committee according to pre-determined selection criteria.[2] But Parks’ role also was not the result of dumb luck or inexorable social forces: she and other chained actors intentionally chose to perform acts of resistance, though their intentions were not coordinated in the way that corporate choices are. The chained actions of nascent social groups are unified instead by shared hopes, ambitions, and a (potentially) nascent recognition of the transformative potential of their actions, though they are not known to be such by the actors, nor are they coordinated by transparent organizing structures and precepts.


Medina specifies that chained actions manifest “a mixed and hybrid kind of agency in which intentional and non-intentional acts of individuals and groups become interwoven, enabling and constraining each other in complex ways” (244). A single act of protest is echoed by others and eventually solidifies into an ‘echoable’ symbol of resistance, which may be repeated by others, gradually increasing the public recognisability of that type of action. Adding to this, I have suggested that this ‘hybrid agency’ is psychologically realized as hopes, aspirations, and implicit or ‘patchy’ awareness of the radical social, political, and epistemic portent of these actions.


This supports the reading that quasi-group agents satisfy List and Pettit’s conditions of group agency, minus the requirements of knowledge and collective awareness; and it provides a descriptive rendering of the motivational psychology of chained actors.


In what follows, I will apply these criteria to the examples of Black Lives Matter in the nascent stage, and to Rape Culture in its current state, to show that these conditions do not just characterize the nascent civil rights movement—they have a broader scope. I introduce the example of Rape Culture because it is important to recognize that beneficial quasi-group agents and malignant quasi-group agents coexist as conflicting forces to be addressed and negotiated in our shared social space.


  1. Black Lives Matter: Early stages


Black Lives Matter can be seen as a modern example of quasi-group agency in my terms. Although it is now a coordinated group, it began as a response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Treyvon Martin in 2014.

This response was coordinated “by three black queer women who know what it is to have one’s humanity demeaned and despised: Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi” (Gafney 2017: 205; see also Bradley 2016). They responded to what they insightfully perceived as a vilification of an innocent black man and an instance of systemic anti-black oppression, by creating the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. These activists had epistemic insight into the insidiousness of white privilege and white ignorance, to be sure, but they could not have known at the outset that their symbolic act of resistance would have the transformative potential it did. They could not have known this because transformative change requires cooperation from a chain of actors who share situated insights, values, hopes, and aspirations, and no one can know in advance if others will rally to support a just cause in conditions of oppression.


I have proposed that chains of actors are united by hopes, which distinguishes them from both group agents and private agents. A hope is different from a conscious intention. Victoria McGeer describes hope as an “aspirational” attitude different from a belief, which involves a “decision to trust in the absence of prior belief” (2008: 243). A hope, that is, involves trust in others even when trust is not evidentially warranted. Jonathan Lear similarly describes a “radical hope” (a species of hope) as a motivating state that enables the agent “to go forward hopefully into a future that [one] would be able to grasp only retrospectively, when [one] could re-emerge with concepts with which to understand [oneself and one’s] experience” (2006: 115). A radical hope, then, ‘goes beyond’ the evidence and envisions a new social order. I am proposing that early-stage social activists share such hopes, which allows them to imagine the future as one in which there is justice and equality—that is, it enables them to envision a radically different social reality. A hope, as such, cannot be the content of a shared goal in List and Pettit’s sense, since a shared goal entails knowledge that others share this goal and will contribute to its realization, whereas chained actors can only hope that others will support their aims and interests.


Chained actors may also share insights and values, but they do not share knowledge or common awareness that these same states are shared by others and will be enacted by others in a coordinated movement. So, while chained actors share motivational states that structure their actions, they do not qualify as group agents.


  1. Malignant chains: Rape Culture


Malignant chains provide a striking example of non-intentional participation in a collective, because their members often act on implicit biases and other shared insensitivities, which the agents may not be aware of (I shall argue). I define Rape Culture as a chain of uncoordinated actors who promote rape myths in their words and deeds, though they may, in some cases, sincerely deny that they are perpetrating these myths and thus contributing to Rape Culture. Nonetheless, they are chains of actors in the sense that they share and express implicit rape-positive attitudes.


I am treating Rape Culture as a set of attitudes embodied in concrete intentional agents, who share distinguishing psychological and moral features. However, this term is typically used metaphorically to describe our entire culture—a culture in which rape is normalized and trivialized in a way that increases the incidence of rape. For example, Strain, Martens, and Saucier (2016) describe “rape culture” as a “society that excuses or encourages sexual violence,” in which “it is common for individuals to believe in rape myths—beliefs that are statistically false, but perceived as truths (e.g., ‘only certain types of men rape’ or ‘only certain types of women are raped’)” (87). These beliefs, they note, have significance behavioural effects:


Belief in rape myths has been established as a measurable construct (Burt, 1980 ; Payne, Lonsway, & Fitzgerald, 1999 ) that predicts various rape-related attitudes, including negative perceptions of women who have been raped (Anderson, Cooper, & Okamura, 1997 ; Hammond, Berry, & Rodriguez, 2011 ) and an increased self-reported likelihood (among men) of committing rape (i.e., rape proclivity; Bohner et al., 1998 ; Chiroro, Bohner, Viki, & Jarvis, 2004). (88).


This is a good illustration of the attitudes that define Rape Culture. But I am using the term ontologically, not merely metaphorically, to denote a set of individuals who share and express (and thereby promote) rape-positive attitudes. To capture only this subset of agents—exclusive of resistors and neutral parties—we must modify the above description in two ways. First, we must redefine Rape Culture as, not an all-encompassing set of social practices and institutions, but rather a nested subculture embodied in uncoordinated agents who promote rape myths more than the average person, and thus contribute to male dominance. Second, we must amend the condition of belief in rape myths (as the central vehicle for Rape Culture posited by Strain and colleagues), to mere acceptance of rape myths, which can be either implicit or explicit. This allows us to include not only unapologetic rapists and misogynists in the category of Rape Culture, but also those who would deny being members.


  1. Rape culture as a subculture


Although Rape Culture surely affects and encompasses all of us, it is not perpetuated by everyone to the same extent. Rape myths face resistance from social activists, such as Black Lives Matter (which is committed to feminism, women’s rights, and LGBTQIA rights) and various feminist organizations. Thus, if we want to see Rape Culture as an ontological category with human members, we cannot see it as encompassing all of us to the same extent: we must see it as an uncoordinated set of dispersed members who disproportionately accept and express rape myths. This excludes those who reject and resist these myths, as well neutral parties who neither contribute to the existence of Rape Culture, nor actively resist its central ethos.


Rape Culture, then, can be seen as a chain of actors who share rape-positive attitudes.


  1. Implicit rape-myth acceptance


Members of Rape Culture may not know that they are members, not because rape culture is a nascent group—on the contrary, it is a deeply-entrenched and stable chain with sweeping influence; but members of this chain do not necessarily share explicit attitudes and beliefs about the permissibility of rape. It suffices that they share implicit, but motivating, rape-positive attitudes. Thus, we must change ‘belief in rape myths’ to mere ‘acceptance of rape myths,’ which can be either explicit or implicit.


An implicit attitude is a relatively fast, automatic, and unconscious motivational state, which can give rise to overt behaviour in response to salient eliciting conditions.[3] Neil Levy calls implicit states “patchy endorsements,” which have propositional structure like beliefs, but are not responsive to other states, and thus can motivate behaviour independently. Implicit states also are not uniformly expressed in every context, but appear to have activating conditions. For example, male subjects were twice as likely to report that they would engage in non-consensual sex (rape) when asked to fill in a questionnaire in their dorm rooms while looking at pornography than when in a laboratory setting (Ariely 2006). However, implicit states, as we shall see, are not completely uncontrollable: their expression in overt behaviour is amenable to indirect control via remediating measures.


Since implicit states are not fully conscious, they may be genuinely denied as motivating by those who express them, if the person is ignorant or unaware of the content or normative valence of his choices and actions. Rape-myth acceptance as a mental state can be compared with Charles’ Mills’ notion of White Ignorance, which seemingly implicates implicit states. Mills describes White Ignorance as resting on “self-deception, bad faith, evasion, and misrepresentation” (17), which are, cognitively speaking, implicit biases. Medina similarly characterizes White Ignorance as involving a combination of first-order insensitivity to racist stereotypes, and meta-insensitivity to these first-order states. This suggests that White Ignorance implicates implicit states, and is to this extent first-personally opaque—though, as we shall discuss shortly, it can be ‘revealed’ through indirect means, such as exposing oneself to different perspectives. It seems accurate to see rape-myth acceptance as similar to White Ignorance in being realized largely in implicit states.


To illustrate this, consider Brock Turner, the Stanford University student who raped an unconscious woman after a party and was caught in the act by two passers-by. In Turner’s court statement, he argued that his unconscious victim was consenting; he denied that he had committed rape, but instead referred to to his act (of rape, objectively speaking) as a mere “lapse of judgment”; and he appealed to “the stress of school and swimming” as an excuse for his behaviour (Paiella 2016). These ideas—that an unconscious person can consent to rape, that rape is a mundane indiscretion as opposed to a crime, that rape is caused by stress rather than an intertwined set of rape-normalizing attitudes—all contribute to Rape Culture, to systemic male dominance and the victimization of women. Brock Turner was, by all appearances, not fully aware that he was invoking rape myths in his statement,[4] but it is clear to any enlightened (non-ignorant) observer that this is precisely what he was doing. His father later reinforced these rape myths in a letter to the judge, where he similarly refused to name the act as rape, trivializing it as a mere “20 minutes of action,” for which his son had, allegedly, already suffered enough (Cleary 2016). Brock Turner and his father thus expressed rape myths in their words and actions, though they would both explicitly deny this interpretation of the situation.


This shows how people can be merely implicit members of Rape Culture: they may express rape-myth acceptance in their overt behaviour, even though they do not explicitly endorse these myths. Since they express similar symbolic actions of oppression, they can be characterized as chains of actors inclusive to Rape Culture. These actors: (1) each promote shared (perhaps implicit) states, which normalize and trivialize rape and preserve male privilege; (2) each do their part (perhaps implicitly) in promoting this shared aim, and (3) participate in the group at least in part because others do, and depend on the participation of others to play their role. The third condition is satisfied because people like Brock Turner could not intelligibly invoke rape myths as a justification or defense of their behaviour if others did not share these attitudes, giving them a semblance of credibility. If no one perpetuated these myths, it would be self-evident that they are false and pernicious.


A caveat is in order. Since everyone is exposed to rape myths, some degree of rape-myth acceptance is pervasive. But membership in Rape Culture must be limited to those who perpetuate rape myths more than the average person; these vanguards of the movement are sustaining and reinforcing the status quo, while others are either neutral (not making a difference either way) or resistant. While there is no precise calculus for picking out members of Rape Culture, an enlightened person can identify members by their disproportionate degree of overt rape-myth acceptance.


To expand on this point, we can look at List and Pettit’s three corporate roles, which include (i) leaders, (ii) members, and (ii) enactors. Leaders “determine the group’s procedures for forming its beliefs and desires and taking its actions,” members play a non-governing role in the group, and enactors “carry out the group’s wishes,” even if they are not inclusive members (164). (Enactors may be facilitators, corroborators, or abettors, for example). We cannot apply these categories to chains of actors, since there is no formal structure within the chain, but we can identify more and less central members of the collective based on how much the individual perpetuates the chain’s values and attitudes—in this case, the extent to which the individual causally or symbolically contributes to the promotion of rape myths and the (related) preservation of male privilege. Turner was a very central member, as he actually committed rape and then denied it, while more mundane (less violent) contributors may be seen as peripheral or marginal by comparison. Thus, there are correlatives to List and Pettit’s three categories, in terms of the significance of an agent’s contribution to the chain: a chained actor may be central, middling, or marginal.


  1. Why posit quasi-group agency?


These considerations show that incipient social movements, as well as stable but uncoordinated collectives, can be described as quasi-group agents. But one might question why we should posit quasi-group agency at all, rather than retaining a more parsimonious ontology with only two categories: group agents and private agents. To show that quasi-group agents are conceptually and normatively significant and irreducible, I will return to, and expand on, the rationales outlined above.


I will offer both ontological and normative rationales for positing quasi-group agents.


7.1 Ontological:


  • The evolution of group agents & shared motives


As Medina observes, group agents are not created by the individual choices of private agents; they typically evolve through interim chains of actors, who provide the underlying social conditions for mobilization. These actors share values, insights, hopes, and aspirations, which motive parallel acts of resistance. These actions lay the foundation for coordinated activism and social change. Malignant collectives can also consist of chains of actors who share an overlapping set of implicit and explicit attitudes, values, and interests, which are expressed in patterns of overt behaviour. While it is possible for a single individual to create a corporation or club through their own private initiative, this is not how transformative social movements come into existence, nor how malignant chains manage to thrive with relatively impunity, safely ensconced within a collective of allies. A realistic social ontology must make space for these chains of actors, and the tensions between them.


  • Shared uncoordinated motives


We have already seen how chains of actors fail to satisfy standard conditions of group agency, which is what we would expect of nascent and unincorporated chains. But chains of actors also are not identical to private agents, inasmuch as they do not act on discrete, unrelated, and purely private motives. As we saw, members of nascent social movements share situated attitudes, values, hopes and interests, though they may not know (in full consciousness) that there are others who share, and are prepared to perform and echo, these attitudes, creating the basis for a more coordinated movement. Malignant chains of actors also share motivational states, which may not be explicitly realized. The actions of chained actors are not coordinated through formal structures and procedures like a corporation, but they also are not radically disjunctive like the intentions of private agents. For instance, if several private actors commit a murder, they may do so for financial gain, in retribution, for status, in a state of psychosis, or for any number of unrelated reasons. These individuals do not share motivational state as a result of their social position and shared experiences—they act on their own, uncoordinated, private intentions.


  • The Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE)


Seeing chains of actors as disjointed private agents is misguided, since individuals do not produce social movements on their own. This bootstrapping myth is belied by social psychology and an accurate understanding of how social movements arise. The idea that epistemic heroes and moral saints alone foment social movements, and that epistemic villains and moral rogues alone produce malignant social groups, are popular but mythical beliefs. In reality, no one can foment a social movement alone, since the ideals of the movement lack ‘uptake’ or public recognizabilty and credibility in the absence of multiple repetitions of the same gesture in public space. The hashtag #BlackLivesMatter would not be widely recognized as a symbol of racial justice, and effectively serve this purpose, if it had not been shared by many people and incorporated into a broader narrative about anti-black racism in America. Similarly, Brock Turner’s court statement would not have made sense as an intended defence, and earned him a mere six months in prison, if the rape myths that he invoked were not familiar within our culture and regarded by many as truths.


Our susceptibility to hero and villain myths is, I have suggested, an example of FAE, a cognitive bias that induces us to ignore background factors and exaggerate the role of charismatic and/or villainous leaders. While it is true that leaders often play a disproportionate causal role in collectives, they cannot sustain the collective on their own. FAE provides an error theory for the myth of superhuman leaders. But FAE is not an inevitability: while it is part of normal human psychology, it is not beyond our control. Indeed, implicit states in general appear to be susceptible to indirect control, even if they are not directly introspectible and sheddable. Jules Holroyd notes that we have, at least, “indirect and non-immediate control over the influence of implicit biases” on our behaviour (2012: 286, see also Kelly et al. 2010). That is, while we cannot reflectively access and directly change the state of our motivational psychology, we can take steps to mediate the expression of implicit biases in our overt behaviour, over time. Studies show that exposure to countersterotypical exemplars or members of stigmatized groups has a remediating effect, as does the use of implementation intentions, which help the agent re-condition her habitual responses to eliciting conditions (Holroyd 2012, Kelly et al. 2010).


The matter is somewhat simplified in the case of FAE, since knowledge of history and social movements should moderate our bias toward over-representing perceived villains and heroes, to the exclusion of supporting and enabling members, as well as background infrastructure. We can recognize the role of leaders and prominent figures in chains and groups, while still keeping an eye on supporting figures.


These considerations also have implications for whether agents bear responsibility for their role in chains and groups, which we will discuss in the next subsection.


  • Normative (Responsibility)


List and Pettit offer a definition of responsibility that resembles the control view defended most famously by J.M. Fischer (2011, 2006). On this view, an agent is responsible for a morally-significant choice, only if the agent had control over that choice (List & Pettit: 158). Saying that an agent A is responsible for choice C implies that A is morally appraisable (blameworthy or praiseworthy) for C (List & Pettit: 154).[5]


List and Pettit say little about differential responsibility for different roles in a group (‘role responsibility’), except to say that responsibility “may vary with [the members’] roles in the group” (164). Intuitively, it seems that a members’ responsibility should be proportionate to the member’s causal contribution to a group action A—although if Kutz is right, a member can be responsible for A even if he did not causally contribute to A, if the person is a voluntary group member (recall the Dresden firebombing example). Kutz says that acknowledging complicity forces us to reject the control condition of responsibility. While I agree with Kutz that participation confers responsibility in a certain sense, I disagree with his claim that this forces us to reject the control condition. The way that I interpret complicity cases is to see group membership as signalling support for the group’s ethos, and thereby causally contributing to the public credibility and acceptance of that ethos, enabling the group to realize its shared ethos in a particular action. Thus, a member may be indirectly responsible for a group action A, even if she did not enthusiastically support or causally contribute to A. This is because group membership enables the performance of collective actions that realize the group’s shared ethos.


This interpretation of indirect-member-responsibility is compatible with a control condition, if group members are held (indirectly) responsible for the collective actions of the group only if they can voluntarily renounce their membership, and thus have control over whether or not they are members. (Someone forced to join a club at gunpoint, or under other coercive circumstances, is not a voluntary member).


Now, List and Pettit say that group agency is morally potent (in part) because the group can be held responsible, even if no individual member is responsible. Individual members might be non-responsible if “they are blamelessly ignorant of any harm collectively done” (166), or (presumably) unaware of any good collectively done. List and Pettit apparently see ignorant members as, in some cases, incapable of controlling the group’s actions, and thus not responsible for them.


To my mind, it is a mystery how a group agent can satisfy the control condition when no individual member does. Attributing responsibility to corporations, independent of any individual scaffolding for this attribution, requires an ontological leap of faith that contradicts the authors’ commitment to a naturalistic ontology.


I think that we should relax the conditions of individual responsibility to prevent this gap from arising. Moreover, this move is consistent with the majority opinion in responsibility theory, which is that individuals can be responsible for ignorance and neglect (e.g., Holroyd 2012, A. Smith 2005, H. Smith 2015, Arpaly 2015, Sher 2010). One way that an individual can be responsible for ignorance and neglect is if she had indirect control over a certain action or outcome. An agent has indirect control if she is in a position to foresee and influence an action or outcome, or she was in such a position at some point in the past; it is not necessary that she be able to foresee/influence a particular action or outcome on the basis of her extant motivational psychology. This indirect reading of the control condition inculpates leaders (executive members, typically) in the decisions and actions of their corporations, under ordinary circumstances, seeing that they are in a position to govern the corporation responsibly, irrespective of whether they actually do. The exception is if someone interferes to hijack the corporation’s decision-making process, in which case the intervener is responsible for the corporation’s actions. In either case, some intentional agent is responsible for the corporation’s actions. This eliminates the gap between corporate responsibility and individual responsibility.


The indirect control view also explains the common-sense intuition that people like Brock Turner can be responsible for expressing rape-positive attitudes: because we ordinarily (except in cases of brain damage and so on) have indirect control over the cultivation and expression of our implicit states over time. Holroyd points to cognitive exercises such as exposure to countersterotypical exemplars and implementation intentions, which produce quick results that can be measured by experimenters; but long-term exposure to counterstereotypical cues and ideologies of resistance, etc., is likely to be even more effective at suppressing and de-sensitizing malignant implicit biases, making them less salient. It is hard to imagine that Turner would have raped an unconscious woman and then invoked a litany of rape myths in his court statement if he had made radically different life choices, such as: taking women’s studies classes, reading feminist philosophy, exposing himself to feminist discourses and ideals, and so on. Was it insurmountably difficult for Turner to take these steps? Surely not. Turner, after all, enjoyed many intersections of privilege as a white cisgender male. If he didn’t understand consent or respect, this was due to his own choices. Given that he had, at least, indirect control over his choices and motivational states, he is responsible for expressing them.


Turner is, furthermore, responsible for more than the effects of his actions as a private agent, since he acted as part of a chain, and so his actions were more consequential than those of a lone private agent: they were more effective at normalizing rape myths and victimizing women, since they were part of a broader system of interconnected practices. Turner thus bears responsibility for a consequence enabled by many actors, which could not have been effectuated by any sole person.


Members of beneficial chains of actors also have a degree of indirect control over the acquisition and expression of their shared insights, hopes, and aspirations, and are thus responsible for the expression in these states in their chained actions, and for the aggregate effects of these chained actions—often, radical social change. Again, no private agent can effectuate the transformative effects enabled by chained actors.


The denial of group responsibility absent individual responsibility does not mean that group agency is redundant. Rather, members of group agents can bear responsibility for the effects of the group, which no private agent has the capacity to bring about; and likewise, chained actors have the capacity to bring about effects that no private agent, or group agent, could bring about—often, radical social change.


  1. Concluding remarks


I have argued that chains of actors are quasi-group agents, which satisfy List and Pettit’s conditions of group agency minus the constraints of knowledge and common awareness. Members of quasi-group agents have sui generis motivational and normative properties, which distinguish them from both private and group agents. This category is critical to understanding social reality as fluid and tension-laden. I made some programmatic remarks about responsibility in cases of group and quasi-group agency, but much more could be said on this point. I leave this for another day.




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[1] There may also be morally neutral chains but I will ignore them, as they are not amenable to moral appraisal and are thus less interesting and less politically salient.

[2] In fact, ordinary hiring processes are biased, but hiring committees at least apply some transparent criteria, in addition to acting on implicit bias.

[3] See Neil Levy 2017 for an account of implicit biases as ‘patchy endorsements,’ with propositional structure like beliefs, but which are not responsive to other mental states.

[4] No one can say for sure whether Turner knew he was committing rape, but we can assume for the sake of argument that he was acting under a degree of (what I will later argue is culpable) ignorance. What I am trying to show is that if someone promotes rape myths unwittingly in his overt deeds and actions, this suffices to classify him as a member of Rape Culture. It goes without saying that a self-aware rapist is a member of Rape Culture.

[5] I am going to adopt List and Pettit’s control view. There is not space to survey the practically innumerable variations on moral responsibility, so I will set them aside. Assessing non-control theories of responsibility vis-à-vis group agency is a topic for another paper.

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!



Responsibility, Epistemic Confidence, and Trust


In my last post, I argued that severe deficits of epistemic confidence can undermine responsible agency by undermining a person’s ability to form resolutions and have a deep self. In this post, I want to discuss a related notion: trust. In writing about epistemic confidence, Miranda Fricker (2007) says that people who conspicuously lack epistemic confidence are perceived as less competent and less trustworthy. Being seen as less trustworthy undermines a person’s epistemic confidence, which in turn undermines the person’s agency or competency. Trust, epistemic confidence, and agency are thus related in a positive feedback loop. This is illustrated in the experiment on expectancy effect, in which certain students were randomly designated as academically gifted, and the teacher’s trust in the students’ academic competency actually improved their competency (as measured by test scores) over the course of the year (Rosenthal & Jacobson 1996, cited by Fricker 2007: 56).

In this post, I want to look more closely at trust and its relation to responsible agency.

Victoria McGeer also writes about trust. She argues the ‘substantial trust’—trust that goes beyond the evidence and abjures strategic judgment—enhances the trustee’s responsible agency (2008).[1] Substantial trust ‘goes beyond the evidence’ in the sense that it embodies a belief in the trustee’s moral worth that isn’t supported by the balance of evidence; and it ‘abjures strategic judgment’ in that it entails a refusal to evaluate the trustee’s worth on the basis of evidence. That is, trustors don’t meticulously scrutinize the evidence regarding their friend’s moral qualities; they take a leap of faith in favour of the friend’s potential to be good. To illustrate this epistemic state, if my friend is accused of bribery, I exhibit substantial trust if I’m biased in favour of her innocence, in spite of any evidence to the contrary. When we substantively trust someone, we refuse to judge her on evidential grounds.

A central element of substantial trust on McGeer’s view is hope: in trusting a friend, we hope the person will live up to our optimistic expectations of her moral worth, but we don’t know if she will. Yet substantive trust can’t (or shouldn’t) be delusory: if the evidence confirms our friend’s guilt beyond doubt, we shouldn’t trust in the person’s innocence; but it would still be reasonable in this case to trust in our friend’s capacity to improve. In this way, substantive trust is relatively resistant to disappointment: even if a friend fails several times, we can continue to trust in the person’s basic capacity to live up to our hopes. We trust that the person can gain new capacities or build on existing capacities to embody our ideal. Only in the face of repeated disappointment does substantive trust become irrational. ‘Irrational’ trust on McGeer’s view is pointless; it doesn’t reliably contribute to the trustee’s agency.

Substantive trust enhances the trustee’s agency because it “has a galvanizing effect on how trustees see themselves, as trustors avowedly do, in the fullest of their potential” (McGeer 2008: 252). That is, our trust inspires confidence in the trustee, who begins to believe in herself.

This picture of trust as agency-enhancing interests me for 3 reasons, which I’ll elaborate briefly here.

  1. Epistemic confidence: the mediating variable between trust and responsible agency

McGeer’s account helps to explain how epistemic confidence is related to responsible agency: substantial trust (when assimilated to Fricker’s moral epistemology) inspires epistemic confidence, which (in the right degree) facilitates responsible agency. The right degree, as per my last post, is midway between between epistemic insecurity and epistemic arrogance; it’s neither too much nor too little self-regard. Epistemic confidence, then, is the mediating variable between trust and responsible agency. McGeer doesn’t explicitly mention ‘epistemic confidence,’ but she’s interested in elucidating the psychological mechanism whereby trust enhances responsibility. She rejects Pettit’s theory (1995) that trust incites a desire for approval, as this isn’t a ‘morally decent’ motive, befitting of the trust relationship (2008: 252). Instead, McGeer proposes that trust ‘galvanizes’ the trustee to see herself in a more positive light—through the trustor’s eyes. The resultant state—let’s call it positive self-regard—motivates the trustee to aspire to a higher standard of conduct.

Positive self-regard can be seen as a weak form of epistemic confidence—an aspirational kind. Whereas epistemic confidence is a positive belief in one’s merit or abilities, self-regard (in McGeer’s sense) appears to be faith in one’s (as yet unproven) merits and abilities. But self-esteem and epistemic confidence are of a kind: one is just firmer than the other. So, we can see positive self-regard as a weak form of epistemic confidence, and both states as intermediary between two epistemic defects: epistemic insecurity and epistemic arrogance. These epistemic virtues—self-esteem and epistemic confidence—are positively correlated with responsible agency, in the following sense: they enhance the trustee’s confidence in herself, and thus her ability to have firm beliefs and values (or convictions) about herself, and to act on those states. Having convictions prevents people from being ‘wantons,’ akratics, and irresolute people—paradigms of irresponsibility or weak responsibility. Responsibility is enhanced by belief in oneself, and this belief tends to confer self-control, willpower, and resilience—competencies implicated in or constitutive of fully responsible agency.

These related virtues—positive self-regard and epistemic confidence—might serve slightly different purposes; specifically, self-esteem might be particularly adaptive in adverse circumstances where a positive outcome is unlikely (but possible), whereas epistemic confidence might be more fitting when success is reasonably probable; but both states facilitate responsibility. Trust is fitting, therefore, when it’s likely to enhance responsibility by either of these means. In other words, we’re rational to trust someone when our trusting attitude reliably confers agency-conducive epistemic virtues. This allows us to say (consistent with McGeer’s view) that trust is a ‘rational’ attitude even if it goes against the evidence, insofar as it tends to foster agency in the trustee. Trusting in someone ‘irrationally’ would mean trusting in someone who can’t reasonably be expected to live up to our ideal; in that case, we’re merely wishing (not trusting) that the person could be better. Trust is also irrational if the trustee is overconfident, since in that case, our trust is either wasted or positively harmful: it’s likely to increase the person’s epistemic narcissism.

On this (basically functionalist) account of trust, epistemic confidence is counterfactually dependent on trust in the following sense: it wouldn’t exist without some initial investment of trust, but it can become increasingly self-sustaining and self-perpetuating over time. That is, people who never receive trust probably (as a matter of statistical probability) won’t develop epistemic confidence, but people who do receive trust may become increasingly self-trusting and self-sufficient. This claim is based in part on facts about ordinary human psychology: As a matter of fact, trust tends to confer epistemic confidence in psychologically normal humans, which enhances responsibility as a measure of resoluteness, willpower, and resilience. This psychological picture is suggested (though not explicitly articulated) by McGeer and Fricker, who cite developmental and child education studies showing that trust from an adult inspires confidence and competency in children. (This is sometimes called ‘Pygmalion effect’). Fricker cites the famous teacher expectation study (Rosenthal & Jacobson 1996), and McGeer cites research in developmental psychology showing that children who receive support from parents—‘parental scaffolding,’ as she calls it (2007: 249)—develop stronger powers of agency than deprived and neglected children. This research suggests that agency typically, in ordinary humans, depends on positive self-regard, which depends on a non-trivial investment of trust, especially during a person’s formative years. Subsequent trusting relationships, however, can compensate for deficits in childhood, as other research indicates—for example, research on therapy showing how positive therapeutic relationships can remediate symptoms of childhood trauma (Pearlman & Saakvitne 1995). This is how I suggest we perceive the trust-epistemic confidence relationship: epistemic confidence is counterfactually dependent on a non-trivial investment of trust in psychologically normal people, but can eventually become relatively (though not completely) self-sustaining; epistemic virtues inculcated by trust typically confer strong(er) agency.

This discussion suggests a particular taxonomy of epistemic states related to trust and agency. Specifically, I’ve said that trust catalyses three closely-related epistemic virtues: positive self-regard, epistemic confidence, and epistemic courage. These states are increasingly robust epistemic virtues, which support our ability to form resolutions, exercise willpower, and act resiliently. At either end of thus spectrum is an epistemic defect: on one side, epistemic insecurity (a paucity of epistemic confidence), and on the other side, epistemic arrogance (a superabundance of epistemic confidence). These defects undermine agency for different reasons: epistemic insecurity undermines our ability to form and act on convictions, and epistemic arrogance undermines our ability to adequately consider evidence for and against our beliefs, inciting us to favour our prior assumptions come what may. (That is, it spurs self-serving bias and confirmation bias). These vices thus undermine our ability to have a deep self and to exercise moderate control over our deep self, respectively.

This is one possible epistemic framework for responsible agency—the one that I’ve settled on. I think that more work can be done here, viz., at the intersection of responsibility and epistemology (especially social/feminist epistemology, which is relational in nature). We can call this intersection ‘the epistemology of moral responsibility’. This is promising area for future research, I think, and it may be of interest to neuroscientifically-inclined philosophers, inasmuch as these epistemic states are amenable to neuroscientific description.

  1. Responsibility as ‘external’ or ‘distributed.’ 

I’m also interested in McGeer’s account because (I think) it poses a challenge to classic theories of responsible agency that are relatively ‘atomistic’ (Vargas 2013) or ‘internalist’ (Hurley 2011). Classic accounts include Frankfurt’s (1971), on which responsibility is a matter of being able to form higher-order volitions consistent with one’s lower-order desires, and Fischer’s (2006, 2011), on which responsibility is a matter of being moderately responsive to reasons. These are different types of theory (one is character-based and the other is control-based, as typically construed), but they both emphasize the internal properties of agents to a greater extent than McGeer’s theory of trust, and so they can be regarded as comparatively ‘internalistic.’ (I’ve adopted aspect of these theories here—the idea that responsible agency is a function of deep-selfhood and reasons-responsiveness—but I’m going to to suggest that these capacities are more ‘extended’ than classic accounts imply).

Internalism should be seen as a matter of degree: most theories of responsibility treat some background factors as responsibility-relevant—for example, neuroscientific intervention (Mele 1995). But classic theorists usually think that exogenous factors are only relevant insofar as they intervene on the ‘actual sequence’ of the agent’s deliberation. For example, Fischer holds that clandestine brainwashing impairs responsibility because it operates on the agent’s actual motivational profile, dramatically altering it; but a ‘counterfactual device,’ that would have intervened had the agent deliberated differently is ‘bracketed’ as irrelevant (for more on this, see Levy 2008). Frankfurt, too, sees these counterfactual conditions as irrelevant.

McGeer’s theory is comparatively ‘externalistic’ in that it (implicitly, at least) construes counterfactual interveners as relevant to responsibility (qua trust-fittingness). We can’t, on her view, ‘bracket’ these counterfactual conditions when considering whether someone is trustworthy. This is because when we substantially trust someone, we (implicity) judge the person by what she could be in a nearby possible world—one in which she’s better than she is. This is implied by the hopeful optimism intrinsic to substantial trust—we don’t see the trustee as she is (at least, in paradigm cases), but rather as she would be if she succeeded in translating our trust into ideal self-regard. Moreover, when someone fails to live up to our optimistic expectations, we don’t immediately withdraw our trust, since substantial trust is inherently resilient. Trust, then, doesn’t always track a person’s real-world capacity for control or real-world quality of will; it sometmes tracks the person’s potential to improve, not based on evidence but on hopeful optimism. Trust, then, is a form of responsibility (a reactive attitude) that isn’t constrained by considerations about a person’s real-world or actual-sequence capacities at the time of action—when the trustee did something good or bad. It considers the person as she is in a nearby possible world or as she may become in the future.

This sets McGeer’s account apart from classic ‘actual-world’ or ‘actual sequence’ theories, because substantial trust treats counterfactual possibilities—in which the agent has a different kind of self-regard—as morally relevant. The trust relationship itself can be seen as a ‘counterfactual enabler’ in Levy’s terms (2008), in that it enables the trustee to gain a capacity, if the person succeeds in internalizing the proffered trust. But these transformative effects aren’t countenanced as legitimate considerations on classic views of responsibility. Also importantly, the trust relationship is distributed between two people, not intrinsic to the trustee; if it’s withdrawn at a critical stage of development, it undermines the cultivation of positive self-regard and agency. This is another ‘externalist’ aspect to trust: it implicates two or more people’s agencies. So trust is ‘externalistic’ in at least these two aspects: it depends upon counterfactual scenarios and it implicates two agents.

  1. Responsibility as care-based (non-retributive) and forward-looking

Substantial trust also challenges two other familiar approaches to responsibility: the retributive view and the backward-looking view.

Retributivism is, in very simple terms, the view that those who commit a wrongful action deserve punitive attitudes (blame, disapprobation, resentment) and those who perform an excellent action deserve rewards (praise, approbation). (I won’t consider more complex versions of retributivism: this one will be my only target). This is a very natural way of thinking about the reactive attitudes, and it seems to be Strawson’s understanding. He implies that those who fail to conform to reasonable social expectations deserve punitive attitudes, unless there’s an excusing or exempting condition (e.g., hypnosis, severe psychosis).

Substantial trust challenges this neat binary by holding that a person who falls short of our aspirational norms still ‘deserves’ trust, if trust is likely to instil positive self-regard across a reasonable time scale. That is, continuance of trust is fitting when someone makes a “one-off” mistake, as substantial trust is an “on-going activity” that’s resilient in the face of moderate set-backs (McGeer 2008: 247). Hence, we can’t simply say that someone who surpasses our expectations thereby warrants praise and someone who breaches our trust thereby warrants blame, as per the standard desert-based picture. This doesn’t capture the essence of trust. Rather, we withdraw or modify our trusting disposition only when someone repeatedly or catastrophically disappoints us, rendering trust pointless and irrational. Since substantial trust is aspirational at its core, substandard conduct on the trustee’s part doesn’t compel us to automatically withdraw our trust and assume a retributive stance: we’re licensed to suspend blame in the hope that the person will improve.

This is related to the fact that substantial trust is a forward-looking attitude. Most theories of responsibility are backward-looking, meaning that they attribute responsibility (praise/blame) on the basis of an agent’s capacities at the time of action, i.e., some time in the past. Frankfurt’s and Fischer’s views are like this: if someone had (a) a certain motivational structure, or (b) reasons-responsiveness when performing a certain action A, the person is thereby responsible for A. Trust, however, isn’t deployed solely on the basis of someone’s past motivational psychology and conduct; it’s also deployed on the basis of the trustee’s ongoing and fluid potential: we can trust someone who doesn’t (presently) have the capacity to improve. Trust, that is, outstrips the trustee’s current capacities at any given time.

As McGeer points out, we don’t (paradigmatically) invest trust in someone on a calculated judgment that the person will ‘earn’ our trust (as Pettit thinks), as this would be perverse and ‘manipulative’ (2008: 252). Rather, we trust someone as a way of empowering the person. Another way of putting this, I think, is to say that we trust someone for that person’s own sake. This interpretation of trust has affinities with Claudia Card’s (1996) care-based approach to responsibility, on which responsibility serves the function of expressing care to the target agent. It also resembles Vargas’ agency-cultivation model (2013), which reflects a concern for the target’s wellbeing (at least, it’s amenable to this reading). This care-based orientation is very different from the retributive rationale, and it’s also not backward-looking: responsibility attributions are meant to enhance or empower the recipient, not to punish her for past misdeeds. McGeer’s account of trust thus fits better with consequentialist theories rather than retributive ones, and it seems to embody a care ethos—trust is an essentially caring attitude. It seems to be essential to trust that it be care-based—or at least forward-looking; any other interpretation is simply conceptually mistaken.

I think that this is the correct way to think about responsibility in general (i.e., as consequentialist); but even if this isn’t the whole story (arguably there are many incommensurable but correct theories of responsibility—see Doris 2015 on ‘pluralism’), this seems to be a necessary way of seeing at least one facet of responsibility: trust. This means (at a minimum) that not all of our responsibility-constitutive reactive attitudes are retributive.



[1] McGeer says that substantial trust fosters ‘more responsible and responsive trustworthy behaviour’ (2008). I’m just going to say that it fosters ‘responsible agency,’ and I’ll make a case for this more general claim in this post. It’s not hard to see how trust can enhance responsible agency: if we trust in our potential to achieve a desired outcome, we’re better able to achieve that outcome (under success-conducive circumstances, which I’ll leave vague).