Is criticism valuable if it doesn’t make a sound? Blaming in conditions of epistemic injustice.

Blame can take many forms, but one of its forms is criticism. Sometimes when we blame people, we criticize them for committing a norm violation (‘deontic blame’), or we blame them for exhibiting suberogatory character (‘aretaic blame’). These, at least, are forms of blame on McKenna’s view (2011; forthcoming). Blame, then, sometimes conveys criticism to an agent or group on the basis of the agent’s or group’s actions and/or character traits.

When are these criticisms appropriate or ‘fitting’? According to McKenna, one of the fittingness conditions of blame is intelligibility, meaning that fitting blaming responses are  intelligible to others. This is a sensible constraint, since McKenna sees blame as part of a conversational practice, and conversation, according to Grice, is amenable to constraints of clarity, relevance, truthfulness, and informativeness – constraints that enhance the intelligibility of conversational inputs to natural-language speakers. Blame as a conversational practice, then, should prima facie promote intelligibility, by respecting Grice’s maxims, as well as any other conditions that facilitate uptake amongst speakers.

The problem with the constraint of intelligibility is that some criticisms are unintelligible only because of testimonial injustice, in which a speaker is discredited due to prejudice against the person’s identity (e.g., gender, race, socioeconomic status), or because of hermeneutical injustice, in which a speaker is discredited due to gaps in the shared interpreted resources of the culture (Fricker 2007). Both examples are types of epistemic injustice, which silences and discredits marginalized groups. In conditions of epistemic injustice, individuals either refuse to, or cannot, appreciate the experiences of minorities.

Now, if a person or an entire culture finds your criticism (the content of your blaming response) to be unintelligible only because of some type of epistemic injustice, does it follow that your criticism is ‘unfitting’? If the intelligibility constraint is accepted, then it seems to. This, however, is a perverse conclusion, since it implies that members of epistemically oppressed groups should not criticize wrongdoers when epistemic conditions render their complaint unintelligible to those people or society as a whole. Take the example of sexual harassment; Fricker points out that, not long ago, sexual harassment was not a widely recognized concept – it didn’t even have a name. Yet some women knew (or suspected) that there was something wrong with the way they were being treated by men – they had a kind of proto-understanding of sexual harassment. Should they have remained silent about their experiences due to the lack of cultural uptake? If the intelligibility constraint is valid, then their testimony would not have been a ‘fitting’ case of blame because it was unintelligible to others. Another example is the cultural genocide perpetrated on Indigenous peoples: many Americans refuse to acknowledge that the founding fathers perpetrated a cultural genocide on local Indigenous peoples. The U.S. government, in fact, has never publicly apologized for the forcible assimilation of Native Americans. Should Indigenous peoples remain silent in the face of cultural ignorance? To say that their complaints are ‘unfitting’ because they are unintelligible to their target audience is perverse, and it perpetrates the very injustice that they are criticizing – the erasure of their lived experiences from the public record.

Similarly, many philosophers (namely, ‘functionalists’) believe that blame serves a social purpose or function, whether to resist wrongdoing (Bell 2013), protest injustice (Smith 2013), or promote prosocial behaviour (McGeer 2013). But what if blame fails to serve any purpose only because of lack of uptake? If women who accuse men of sexual harassment are ridiculed, scorned, and silenced, their criticism can hardly be seen as ‘functional.’ Criticisms that blame people for norm violations that society doesn’t recognize appear to be ‘dysfunctional,’ or somehow defective, because they don’t serve a purpose. We can’t even say that the criticism is cathartic for the blamer herself, since it results in her being silenced, stigmatized, and punished for challenging the patriarchal orthodoxy.

Recently, Kathryn Norlock (2017) published a paper criticizing the view that criticism has to be productive to be permissible. First, she observes that criticism has been condemned within the philosophical tradition because it is seen as an ineffectual and paradigmatically effeminate type of whining. Criticism as such is offensive to theorists like Kant and Aristotle because they are sexist and hate everything related to femininity, which is framed in their philosophical worldview as the opposite of Male Rationality. (Just saying). Whereas manly men protest as a means of promoting change and making their mark on the world, women whine and complain. This sexist view is easily dismissed, though it is certainly worth addressing, because these historical associations may underlie modern thought on the relative value of “protest” versus “criticism.” To see criticism as weak  and infantile is, in effect, to belittle the socially oppressed (women, radicalized minorities, sexual minorities), because it is precisely these groups whose protests will be dismissed and relegated to the status of ‘criticism’ by forces of epistemic injustice. Even if their criticisms are more valuable (morally, politically, epistemically) than the petty ‘protestations’ of cisgender white males, their criticism will be less causally efficacious simply because mainstream society refuses to give them the uptake they deserve. If the historically oppressed are seen as ‘whiners,’ this is only because their epistemic contributions, which are objectively valuable, are seen as a threat to the social order.

That said, there is a difference between effective and ineffective criticism, as Norlock observes. Julian Baggini (2008) defends the view that efficacy is a condition of successful criticism. While it is good advice to tailor your speech to your audience, some people’s experiences cannot be expressed intelligibility, no matter how hard they try, because the audience is prejudiced against them, or lacks access to relevant epistemic resources. To bring this into relief, consider how ‘upspeak,’ vocal fry,’ and high vocal pitch, which are stereotypically feminine (Sicoli 2017), as well as African American Vernacular English (Siegel 1999), are seen as less credible than stereotypical male speech and Standard English by the majority of listeners. No matter what you say, if you sound like a woman or a Black person, you’re not going to get the same credit as a cisgender white man (on average).

Norlock argues that inefficacious criticism, which lacks uptake, is not necessarily defective, and may even be more virtuous than intelligible criticism. This is because (1) complaining can be cathartic, and (2) even when it isn’t cathartic, it can “invite… disclosure and commiseration” (2018). In fact, we may have an “affective duty” to complain as a way of commiserating with others. If two coworkers go to work and complain about the weather, which they can’t change, this exchange nonetheless builds “interaffective” rapport. The workers share each other’s emotions and feel closer to one another. Their complaining is useless in the sense that it can’t change the weather, but it is productive insofar as it builds an affective bridge between them and alleviates their pain.

We can say something similar about complaints or criticisms amongst epistemically oppressed people. Complaining about sexual harassment in a society that doesn’t recognize sexual harassment as a norm violation can build interaffective rapport between the complainers, which creates, not exactly the conditions for epistemic justice, but the preconditions for epistemic justice – the first links in “a chain of actors” joined by shared affective states and proto-understandings. Jose Medina (2012) uses the term “chain of actors” to denote a network of people who lack full epistemic access to the normative significance of their plight (e.g., gender oppression, racial oppression), but share a proto-understanding of their predicament. Chains of actors aren’t “group agents” because they don’t share joint intentions (e.g., the intention to stage an effective uprising), but they share a “mixed and hybrid kind of agency in which intentional and non-intentional (affective) acts of groups become interwoven” by multiple iterations of the same act type. The civil rights movement, for example, wasn’t organized by anyone – it consisted of multiple acts of resistance performed and echoed across time and place. Canada recently placed Viola Desmond on the ten-dollar bill in place of Canada’s first Prime Minister, John A. McDonald, who perpetrated a cultural genocide on Canada’s Indigenous peoples. Viola Desmond refused to sit in the back of a movie theatre nine years before Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of a bus, but both women, even if they didn’t know about each other, were part of the same chain of actors, acting on the same affective states, values, and hopes. In recent years, feminists insisted on replacing McDonald, an icon of colonialism, with Desmond, an icon of anti-racist feminist. These activists are part of the same chain, 65 years laters. On Medina’s view, the start of a chain of actors consists of acts of resistance that are not (or may not be) culturally intelligible due to epistemic injustice. These acts produce the preconditions for epistemic justice – for recognizing the meanings of these political acts and building affective rapport across groups. Thus, even unintelligible criticism is effective in the sense that it facilitates change.

The upshot is that, even if a criticism is not intelligible to an audience, if it helps to create the preconditions for uptake for that type of criticism, it can be seen as ‘fitting’ and ‘functional.’

Still, some valid criticisms could produce negative net consequences: they could create such a strong backlash that they inadvertently increase the total level of social and epistemic injustice. Other criticisms may simply be causally inert – criticisms that no one witnesses or cares about. Are these criticisms defective in some way? It is plausible to think that counterproductive criticisms may foster interaffective rapport amongst sympathetic listeners, even if the net consequences are negative. Counterproductive criticisms then, may be pro tanto ‘fitting’ and ‘functional,’ to the extent that they produce interaffective rapport. Inert criticisms, on the other hand, are completely unproductive, but they may at least be virtuous insofar as they reflect positive character traits. Thus, even when a criticism isn’t fitting or functional, it may have redeeming moral qualities. Consider Francesca Mann, who killed one Nazi and injured another on the way to the gas chamber – an act of heroism that has inspired respect and admiration ever since. Her heroic action may have had perverse consequences: it may have incited the Nazis to be even more brutal to subsequent prisoners. Suppose that no one had ever witnessed or heard about her act of heroism: would it have been ‘unfitting,’ or expressively defective, because unintelligible to the Nazis and harmful to others? Maybe. But it still would have been brave. Counterproductive and inert criticism, then, may have redeeming moral value.



Scapegoating: Politically motivated blaming & punishing

  1. Scapegoating: false and excessive blame and punishment for perceived norm violations

Scapegoating is the practice of blaming and punishing innocent victims for purposes of expediency and/or political gain. Blame is a vague term, but I take it to denote negative and avoidant interpersonal practices, such as resenting, sanctioning, distrusting, excluding, and marginalizing people. Punishment also includes negative and exclusionary (albeit institutional) practices, such as incarcerating, disciplining, and isolating people. Depending on your theoretical framework, punishment may fall under the rubric of blame – that is, punishment may be an institutionalized version of blame, though with additional constraints determined by relevant social institutions. In any case, scapegoating is the politically-motivated blaming and/or punishing of innocent people.

America is one of the most socioeconomically stratified and demographically unequal countries in the developed world. As a result, historically disenfranchised groups, including African, Hispanic, and LatinX people, women, and people with mental illness, are systemically scapegoated. That is, members of these groups are blamed and punished for norm violations they did not commit, or are excessively blamed and punished for trivial norm violations, on the basis of pervasive cultural stereotypes and social scripts. These blaming practices reinforce existing asymmetries of power and protect the self-conception of scapegoaters, who can ignore their affiliation with pernicious social groups.

2. Socioeconomic Inequality

Scapegoating is a common practice in modern society, in part because modern society is characterized by conditions of severe socioeconomic inequality and demographic stratification. The United States has the fifth highest level of income inequality (measured by household disposable income per year) of all OECD countries, behind only Turkey, Chile, Costa Rica, and South Africa  (OECD 2017). The top 1% of Americans control 38.6% of the nation’s wealth – almost twice as much as the bottom 90% combined (Egan 2017). Poverty does not affect every social group equally; it disproportionally affects historically disenfranchised groups. The real median income of non-Hispanic white households is $65,041, compared to only $47,675 for Hispanic-origin households and $39,490 for Black households (Semega et al. 2017). Income inequality, moreover, pales in comparison to wealth inequality: ‘white households in the middle-income quintile (those earning $37,201-$61,328 annually) own nearly eight times as much wealth ($86,100) as middle-income Black earners ($11,000) and ten times as much wealth as middle-income Latino earners ($8,600)” (Asante-Muhammad et al. 2017). That is, within the same income bracket, Black and LatinX earners own much less wealth than white earners.

Income also varies by gender: Women as a group earn just 80% as much as men, but Hispanic/Latina women and African American women, respectively, earn only 54% and 63% on the dollar, compared to white women’s 79% and Asian women’s 87% earnings (AAUW 2017).

These are some of the major populations studied by economists, but it leaves out many disadvantaged groups, including people with mental illness. Higher economic inequality is linked with higher national rates of mental illness (Pickett et al. 2006), and mental illness is highest amongst low-income families (McSilver Institute 2014). Research suggests that poverty is not just the result of disability due to mental illness, but a significant cause of mental illness (ibid). The United States has the third-highest disease burden due to mental illness of all WHO member states (after only China and India) (McPhillips 2014, WHO 2017), and ranks 37th for access to healthcare services – higher than Slovenia, but below Costa Rica (TPF 2018). 56% of Americans currently lack access to mental health treatment, with worse access in states that chose not to expand Medicaid (MHA 2017).

This isn’t an exhaustive list of socioeconomically disadvantaged demographic groups (which is beyond the scope of this post), but it is a suggestive compilation of readily-available economic data. The specified disadvantaged groups – Black, LatinX, Hispanic Americans, women, and those with mental illness – are victims of systemic scapegoating. That is, they are systemically blamed for illusory and trivial norm-violations because they are easy targets (due to low socioeconomic status and intergenerational trauma), and because blaming these groups reinforces the existing colonialist, patriarchal, cissexist, ableist social order. Blaming members of disadvantaged groups for norm violations that they didn’t commit maintains the status quo, reinforces oppressive social narratives, and protects the socioeconomic interests of  the historically privileged.

3. The cultural scapegoating of socioeconomically disadvantaged groups

Here are some examples of systemic scapegoating.

The United States, which contains 21% of the world’s prison population – more than China (APA 2014) – incarcerates African Americans at almost five times the rate of white Americans, incarcerates twice as many Black women as white women, disproportionally arrests Black children, and has a majority Black and Hispanic prison population (56%), even though these groups make up only 32% of the U.S. population (NAACP 2018). Implicit racial bias, structural disadvantages, and racial profiling lead to high levels of incarceration amongst African Americans (TSP 2016). In terms of postsecondary education, African Americans have a 47.1% graduation rate and Hispanic/LatinX Americans have a 56.5% graduation rate at public 4-year colleges, compared to a 64.4% graduation rate for White students (Imagine 2008). This is in part because African American and Hispanic/LatinX students receive disproportionate discipline referrals (controlling for socioeconomic status), resulting in more suspensions and expulsions (ibid., Wallace et al. 2005). This is due in part to implicit racial bias and stereotype threat. Of students classified as aggressive, African Americans are more likely to be disciplined than any other student group, especially by white teachers (Horner, Fireman, & Wang, 2010; KITSRE 2018). (Same-race teachers judge Black students’ classroom behaviour more favourably than do white teachers). Students with a ‘black walking style’ are perceived by teachers as lower in academic achievement, highly aggressive, and likely to be in need of special education services (Neal et al. 2003). Teachers have lower expectations of Black students, resulting in ‘expectancy effects’ and stereotype threat (McKown & Weinstein 2002). These effects result in “less praise” and “more disciplinary action” against Black students (KITSRE 2018). Black girls are seen as more adult-like and less innocent than their peers, resulting in harsher and more frequent punishments by educators and school resource officers (Epstein et al. 2016). These are just a few examples.

Women don’t suffer incarceration rates equal to Black and Hispanic/Latino men, but they suffer higher rates of sexual violence: 90% of adult and 87% juvenile rape victims are female (RAINN 2018) – and women are often blamed for being raped, especially by people high in rape-myth acceptance and implicit gender bias (Grubb & Turner 2012). This helps to explain why only 6 out of every 1000 rapists go to prison, and most rapists are never reported (RAINN 2018). In the criminal justice system, female expert witnesses tend to be seen as more credible in civil cases than criminal cases, possibly because criminal litigation is stereotypically male (Larson & Brodsky; 2010Couch & Sigler, 2002; Jones et al. 2014). This implies that credibility in court depends on salient stereotypes. In postsecondary education, female teachers receive lower scores on Students Evaluations of Teaching than male teachers across almost all disciplines, controlling for student learning outcomes (Flaherty 2016; Flaherty 2017), which suggests that women are subject to harsher criticism and resentment from students than male teachers. In the workplace, women who exhibit leadership skills are seen as ‘bossy’ and less effective than men (Kramer 2016). When the share of women in an occupation increases, the occupation is devalued and pays lower wages, meaning that women cannot simply migrate into male-dominant professions and expect to earn an equivalent salary (Levanon et al. 2009). In short, women are blamed and punished more often than men when gender stereotypes are salient, including in criminal court, higher education, and corporate America. (Note that I used statistics about ‘female’ vs. ‘male’ expert witnesses, teachers, and workers, due to the availability of the data; it is a reasonable inference that trans women face similar discrimination, plus transphobia, across the same domains).

Next, people with mental illness tend to be incarcerated rather than being provided with mental health services, but a majority of mentally ill prisoners are not violent offenders (NAMI 2018). Nonetheless, people with mental illness are systemically scapegoated for America’s culture of mass shootings. After the 1999 Columbine shooting, psychiatrist Peter Breggin blamed mentally ill people; after the 2012 Newtown shooting, psychiatrist E. Fuller Torrey blamed ‘mentally ill subgroups’; and in 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court endorsed prohibitions on gun ownership for people with mental illness, on the assumption that there is a predictive relationship between mental illness and homicide (AJPH 2014). In fact, there isn’t. Research shows that “fewer than 5% of the 120 000 gun-related killings in the United States between 2001 and 2010 were perpetrated by people diagnosed with mental illness” (ibid), whereas about 20% of American adults have a diagnosable mental illness (Insel 2015). In other words, having a mental illness predicts not committing a mass shooting. People with mental illness are more likely to be assaulted by others than to commit assault (AJPH 2014). Factors that do predict gun violence include the availability of guns and social relations: up to 85% of shootings occur within social networks (Papachristos 2012; ibid.). More specifically, domestic abusers tend to commit mass shootings: while “perpetrators of domestic violence account for only about 10 percent of all gun violence, they accounted for 54 percent of mass shootings between 2009 and 2016” (NPR 2017; citing Everytown 2017). Psychiatrists are not effective barriers to mass shootings, as they are no better than laypeople at predicting whether a patient will commit a violent crime (Steadman 1978). As Jonathan Metzl clarifies, there is no psychiatric diagnosis that includes gun violence as a symptom; hence, when it comes to mass shootings, there is no “predictive value to psychiatric diagnosis” (Metzl on NPR, February 18, 2018).

Notably, mental illness is diagnosed three to four times more often in Black and Hispanic/LatinX service users than in white service users, possibly due to clinical racial bias, differential access to healthcare, and different attitudes toward mental healthcare (Schwartz et al. 2014). This suggests that mental illness may not have robust construct validity, let alone predictive value. In any case, the majority of mass shooters are white males (54%) (Foleman et al. 2017). Salient predictors of gun violence, then, do not include mental illness – they include gun availability, social relations, a record of domestic violence, and being a white male. We don’t need psychiatrists to identify potential perpetrators.


In sum, racialized minorities, women, and people with mental illness tend to be falsely and excessively blamed and punished in contexts in which relevant stereotypes are salient. These patterns of blame and punishment reinforce patriarchal, colonial, and ableist social scripts.

4. Scapegoating & social scripts

Scapegoating reinforces oppressive social scripts rooted in America’s colonial-patriarchal history. Black and Hispanic/LatinX people are disproportionally blamed and punished for perceived norm violations and suberogatory performance in judicial and educational contexts; women are unfairly blamed for perceived subordinate performance in stereotypically male judicial, educational, and corporate contexts; and people with mental illness are unfairly blamed, vilified, and stigmatized in the wake of mass shootings.

In his influential work on responsibility, Manual Vargas argues that our capacity for moral responsibility is influenced by the availability of “narratives, scripts, or cultural frameworks,” which comprise our “moral ecology” (2013: 246). Similarly, Jose Medina argues that our capacity for responsibility depends on the availability of social scripts, narratives, and discourses, which comprise our shared “social imagination” (2012). Our sensitivity to people’s moral and epistemic traits, on these views, is conditioned by salient social scripts – for example, scripts about putative associations between race and criminality, gender and credibly, and mental health and violence. These scripts are rooted in historical asymmetries of power, and they simultaneously reinforce these asymmetries. Blaming disadvantaged groups reinforces the scripts that oppress these groups.

Scapegoating doesn’t always target historically disenfranchised groups, but it often does, because it is easy to invoke oppressive social scripts to rationalize dominant scapegoating narratives. Scapegoating diverts attention away from salient causal factors by invoking familiar stereotypes, which rationalize the established order and give comfort to the privileged. This comfort is illusory, of course, because the scapegoating narratives don’t explain anything and have no predictive value. It is ‘natural,’ in a sense, that people should accept familiar but false explanatory paradigms, seeing that human beings are highly susceptible to status quo bias, loss aversion, endowment effect, and other cognitive biases that promote a conservative orientation. (Endowment effect, for example, motivates us to overvalue our possessions just because they are ours). The fact that we are susceptible to these biases, however, does not mean that we must succumb to them: unlike non-human animals, most of us are reflective creatures with functioning cerebral cortices. Barring special circumstances, it is not beyond our cognitive capacity to critically evaluate salient social scripts and determine which ones are explanatory and predictive models, and which ones are flimsy and oppressive rationalizations.

Vargas and Medina agree that human beings have the cognitive capacity to sort through competing social scripts and appraise them for relative credibility, though this capacity depends (epistemically) on the availability of scripts. In North Korea, there are far fewer available scripts then in the United States. There is currently substantive public debate over the role of racial, gender, and ableist bias in various social contexts, meaning that competing scripts are available in our moral ecology/social imaginary, though there are admittedly geographical differences (for instance, 23% of Americans living in urban areas and 28% of Americans living in rural areas have no access to the Internet [Molla 2017]). That said, many Americans subscribe to false scripts not because of epistemic barriers, but because of motivated irrationality: they prefer to believe in venerated cultural myths.

It is notable that dominant social scripts reflect asymmetric applications of explanatory paradigms – for example, collectivist versus individualist models. Metz points out that when people of color commit mass shootings, politicians and the media tend to explain the event as a collective or group-based problem – namely, a problem with the Black community. This explanation allows us to ‘predict’ future shootings: being Black predicts being a mass shooter (on the false paradigm). Yet when white people commit mass shootings, politicians and the media tend to explain the event as an individual choice on the part of a mentally ill “lone wolf” (Metz 2017). The reason, say Metz, is that white people see their image reflected in other white people, and are reluctant to identify any predictive variables in the makeup of white shooters (e.g., being white). They therefore invoke a familiar social script that rationalizes their white, able-bodied privilege: the white shooter was a lone wolf, not a representative example of a certain class of white males.

This single-factor explanation isn’t just an over-simplification of a complex social phenomenon – it’s false. Mental illness doesn’t predict mass shootings. Ableist narratives are false explanatory frameworks that protect the privileged from seeing themselves reflected in violent criminals. Scapegoating serves to protect their positive self-conception.

 Who is responsible?

Who is responsible for the scapegoating of historically disadvantaged groups?

Some people would say that no one is responsible, because no one is responsible for anything. This is the eliminativist position. One motivation for eliminativism (within the compatibilist camp) is that focusing on agency (whether individual or collective) diverts attention away from non-agential systemic problems. We can see the merit in this position: scapegoating historically disadvantaged group is a mistake, and blaming scapegoaters might also distract us from the causal basis of social ills such as mass shootings. Homing in on systemic factors prevents us from committing the fundamental attribution error (i.e., mis-attributing agential qualities to others), and from invoking asymmetric and simplistic explanatory paradigms to explain group-level behaviour.

On the other hand, surely part of the causal basis of social ills is agential. That is, agents are the ones scapegoating innocent victims, and agents are the ones unearthing salient causal factors. Agents are the ones debating available social scripts within our shared discursive space. The tensions in our social imaginary aren’t going to resolve themselves, sine we create, construct, and negotiate this space as discursive agents. On many accounts (e.g., McGeer 2014, Malle et al. 2014), blame is a regulatory social practice that (ideally) motivates people to respond sensitively to moral and epistemic norms. If so, then scapegoaters should be blamed and reliable explainers should be praised, so as to establish a reflective equilibrium in which credible explanatory paradigms are central. I won’t argue for the regulatory view here, but if you are disposed to think of blame as a regulatory mechanism, you should grant that blame should be addressed (at a minimum) to agents who commit norm violations but possess the cognitive architecture and epistemic resources required to become more responsible. Judicious blame (expressed intelligibly and in the right context) is a lever that could nudge these agents toward responsibility.

On this view, there are patently blameworthy public figures. Donald Trump, for instance, is an epic scapegoater. Metzl points out that Trump, who is quick to scapegoat Muslims for acts of terrorism (in spite of the fact that most domestic terrorism is committed by non-Islamic right-wing extremists [Niewart et al. 2017]), was quick to swap the collectivist paradigm for an individualist one when describing the Las Vegas shooting as “the act of ‘a very sick man’ and a ‘very demented person,’ without mentioning anything about the shooter’s background or potential political ideology” (Metzl 2017). Trump notoriously favours scapegoating scripts over explanatory paradigms with predictive value.

Who is actually responsible for the American culture of school shootings? James Fallows argues that Mitch McConnel is perhaps more blameworthy than anyone, seeing that he blocked a bipartisan vote on gun control measures by leading a filibuster in 2013, and then Tweeted his “thoughts and prayers” to the victims of the Los Vegas shooting in 2017 (Fallows 2018). The ‘thoughts and prayers’ Tweet is a familiar obfuscatory tactic that substitutes a positive-thinking narrative for a causal explanation. The reason for McConnel’s decision is arguably his funding from the N.R.A., though he is not even on the list of top-ten Senators and Congresspeople receiving N.R.A. funding (David Leonhardt et al. 2017).  These beneficiaries and N.R.A. benefactors bear a share of the blame for mass shootings.

This is all to say that blame is part of a functional moral ecology, if agential causal factors are part of a complete social imaginary. Blame can potentially motivate people to abandon scapegoating scripts. Whether it serves this regulatory function in America depends on the will of the people.

I dare say that if we don’t correct flaws in our moral ecology soon, this Onion piece might start to look credible:

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Blame fetishism & how to avoid it

This is a work in progress – don’t cite.


  1. Introduction

In previous posts, I have argued for an equality constraint on blame, as this constraint would promote (something approximating to) the ecological conditions of our early evolutionary past and minimize the role of implicit bias in our ‘responsibility system,’ i.e., the system of relations in which we express and respond to the reactive attitudes (viz., McKenna 2013). Equality would enable us to respond sensitively to the morally-salient qualities of persons, as opposed to blaming people in response to morally-irrelevant traits (e.g., race, gender, SES), which would reinforce social inequality.

This is a ‘functionalist’ position, in that it sees blame as serving a moral-social function. Functionalists hold that blame has certain conditions or constraints. According to Malle, Gugleilmo, & Monro, “successful blame” has five “preconditions” (2014: 172): it (i) gets the attention of norm violators, (ii) communicates information about norm violations, (iii) persuades others to accept a blaming judgment, (iv) promotes shared values, and (v) repairs damaged relationships. I don’t dispute these conditions, but I believe that they, too, have constraints, particularly the constraint of promoting equality. A blaming judgment can serve to (i) communicate information about a (perceived) norm violation, (ii) communicate relevant information, (iii) persuade others, (iv) promote shared values, and (v) repair relationships, say, amongst a group of racists, without achieving anything of value. Conditions (i)-(5) must not only foster consensus, but facilitate interpersonal equality.

I will grant that (i) to (v) are constraints on successful blame, together with (vi) equality. These constraints delimit when it is appropriate to blame someone (appropriate contexts), as well as how one ought to express blame (appropriate contents). Certain expressions of blame respect conditions (i)-(vi) more than others. If someone interrupts me and I say, “please don’t interrupt while I’m speaking,” this is a more satisfactory expression of blame than, “shut up, cow!” The first expression is more informative, persuasive, and reparative than the latter, so to it is more successful. This is not to say that we should maximize (i)-(v): while I should communication information about interruptions in my blaming response, I don’t need to write a dissertation on the harms of interrupting.

That said, our perception of norm violations is not necessarily trustworthy: we tend to perceive interruptions (for example) differently depending on the demographic attributes of the speaker (gender, race, socioeconomic status). For example, when researchers studied people’s conversations, they found that when men interact with women, they interrupt 30% more often than when they interact with men; in fact, in the course of a 3-minute conversation, men interrupted women 2.1 times  (Hancock & Rubin 2014). This phenomenon is colloquially referred to as ‘manterrupting.’ Although interrupting (and even more so, ‘manterrupting’) is rude, men who speak more frequently are perceived as more competent, while women who speak more frequently are perceived as less competent (Brescoll 2012). This pattern suggests that manterrupting is (likely to be) perceived as less of a norm violation than the same type of behaviour in women, since male speech is more valued in general. Thus, when women interrupt, they are likely to be punished, resented, distrusted – that is, blamed – compared to men, even though the offense (thinly described) is the same in both cases. (The offense is arguably more severe when committed by men because it contributes to patriarchy). This is why blame must respect equality: our evaluative judgments are biased in ways that discriminate against oppressed groups (particularly in the presence of salient activating conditions)*.

Now, although conditions (i)-(vi) place constraints on blame, some people worry that focusing on blame can promote a kind of “blame fetishism.” Perhaps discussing constraints on blame, which should restrict the scope of blame, perversely promotes an obsession with blame, a hyper-focus on putative norm violations, and a propensity for stringent blame. Raymond Lau (2009) argues that we live in a “culture of blame” that denies the importance of chance in our lives, giving rise to excessive, obsessional blame. (Neil Levy says something similar about the denial of chance in his 2008 book, which defends responsibility elminativism). According to Lau, blame fetishism is paradigmatically modern, and tied to America’s culture of rampant litigation. Similarly, Paul Bloom thinks that we should blame people less, and cultivate “rational empathy,” rooted in an understanding of our shared humanity, particularly our shared cognitive biases (2016). His theory has a “there but for the grace of god go I” flavour. In a similar vein, Gary Watson admonishes us to avoid the “vice of judgmentalism” (2013), which includes being ungenerous and unaccepting of the faults of others. Toshi and Warmki (2016) criticize “moral grandstanding,” i.e., an inauthentic expression of blame used to gain attention and popularity. These views all caution us against the perils of blame fetishism.

Prior to any of these conversations, Nietzsche criticized “master morality” for being dogmatic, stating that “human history would be a really stupid affair without that spirit which entered it from the powerless” (GM); and he criticized its counterpart, “slave morality,” for being backward-looking, hostile, and self-protective, incapable of overcoming its own limitations. Both “moralities,” in his view, rest on a kind of epistemic narcissism, and both fail to transcend their limitations to generate new discursive possibilities. The role of blame within each system must, then, be to reinforce the insular norms of the system, strengthening hostility to perceived outsiders (i.e., out-group bias). Blame is dogmatic and polarizing within a segregated society with competing value systems.

I agree with the spirit of all these perspectives, insofar as I think that blame is typically expressed in patterns of thought and action (and social narratives and scripts) that oppress historically disenfranchised groups (see my previous posts). Blame, in mainstream American culture, smacks of “master morality,” in the sense that it relies on pernicious stereotypes and scapegoating narratives to punish, oppress, discredit, and marginalize the disadvantaged. (Read Trump’s tweets for an example of narcissistic victim-blaming narratives that exploit cultural stereotypes). That said, I believe that the solution to this problem is not to eliminate blame, but rather to use and shape blame to foster social equality. This project admittedly involves the expression of hostility, resentment, disappointment, distrust, and other negative ‘reactive attitudes’ (Strawson 1963) to transgressors – particularly transgressors who abuse their privileges; but this ‘reactive’ stance is not backward-looking and deconstructive (as Nietzsche painted ‘slave morality’); it is forward-looking and constructive, aimed at creating new social imaginaries (Medina 2012) and new moral ecologies (Vargas 2013), at ‘troubling’ existing discourses and producing new understandings and performative possibilities (Butler 1990). Successful blaming practices foster epistemic and moral justice, and for this reason, they reduce historical rifts, exclusions, and binaries: they welcome historically marginalized groups to the conversation and recognize their situated knowledge. Successful blame consolidates the majority around a morality of equality, synthesizes different perspectives, and creates new frames of references. The civil rights movement is an example of a system of blame (and praise) that created new norms, narratives, and practices.

This is, of course, an (egalitarian) ideal of blame, not the reality, and I agree with skeptics that there is a risk that blame could “run amok” – target innocents, snowball into public shaming campaigns, scapegoat easy victims, and so on. This is actually how blame currently operates: unsuccessfully, for the most part. But I think that it can be, not exactly sanitized, but rehabilitated (viz., McGeer 2008). To rehabilitate our blaming system, we need to be vigilant about how we deploy blame, and, more specifically, we need to ensure that our expressions of blame respect success conditions, such as (i)-(vi).

That said, these conditions are not exhaustive. I’m not sure it would be possibly to enumerate a set of necessary and sufficient conditions on successful blame. Conditions (i)-(v) are better seen as prototypical constraints, which are defeasible, can compete with one another, and are sensitive to context. (Equality, on the other hand, is a necessary condition). Respecting (i)-(vi) is likely to enhance the moral fitness of the group, i.e., the achievement of shared moral goals. In addition to these conditions, theorists have identified other constraints, which also accord with common sense. One salient example is privacy: many theorists believe that we should not blame people if doing so infringes on their privacy  (e.g., Darwall 2011; Bell 2013). Some theorists also think that blame should be sensitive to cultural differences (e.g., Wong 2006). These are just a couple of examples. In what follows, I will discuss eight constraints on blame (outside of (i)-(vi)) that, if observed, can prevent blamers from descending into excessive and ‘fetishistic’ blaming.

Before proceeding, however, I will explain what I take ‘blame’ to mean. The constraints on blame effectively fall out of one’s theoretical framework. Since my view is ‘expressivist’ (more on which in section 2), many of my constraints on blame are going to be extensions of the constraints on conversational contributions (e.g., intelligibility, uptake, context-sensitivity, semantic relevance); others will be constraints on confrontations and dissent (safety, wellbeing, privacy); and others will be constraints on punitive treatment (proportionality). Since blame can have all of these features (conversational structure, confrontational motives, punitive effects), it is subject to all of these constraints.

I hope that by illuminating these constraints, I can deflate some of the force behind the fetishism worry. My argument, of course, doesn’t show that people won’t become blame fetishists – that’s up to them; but it shows that we don’t have to be blame fetishists, and if we respect the constraints on successful blame, then we won’t be. I think that talking about blame is more likely to democratize, domesticate, and enrich our system of blaming practices than to distort it beyond its current level of depravity and corruption.

2. Blame as paradigmatically expressive

Although some theorists hold that blame can be a private judgment, most Strawsonians espouse expressivist accounts of blame (and praise), on which blame is paradigmatically an expressive exchange (e.g., McKenna 2012, 2013; McKeer 2013, Bell 2013, Mell et al. 2014). This doesn’t mean that blame cannot be unexpressed, but such ‘internal’ (merely thought or reflectively represented) instances of blame are not paradigmatic. The reason for holding that blame is paradigmatically public is that blame cannot function to regulate interpersonal interactions if it is private, and Strawsonians subscribe to an essentially interpersonal account; thus, they typically subscribe to an expressivist model as well.

On the other hand, one might think that private blame is ‘paradigmatic’ because it is causally antecedent to public blame. This is not necessarily how blame works, however. In morally competent adults, an internal blaming judgment or reflection may precede the public expression of that judgment/reflection in many cases, but this is not necessarily the normal sequence of events: an overt expression of blame may be an automatic (knee-jerk) response to blame-eliciting conditions, with the reflective judgment emerging after the overt expression, perhaps in the form of a post hoc rationalization (this is what Haidt thinks [2001]). On McGeer’s model (2008), blame is an evolutionary adaptation that is ‘canonically’ emotional and often automatic, although automatic blaming responses are, on her view, susceptible to cognitive mediation. If so, then public expressions of blame are not necessarily caused by prior reflection – they may be automatic emotional responses to triggers. Malle and colleagues (2014) offer a cognitive model of blame (the ‘Path Model’), on which blame can involve either automatic or reflective (explicit) processing over criterial information, and they do not say that either pathway is paradigmatic. Blaming responses, moreover, can be habits (or habituated response patterns), which consist of (expressions of) neural patterns automatically activated in response to salient eliciting conditions (Wood 2017), though these neural structures are partly caused or constituted by reflective states and activated knowledge structures. Thus, habituated responses, even if automatic, are also ‘reflective’ in the sense that they are conditioned by the agent’s system of reflective judgments (system-2 processes), even if they are not immediately preceded by a course of reflective deliberation. Blaming judgments, so understood, occupy a grey space between automatic (system-1) and reflective (system-2) judgments. To see blame as ‘paradigmatically reflective’ would be an oversimplification; it is more realistic to think that blame has a complex neurocognitive profile that implicates many brain structures and causal pathways. Thus, there is no good reason to think that ‘private blame’ is typically causally antecedent to public blame, and in this sense ‘paradigmatic.’ Causation simply doesn’t answer this question.

The reason expressivists see public blame as paradigmatic is not because of its causal relation to private blame, but because of its role in a network of social relationships. Expressivists are interested in neurocognitive processes, not in isolation, but in connection with ecological systems. They are concerned with the causal interactions between people’s reactive attitudes and their interpersonal relationships, local epistemic frameworks, political systems, democratic institutions, and other extended networks. Since I, too, am interested in blame as it affects people’s relationships, values, and life prospects, I will take public blame to be the ‘paradigmatic case,’ while acknowledging that unexpressed blame has a place in the minds of discrete agents. Thus, expressed blame will be my primary locus of analysis, though private blame is a feature of my moral ontology. While private blame is real, it is explanatorily secondary for my purposes.

If blame is paradigmatically expressive, as I think it is, then it is subject to some of the same success conditions as expressive communication in general. Most people think that there are better and worse ways of communicating. Just because we can express a thought doesn’t mean that we should. I could give a reckless driver the finger, but I would be better off signaling my disapproval in a less hostile way. Blame can also be confrontational and punitive, and these types of actions are subject to independent constraints. In what follows, I will outline some of the constraints related to these features. The constraints are: (1) intelligibility, (2) uptake, (3) safety and wellbeing, (4) privacy, (5) proportionality, (6) context-appropriateness, and (7) cultural sensitivity.

3. Constraints on blame

(1) Intelligibility

If blame is part of a communicative exchange, then it must be subject to conversational maxims that govern effective communication – namely, Gricean maxims. These are:

“(1) The maxim of quantity, [whereby] one tries to be as informative as one possibly can, and gives as much information as is needed, and no more; (2) The maxim of quality, [whereby] one tries to be truthful, and does not give information that is false or that is not supported by evidence; (3) The maxim of relation, [whereby] one tries to be relevant, and says things that are pertinent to the discussion; and (4) The maxim of manner, [whereby] one tries to be as clear, as brief, and as orderly as one can in what one says, and where one avoids obscurity and ambiguity” (excerpted from the UPenn website).

This is a descriptive account, which outlines the norms governing natural conversation; but people who depart from these maxims are less intelligible to conversational partners, meaning that the account has normative upshot: we should abide by Gricean maxims if we wish to be intelligible. Notably, blame must be intelligible to effectively regulate social conduct: unintelligible expressions of blame are hardly more causally efficacious than private blame, and to the extent that they are causally efficacious, they are confusing, disruptive, and frustrating. Blame, then, should conform to Gricean maxims. We should not express blame in ways that are: (i) uninformative, (i) untruthful, (iv) irrelevant/ill-founded, or (iv) confusing. It follows that some common blaming practices are suboptimal, such as: (i) Giving someone ‘the silent treatment’ without  explaining why (uninformative); (ii) Scapegoating innocent victims (untruthful); (iii) Blaming people for their sexual preferences, weight, and other morally-irrelevant features (ill-founded); and (iv) blaming people using empty philippics like ‘stupid’ and ‘lazy,’ which have no clear referent, and arguably no referent at all (confusing, misleading).

Because successful blame respects Gricean maxims, there are reasons against blaming innocent victims, even if doing so would prima facie advance some ulterior motive. The specter of victim-blaming is an objection to any consequentialist position, but expressivist accounts place constraints on blame rooted in communication, wellbeing, and other social values (in my case, equality). Expressivist views, then, are less susceptible to fairness-based objections than many other forms of consequentialism; and they minimize the risk of excessive, retaliatory responses to norm-violations based on misperceptions of what offenders ‘deserve’ (viz., Kelly 2002 for an argument against ‘desert’).

Blaming responses that violate Gricean maxims undermine the conditions specified by Malle and colleagues, including: (effectively) communicating information about norm violations, persuading others, promoting shared (properly understood) values. When we express blame clearly, truthfully, and accurately, we enable others to grasp and engage with our blaming judgment and its grounds, whereas unclear, confusing, unfounded blame prevents others from understanding, agreeing with, and responding to our judgment. We can’t, for example, repair a relationship with someone who doesn’t explain why he is refusing to communicate, and we’re liable to feel frustrated by the lack of engagement.

(ii) Uptake

Even intelligible blame should not be expressed in every situation. Some intelligible expressions of blame (that respect Gricean maxims) cannot be understood or processed by the intended recipient due to situational (domain-specific) obstacles. Some people might be globally unresponsive to blame, the primary candidate being psychopaths (viz., Levy 2007, Shoemaker 2014); but, whatever we think about psychopathic cognition, we can agree that neurotypical people can be situationally insensitive to blame.

Michael Smith (1995) presents an interesting example of someone afflicted by (presumably) situational motivational deficits that prevent him from acting on his best judgment. This person (call him ‘Hostile’) cannot bring himself to shake the hand of his opponent (call her ‘Dejected’) after being badly trounced in a game of tennis; if he were to try to shake her hand, he would be compelled to smash her in the face with his racket in a fit of rage. Therefore, what Hostile ought to do, says Smith, is salute Dejected and walk off the court to cool down. (One has to assume that Hostile should also seek treatment for severe emotional dysregulation, as his response to losing a recreational sporting match is beyond the pale). In any case, the scenario provides an example of someone with a transient motivational deficit that prima facie defeats Dejected’s reasons to express blame. If Dejected were to criticize Hostile for failing to be a good sport (i.e., suberogatory conduct), this would probably incite him to attack her, which would not serve any purpose. Thus, Dejected should give Hostile a chance to cool down before blaming him. If blame is expressed to an insensitive recipient, it does not (i) get his attention, (ii) persuade him, (iii) repair the relationship, and so on. Successful blame, then, should be sensitive to the recipient’s sensitivity to reasons, or capacity for uptake.

There are many situations in which people are temporarily unresponsive to intelligible blame. If, after snubbing Dejected, Hostile had received a text-message informing him that his beloved father had just passed away, this too would provide a reason for Dejected to withhold blame, since Hostile could possibly be in a state of distracting grief, rendering him incapable of registering Hostile’s complaint. Any transient motivational deficit can provide a reason for the blamer to defer the expression of blame until a later time.

On the other hand, if someone is chronically unresponsive to blame, then expressing resentment or censure toward the person precisely for having this character flaw would be justified, as this response would notify the community that the person is unreasonable and possibly dangerous. Flagging an unresponsive person to (some subset of) the community would satisfy conditions (i)-(v) relative to the community. In some cases, then, lack of uptake from the recipient is not a reason to temporarily suspend blame, but rather to redirect the contents of blame to a suitably sensitive audience.

(iii) Safety and wellbeing

As the previous example shows, it can be dangerous to express blame. Sometimes the danger comes from a hostile individual, and other times it comes from an oppressive political regime. In America, blaming an angry driver can result in a gun homicide. In North Korea, blaming the government is a death wish. Political dissidents in North Korea are imprisoned, tortured, and killed, and their children and grandchildren can be sentenced to intergenerational incarceration and torture. Some Americans, too, are unjustly incarcerated for their political activism, a notable example being Angela Davis (Davis & Marlo 2016). In situations of imminent danger and political oppression, it may be reasonable to suppress blame for reasons of personal safety and wellbeing. That said, suppressing blame for too long can undermine its regulatory force: silenced blame is private and politically inert, and blame could, in time, cease to exist even in the minds of the oppressed. (This seems to be a factor in North Korea, where people lack the epistemic resources to adequately understand their own political oppression, and so not seem to have a robust concept of personal liberty [Kirby 2017]). The suppression of blame comes at a cost to the group: namely, it can damage the local social imaginary and moral ecology (viz., Medina 2013; Fricker 2007; Vargas 2013). Thus, while it may be justified or excusable to suppress the expression of blame in the face of imminent danger, the value of survival must be weighed against the value of political protest. Angela Davis judged incarceration to be worth the price of speaking her mind, but her actions were arguably supererogatory as opposed to obligatory. North Koreans, in any case, face much harsher penalties for political activism. When someone’s survival is at stake, this may provide a reason for the person to withhold blame, at least until the threat can be avoided or deflated.

Lack of uptake is another factor in North Korea: even if North Koreans protested the Kim regime, their speech would not receive much recognition. Still, even if North Koreans could positively influence the regime, it’s not clear that they would have a duty, or even a strong reason, to do so, at the expense of their lives and the wellbeing of their family.

(v) Relevance of semantic content

There can also be constraints on the semantic content of blame, or the words used by the blamer. (This is related to Gricean maxims, but it specifically concerns the relevance of semantic contents). This aspect of blame is somewhat neglected in the literature. Scholars write extensively about the emotional, cognitive, and conative aspects of blame, but say relatively little about its semantic contents. Word choice and word order, however, significantly mediate respondents’ receptivity to statements. For example, when physicians framed a surgical intervention in two different ways – one group told patients that the one-month survival rate of a surgical intervention is 90%, and another group told patients that the one-month fatality rate is 10% – most patients (84%) in the first condition consented to the intervention, compared to only 50% of those in the second condition (Kahneman 2011). The reason is that we respond more favorably to words like ‘survival’ than to words like ‘fatality,’ which influenced our judgment. Similarly, respondents are more favorable to a “tax relief” as opposed to a “tax cut,” even if the proposed tax reduction is the same  (Moscrop 2015). In other words, framing and priming influence uptake. Successful blame avoids framing and priming effects that violate conditions (i)-(vi); for example, when blaming someone, we should not use words stereotypically associated with race, given that such words prime people to make harsher judgments about culpability, expected recidivism, and deserved punishment (Graham & Lowry 2004). The gist is that we should choose our words carefully when expressing blame.

The semantic content of blame also confers relevant information about norm violations and character traits. McKenna (forthcoming) argues that blame can express different evaluative judgments – namely, judgments about norm violations (deontological judgments) and judgments about character flaws (aretaic judgments). McKenna is neutral between these accounts: he thinks that we can blame people both for wrongful actions and for character failings, both for norm violations and for suberogatory actions. The unitary deontological view, says McKenna, doesn’t fit with our practical experience, given that we often blame people for suberogatory actions that don’t violate any norms. For example, if I don’t respond when my neighbour waves to me from across the street, I could be subject to (mild) blame on grounds of suberogatory conduct (being a bad neighbour). I’m not breaking a rule, but I’m exhibiting a character defect. McKenna doesn’t justify the ecumenical (mixed) view in theoretical terms, but functionalism easily reconciles the two views, since information about deontic and aretaic qualities can both be (i) attention-getting, (ii) morally edifying, (iii) persuasive, and (v) reparative; thus, both contents have a place in a successful expressive blaming practice. I can blame my neighbour for taking my designated parking spot (a norm violation), and I can also blame her for intentionally snubbing me whenever I say ‘hello’ (a character failing).

Another point of contention is whether people can be held responsible for actions over which they (putatively) have no control. In a debate between Manuel Vargas (2005) and J. M. Fischer (2012), Fischer argues that we cannot be responsible for uncontrollable mental states, whereas Vargas maintains that we can. My impression of this debate mirrors McKenna’s response to the deontological-aretaic divide: why not both? No one denies that it is permissible to blame people for norm violations over which they do have control, since blame in such cases is both putatively deserved (and thus justified on a desert framework), and motivating for the agent (and thus justified on a forward-looking framework). Blaming people for uncontrollable character defects, in contrast, may not be ‘deserved’ if desert requires control, but it can be justified in functionalist terms, as it can (i) get the attention of the blamee, (ii) convey relevant information, (iii) persuade others, and serve other purposes. Moreover, even if the transgressor is unresponsive to blame, publicly criticizing him could signal to the community that he is a threat, which would satisfy (i)-(v) relative to the community. Thus, on a functionalist framework, we can successfully blame people with both controllable and uncontrollable motivational deficits.

(iv) Privacy

Even if it is safe to express blame, it may be intrusive. Some philosophers hold that blame depends on an asymmetrical relation of authority between the blamer and the blamee. Blaming strangers, with whom we have no relationship, is intrusive and impermissible (Watson 1987, Darwall 2002). Macalister Bell (2013) objects that blame can be judiciously expressed outside of relationships of authority, provided that its expression serves a social purpose (e.g., motivating the transgressor, educating the community). That said, Bell retains a version of the privacy constraint, which is divorced from the criterion of authority. On her view, we have independent reason to respect people’s privacy, insofar as they have a right to it. This condition preserves the intuition that it is better to blame people in privacy-respecting ways than in privacy-violating ways: for example, it is better to accuse your spouse of adultery in private than do accuse him at his 40th birthday party in front of his family. The reason for exercising discretion is not that you don’t have the authority to blame your spouse at his birthday party – authority has nothing to do with the context; rather, the reason for discretion is that infringing on someone’s privacy is a norm violation, so you should blame the person in private.

That said, the duty to respect people’s privacy is defeasible, because not everyone has an equal right to privacy: people who pose a danger to the public arguably forfeit their right to privacy (e.g., serial sex offenders), as do public figures whose speech is on the public record and influences public discourse (e.g., politicians’ Tweets, celebrities’ interviews). Hence, blame should be sensitive to privacy, but the right to privacy is not inviolable.

(vi) Proportionality

If blame is to be persuasive, its semantic and affective contents should be proportional to the offense. (By semantic content, I am referring to the language used). Excessive blame tends to be unintelligible, confusing, and alienating. To give a famous example of semantically and emotionally excessive blame: Christian Bale blamed a sound technician for interrupting his scene during the filming of “Bat Man” by yelling at him. What Bale yelled was, “What the fuck is it with you? What don’t you fucking understand? You got any fucking idea about, hey, it’s fucking distracting having somebody walking up behind Bryce in the middle of the fucking scene? Give me a fucking answer!” (He continues like this). (Telegraph transcript). It’s pretty obvious that this wasn’t the most effective blaming response, because the emotions (rage) and the language (expletives) were too strong for the transgression. (Language and emotions are related because strong language often serves to convey strong emotions, but the two do not necessarily correspond: I can swear at someone unemotionally). Bale apologized (whether genuinely or not) in response to public scorn. Bale’s mistake was excessively blaming someone for a benign infraction, which violates the proportionality constraint on successful blame.

This isn’t to say that strong affect and language is always out of place. It’s just to say that the language and emotional tenor of speech should fit the transgression. When it comes to systemic injustice, such as the cultural genocide perpetrated against Canada’s and America’s Indigenous peoples, it is difficult to imagine what would count as an “excessive” blaming response. That said, justifiable anger might be misinterpreted by a mainstream audience, whereas an unemotional argument would increase uptake. This does not mean, however, that an emotional response is unjustified: an emotional response is both proportional and context-sensitive, even if it does not resonate with the majority. (See articles on ‘tone policing’ for more on why emotional arguments are sound).



(vi) Context-appropriateness

Blame can also convey context-inappropriate emotions and judgments. Christian Bale’s rage, for example, was less suitable than mild irritation for that particular context, whereas mild irritation is an inappropriate response to racial injustice. Blame’s emotional and cognitive contents should fit the situation, in addition to being proportional to the offense. The situation, then, places constraints on the contents of blame.

Theorists debate whether some emotional contents may be categorically inappropriate, because they (allegedly) incite antisocial responses and social discord. Examples of potentially harmful emotions include ridicule, anger, and contempt. We see these emotions on display, among other places, in late-night talk shows. For example, Stephen Colbert regularly ridicules Donald Trump. When Trump complained that he had to “deal with fool[s]” like Bob Corker in the White House, Colbert responded that Trump’s real problem is “a crippling disease of Narcissistic Personality Disorder… ‘allegedly”” (Shapiro 2017). This criticism was, of course, unlikely to receive uptake from Trump or his base, but it was well received by Colbert’s audience. Could Colbert’s contempt for Trump promote prosocial consequences, such as rallying people against him? I think so. There is evidence that ridicule “has significant potential to mobilize public interest constituencies, and to raise the consciousness of members of the public who might not otherwise be attuned to conventional policy discourse” (Grobosky 2013); that anger is effective at motivating prosocial behaviour (Prinz & Nichols 2010), and that contempt can consolidate in-group members and motivate transgressors to conform to shared norms (Fischer & Giner-Sorolla 2016). These emotions, then, can promote moral ends. Even if there are constraints on when and how they should be expressed, they do not seem to be categorically harmful. In at least some contexts, then, they can contents of successful blame.


(vi) Cultural sensitivity

Cultural relativists, like Gilbert Harman (1996) and David B. Wong (2006), say that we can only express blame intra-culturally. Thus, I cannot blame people for committing non-consensual clitoridectomies on girls in non-Western cultures, or (perhaps) even in non-Western subcultures embedded in my own culture. Most theorists don’t agree with this position, for theoretical and practical reasons. In practical terms, relativism seems to promote cultural isolationism, and in theoretical terms, it fails to make sense of moral cross-cultural contamination – the sharing of moral knowledge across cultures. Donald Davidson’s triangulation theory (1982) speaks against the possibility of deep cultural relativism, or the idea that we can’t understand out-group beliefs and values (viz., Claudine & Myers 2018). Ultimately, there is no good reason to think that we can never blame members of other cultures in terms that are intelligible to them, and even we couldn’t, it wouldn’t follow that we can’t blame out-group members for in-group purposes, such as to signal to signal that certain practices (like female genital mutilation) are morally problematic in our own culture. Having said that, there is every reason to think that cross-cultural blaming judgments can be ignorant, condescending, oppressive, and otherwise epistemically and morally irresponsible and harmful, the reason being that blame has historically (in the West) functioned to dehumanize perceived out-group members, and it still serves to oppress and objectify marginalized groups in modern times.

In spite of this, it can be appropriate to blame members of other cultures in culturally-sensitive ways. This requires having familiarity with the target culture. Familiarity comes in degrees: someone who grew up in a given culture is likely to be more sensitive to the culture’s norms and practices than an outsider. Thus, the acceptability, or credibility, of a given blaming response depends on the speaker’s familiarity with the culture. We don’t need to be a member of a culture to blame members of that culture, but we need to be somewhat familiar with and sensitive to the culture’s shared understandings and values. Otherwise, we risk blaming people in ways that objectify them.

Final comments on equality

Blame, as I have described it, is a fundamentally expressive practice. But in addition to being expressive, it can also be confrontational, dangerous, and punitive. Macalister Bell (2013) defines blame as a hostile attitude toward a norm violator, which would explain why expressing blame can be dangerous. I don’t agree that blame is necessarily hostile, though I would admit that it may be paradigmatically hostile. But I think that blame is, not essentially hostile, but essentially argumentative: blame identifies a wrongful action or character flaw in an agent. This response, whether hostile or not, can provoke anger. Arguments, as argumentation theorists point out (e.g., Gilbert 1995), are not necessarily hostile; they are necessarily dissensual. In fact, according to Michael Gilbert, the purpose of argumentation is coalescence, i.e., to foster mutual agreement amongst dissenting parties. This is very similar to my view of blame: whether or not blame is antagonistic, hostile, unemotional, or compassionate, it serves to foster coalescence, understanding, equality – the shared goals of moral agents living together in a pluralistic society. The functional of blame should be (though blame doesn’t operate this way in conditions of equality and injustice) should be to promote convergence on mutually satisfactory goals. By blaming according to conditions (i)-(vi), we can make progress toward this ideal of virtuous convergence.


*(Note that context matters: women’s speech is disvalued in historically male contexts, not necessarily in historically female contexts, e.g., care-taking).



Can children be responsible agents? (tl;dr: No).

Philosophers tend to see young children as paradigmatic cases of non-responsible agents. Strawson, for example, says that very young children are non-responsible, but older children as “penumbral” cases, as they are acquiring the capacity for responsibility (1963). Strawson also cites people with severe mental disorders as paradigmatically non-responsible. These two types of agent reside in a sphere outside of the reactive attitudes (blame, praise).

In my contribution to the Bloomsbury Companion to Philosophy of Psychiatry, I argued that people with mental disorders are not, in fact, non-responsible, contrary to the received philosophical wisdom. Indeed, seeing psychiatric service users are non-responsible is incompatible with the dominant model of therapeutic treatment, the person-centered model, on which service users are treated as presumptively capable of exercising responsibility over their treatment-relevant choices, as well as a non-trivial range of non-therapeutic choices (Rogers 1986). Why have many philosophers, then, seen service users (‘the insane’) as non-responsible? One likely explanation is culture-wide implicit bias against persons with psychological disorders. (Strawson wrote his seminal work in the 1960s, remember). Another likely reason, I believe, is the tendency to see responsibility (tacitly, perhaps) as a modular capacity rather than a complex suite of capacities involving many cognitive processes distributed across the brain. On the modular view, moral processing is similar to colour processing, which involves a small constellation of cortical regions, where damage to any one can severely impair the perception of colour.

On the complex-capacity model of responsibility, a person can lack one of the capacities paradigmatically implicated in responsible agency (e.g., perspective-taking), but posses many others (e.g., self-efficacy). Consider two cases that have received much philosophical scrutiny (e.g., Jeanette Kennett 2002): psychopaths and people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Both groups share deficits in empathic processing and traits of alexithymia (the inability to describe emotions in the self), but psychopaths have difficulty resonating with others’ emotions, whereas people with ASD have difficulty with cognitive perspective-taking and emotional recognition, and not vice versa (Morosan et al. 2017; Lockwood et al. 2013). On the basis of these cognitive profiles, we can infer that people with ASD may be forgiven for failing to register someone’s emotional distress, but not for failing to care about a person’s emotional distress once registered, since ASD impairs the first capacity (emotional recognition) but not the latter (resonating with emotions). Psychopaths, meanwhile, have much more severe moral deficits – they register distress in others, but do not care about it. This raises the legitimate question of whether psychopaths are morally responsible agents in any non-trivial sense. Aside from the psychopathic population (which is responsible for a vastly disproportionate amount of crimes according to the author of the Psychopathy Checklist PCL-R, Robert Hare), persons with psychological disorders across all DSM-5 categories possess many of the paradigmatic capacities implicated in responsibility. In general, deficits in responsible agency are local and highly specific, not global, and acquired deficits may be responsive to therapeutic interventions. Thus, it makes sense to hold people with psychological disorders responsible for actions not impaired by those disorders.

Young children are a different case because they have deficits in all responsibility-relevant capacities, as they are not fully cognitively developed. This has led some people to jokingly observe that “all children are little sociopaths.” But children really do have morally-relevant cognitive deficits, including theory-of-mind deficits (Wellman et al. 2001), perspective-taking deficits, and planned problem-solving deficits (Tecwyn et al. 2014). That said, children have different capacities depending on their age, cognitive architecture, and learning environment. Does this mean that children are quasi-responsible?

I am inclined to say that young children, unlike adults with domain-specific cognitive deficits, are not responsible, full stop. Of course, at some indeterminate point, children become responsible, but young children, in my view, are non-responsible. When we blame and praise children, we are, I believe, using operant conditioning to shape children’s cognitive architecture to discriminate different moral stimuli and respond sensitively to discriminable stimuli in the future and across various contexts. Young children unquestionably possess the neurological states required to respond to conditioning (e.g., nucleus basalis neurons and dopamine receptors). Even non-human animals possess these states, which is why they are capable of learning conditioned responses.

There is another critical element to this picture, however. Once children begin to develop the neural correlates of moral responsibility (over and above the neural structures implicated in conditioned learning), they still are not responsible for their behaviour on my view, because they are not responsible for the acquisition (or not) of these higher-order neural structures. Their caretakers are responsible for conditioning them to respond sensitively to moral stimuli, thereby acquiring adult moral capacities. If children grow up with deficit in moral cognition due to caretaker neglect, this is their caretaker’s fault. (The correct specification of ‘caretaker’ is complicated, but for my purposes, it can be seen as encompassing anyone responsible for the child’s wellbeing). Thus, children are not responsible for their behaviour even if they possess some morally-relevant capacities, because any non-congenital deficits in their cognitive architecture are their caretakers’ fault, and any congenital deficits are the result of the natural lottery, i.e., not their fault. So, if a child, say, burns down a bee farm, bankrupting the owners and killing half-a-million bees, the caretakers are responsible, not the child. The caretakers are responsible to pay restitution, and are also the correct targets of moral blame.

The reason children are not responsible for their behaviour when adults with equivalent cognitive deficits are, is that children’s are not autonomous: they are under their caretakers’ directorship. Children cannot autonomously choose their learning environment, peer group, school – the salient features of their ‘moral ecology,’ so to speak (Vargas 2016), whereas adults (in a pluralistic democratic state) can choose one moral ecology over another. Because children lack autonomy vis-a-vis their moral ecology, they lack responsibility for their actions, even if they have many of the neural structures implicated in the capacity for moral responsibility. In other words, if child C and adult A have similar responsibility deficits D, child C will not be responsible for moral infractions caused by D, whereas adult A may be responsible moral infractions caused by D (depending on other conditions, such as whether A could have taken steps to remediate D or prevent the transgression by other means). Thus, even if C and A are cognitively identical, their responsibility status differs due to different background conditions.

It is only once children have autonomy comparable to most adults that they become responsible.

Similar considerations apply to adults – namely, adults can be differentially responsible depending on their access to different moral ecologies. (For a full argument to this effect, see Ciurria 2016 in the Journal of the APA). Yet, the differences amongst adults will be a matter of degree, not of kind; while adult P may be less responsible than adult Q for moral infraction I when P and Q have identical cognitive architectures but differential access to agency-enhancing moral ecologies, child C is not responsible for I across all moral ecologies. Unlike children, no cognitively-normal adult is non-responsible by virtue of ecological deprivation, because all societies include a non-trivial amount of cultural pluralism (with the possible exception of North Korea). In America, there is extensive pluralism, so no adult can escape blame (or praise) by saying that she couldn’t have done otherwise.

Thank you for reading my post.




Blame as social cognition: The Path Model

Much has been written on the nature, norms, conditions, and psychology of blame, but until recently there were no neurocognitive models of this capacity. Malle, Guglielmo, and Monroe (2014)[1] have filled this gap by offering a compelling model of the cognitive architecture of blame, which they define as a moral-social judgment that regulates social behaviour. This definition of blame is consistent with Strawsonian (interpersonal, functionalist) theories of blame defended by the likes of Michael McKenna (2012), Victoria McGeer (2013), Macalaster Bell (2013), and Angela Smith (2013). The Path Model (henceforth, Path for short) is therefore a fruitful point of entry for thinking about the cognitive architecture of blame, and for considering whether an information-processing model accurately maps the neurocognitive processes involved in blaming.

The model is called Path because it identifies hierarchically-structured information-processing pathways that play a role in paradigmatic blaming judgments. On Path, blamers typically (1) detect a norm-violating event E, (2) evaluate E for agent causation (versus object causation), (3) evaluate whether E was intentional, and then investigate (4a) the agent’s reasons for causing the event (if E was intentional), or (4b) the agent’s obligation to have prevented E from occurring, and (4c) the agent’s capacity to have prevented E from occurring (if E was unintentional). These inputs give rise to a dichotomous yes-or-no or a scalar more-or-less judgment of blame, depending on the informational inputs. This sequence is represented in the graph below:




Path is supported by evidence that ordinary judgments of blame involve the processing of criterial information concerning agent causation, intentionality, reasons, obligation, and capacity, in the suggested sequential order. Path allows that the criterial information can be processed quickly and automatically, or slowly and reflectively, but in either case it follows the same sequence.

Path has elicited various criticisms, including that it does not sufficiently explain judgments of transgression severity, it involves overly-stringent criteria, its classification of morally-eligible agents is too narrow (because it excludes non-human animals), it too quickly discounts blame-first models on which blame is typically fast and automatic as opposed to slow and deliberate (Goodwin 2014), it treats victim-blaming as rational, and (relatedly) it omits the role of ideology and motivated cognition in blaming (Niemi & Young 2014). These criticisms can perhaps be accommodated by the stipulation that Path represents paradigmatic blaming cognition, not every type of blaming response. Yet research shows that victim-blaming is fairly common, calling into question whether Path’s criterial information-processing sequence is, indeed, typical.

In this paper, I build on these criticisms by highlighting likely causal pathways for two ‘extra-evidential’ (i.e., criteria-irrelevant) inputs into the Path system: implicit bias and implicit affect. These causal factors, I argue, tend to drive information-processing down the ‘wrong’ pathways – that is, pathways unsupported by, and contrary to, objective evidence – giving rise to irrational (criteria-irrelevant) blaming judgments. I also argue that implicit states may preempt irrational blaming judgments non-sequentially (bypassing all sequential information-processing), and these ‘blame-first’ responses may be quite common, depending on the individual’s cognitive architecture and the saliency of triggers. (Different people have different levels of implicit bias, and implicit biases are activated in response to triggers such as visible demographic attributes). The characteristic role of implicit bias and implicit affect in the Path system, I argue, is to generate irrational blaming judgments, and these judgments are more common than the un-amended Path Model suggests. The idea that irrational blame is common is supported by the fact that implicit bias and implicit affect play a substantive role in social cognition (Nosek et al. 2011; Danziger et al. 2010) – for example, mediating mirror neuron activation and mimicry (Gallese et al. 2004), empathy (Mathur et al. 2014), and prosocial behaviour (Stepanikova et al. 2011). Implicit bias and implicit affect typically conflict with the agent’s explicit and rational beliefs.

The claim that we often, and perhaps paradigmatically, blame people irrationally is hardly surprising, given that (1) we live in conditions of inequality in which most people have implicit biases that track stereotypical representations of historically disenfranchised groups (women, African Americans, sexual minorities, etc.); (2) these biases mediate social cognition (Nosek et al. 2011); and (3) implicit affect mediates judgments of guilt (e.g., Danziger et al. 2010). By mapping these implicit inputs onto the Path system, we gain insight into the characteristic distorting role of implicit states in standard blaming cognition, embedded in conditions of inequality.

In what follows, I outline Malle, Guglielmo, and Monroe’s defense of Path, including important caveats that they make (section 2); I show how implicit biases can distort sequential reasoning at the ‘capacity,’ ‘obligation,’ and ‘reason’ stage of information processing (section 3); I show that affect can generate distorted judgments of blame and proportionality (section 4); I argue that implicit states can potentially trigger non-sequential (blame-first) judgments, making these judgments less computationally taxing over time, and thus more habitual (section 5); I argue that Path represents explicit moral reasoning, which does not track computational processing in neural systems – processing that may include implicit and criteria-irrelevant inputs (section 6); and I contend that, because Path does not chart the role of implicit bias in blaming cognition, it more closely reflects the paradigmatic blaming cognition of our early evolutionary ancestors (who enjoyed relatively egalitarian conditions), as opposed to modern-day humans who inhabit conditions of extreme inequality (section 7). Charting implicit states on the Path Model provides, I believe, a more accurate representation of our (largely irrational) blaming practices.

  1. Path: clarifications and caveats

It would be wrong to say that Malle et. al. deny that affect and implicit bias play any role in blaming cognition. Although they do not mention implicit bias, they admit that Path is incomplete in various ways, including that it does not show “the role and impact of affect on the information-processing chain” (177). They grant that affect is a mediating factor that “signals [the] seriousness” of the response (171) and potentially “amplifies” moral judgments (166). Psychopaths and patients with lesions in their ventromedial prefrontal cortex (resulting in ‘acquired psychopathy’) can recognize wrongdoing, but do not care about it (153). These agents cannot blame others interpersonally, because they merely impartially register that wrongdoing has been done; they do not engage in interpersonal, regulatory blaming. The authors emphasize that paradigmatic blame is not merely a private judgment, but a social interaction that serves to regulate social behaviour (149). Affect, then, plays a role in blaming cognition in neurotypical humans.

That said, Path favours “thought over emotional intensity” (171), in part because intense emotions tend to produce “less paradigmatic” blaming responses, such as yelling and personal attacks, as opposed to “more paradigmatic” blaming responses, such as rebuking, reproaching, and accusing (171). “Paradigmatic blame” is picked out by subjects’ pretheoretical intuitions about the “social acceptability” and “similarly to blame” of various moral criticisms; the most paradigmatic cases are “rational, calm, [and] constructive criticism” (171). This is why Path shows only criterial information – it charts the sequential decision-making processes involved in explicit moral reasoning. Non-criterial inputs and non-conscious processes are not figured in the diagram.

In addition to allowing that affect can play a limited role in blame, Malle et al. admit that biases can also play a limited role in blame, seeing that human judgment is “defeasible,” “fallible,” and influenced by emotion, motivation, and context (152). That said, the authors reject influential theories that purport to show that biases characteristically distort sequential reasoning; for instance, ‘outcome bias,’ in which worse action-outcomes bias blamers in favour of harsher judgments, and ‘character bias,’ in which dislikable character traits bias blamers in favour of harsher jugdments, are rejected in favour of the explanation that subjects infer that worse outcomes and character flaws are caused by negligence and extreme motives in the wrongdoer’s intentions, which is an ‘evidential’ (criteria-relevant) input at the ‘intentionality’ stage of the path sequence, not an ‘extra-evidential’ input (161). Hence, these putative biases are not biases at all, but criteria-relevant inputs that support the blaming judgment. This revisionary interpretation supports the view that blaming judgments are typically produced by the sequential processing of criteria-relevant information. Thus, these judgments are ‘rational’ in the sense that they are supported by evidence internal to the blaming system – evidence that inductively supports the judgment.

That said, Malle et al. allow that biases can enter the Path Model, albeit under special circumstances, particularly conditions that favour parsimonious computation. Blamers tend to make parsimonious inferences that minimize computational load under pressure, and these inferences are inappropriate if the value of parsimony is given more weight than the value of sufficient information and inferential accuracy. Sometimes, too, people rely on heuristics or ‘preset values’ activated by existing knowledge structures to generate fast, computationally simple blaming judgment. If these heuristics are unreliable or criteria-irrelevant, they may give rise to biased judgments. The use of heuristics is sometimes necessary due to situational pressures, but heuristics do not, according to Malle et al., play a characteristic role in blaming cognition.

As noted above, Path is impartial about whether information processing is conscious or unconscious, automatic or controlled. While some processes may be deliberate, others are automatic. For example, upon witnessing a bank robbery, I might automatically judge that the robber is blameworthy, because the relevant information (re. agent causation, intentionality, etc.) is readily available and the needed inferences are computationally simple. Ambiguous cases, by contrast, involve slower and more deliberate computational processing. (Was the bank robber acting voluntarily or under duress? If I am not sure, I will explicitly reflect on the ‘intentionality’ criterion). Automatic processing still follows the path sequence, but this method is more prone to error.

Malle et al. also admit that intuitions can play a role in the path system, in much the same way that heuristics can. For example, people are highly sensitive to the perception of negative events, which activates attention and linguistic centers, giving rise to rapid evaluative responses, (i.e., intuitions) (153). These intuitions ‘code’ the negative event as particularly serious. Intuitions, then, enter the path system at the ‘event detection’ stage, generating a stronger downstream judgment of blame. Malle et al. reject that idea that intuitions can produce paradigmatic blaming judgments on their own, independent of the information-processing stages, in opposition to Haidt’s ‘social intuitionist model,’ which holds that moral judgments are typically direct and non-sequential (2001). In section 4, I will argue that Malle et al. give us no good reason to think that criterial information-processing is a paradigmatic case of blaming cognition.

Although Malle et al. reject the social intuition model, Path does allow for intuitions, emotions, and biases to enter the path system when the context favours parsimonious computation. These allowances somewhat insulate the model from the obvious criticism that it is ‘too rational’; the authors can simply respond that it is incomplete, and criteria-irrelevant inputs (e.g., affect) are recognized as mediating factors, even if they are not ‘paradigmatic’ causes of blame.

The rationality objection is also amenable to the reply that Path models “information integration,” “not rationality constraints” (Malle et al. 2014: 177); the rationality objection is, in effect, a category mistake. To this, one can object that the integration of information can still generate irrational judgments, if the informational content misrepresents the world, driving informational processing down the (objectively) wrong pathway(s). For instance, if the blamer incorrectly perceives an agent as having an obligation to prevent a norm violation, the encoding of incorrect information at the ‘obligation’ stage will drive information-processing down the wrong pathway, to the ‘capacity’ stage, instead of generating a ‘no/low blame’ judgment. The role of distorting inputs can give rise to false and oppressive blaming habits, particularly when these inputs are implicit. This is not to say that the sequences in Path are out of order, but it is to say that non-evidential information – which does not provide a reason to blame – enters the Path system at various criterial stages and diverts information-processing down the objectively wrong pathways.

Although the final blaming judgment is supported by information internal to the system, the judgment is still irrational in the sense that it misrepresents its objects (salient events, capacities, obligations, etc.), and in the sense that it conflicts with the blamer’s practical commitments and explicit beliefs, such as the commitment to judge people on the basis of relevant criteria, to successfully navigating social relationships, and so on. (Implicit biases, notaby, conflict with the agent’s explicit beliefs by their very nature). A mismatch between (1) a judgment and the world, and/or (2) a judgment and the agent’s other beliefs and commitments, renders a judgment irrational on many theories of rationality (e.g., Brogaard 2014). It is plausible, then, to think that blaming judgments based on non-criterial inputs are irrational. Even though the judgment arises from sequential processing over criterial information (in some cases), the role of criteria-irrelevant implicit inputs drives sequential processing down the wrong pathways, giving rise to substantively irrational judgments. To illustrate: if I judge a person to be blameworthy due to implicit racial bias in my cognitive architecture, I blame the person on the basis of criteria-irrelevant content (racial bias), which I process as if it were relevant to one or more criterial stage(s).

Whether irrational blaming judgments are common is a substantive empirical question. I will argue that social psychology research and evolutionary psychology support the view that irrational blame is fairly common in our society, although blaming habits differ from one person to another.

In the next section, I will outline like points of entry for implicit biases in the Path system. If we chart these inputs on the Path Model, we shed light on the myriad ways in which blaming cognition can go wrong. This in turn helps to explain the pervasiveness of irrational blaming in our culture. For brevity, I will focus on only three criterial stages: capacity, obligations, and reasons.

  1. Criteria-irrelevant implicit biases

3.1. Capacity

‘Capacity’ in the Path Model refers to the capacity to prevent negative outcomes. Malle et al. give a few examples of this stage in the path sequence. First, they say that obesity, if caused by an uncontrollable medical condition, is perceived as not blameworthy (Weiner 1995, cited in Malle et al. 2014: 155). Second, if a “rape victim” is perceived as having been capable of taking precautions to avoid rape, she is deemed blameworthy (Davis et al. 1996, cited in Malle et al. 2014: 155). Third, if a driver’s capacity to have taken a different course of action is made salient, the driver is seen as blameworthy for causing a subsequent accident. In each case, if the capacity condition is met (e.g., if the obesity is controllable), the person is judged ‘blameworthy/high in blameworthiness.’

It is telling that two out of three of the prototypical judgments made by respondents are putatively biased. Contemporary feminists like Roxane Gay (2017) would say that obesity is not a moral failing; rather, the perception of obesity as a moral failing is motivated by weight bias – in many cases, implicit weight bias, which is as common as implicit racial bias (i.e., pervasive) (Skinner et al. 2017; KISRE 2015). Implicit weight bias can give rise to the false perception that people can and should exercise the capacity to avoid getting fat, although no such obligation exists, and it is far from clear that such a capacity exists in ordinary people (according to Gay). Implicit weight bias is not relevant to the ‘capacity’ criterion, but it drives information-processing down the ‘capacity’ path to a ‘blame’ judgment. This judgment is unwarranted (albeit supported by false criterial beliefs), in that it misrepresents the obligations and capacities of its target, and it conflicts with the explicit beliefs of the blamer (about her motivational profile and values).

Alternately, the critical mistake may have occurred at the ‘event detection’ stage, where the event (being fat) was coded as morally significant as opposed to morally irrelevant, triggering information-processing over the (objectively irrelevant) criterial stages of ‘agent causality,’ ‘intentionality,’ ‘obligation,’ and ‘capacity.’ Implicit bias likely triggers incorrect processing all the way down the line, with the misperception of the event injecting false information into the system.

Notably, if the blamer were to explain her judgment to another person, she would only have access to the explicit informational contents of her cognitive judgment, not the implicit content – the implicit bias. Hence, she would have no choice but to offer an incomplete explanation of her judgment, as opposed to explicating the salient causal mechanisms. If implicit states play a paradigmatic role in blaming cognition, then people’s self-reports of their information-processing sequence will typically omit salient mechanisms. In some cases, blamers will confabulate criterial explanations. For instance, when people discriminate against overweight people, they tend to invoke false criteria-relevant information in defense of their judgments e.g., the person was ‘incompetent’ (Levine et al. 2015). The criterial information misrepresents the agent’s qualities.

Malle et al. hold that in order to blame people, we must have “access to the informational basis of [our] blame judgments” (149). Prima facie, this seems to suggest that we must have access to the causal mechanisms that produce our blaming judgments, but this can’t be right, since those mechanisms can be implicit and unavailable to consciousness. Thus, ‘real’ blaming judgments include post hoc rationalizations and confabulations, completely detached from causally salient information-processing mechanisms. Confabulatory blaming judgments, moreover, are public, social, and regulatory in nature (although they have negative social consequences), so they function in much the same way as criteria-relevant blaming judgments – via the exchange of reasons generated via (implicit and explicit) processes of social cognition. Judgments induced by implicit bias, then, are legitimate, albeit substantively irrational, cases of blame.

Similar considerations apply to the blaming of the rape victim: the view that a person can proactively prevent rape is false and mediated by implicit biases. Men shown videos with high levels of female sexual objectification exhibit high implicit rape-myth acceptance, and also tend to excuse the rapist and blame the victim when asked to respond to a hypothetical rape scenario (Melina & Sandra 2012). The likely explanation is that the activated implicit states generate a false judgment about the capacity of the rape victim (to avoid getting raped), or a false judgment about the cause of the event (the victim’s behaviour). The salient cause of the judgment is, unbeknownst to the respondent, implicit rape-myth acceptance. This implicit state is criteria-irrelevant, but it generates a false criterial belief, giving rise to an irrational downstream blaming judgment. The researchers see this as a real, but biased, case of blame, which I think is the best (functional) explanation, since the blaming response is generated by social cognition and overtly expressed.

Implicit racial bias can also influence processing at the ‘capacity’ stage. Research shows that adults view Black girls as less innocent and more adult-like than white girls, resulting in more frequent and severe punishments in schools and the juvenile justice system (Epstein et al. 2015). Excessive and unnecessary blaming judgments about Black girls tend to be activated by implicit racial bias. This can result in the incorrect perception that Black girls are capable of preventing negative outcomes, because Black girls are seen as having capacities similar to adults. Biased blamers, then, may process information incorrectly at the ‘capacity’ stage due to activated implicit racial bias. This gives rise to false and excessively harsh blame directed toward Black girls.

Notably, implicit biases are difficult to mitigate or extinguish, in part because they are automatic and implicit reactions to salient demographic attributes and situational cues. They are, on one model, akin to habits, which are enduring because they are only partially cognitively penetrable (Devine 1989; Devine et al. 2012; Horoyd 2012). On dual systems theory, implicit biases are part of the fast, implicit processing system, which is “highly contextual and only changes in an enduring way after considerable time, effort, and/or intensity of experience” (Devine et al. 2012: 1268). Remediating interventions can be effective, but only if the agent is motivated to learn about activating contexts and committed to practicing self-regulation (ibid.). It is reasonable to infer that, when implicit biases enter the path system, driving informational processing down the same incorrect pathway(s) over and over in response to triggers, those connections become less computationally taxing and more accessible. Thus, the processing sequence becomes a habitual response, forming a ‘paradigmatic’ processing pattern. In people high in implicit bias, then, paradigmatic blaming responses may be habitual patterns, triggered by the saliency of implicit biases and well-worn pathways in response to frequently-encountered triggers.

3.2. Obligation

‘Obligation’ in Path refers to an obligation to have prevented a norm-violating event. We have already seen examples of processing over (false) obligation information, leading to irrational blaming judgments (e.g., of fat people). There are many other examples of obligation misperceptions. To give just one: most people assumed that wives had an obligation to have sex with their husbands until at least the late 1980s, when marital rape was finally criminalized in most (but not all) states. The tendency to blame spousal rape victims is mediated by implicit rape-myth acceptance and implicit gender bias (Grubb & Turner 2012). Thus, people who used to blame wives for spousal rape on the basis of misperceptions of obligation and capacity – for example, the misperception that wives have a duty to sexually gratify their husbands, and that doing so will prevent spousal rape – are irrationally blaming on the basis of implicit bias. This blaming response was culturally normative, revealing that irrational judgments can be paradigmatic. To this day, there is pervasive ignorance about consent and the culpability of rapists.

3.3. Reasons

‘Reasons’ refers to an agent’s reasons for acting. Processing at this stage can also be distorted by implicit bias. To give an example, African American men face harsher sentences than white men for the same federal crimes, controlling for criminal history, age, education, and citizenship (Pryor Jr. et al. 2017). By contrast, we tend to see adult white men as younger and more innocent than they really are (Fang 2017). What accounts for this discrepancy? A likely explanation is that judges are more likely to impute guilty intentions (mens rea) to Black men, and thus to encode false information at the ‘reasons’ stage. Implicit racial bias, then, can enter blaming cognition at the ‘reasons’ stage, producing false and excessively harsh blaming judgments toward Black men.

Once again, only the criterial information is introspectively available to the blamer, so the blamer’s explanation will not track the judgment’s underlying causal mechanisms (implicit racial bias). In people high in implicit racial bias, irrational blaming responses may be habitual response patterns. These blaming patterns are irrational, but an entrenched part of the blaming system.

3.4. Intermediary conclusions

Charting the likely role of implicit biases in blaming cognition illustrates that blaming judgments can be irrational just in case they misrepresent their object and/or conflict with the blamer’s practical commitments and explicit beliefs. But this does not yet show that blaming judgments are paradigmatically irrational in general. Admittedly, it is difficult to quantify the role of implicit bias in blaming cognition in the general population, especially given that implicit states interact with each person’s broader cognitive architecture and cultural factors, resulting in significant intersubjective differences. That said, most white people score positively for implicit bias on implicit association tests, and there is evidence that implicit biases are valid and predictive constructs that give rise to measurable prejudice effects (Greenwald et al. 1995; Green et al. 2007; Bertrand & Mullainathan 2004). Importantly, however, the strength and saliency of implicit biases depends on the agent’s cognitive profile and environment. The most that we can say is that for many people, when triggers are salient, the ‘paradigmatic blaming judgment’ will be an irrational one. This is a more nuanced view of the ‘paradigmatic’ operation of the blaming system than the idealized information-processing view, which only charts explicit beliefs. Our implicit states, informed by cultural norms, can be much darker than our explicit value judgments.

We cannot reasonably say that blaming judgments must provide accurate explanations of the information-processing sequence involved in blaming, since, even on the Path Model, these processes can be implicit, automatic, and unavailable to consciousness. Thus, blaming responses that involve confabulations, post hoc rationalizations, and other misrepresentations, must be seen as genuine blame. (The alternative would be to say that we can never know when anyone is blaming anyone). Moreover, confabulatory blaming responses satisfy the conditions of being public, social, and regulatory, even though they do not promote the goals of social cohesion and trust.

  1. Criteria-irrelevant affective states

Affective states also play a characteristic role in blaming cognition, and while this role is not always distorting – indeed, affect is likely required to code transgressions as morally salient, as Malle et al. admit – it often plays a distorting role, particularly when the affective input is implicit.

We can see this in judicial decision-making, at the stage of judging whether the defendant is culpable, and at the stage of determining sentencing. As Terry Maroney observes, affective mediation is:

observed both when the juror’s emotion is integral to the case—that is, prompted by case-relevant information, such as gruesome testimony about a victim’s injuries—[and] incidental to the case—that is, prompted by information extrinsic to the juror’s judgment task, such as anger at a fellow juror for rude behavior, anxiety over being pulled away from work and home obligations, or disgust with unsanitary courtroom conditions” (Feigenson 2010:52).

In the second case (incidental causes), the affective input is criteria-irrelevant, but gives rise to an overt judgment of culpability. When a juror, for instance, judges a defendant guilty (or especially guilty) due to anger toward another juror, the affective input is irrelevant to the obligations, capacities, or reasons of the defendant, but that input is causally efficacious nonetheless. Research shows that mock jurors primed with anger cues are likely to judge the defendant with more certainty, are less likely to evaluate evidence systematically, are more likely to rely on heuristics, and they tend to consider less information when coming to a decision (Tiedens and Linton, 2001; Lerner, Goldberg, & Tetlock, 1998). In some cases, anger may activate mediating heuristics. For instance, anger may trigger the use of a representative heuristic – a common decision-making short-cut – inducing the blamer to judge someone as a ‘representative criminal’ (or not) based on salient cultural stereotypes and the target’s visible attributes. This heuristic is not activated by parsimony constraints, but by affect under ordinary conditions. Even if the activated emotions are consciously available to the blamer (e.g., she is aware that she is angry), the causal antecedent of the anger may not be; that is, she may not realize that she is blaming the defendant because she is angry at someone else. This type of affective ignorance is a standard feature of human psychology, not a context-specific processing error (Dan Haybron 2008). Hence, affectively-triggered, irrational blaming responses may be quite common, particularly in people lacking emotional regulation and source attribution competency. In these groups, irrational, emotionally-charged blame may be a habitual response pattern.

  1. Non-sequential, fast blame

Haidt provides an alternative to the Path model. On his view, blame is typically generated quickly and automatically by intuitions. Malle et al. call this a ‘blame-first’ theory, and they deny that blame-first theories can explain paradigmatic cases of blame. This is because blame-first responses are triggered by first-personally opaque causal mechanisms (e.g., intuitions), which cannot be articulated in public blaming exchanges; thus, they cannot regulate social interactions through the exchange of criterial information. According to Malle et al., the social intuition model (henceforth, SIM) explains ‘moral judgments,’ not blame as a regulatory social process.

A notable case of intuitive blaming is moral dumbfounding, in which the blamer generates an explicit moral judgment on the basis of intuitions that are unconscious. In dumbfounding cases, there is a direct link from the intuition to the moral judgment, such that the production of the judgment bypasses criterial information-processing. The intuition, that is, preempts a judgment automatically and non-sequentially. Malle et al. object that intuitive moral judgments are not instances of blame, but rather of moral judgments (about the moral valence of actions), whereas blame involves an exchange of reasons. Since dumbfounded agents cannot articulate the “informational basis of their blame judgments (e.g., inferences of intentionality or preventability [etc.]),” they cannot “demand, offer, and negotiate such information as warrants for [our] acts of blaming” (Malle et al. 2014: 149).

This objection is not quite fair to SIM, seeing that dumbfounded blamers typically eventually offer reasons in support of their judgments, even if these reasons are post hoc and possibly confabulatory in nature. The blamer’s overt explanation of her judgment fails to track the judgment’s underlying computational mechanisms. It is often a rational reconstruction of those processes, based on available evidence and the agent’s subjective goals. This is no different from path-generated sequential judgments, in the sense that sequential processing can also be implicit and automatic, and thus introspectively opaque. Thus, our explanation of our judgment is likely to involve rational reconstruction in both cases. Malle et al. give us no reason to think that blamers’ self-reports of their blaming judgments accurately track the underlying causal mechanisms. Thus, we have no good reason to differentiate between intuitive judgments explained by post hoc rationalizations, and sequential-criterial judgments that look identical from the blamer’s perspective. Although intuitive judgments are generated by criteria-irrelevant inputs, we have seen that sequential information-processing also typically implicates criteria-irrelevant inputs, with the public explanation being divorced from underlying causal mechanisms. Thus, the distinction between intuitive judgments and sequential judgments is unmotivated.

It is also reasonable to think that implicit biases, like intuitions, might give rise to blame-first responses. To see the parallels between the two cases, consider a typical case of moral dumbfounding: when people are asked if it is wrong for a brother and sister to sleep together even once, assuming that there are no adverse consequences, many people intuitively judge the action to be wrong and the actors to be blameworthy (Haidt 2000). If asked to explain why, they provide post hoc rationalizations that invoke relevant (but causally inert) criteria. Similarly, people who form judgments on the basis of implicit bias tend to offer confabulated explanations. For instance, when subjects were separated into two groups and asked to evaluate a male and female candidate for police chief, where the male candidate was described as ‘street smart’ but lacking in formal education to the first group, and the female candidate was described as ‘street smart’ but lacking in formal education two the second group, both groups favoured the male candidate due to implicit gender bias. When asked to explain their choice, however, they invoked the male candidate’s qualifications (either street smarts or credentials), unaware that the qualification made no difference (Uhlmann & Cohen 2005). That is, they offered a post hoc rationalization. It is reasonable to think that implicit gender bias directly triggered a judgment about the candidates’ job suitability, similar to intuitions, with the criterial judgment being post hoc.

Admittedly, the study involved judgments of job suitability, but we can see how blame can be confabulatory in the same way: if someone were to blame a female police officer for incompetency on the basis of implicit gender bias, the person would be blaming on criteria-irrelevant grounds (implicit bias), but providing criterial information. Survey results provide no evidence to the effect that implicit states cannot generate blaming judgments non-sequentially, since these results track subjects’ explicit inferential processes, not their neurocognitive processes.

  1. What’s wrong? Path represents explicit, not implicit, reasoning

Path is based on abundant empirical evidence, and it correctly models explicit moral reasoning. The sequential steps are based on subjects’ responses to surveys. Evidence for the ‘capacity’ criterion, for example, comes from studies showing that foreseeability, or the capacity to predict, and potentially avoid, aversive outcomes, is deemed significant by subjects asked to judge the blameworthiness of theoretical actors in hypothetical scenarios. When the subjects were invited to ask questions about these scenarios, they typically asked questions about capacity prior to asking questions about obligation, revealing a default reasoning sequence from ‘capacity’ to ‘obligation.’ (The same result obtained when subjects were offered different types of information). The survey results supported the other ‘default’ pathways on the Path Model.

I have no doubt that Path accurately traces folks’ explicit reasoning about people’s blameworthiness, but it is a leap to say that it captures their actual information-processing sequence in their neurocognitive systems. This is because our first-person reports about our cognitive processes, and our actual cognitive processes, do not coincide. We lack reliable conscious access to our implicit states, and when we lack relevant information about our actions, we tend to confabulate intelligible but inaccurate explanations. According to Peter Carruthers (2010), all of our self-reports are inferential – none are direct – and thus we are just as likely to mis-attribute internal states to ourselves as we are to mis-attribute internal states to others, ceteris paribus. Carruthers also believes that confabulation is pervasive, based on converging research, including split-brain studies showing that the left hemisphere systematically confabulates intelligible explanations of our behaviour, and other data [Carruthers 2010: 39-42]). Other neuroscientists might not go this far, but most agree that a considerable amount of cognitive processing is unconscious (Bargh & Morsella 2008). We have no reason, then, to think that survey results about blame-relevant criterial information match the computational processes that produce judgments of blame. Indeed, given that people paradigmatically blame rape victims and fat people, it is reasonable to think that implicit biases play a paradigmatic role in generating blame.

Malle et al. admit that biases play a role in cases of parsimonious computation – a small number of cases – but given that social cognition is strongly mediated by inegalitarian cultural norms, it is much more plausible to think that implicit biases play a paradigmatic role in blaming cognition, which explains why blame typically targets and harms historically disenfranchised groups.

  1. Blame as an evolved function

Malle et al. say that blame’s cognitive architecture evolved as a mechanism for regulating social behaviour in our early evolutionary history. This cognitive architecture allowed us to express blame interpersonally in traditional, close-knit communities, regulating the behaviour of in-group members. In order for blame to serve this evolutionary function, they say, certain preconditions must be met, including (i) the overt communication of blame, (ii) the intelligible delivery of blame, (iii) the treatment of the offender as a member of a shared community, (iv) the possibility of repair, and (v) the presentation of reasons for acting (Malle et al. 2014: 172-173). Blaming judgments that meet these criteria are more likely to enhance the moral fitness of the group.

Elsewhere, I have disputed the idea that blame must be addressed primarily to the wrongdoer; I think that blame serves a variety of social functions independent of the wrongdoer’s responsiveness (or lack thereof). But here, I want to question whether blame paradigmatically serves its evolutionary function in modern times. If blame is often, and perhaps paradigmatically, irrational due to pervasive implicit bias, then blame most likely does not enhance moral-group fitness.

Malle et al. never say whether they think that blame functions to regulate behaviour in a fitness-enhancing way in the year 2018. They would presumably be amenable to the idea that blame does not effectively serve this function, insofar as the postulated preconditions are not met – specifically, blame is not communicated overtly, intelligibly, in such a way as to offer reasons to the wrongdoer, and so on. Perhaps these conditions have been compromised by modern cultural norms and technological innovations. Maybe we are more likely to ‘troll’ each other on the Internet, as opposed to confronting each other in civil discourse, contrary to the intelligibility constraint; maybe some of us are too politically oppressed to publicly express our blaming judgments, in violation of the communication constraint. Differences between the modern ecology and our ancestral ecology could potentially undermine the efficacy of modern blaming practices.

These are interesting departures from ancestral blaming norms, but I am more interested in (what I take to be) a more fundamental difference – the emergence of gross inequality, and the corresponding emergence of pervasive implicit bias. As I said above, implicit bias most likely plays a characteristic role in blaming cognition – for instance, mediating mirror neuron activation and mimicry (Spalding 2013), empathy (Mathur et al. 2014), and prosocial behaviour (Stpanikova et al. 2011). The content of our implicit biases is not innate – it is a result of cultural exposure. Because implicit biases are not introspectable, when we act on them, we tend to offer confabulatory reasons for our behaviour. Malle et al. should be amenable to the idea that the exchange of confabulatory reasons can be an impediment to the effective communication of blame, which is a precondition for effective blaming. Yet we often offer confabulatory reasons unwittingly, and we should not discount these common exchanges from the category of blame. These judgments regulate behaviour, even if they do not facilitate social cohesion and repair. If we discount these blaming judgments, we restrict the scope of blame to ‘sanitized’ judgements, leaving out a large proportion of our day-to-day blaming interactions (McGeer 2008). A psychologically realistic model of blame must include these ordinary cases of irrational blame. Sanitized blame is a blaming practice perpetuated by hyper-rational agents, or neurotypical agents living in conditions of extreme equality, not creatures like us, living in conditions like ours.

Malle et al. agree with me that our early evolutionary ecology was highly egalitarian compared to modern times. This means that there was relatively little implicit bias within the group. In modern pluralistic democracies, implicit bias is pervasive and highly impactful on the life prospects of historically disadvantaged groups within the broader collective. A precondition for a functioning, collective blaming practice, then, may be an increase of equality. More precisely, we may need to enhance equality in order for blaming cognition to function as it did in early evolutionary times, i.e., in such a way as to enhance social cohesion and repair of ruptured relationships within the collective. By omitting the role of implicit bias and affect from Path (even provisionally), the authors fail to capture the deep irrationality of modern blaming practices.

Equality, in my view, is a central precondition for a rational and reparative blaming practice. It may even be a precondition for preconditions such as community and repair, inasmuch as inegalitarian (irrational, biased) blaming practices tend to undermine mutual trust, cohesion, and respect.

  1. Concluding remarks

I have argued that Malle et al.’s model of blaming cognition charts explicit blaming judgments, but not underlying computational processes. Omitted from Path are implicit biases and implicit affect, which significantly mediate social cognition, giving rise to criteria-irrelevant, and thus irrational, blaming judgments (in the presence of triggers). I have proposed likely points of entry for implicit bias and affect into the path system, as well as proposing that cognitive biases may preempt blaming judgments on their own, independent of any sequential processing. Whether the Path Model captures ‘paradigmatic’ blame is not determined by survey responses, which trace the respondent’s explicit (possibly confabulatory) reasoning processes. It is eminently likely that implicit biases and affect play a systematic role in ordinary blaming cognition, though the saliency of these states depends on background cognitive and environmental conditions, which are highly subjective. Yet given the pervasiveness of victim-blaming judgments in our culture, it is likely that implicit bias plays a significant role in the blaming cognition of ordinary people. The prototypicality of irrational blame, moreover, helps to explain modern conditions of extreme inequality: those conditions are caused by, and reinforce, victim-blaming habits. Irrational blame and conditions of inequality, in other words, go hand in hand.

[1] Henceforth, references to Malle, Gugliemo, and Monroe (2014) will be denoted by ‘Malle et al.’ or, if the reference is obvious, only pagination.


Blame: It’s nature, targets, and functions


Blame: Its nature, targets, and functions.


This paper asks three questions: (1) What is holding-responsible, particularly blaming, as an expressive practice? (2) Who is an appropriate target of blame? And (3) What is the function of blame? I answer that (i) Blaming is an expressive practice, in which (somewhat surprisingly perhaps) blame can be expressed unconsciously by the blamer; (ii) the appropriate target of the reactive attitudes (resentment, disapprobation, indignation) is the wrongdoer, but the appropriate target of the conative force of blame – its demand for a response – is a suitably sensitive audience, not necessarily the wrongdoer; and (iii) one of blame’s primary functions is to enhance relational equality, because relational equality is a precondition for a fair and rational blaming practice.

Key words: responsibility; blame; reactive attitudes; implicit bias; eliminitivism

  1. Introduction

In this paper, I ask three questions: (1) What is holding-responsible, particularly blaming, as an expressive practice? (2) Who is an appropriate target of blame? And (3) What is the function of blame? (What is it for? Why do we do it? Why should we do it?).

I come to the following conclusions.

(1) Responsibility is an expression of the reactive attitudes, which, on various proposals, have emotional contents (emotionalism), cognitive contents (cognitivism), or both. I show that, because emotions and (cognitive) judgments can, in some cases, be unconscious, blame qua emotional/cognitive response can be unconscious. This is not necessarily a refutation of extant theories, but an under-appreciated implication of neuroscientific data on the nature of emotions, judgments, and implicit states implicated in emotional and cognitive activations. Although there is an abundance of scholarship on responsibility for unconscious states, very little has been published on unconscious blame, even though this type of blame is extremely consequential.

(2) Although Strawson says that moral incompetents are not apt targets of the reactive attitudes, I argue that moral incompetents can be apt targets of the emotional and cognitive contents of blame – resentment, disapprobation, negative valuation – but not apt targets of the conative orientation of, or demand implicit in, blame. Instead, the proper target of blame’s demands and solicitations is a suitably sensitive audience. Thus, blame’s emotional and cognitive contents, on the one hand, and blame’s conative orientation, on the other, come apart, and moral incompetents are only partially outside the scope of the reactive attitudes. This view vindicates contemporary theories on which blame can be fittingly addressed to the community (e.g., Bell 2014).

(3) Blame is most likely multi-functional, because versatile (multi-directional) blaming practices have more traction, potentially motivating more people to heed its demands. That said, surely one of the most urgent and immediate functions of our blaming practice is to enhance relational equality, or equality of moral and epistemic esteem and standing (Anderson 2015). The reason is that relational equality is a prerequisite to other posited aims – e.g., registering one’s protest against wrongdoing (Smith 2013), resisting wrongdoing (Bell 2013) – since our perception of wrongdoing is distorted by implicit biases rooted in pervasive cultural stereotypes. So, relational equality must be one of blame’s utmost normative functions – the function that it should, and must, serve, if it is to function fairly and rationally on a large-scale interpersonal level.

  1. Responsibility as an expressive practice: What is ‘an expression’?

One of the most influential accounts of moral responsibility in philosophy is Strawson’s view (1963), on which responsibility is an interpersonal practice in which we express the reactive attitudes, such as blame, praise, approbation, disapprobation, resentment, and so on. For this paper, I will focus on the negative reactive attitudes, particularly blame.

Many contemporary theorists construe Strawsonian holding-responsible as an expressive or communicative exchange, in which an agent expresses a reactive attitude toward another agent in response to the target’s quality of will (or other morally salient quality). McKenna (2014), for example, describes blame as part of a conversational practice with three paradigmatic stages: (1) agent A performs a morally problematic action, (2) agent B expresses a negative reactive attitude to A, and (3) A responds to B. In an ideal conversational exchange, A’s expression and B’s response will be fitting, meaning, in McKenna’s terms, intelligible to the recipient and appropriate to the context. If the wrongdoer is morally incompetent, she is not an apt target for blame.

Other theorists have different ideas about the expressive function of blame. Angela Smith argues that blame is an expressive practice that registers one’s protest against someone’s morally problematic treatment of oneself or others (2013). Macalister Bell holds that blame expresses a hostile attitude toward others, as a means of resisting wrongdoing (2013). She then identifies a number of sub-functions that subserve the resistance aim: registering the damage done to our relationships, educating its target, motivating offenders to avoid recidivism, educating members of the moral community, and expressing or affirming one’s own values. Christopher Bennett describes blame as a way of expressing disapproval through symbolic gestures that register the offender’s damage to important relationships (2013). Victoria McGeer describes blame as an expressive practice that produces prosocial behaviours by drawing attention to past offenses (2013: 171). These accounts differ in their construal of the function that expressions of blame paradigmatically serve, but they agree with the proposition that blame is an expressive practice.

Let’s assume that the expressivist view is right. At this juncture, we can ask: what does it mean to express blame?

This is a germane question because there is disagreement about what cognitive states are implicated in holding-responsible, and thus what cognitive states blame can express. Many expressivists think that emotions are a “canonical,” if not necessary, part of our responsibility practice (McGeer 2013: 168). McGeer argues that creatures like us, with our evolutionary history, cannot entirely expunge emotions, including ‘uncivil’ emotions, from blame. She sees blame as characteristically emotionally-charged, as well as “rapid and involuntary” (2013: 172), though (possibly) reflectively mediated and thus ‘domesticatable.’ Many people would urge that holding-responsible also implicates judgments or cognitive contents, which mediate (and potentially ‘domesticate’) our knee-jerk, affective responses (e.g., Smith 2013; Sher 2010; McKenna 2013). If we grant that reactive attitudes typically implicate emotional and/or cognitive contents, then (in either case) we might be tempted to assume that they are typically conscious, or at least consciously available. We know when we are blaming someone.  

(Many theorists hold that the reactive attitudes also have a ‘conative orientation,’ or an intention to produce some type of change or response in another person. I will hold off on discussing the conative view until the next section, where it will be more relevant).

In the first place, one might assume, as Williams James did, that an ‘unconscious emotion’ is a contradiction in terms (1884) – that there is a tangible ‘feeling-that’ quality to emotional states. On this assumption, unconscious blame is impossible. One might assume, too, that judgments are reflective in nature – that they involve a conscious representation of their object. If these assumptions are right, then perhaps we can be temporarily unaware of our blaming attitudes due to inattention or a transient distraction, but these states are nonetheless available to consciousness.

Here are some typical examples of blame that seem to affirm this picture. Someone loses confidence in his friend Joe after learning that Joe ridiculed him behind his back, and he modifies the relationship accordingly (Bennett 2012, citing Scanlon 2008). Isa blames her friend Marie for accepting a disempowering relationship with an abusive man (Bell 2014). A college students posts a ‘NO TOUCHY’ post-it on her pizza box to deter her friend from eating the leftovers, exemplifying ‘anticipatory blame’ (MacNamara 2014: 160). In all of these examples, unless the blamer is acting in a somnambulant state, we must imagine the person consciously blaming the target, i.e., expressing consciously-felt emotions and (most likely) consciously-represented judgments. For instance, Isa, if questioned, would probably say that she reproaches Marie, and disapproves of Marie’s decision to stay with her partner. She has conscious access to her blame-constitutive emotional and cognitive states.

Emotions and judgments, however, are not necessarily available to consciousness. (I’ll discuss emotions first and judgments shortly thereafter). Mounting neuroscientific evidence supports the existence of unconscious/implicit emotions, or states with the neurocognitive profile of an emotion that are not available to conscious awareness. Smith and Lane offer as evidence “emotionally relevant stimuli presented so briefly that perceptual awareness is not possible, [which nevertheless] reliably influence preferences (Zajonc, 1980), consummatory behavior (Winkielman and Berridge, 2004), and… other emotion-related physiological/ behavioral reactions (Tamietto and de Gelder, 2010)” (2016: 17). A growing literature, they add, “has also established that unconscious or implicit attitudes and beliefs have a profound effect on social behavior (McConnell and Leibold, 2001)” (2016: 217) – they are causally efficacious. Joseph LeDoux, a neuroscientist and writer, has argued that the activation of emotional circuits can trigger overt behaviour without giving rise to any conscious feeling, if those activations do not interact with neural systems implicated in conscious processing (2012). These activations are called ‘implicit emotions.’ To give some concrete examples, research subjects exhibit facial expressions, physiological arousal, and afferent feedback constitutive of fear, without subjectively representing fear (Khilstrom et al. 2000); in dissociation patients, conscious awareness of an emotion can be severed from conscious processes, rendering the emotion subjectively opaque (Bucci 2016); in patients with chronic health problems, activation in emotional circuits often presents as somatic symptoms with no conscious neural correlates – no consciousness of the emotion (Kroenke 2003; Konnopka et al., 2012; Sharpe and Carson, 2001).

These may not be canonical cases of emotions, but they are still valid cases, and these unconscious emotional activations can motivate overt behaviour. If there can be motivationally efficacious unconscious emotions, there can, on an affective view, be unconscious blame. For instance, if I implicitly fear, resent, or experience somatic distress in response to someone’s salient attributes, I may express those unconscious neurocognitive states toward their object (in negative ways fitting of the emotion) without realizing it. That is, I may (affectively) unconsciously blame the person. This doesn’t mean that unconscious blame is the norm, but it can happen.

Judgments can also be unconscious. Many theorists now see them as observable dispositions or functional states, which can be unconscious neurocognitive states. On the dispositionalist view, if I consciously believe that I value my friendship with Greg, but I have a disposition to avoid interacting with Greg, I may dispositionally judge Greg to be an inadequate friend, though I consciously represent him as a good friend (depending on relevant background factors). On the functionalist view, a judgment plays a reliable causal role in a certain pattern of behaviour. There is evidence that unconscious states can play a reliable role in producing goal-oriented behaviours. For example, unobtrusive priming of cooperation (using words like ‘dependable,’ ‘helpful,’ and ‘supportive’) caused subjects assigned to fisher roles in a resource-management game to cooperate to maintain the critical limit of 70 fish in the lake (Bragh et al. 2001: 1018). Notably, there was no difference between a group given unobtrusive primes, and a group given explicit instructions, suggesting that non-consciously activated goals can play just as reliable a role in the production of cooperative goal-oriented activity as the conscious intention to cooperate.

Similarly, unobtrusive priming of high-performance behaviour (using words like ‘win,’ ‘compete,’ and ‘success’) caused subjects to resume an intellectually demanding task (Scrabble) after a disruption, even when they were given the chance to play a less-demanding, ‘fun’ task instead (Bragh et al. 2001). This suggests that non-consciously activated goals are fairly robust: they persist over time. Indeed, non-consciously activated goals “show the same quality of persistence over time toward the desired end state, and of overcoming obstacles in the way, as… consciously set goals” (Bragh et al. 2001: 1015). That is, they have the quality of a disposition, and they can be just as causally efficacious at producing goal-oriented behaviour as conscious intentions.

On a dispositionalist picture, then, we can interpret the goal-pursuing behaviour provoked by non-conciously activated goals in each task as a judgment that cooperation/high performance (depending on the task) is worth pursuing, even if the judgment was not reflectively available to the actor at the time of action. Ditto for the functionalist interpretation. Granted, the value of the primed goal may have been consciously available to the subjects—they may have honestly affirmed that they did, e.g., consciously value cooperation in the resource-management task. Still, if one of them were to deny this, we would have reason to doubt their conscious appraisal, and favour the functionalist/dispostionalist interpretation on which they (implicitly) did value the goal.

On the cognitivist view, then, blame may sometimes manifest as an unconscious negative judgment. If I persistently fail to cooperate with certain types of people due to non-consciously activated states, perhaps I (functionally) negatively appraise, and thus blame, those people.

Another reason to doubt that judgments are necessarily conscious is that most people take judgments to be “intertwined” with emotions, both conscious and unconscious, meaning that judgments sometimes contain unconscious affective states (Chekov 2009).

Another compelling example of unconscious blame is blame motivated by implicit bias, where the normative significance of the action is first-personally opaque. Although implicit bias is a contested notion, the general consensus is that implicit biases are implicit associations between concepts, manifested in overt behaviour (but see Levy 2015 & Mandelbaum 2013 for exceptions, to be discussed shortly). Implicit racial bias, for example, is tracked by the Harvard Implicit Association Test by measuring subjects’ reaction times (‘response latencies’) to positive and negative words (‘smile,’ ‘honest,’ ‘disaster,’ ‘agony’) after priming the subject with a black face or a white face. Most white people are faster to pair black faces with negative words and white faces with positive words than vice versa. This means that they score positively for implicit racial bias.

It is debatable whether IAT scores translate into real-world discrimination against Black people (i.e., overt manifestations), but the reason many people think they do is that anti-black discrimination is a pervasive part of the cultural landscape, even though most people would (presumably sincerely) deny being racist. To give just a few examples of this phenomenon: Employers who had advertised an employment equity policy nonetheless favoured resumes with European American names over identical resumes with African American names by a ratio of 2:1 (Bertrand & Mullainathan 2004); managers discriminated against job applicants who used African American Vernacular English rather than Standard English in phone interviews, rating those applicants as less intelligent, less ambitious, and less qualified (Henderson 2001); adults view black girls as less innocent and more adult-like than white girls, resulting in more frequent and severe punishments in schools and the juvenile justice system (Epstein et al. 2015); African American men face harsher sentences than white men for the same federal crimes, controlling for criminal history, age, education, and citizenship (USSC 2017).

These studies show that America’s expressed attitude (i.e., overt disposition) toward black people as a group ranges from avoidant to punitive. We avoid renting to them, hiring them, and giving them equal educational opportunities; we punish them, even as young children, by barring them from equal participation in our most valued social institutions (schools, employment, housing, civilian society). Should we say that, if we engage in these avoidant, punitive, and generally exclusionary practices, implicitly rather than explicitly, they are not expressions of blame? If we are not committed to the requirement of consciousness, this constraint is unmotivated.

Neil Levy (2015) disputes the implicit-association model (as well as the implicit-belief model) and proposes that implicit biases are sui generis states, with some belief-like and some association-like properties. Like beliefs (but unlike implicit associations), implicit biases have some propositional structure, on his view, based on studies showing that previous exposure to counter-stereotypical images (women in a kitchen, men in an office) can produce counter-stereotypical responses on implicit association tests: subjects who had been exposed to stereotypical images were faster to associate competency/agency words with female faces than male faces (De Lemus et al. 2013). This suggests that implicit biases interact with the propositional structure of beliefs, albeit not inferentially – these states are still unconscious processes. Levy, in fact, holds that implicit biases, while not associations, are both unconscious, and motivationally efficacious (2015: 809). This theory, then, still supports the view that blame can be implicit, inasmuch as it can involve implicit biases that render its normative significance first-personally opaque. When we express or enact implicit biases, we do not realize that we are doing so, meaning that the evaluative significance of our behaviour is unavailable to reflective retrieval; we are not aware that are treating others in (often) aversive, avoidant, and punitive ways.

Notably, our emotions and judgments can be informed by implicit bias. Subjects exposed to a bad smell exhibited harsher moral judgments than controls, showing that implicit disgust can mediate explicit moral judgments (Schnall et al. 2008). Inducing disgust in subjects also produces intuitive disapproval of gay people, even in subjects who deny having any anti-gay bias (Inbar et al. 2018). In these cases, the subject is aware of harbouring aversive emotions and judgments, but not of the causal antecedents of those states. These are cases of ‘moral dumbfouning’ (Haidt 2001): the subject is aware of her emotion/judgment, but not of why she has it. On the other hand, if someone displays aversive behaviour in response to a prime without knowing it, the person’s dispositional emotion/judgment is first-personally opaque. This is a paradigmatic case of ‘unconscious blame,’ but moral-dumbfounding cases of blame are also possible.

We can define ‘unconscious blame’ as a negative overt response to another person, motivated by unconscious neurocognitive states, which are not directly available to consciousness, nor immediately reflectively retrievable. These negative responses are typically patterned because the implicit emotional, cognitive, and conceptual contents of blame, as we have seen, tend to be reliably activated by certain stimuli (unobtrusive primes, salient cultural stereotypes), and to persist in spite of disruptions. However, un-patterned responses should not necessarily be discounted as candidates for blame, even if they are not the norm. Expressions of unconscious blame are ‘negative’ or ‘aversive’ in that they express a ‘negative stance’ toward their target, as expressed in avoidant, punitive, or otherwise antisocial, patterns or instances of behaviour.

This account departs from the Strawsonian view that blame is a response to an agent’s quality of will, since blame in these cases responds to salient triggers and subjective states, not the target’s qualities. But this view allows that blame is typically a response to an agent’s perceived quality of will, mediated by the perceiver’s implicit and explicit emotions, judgments, and attitudes, and situational triggers. When blame is well-placed or ‘fitting,’ it accurately responds to the wrongdoer’s objective quality of will. In practice, blame frequently misses its mark due to implicit states. Unbiased blame is non-discriminatory, while biased blame is bigoted in various ways.

The idea that holding-responsible (including blaming) can be unconscious is not exactly revisionary. Expressivists in particular grant that our responsibility practice regularly involves manifestations of unconscious attitudes, though they focus on unconscious states at the ‘moral contribution’ stage (‘stage 1’ above). McKenna, for example, says that committing an unintentional offense is blame-able (2014); Smith holds that forgetting about a close friend’s birthday warrants moral approbation (2005); and Sher says that forgetting a family pet in the backseat of a hot car is blameworthy (2010). These are ‘omissions cases,’ in which an omission (to do what one ought, take proper precautions, exercise due moral vigilance, or what have you) reflects a negative quality of will, opening the person to blame. Many people now take this ‘anti-reflecitivist’ stance on responsible agency, according to which people can be responsible for unconscious transgressions (Doris 2016). That said, few theorists have discussed the role of unconscious states in stages two and three of our responsibility practice: the stage at which we express the reactive attitudes (‘moral address’), and the stage at which we respond to these attitudes (‘moral accounting’). This is not to say that theorists deny that we can express and respond to these attitudes unconsciously, but if they believe that we can, they don’t explicitly say so.

This points to an asymmetry in the literature, in which an abundance of work has been done on whether one can be blameworthy for an unconscious violation, whereas relatively little has been said about whether one can express and respond to the reactive attitudes unconsciously. If I am right, then we can, at least, unconsciously express these attitudes. When we unconsciously express a reactive attitude, we are unaware of some normatively salient feature of our behaviour.

Here is an example (taken from an earlier paper [citation withheld for anonymity]). Physicians prescribe fewer pain-killers to Black patients than white patients when both exhibit the same symptoms (Silverstein 2013; Cleeland et al. 1994). This may be related to the fact that white observers show less physiological arousal in response to Black people’s pain than white people’s pain, with their level of arousal correlating with their level of implicit racial bias (Forgiarini et al. 2011). That is, physicians may prescribe fewer pain-killers to Black patients due to implicit racial bias. If so, then they are, on scrutiny, treating Black patients in a punitive way, denying them the medical treatment they need or deserve on the physician’s evaluation of equivalent suffering in white patients. They may also distrust their Black patients’ ability to take pain-killers responsibly compared to their white patients.[1] If this analysis is right, then physicians who manifest racial prescription bias are unconsciously blaming (i.e., punishing, distrusting, implicitly judging as undeserving or incompetent) their Black patients. They are not consciously aware of doing this, but their overt behaviour nonetheless expresses blame to Black patients.

Again, I am not saying that theorists would not count this as an instance of expressive blame; I am saying that there is little discussion of such cases – cases that are extremely consequential in their impact on the life prospects of historically disadvantaged groups.

The view that implicitly biased prescription practices can count as blame requires a move away from an intuitive perspective on blame: the first-person standpoint. Physicians motivated by implicit racial bias are not aware that they are expressing these biases in their prescriptive habits, much less that they are unconsciously blaming their Black patients, so we cannot rely on the first-person standpoint to deliver accurate evaluative descriptions of the subject’s own expressive habits. (This is a rejection of what Sher [2010] calls ‘the searchlight view,’ applied here to blaming rather than to blameworthiness). We cannot necessarily rely on the average observer’s appraisal either, since most people are not in a good position to evaluate whether a perceived pattern of behaviour is an instance of implicit bias. To evaluate whether a person P’s pattern of behaviour counts as blame, we need to assess P’s stated intentions and overt behaviour, and compare these data to relevant psychological and sociological research or trends. We should, in a sense, adopt a ‘heterophenomological perspective’ to blame, in Dennett’s terms (1991) – a perspective that compares a piece of phenomenological data against a range of intersubjective and empirical data. A physician’s prescriptive practices can be evaluated for implicit bias by observing the person’s treatment of different patients, in comparison with national prescription trends. This allows us (if there is sufficient data) to determine if unconscious blame is explanatorily potent in a particular case. (Identifying unconscious blame is easier on a population level than an individual level – that is, it is easier to determine whether a certain social group unconsciously blames another social group, than whether a certain individual unconsciously blames another individual in response to the person’s identity or group affiliation. Nonetheless, the population trends are manifestations of individual patterns of behaviour).

This is a suggested methodology for identifying unconscious blame. It does not bear on the question of whether unconscious blame is a valid construct. This question has already been settled by the discussion about the nature of emotions and judgments, which can be implicit.

  1. Fittingness constraints: Communication to whom?

Assuming that responsibility is an expressive practice, another pertinent question is: What is its appropriate target?

Strawson (1963) argued that the reactive attitudes respond to an agent’s quality of will, unless there are salient extenuating conditions. Excusing conditions mollify the reactive attitudes, rendering them less severe, whereas exempting conditions trigger a complete suspension of the reactive attitudes, and a switch to ‘the objective attitude,’ i.e., an emotionally detached, typically avoidant, stance. Adopting this stance involves treating the target as, “perhaps, an object of social policy; as a subject for what, in a wide range of sense, might be called treatment; as something certainly to be taken account, perhaps precautionary account, of; to be managed or handled or cured or trained; perhaps simply to be avoided” (1963: 66). We refuse to engage emotionally with the target in the objective stance, and we aim to exclude the person from ‘the moral community,’ the group of morally-responsive agents. This is a fitting attitude toward moral incompetents, those who are deeply or constitutionally incapable of responding to moral claims.

If the objective attitude is an emotionally detached stance, then it excludes blame, and other reactive attitudes, from its scope. The ordinary defense for this position is that blame toward moral incompetents has no point. The point of blame, many assume, is to elicit a fitting emotional reaction in the target, in response to a salient moral demand. This is its ‘conative orientation’ (or one of its dominant conative orientations, if there are several): blame solicits a fitting response from the target. This conative aspect of blame can be retrospective or prospective, or both. Sher, for instance, describes the conative orientation of blame as a desire that the wrongdoer “have responded, or that he be disposed to respond, to what we consider a compelling moral reason” (2006: 105). There is a retrospective desire that the agent have behaved otherwise, a prospective desire that he (be disposed to) respond appropriately in the future. Others see blame as not merely desiring, but demanding, a response. We can call this a ‘strongly conative’ orientation: the blamer doesn’t just wish the wrongdoer had acted otherwise, she calls for action. This strong conative orientation is required, or presupposed, by many influential theories.

McKenna, for instance, construes blame as, in effect, a request for a ‘moral account’ from the transgressor (2014). Similarly, McNamara says that blame solicits a response from the wrongdoer, and that “successful” cases of blame are those that “receive a response” (2012: 159).

Others see this constraint as only partial, or defeasible. Smith’s protest account interprets blame as “implicitly seeking a response” from the object of protest (2013: 40), consistent with Strawson and McKenna. Absent this eliciting function, blame could be “a one-sided adjustment of attitudes,” and, thus, “deeply non-relational” (41) – an unacceptable conclusion. But Smith thinks that blame can also serve another function: to register a complaint against someone’s attitude – though this might be an ‘imperfect’ or ‘incomplete’ case. McGeer similarly argues that blame can serve two functions: regulating people’s behavior, and appraising an action as wrong. Blame, then, does not necessarily solicit a response from the wrongdoer – it can serve a purely signaling function. Bell (2013), too, thinks that blame can serve goals other than appealing to the wrongdoer: it can function to motivate and educate the community and to signal one’s values to the group.

These last three views (Smith’s, McGeer’s, and Bell’s), which we can call ‘multi-functional accounts of blame’ (because they see blame as serving more than one aim), mark a departure from the Strawsonian ‘fittingness’ constraint, on which blame is fitting only if the proper target – namely, the wrongdoer – is suitably sensitive to the demand. The justification for this departure is that blame’s proper ‘target’ is not necessarily, or exclusively, the wrongdoer; rather, the target of the conative orientation of blame, which seeks a response, must be some other individual or group capable of responding appropriately (with sympathy, vicarious indignation, political activism). The ‘conative target,’ in other words, is a sensitive moral audience, those to whom the expressive act is communicated, and from whom uptake is demanded, sought, or anticipated. This condition satisfies blame’s expressive ‘point’ – it communicates with a fit respondent. That said, the wrongdoer is surely an appropriate target of blame’s emotional/cognitive contents (resentment, distrust, disapproval), for, whom else could be? If we cannot extirpate the emotional contents of blame from human psychology, they must have some target, and this must be the wrongdoer. Yet the morally incompetent wrongdoer is not an apt target for blame’s conative orientation.

This multi-directional view of blame’s ‘point’ respects the relational element of Strawson’s theory, but it expands the scope of the reactive attitudes beyond the relationship between the complainant and the accused; it recognizes that blame can be expressed to the community, in relationship with the community. The incompetent wrongdoer, however, is not completely outside of blame’s scope; this person is an apt target of blame-constitutive emotions and judgments, though not of blame’s demand for a suitable response. That is, on my interpretation, the emotional/cognitive contents of blame, on the one hand, and the conative force of blame, on the other, come apart. In separating these two elements, we can see how the conative element of blame can be fittingly addressed to an audience, in keeping with the multi-functional view.

This interpretation implies that moral incompetents are not exempt from blame in the way that Strawson envisioned; they may be exempt from blame’s conative aspect, but they are still apt targets of blame’s emotional and cognitive contents. That is, when we adopt the objective attitude toward someone, we only partially suspend the reactive attitudes; we suspend a given attitude’s conative force, but we do not suspend the attitude’s emotional and cognitive contents. We are permitted to be resentful, reproachful, and censorious toward morally incompetent wrongdoers.

This is, I think, a more realistic view of blame’s psychological profile. Do the families of psychopathic (non-responsive on many views) murder victims suspend their resentment toward the psychopath? No, but they might turn to the community and the justice system for an appropriate response to their understandable emotions. (An appropriate response would be sympathetic resentment, sequestration, and other actions that ‘take the side of’ the victims and protect the community from harm. Note that there are additional fittingness constraints on blame and punishment, such as proportionality and intelligibility, which I do not have time to address here).

The multi-functional view also calls into question McKenna’s model. If the audience can be the target of blame’s demands, then the ‘moral accounting’ stage must be expanded to include a range of fitting responses from variously situated respondents. This is because the audience is not in a position to give a ‘moral account’ (apology, explanation, restitution) on behalf of the transgressor – only the transgressor himself can do this. Thus, the ‘moral accounting’ stage must be expanded to include other types of response – vicarious resentment, collective action, and so on.

This means that we can tweak Strawson and McKenna to make them compatible with a multi-functional view, by separating the emotional/cognitive and conative elements of blame. But why should we think, all things considered, that blame can be addressed to an audience?

There are normative and descriptive reasons on offer. The descriptive reason is that (1) this is how blame actually functions, and (2) we should endorse a descriptively accurate theory. McGeer provides an evolutionary (descriptive) account of blame, on which the reactive attitude evolved as rapid and involuntary responses to perceived transgressions. (However, as ‘mentalizing creatures,’ we are capable of reflecting on and revising these responses, within limits set by evolution). These evolved responses “play a critical role in regulating behaviour by way of making salient the demands that shared norms place on our actions and attitudes” (2014: 183). They promote pro-social behaviour by ‘coding’ certain practices as wrong, and ‘signaling’ disapproval of those practices. They can serve these ‘coding’ and ‘signaling’ functions in a variety of ways: not simply by demanding a response from a transgressor, but also by demanding recognition from the community. We are constrained in how far we can suppress and alter these responses, but we can implement plans and policies to help ‘guide’ them in pro-social ways. In sum, emotions, while somewhat plaint, are an inextricable part of our blaming psychology.

Notably, even if blame does not function well in modern society compared to our early evolutionary history (more on which shortly), it remains true that emotion-laden blame is an ineradicable part of our moral psychology, though it may ‘misfire’ due to differences between modern and ancient ecologies. The direction of blame and the existence of blame are different things: while we can perhaps ‘refine’ blame to minimize its harmful effects, we cannot eliminate it.

The normative reason in favour of multi-functionalism is that blame should serve a multitude of functions, as these functions help to regulate human behaviour in positive ways. Bell points out that blame can serve a variety of (local) functions (perhaps in the service of a general, over-arching function), aside from eliciting a reaction from the transgressor; it can also educate, motivate, and register a moral complaint with, the moral community. Indeed, if we think of holding-responsible as a functional practice that serves the moral ends of the community, it is, I think, arbitrary to cut off any local aims that subserve this goal. To be effective, expressive practices must be versatile, appealing to and ‘connecting with’ as many people as possible. Any number of specific aims, then, may be compatible with the general aim of “responsibilizing” people (Pettit 2007).

Bell advances this argument as a way of defeating the view that blame is ‘positional,’ or fitting only toward those over whom we have moral authority, rooted in our relationship with the blamee (viz., Darwall 2006, Cohen 2006). Against this view, Bell claims that we can blame strangers, co-conspirators, the deceased, and (as I have urged) moral incompetents. The rationale for this departure from the ‘positional’ view is that blame is multi-functional, and not all of its functions are indexed to authority relations. We have responsibilities, not only as members of specific relationships, but “as critics” and “third parties” (2012: 265). Indeed, we witness wrongdoing every day; the fact that we may not be in a position to solicit a response from the wrongdoer does not entail that we cannot, in a meaningful sense, blame the person. Arguably, when we ignore the transgressions of moral incompetents, we make ourselves complicit in their actions.

I agree with Bell’s objection to the ‘positionality’ constraint, insofar as I agree that morally insensitive agents can be resented, distrusted, and censured, but I do not think that we thereby need to abandon the intuitive idea that the conative orientation of blame must be directed to a responsive target. While the emotional and cognitive contents of blame are fitting for the transgressor, the proper recipient for the demand for a response may very well be someone else.

If this is right, then the answer to the question, ‘who is an apt target of blame?’ is broader and more nuanced than Strawson envisioned. Moral incompetents are apt targets of blame-constitutive emotions and judgments, but not of moral demands; these demands should be addressed to a suitably sensitive audience.

  1. Functionalism: Communication to what end?

We have seen a variety of functionalist interpretations. McGeer, Bell, and Smith agree that blame’s functions include (1) registering someone’s behaviour or quality of will as morally problematic, and (2) soliciting a response from the wrongdoer or the community. I have called these views ‘multifunctional’ simply because they allow that blame can function not merely to demand a response from the wrongdoer, but to do other things as well. These theorists, however, posit distinct higher-order aims that blame is supposed to serve, under which other (subordinate) aims can be subsumed. For Bell, blame’s main function is to “resist wrongdoing” (266); for Smith, it is to protest (or “register one’s protest of”) someone’s treatment of people (27); and for McGeer, it is to enhance the moral fitness of (or ‘responsibilize’) the group. These aims overlap: protest and resistance are similar – perhaps even coextensive – concepts, and the aim of responsibilizing the group surely encompasses resisting and protesting violations, whatever else it may entail.

Rather than arbitrating which of these views is superior, in this section I will argue that each is too thin to serve as a normatively adequate theory of blame, and that any adequate theory of blame must make relational equality a priority. The reason is that our perception of wrongdoing will be distorted as long as relational inequality is the norm. If our blaming responses register, protest, or resist ‘wrongdoing’ by our lights (as they must), they will systematically miss their mark, as ‘our lights’ are coloured by the conditions of social injustice in which we live (viz. Fricker 2007, Medina 2013). Repairing relational inequality, then, must be one of our explicit aims and priorities as members of the moral community. If we do not effectively prioritize this aim, we risk blaming people in unjust and irrational ways – ways that harm marginalized groups.

Bell and Smith posit similar aims for blame (protesting and resisting wrongdoing), while McGeer thinks that blame registers offenses and responsibilizes people. I don’t doubt that blame should do these things, but in our society, it does not advance these aims effectively. This is because our perception of wrongdoing is distorted by implicit biases informed by cultural stereotypes, collectively speaking. (Individuals are biased to a greater or lesser degree depending on their social position, learning history, neurocognitive profile, etc. What follows here is a population analysis, abstracting away, for the most part, from individual perception. This analysis is compatible with the idea that some people are moral-epistemic saints, impervious to implicit bias; but, on a standpoint epistemological picture, most people’s perception will be affected by implicit biases rooted in cultural stereotypes and scripts, since individual perception reflects background epistemic conditions, or what Jose Medina calls ‘the social imagination’ [2012]).

As we saw in section 2, physicians systematically distrust and punish Black patients; educators systematically punish and sanction young Black girls; employers systematically distrust and avoid Black job applicants; the justice system systematically gives Black men harsher prison sentences. These are examples of misplaced blame – specifically, misplaced unconscious blame – in which our (collective) blaming reactions subvert their putative function(s), viz., protesting and resisting wrongdoing, and responsibilizing people. These attitudes, in effect, malfunction in current social conditions, making society worse off and less responsible. We are less responsible qua blamers, blamees, and third-party critics, as we are more mired in distorting cultural stereotypes and scripts that prevent us from discerning who objectively deserves blame (or protest or avoidance), and who does not. The more our blaming practices miss the mark, the harder it is for us to accurately perceive wrongdoing, and to differentiate morally salient qualities from morally neutral demographic attributes that happen to be stigmatized by patriarchal-colonial-cissexist culture. The more likely we are, in other words, to illicitly blame and punish members of culturally disadvantaged groups, and to illicitly praise and reward members of socially privileged groups –  to get blame wrong. Meanwhile, the underprivileged are deprived of equal access to responsibilizing institutions, such as quality education, housing, and lucrative jobs, which is an affront to their dignity as persons. This not to say that these individuals are particularly epistemically flawed, but rather, it is to emphasize that they lack access to resources that enhance responsibility – for example, safe housing in which to responsibly raise children, occupations with which to responsibly pay off one’s student loans, etc.

Because our blaming practice is systematically biased against historically disenfranchised groups, some theorists have adopted an eliminativist position, arguing that we ought to eliminate blame because it does more harm than good (Waller 2016, Levy 2012). In other words, on a descriptively accurate account, taking proper account of modern social conditions, it is accurate to say that blame serves the function of unfairly punishing and oppressing minorities. Prima facie, this is the opposite of McGeer’s evolutionary account, on which blame serves to enhance moral-group fitness. But the two views are compatible if we see McGeer as talking about blame’s function in the Paleolithic era, in which societies were more egalitarian (Dyble et al. 2015), and Waller as talking about blame in modern times, in which inequality is systemic – particularly in America, the most economically unequal developed country (Allianz 2016). Perhaps blame’s evolved function has been co-opted by wealthy colonial-patriarchal-cissexistto advance the material and political interests of the elite. If so, then blame no longer serves its evolved function; it serves a man-made function: to promote and reinforce modern asymmetries of power.

I think that something like this story is right, but I agree with McGeer that blame is a canonical feature of human moral psychology, not something that we can eliminate, though we can ‘domesticate it’ with social engineering and careful planning. So, eliminativism is not a viable option, pace Waller. I also think that partially eliminating blame would be a mistake, as it would prevent us from responding sensitively to the suffering of the oppressed – something that we cannot and should not do. Since, on the most optimistic projection, we will not eliminate global inequality in our lifetime (indeed, income inequality in America is steadily growing (Saez 2016)) – it would be wrong, and probably psychologically impossibly, to completely suspend the reactive attitudes. It would be wrong because the detachment involved in a full suspension of the reactive attitudes would constitute callous indifference to the suffering of the oppressed; and achieving this state is most likely psychologically impossible, in any case, because we are not, as McGeer drives home, the kind of creatures who can sustain indifference in the face of undeserved suffering (with the exception of psychopaths). When we see a starving child, we feel both sympathy for the child and outrage against the person or people responsible for the child’s plight. This is how we are built.

Eliminativism also faces an aggregation problem, since not everyone can be expected to endorse it as a policy, and if only a few conscientious eliminativists suspended their blame (assuming this were possible), this would take the pressure of public condemnation off the worst offenders.

Rather than eliminating blame, I agree with McGeer that we should try to domesticate it, and I submit that this domesticating project involves promoting ‘relational equality,’ or equality of “authority, esteem, and standing” (Anderson 2015: 65). The reason is that equality is a prerequisite to holding people responsible in a fair and rational manner, given that inequality creates stereotypes and pernicious social scripts that impair our ability to recognize wrongdoing. Specifically, inequality creates implicit biases that prevent us, as a society, from distinguishing ‘wrong’ from ‘stigmatized,’ ‘blameworthy’ from ‘socially marginalized.’ Thus, relational equality must be an explicit aim, or end, of our blaming practice. This does not preclude the aims of protesting and resisting wrongdoing and registering wrongdoing, but it is temporally prior to the effective (perfect) attainment of these ends: if we do not eliminate inequality-based biases, we cannot accurately perceive people’s morally salient qualities and accurately determine who warrants blame. We do not need to completely eliminate inequality prior to blaming, but we must reduce the influence of inequality on our blaming practice if blame is to hit its mark every time.

I say ‘relational equality’ because I have been describing blame as a relational practice (between blamer and blamee, or blamer and society, or some combination of these), and relational equality, as envisioned by Elizabeth Anderson, is also a relational notion: it seeks to promote fair and equitable interactions across a variety of humanly-valuable dimensions. In particular, relational equality entails not only equality of resources, but also equality of epistemic and moral standing, esteem, and regard. To blame people fairly, we must blame them in a way befitting their (objective) moral and epistemic standing – a way that enhances relational equality. When we blame people on the basis of implicit bias, we unfairly morally disdain them; we treat them as morally and epistemically ‘beneath us.’ When we avoid, ostracize, or exclude people for no good reason, we treat them as morally unworthy of our interest, attention, and cooperation; we take ‘the objective attitude’ toward them without warrant, twisting it into a tool of objectification and marginalization. These misguided (but common) blaming practices are based on, and partly constituted by, relationships of unequal epistemic and moral standing. Notably, Anderson’s view is a response to classic egalitarian theories, which focus on distributing resources fairly, but which tend to treat the recipients with an attitude of “contemptuous pity” (Anderson 2000: 6), characterizing them as irresponsible, lazy, and poorly endowed. Anderson argues that the point of egalitarianism should be to allocate goods in the spirit of respect for human dignity, not to transfer funds from the ‘responsible’ to the ‘irresponsible,’ ‘lazy,’ and ‘pitiable’ – that is, she rejects the premise of classic egalitarian reasoning. I am suggesting that this should also be the guiding aim of blame: to distribute moral and epistemic regard fairly, so as to respect the objective moral and epistemic qualities of members of the moral community. Enhancing relational equality and enhancing the rationality of our blaming practice, on this view, go hand in hand.

Although I have been focusing on population-level blaming practices, the goal of enhancing relational equality can, and should, be implemented on both a personal and an institutional level. Individuals can take steps to try to mitigate their implicit biases, and institutions and governments can implement policies to reduce the adverse effects of implicit bias on the common good. As I have discussed these approaches elsewhere, I will not elaborate here, except to note that I believe that individuals should try to cultivate epistemic virtues (Fricker 2007) and vigilance (Murray 2017) to the greatest extent possible, while institutions and government should implement epistemically responsible protocols (Longing 2008). Even if the institutional approach is more efficacious (as McGeer [2013] suggests), the first method is indispensable, given that fully responsible social institutions are not on the horizon. While we are waiting for effective social engineering policies to come into effect, we should work on our own moral character.

  1. Conclusions

I have argued that blame functions to express emotional and cognitive states to the wrongdoer, but its demands are properly addressed to a suitably sensitive audience. Blame can be expressed unconsciously, as evidenced by neurocognitive, psychological, and sociological data. Because expressive blame as a dispositional response is influenced by implicit biases and other morally-irrelevant situational factors, we should strive to blame people in a way that enhances relational equality, or equality of standing, authority, and esteem. Thus, a prerequisite for rational blame, and one of its proper aims, must be relational equality. This might sound circular, but the same can be said of the heart: pumping oxygenated blood throughout the body is a prerequisite for a fit heart, and this is also the heart’s function. Similarly, relational equality is a prerequisite for a fit blaming practice, and it is also the function (or one of the utmost functions) of this practice. A fit moral community, in which people hold each other responsible on fair and rational grounds, aims to promote relational equality, and the more they do this, the closer they get to this aim.

[1] Distrust is a reactive attitude on McGeer’s view (2008).


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 evaluation, whether moral, epistemic, or practical. People who excel in these capacities, particularly in the face of adversity, are praiseworthy, epistemically virtuous, or self-efficacious. They deserve laudatory treatment. These exceptional individuals, too, are capable of having functional relationships and achieving worthy goals, and for this reason, they are likely to enjoy higher wellbeing than those who lack these dimensions of human agency. These are people we want to invest in because they are reliable, versatile, and responsive to facts.

These three capacities are interrelated in that they all function to bring about a positive achievement – a positive goal or outcome – and a deficit in any one facet could undermine the attainment of this goal or outcome, as well as the cultivation of the other facets. For example, if Jeff the Jerk is antisocial, he may also be sexist, because in a patriarchal society it is easier to be selectively antisocial to vulnerable groups like women, and to harass and discriminate against precisely those groups. If Jeff is epistemically insensitive to women’s credibility, he is not only epistemically flawed, but also morally flawed (sexist, misogynistic). If Jeff is a CEO who wants to run his company effectively, but he discounts feedback from women due to epistemic insensitivity (an epistemic flaw) or sexism (a moral-epistemic flaw), he is going to discount valuable perspectives in corporate decision-making, undermining his own pragmatic goals as CEO (see Sandra Harding 2015 on the collective effects of ignorance). While a person can be good but epistemically flawed, like Huck Finn (see Arpaly 2016), epistemic sensitivity makes moral sensitivity more likely and more robust across circumstances and time. If Huck Finn had rebuked slavery (instead of thinking it was justified), he would have been disposed to act appropriately in response to all African Americans, not just his friend Jim. He helped Jim, which was virtuous on Nomy Arpaly’s view, but how would he have responded to other enslaved persons, with whom he had no prior acquaintance? Epistemic sensitivity seems to reinforce moral virtue, and vice versa. People who care about morality are more likely to care about how their epistemic profile affects oppressed groups, and how their epistemic deficits could potentially be remediated (e.g., by education, exposure to countersterotypical exemplars, the adoption of evidence-based policies, etc.). And epistemically flawed people are likely to treat marginalized groups in immoral ways because they don’t care to cultivate epistemic virtues. Furthermore, morally and epistemically irresponsible people will be poor at achieving their pragmatic goals just in case they discount evidence or distrust experts and knowledgeable people on prejudiced grounds. Clearly, those with volitional deficits (e.g., low self-efficacy) will be poor at initiating and executing morally and epistemically responsible plans, just because they are poor at executing any plans. In this way, the three salient dimensions of responsibility are deeply intertwined.

The upshot is that people who are strong in one facet of responsibility are likely to be strong in all facets, and a deficit in one facet is likely to impair the others. This is something akin to Socrates’ ‘unity of the virtues’ thesis, but applied to dimensions of responsibility. Yet it is weaker than Socrates’ thesis, because it only claims that each dimension makes the others more robust, or more resilient across different circumstances, not that each dimension is a necessary prerequisite for the others. A person could be morally responsible in one domain without epistemic or pragmatic responsibility, but in an unfamiliar situation, epistemic sensitivity to the demands of the situation and self-efficacy could serve to enhance moral responsibility. For example, I might be morally upstanding in my day-to-day life, but if I were to move to a different country with radically different cultural norms, I would have to learn the ropes pretty quickly to avoid committing unintentional norm violations. Jeff might have grown up in a culture infused with toxic masculinity, but he had better pay attention to changing cultural standards if he wants to avoid committing workplace harassment, and he should apologize for past transgressions. In both cases, the agent has to update his epistemic profile to respond sensitivity to accessible moral norms. In this way, heightened sensitivity across each dimension of agency enhances the robustness of the other aspects.

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

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

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

Further, responsibility on a social cognition model is a biopsychosocial capacity, sensitive to situational factors. Thus, while it can be impaired by ACEs, it can also be remediated by trauma-informed interventions, such as CBT, heathy relationships, community support, affordable housing, and so on. These interventions can enhance responsibility, and thus relational competency. When people experience responsibility deficits because of misfortune or injustice, they are entitled to community support and public health resources.

But people with functional childhoods and privileged lives can also have significant responsibility deficits. For example, many privileged white people with no history of trauma are high in implicit bias, and implicit bias can motivate prejudiced behaviour. This behaviour is unethical, and it can also have adverse epistemic consequences, such as prompting the hiring of unqualified white candidates (see Bertran & Mullainathan 2013); and it can have adverse pragmatic consequences, such as undermining corporate decision-making. (This is not to say that all privileged white people are high in implicit bias, but white people show higher implicit racial bias than other groups on the Project Implicit IAT, and they benefit from implicit bias against people of color, which creates de facto affirmative action for white people). Moreover, many privileged people also have explicit biases, whether due to ill will or indifference to the interests of disadvantaged groups. These biases similarly cause or constitute moral, epistemic, and pragmatic deficits, undermining the attainment of relevant goals. Unlike the role of ACEs, however, motivated irrationality and moral indifference are not public health problems that call for rehabilitative interventions. The government should intervene to reduce the prevalence of implicit bias in our social institutions (see Hurley 2006), but this is not because privileged people deserve public resources; it is because disadvantaged people do.

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

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

These claims highlight important considerations, but they fall short of providing a systematic method for attributing blame and praise. I propose the following framework, which fits with the above impressions: blame and praise should serve the purpose of enhancing relations of equality (see Elizabeth Anderson 2013), and thus, of undermining oppression. This provides a way of systematizing our impressions across cases. Victims of ACEs are victims of a type of oppression—traumatic experiences and/or poverty—and to blame them, instead of their oppressors, may serve to reinforce systemic injustice, particularly if this is part of a broader victim-blaming narrative. Offering rehabilitative interventions, by contrast, may enhance the recipient’s ability to participate fully in relations of equal standing, esteem, and authority with others, if these interventions enhance the person’s responsibility. Privileged people who lack responsibility, on the contrary, have more than their fair share of status, respect, and resources, and may be insensitive to rehabilitative interventions, making blame the fitting response. A blaming response may also serve to condemn their role in hierarchies of oppression and alert others to their motivational deficits, contributing to an egalitarian social narrative, and protecting potential victims from their vicious behaviour. The role of praise and blame in these cases supports egalitarian aims, and this is what justifies its differential deployment.

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

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


Responsibility & Relational Equality

I now hold a different, albeit still consequentialist, view of responsibility. I argue that praise and blame should enhance relational equality (not just ‘agency’).


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.