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 reaction, triggered in 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 should 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 psychologically realistic.

Moreover, eve if blame is ideally unemotional, it is, in reality, 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 traits, lexical mannerisms, and visible attributes of our conversational partners.

This is already an important departure from the idealized picture of blame as a rational and impartial normative 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 because care-taking is coded as feminine). To this day, the speech of historically disenfranchised groups is not given the same credit as the speech of cisgender white men on average (meaning across a broad range of contexts) (Fricker 2007). These biases are the root of “mansplaining” (Sonit 2012), “whitsplaining,” and other communicative practices in which the same speech content is more valued when expressed by the “ideal speaker” according to cultural schemas or stereotypes (Valian 1999). 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 and epistemic 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 doesn’t mean that every member of each social group fits the operant generalization, but these generalizations point to significant social trends – trends that tell us something about how responsibility is distributed across and amongst social groups.

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 often 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 empathy 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 empathy 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. Like compassion, empathy may justify a mollification of ordinary 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, perspective taking, which is a component in empathy, predicts a respondents’ tendency to assign guilt to a defendant in a sexual harassment case, and to rate the defendant’s behaviour high in severity, pervasiveness, and unwelcomeness (Zimmerman & Myers 2013). This partly explains why women (higher in perspective-taking) make harsher sexual harassment judgments than men (ibid.). Rape-myth acceptance (or acceptance of stereotypes about rape victims) and respondent gender are also known to influence judgments of rape cases (Sussenbach et al. 2016), though gender might be a heuristic for empathy. This suggests that empathy and rape-myth acceptance interact, probably implicitly (ibid)., to influence judgments of guilt in sexual harassment cases.

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 he 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 effectuate a fairer distribution between privileged groups and historically disenfranchised groups, and we should encourage 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 banishing it from social life altogether, since the two are deeply imbricated; moral judgments are principally judgments about our relationships to other people: what we owe others, how we should treat them, etc. So if we excise empathy, perhaps we will lose the motivation to care for others. Still, the cultivation of “rational compassion” could perhaps mediate empathy in positive ways, in which case rational compassion and empathic recalibration would be complementary approaches. Perhaps we should temper empathy with rational compassion.

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


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.

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


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

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

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

Quasi-Group Agency: Chains of Actors

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


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


  1. Introduction


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


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


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


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


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


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


  1. Chains of actors


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


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


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


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


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


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

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


  1. Conditions of quasi-group agency

What is a group agent?


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


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


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


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


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


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

(2011: 33)


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


  1. Beneficial groups: The nascent civil rights movement


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


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


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


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


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


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


  1. Black Lives Matter: Early stages


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

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


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


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


  1. Malignant chains: Rape Culture


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


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


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


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


  1. Rape culture as a subculture


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


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


  1. Implicit rape-myth acceptance


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


  1. Why posit quasi-group agency?


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


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


7.1 Ontological:


  • The evolution of group agents & shared motives


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


  • Shared uncoordinated motives


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


  • The Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE)


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


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


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


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


  • Normative (Responsibility)


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


  1. Concluding remarks


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




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

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

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

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

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

Responsibility, Epistemic Confidence, and Trust


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

Moral enhancements 2


In my last post on moral enhancements, I considered whether there is a duty to enhance oneself and others, and correspondingly, whether one can be blameworthy for failing to fulfil this duty. I said that this is a complicated question, but it depends to a great extent on whether the intervention is susceptible of prior informed consent, which in turns hangs on whether there are likely to be unknown (especially potentially adverse) side-effects.

Here, I want to consider whether intended moral enhancements – those intended to induce pro-moral effects – can, somewhat paradoxically, undermine responsibility. I say ‘intended’ because, as we saw, moral interventions can have unintended (even counter-moral) consequences. This can happen for any number of reasons: the intervener can be wrong about what morality requires (imagine a Nazi intervener thinking that anti-Semitism is a pro-moral trait); the intervention can malfunction over time; the intervention can produce traits that are moral in one context but counter-moral in another (which seems likely, given that traits are highly context-sensitive, as I mentioned earlier); and so on – I won’t give a complete list. Even extant psychoactive drugs – which can count as a type of passive intervention – typically come with adverse side-effects; but the risk of unintended side-effects for futuristic interventions of a moral nature is substantially greater and more worrisome, because the technology is new, it operates on complicated cognitive structures, and it specifically operates on those structures constitutive of a person’s moral personality. Since intended moral interventions do not always produce their intended effects (pro-moral effects), I’ll discuss these interventions under two guises: interventions that go as planned and induce pro-moral traits (effective cases), and interventions that go awry (ineffective cases). I’ll also focus on the most controversial case of passive intervention: involuntary intervention, without informed consent.

One of my reasons for wanting to home on this type of case is that there is already a pretty substantial body of literature on passive non-consensual interventions, or ‘manipulation cases,’ in which a futuristic neuroscientist induces certain motives or motivational structures in a passive victim. We can tweak these examples to make the interventions unambiguously moral (the intervener is tampering with the victim’s moral personality), to derive conclusions about passive moral interventions and how they effect responsibility. My analysis isn’t going to be completely derivative on the manipulation cases, however, because theorists differ in their interpretations of these cases, and specifically on whether the post-manipulation agent is responsible for her induced traits and behaviours. I want to offer a new gloss on these cases (at least, compared to those I will consider here), and argue that the victim’s responsibility typically increases post-manipulation, as the agent gains authentic moral traits and capacities by the operation of her own motivational structures. (Except in the case of single-choice induction, where there are no long-term effects). I will also say some words on the responsibility status of the intervening neuroscientist.

I’m going to assess three kinds of case, each of which we can find in the literature. First, Frankfurt-type cases (in fact, Frankfurt’s original case), in which an intervener induces a single choice. Second, ‘global manipulation’ cases like Alfred Mele’s (2010), in which an intervener implants a whole new moral personality. And finally, partial manipulation cases, in which the intervener replaces part (let’s say half) of a person’s moral personality. I’m not aware of philosophical ‘partial manipulation’ cases per se, but there have been discussions of partial personality breakdowns, as in (e.g.) split-brain patients, which we can use as illustrative examples. Partial manipulation cases are like that, only instead of generic cognitive deficits that impair performance, there are moral deficits (due to internal conflict) that may undermine the agent’s ability to make and carry out moral plans.

Let’s consider each of these manipulation cases in turn.

1. Induced choice (minimal manipulation)

In the original Frankfurt-type case (1979), a futuristic neuroscientist named Black secretly implants a counterfactual device in Jones’ brain, which would compel Jones to vote for a certain political candidate if he were to choose otherwise, but the device is never activated. It’s causally inert, so it doesn’t affect Jones’ responsibility status, according to Frankfurt. (Jones is responsible because he acts on his own decisive desire). This example has to be modified to fit our purposes. First, let’s imagine that the implant is casually efficacious as opposed to merely counterfactual, as this is a more interesting kind of case. And second, let’s suppose that the intervention is designed to induce a moral effect – say, to make Jones donate to charity. Finally, let’s consider two types of case – one in which the intervention produces the intended effect, and one in which it produces a counter-moral effect.

I’ll assess these cases after discussing global and partial manipulation scenarios.

2. Global manipulation 

Alfred Mele (2006) offers a case of ‘global manipulation,’ in which a person’s entire motivational system is changed. He asks us to imagine two philosophy professors, Anne and Beth, and to suppose that Anne is more dedicated to the discipline whereas Beth is more laid back. The Dean wants Beth to be more productive so he hires a futuristic neuroscientist to implant Anne’s values in Beth, making her Anne’s psychological double. Is Beth responsible for her new psychological profile and downstream behaviours? According to Mele, no, because Beth’s new values are practically unsheddable: they cannot be disavowed or attenuated under anything but extraordinary circumstances (e.g., a second neuroscientific intervention). That is, Beth lacks control over her implanted values.

This is again not obviously a moral example, so let’s imagine that Anne is a saintly person and Beth is a jerk, and the Dean doesn’t like working with jerks, so he hires a futuristic neuroscientist to implant Anne’s saintly values in Beth. The intervention works and Beth becomes Anne’s saintly doppelgänger. This is a moral intervention and it’s a causally efficacious one. In this example, Beth’s moral personality is radically transformed.

If Mele is right, Beth is not responsible for her saintly values (and downstream behaviours) because these values are practically unsheddable. There are two natural ways of explaining this judgment. (1) Beth lacks control over her new values because they are firmly inalterable (Mele’s explanation). And (2) Beth is no longer herself – she has become someone else (Haji’s preferred explanation [2010]). These interpretations exemplify the control view and the character view – competing views in the literature that I described earlier. But in this case they converge on the same conclusion – Beth is not responsible – though they provide different (albeit overlapping) grounds. On one account, Beth lacks control over her desires, and on the other, her desires are not authentic, because they did not emerge through a process of continuous reflective deliberation (diachronic control). The two criteria are related, but come apart (as Mele emphasises [2006]): we can imagine implanted desires that are susceptible to revision but not the agent’s ‘own’; and we can imagine authentic desires that are relatively fixed and impervious to control (e.g., think of Martin Luther King saying, ‘Here I stand; I can do no other’). Yet on a historical picture of control, the two conditions substantively overlap: a person’s mental states are not authentic if they were not amenable to continuous reflective deliberation. At least, this is the case for passive intervention cases, which we are considering here. If we consider a third account of responsibility – Vargas’ agency cultivation model (2013) – we find still more convergence: it’s typically not agency-enhancing to hold someone responsible if she lacked diachronic control and wasn’t herself at a particular point in time. These accounts do not always converge, but in the case of passive intervention, there is substantive agreement. So, conveniently, we don’t need to arbitrate them. Yet there is still room for debate about whether a manipulation victim is responsible on any of these pictures, since there is room for debate about how to treat this person. Vargas holds that a post-intervention agent is responsible for her behaviour, but is a new person, contra Haji and Mele.

I’ll return to this question after considering a third case: partial manipulation.

3. Partial manipulation

Imagine that instead of implanting Anne’s values in Beth, making her Anne’s double, the manipulator had only implanted half of Anne’s values, or a substantial portion, leaving part of Beth’s personality intact. This is a partial manipulation case. Now Beth is internally fragmented. She has some saintly desires, but she also has a lot of non-saintly desires. Is she responsible for only her pre-implantation desires, or also for her post-implantation desires, or none of her desires (and downstream effects)? This is a more complicated scenario (not that the other two are simple!) We can perhaps compare this situation to neurocognitive disorders that involve internal fragmentation, which have also drawn attention from responsibility theorists – examples like psychosis, alien hand syndrome, and split-brain (callosotomy) patients. Perhaps by assessing whether these individuals are responsible (to any degree), we can determine whether partial-manipulation subjects are responsible. (Spit-brain surgery, which partially or wholly divides the two hemisphere down the corpus callosum, induces a similar split-personality effect).

Let’s look at these cases separately, beginning with global manipulation.


  1. Global

If Mele is right, then Beth is not responsible in the global manipulation case because she lacked control, and if Haji is right, she is not responsible because she lacked authenticity. These accounts have some degree of intuitive plausibility, surely. But Vargas (2013) offers a different interpretation. Vargas suggests that we should see post-global-manipulation agents as different people, but responsible people. So post-manipulation Beth is Beth2, and she is responsible for any actions that satisfy relevant conditions of responsibility for her. (Vargas’ preferred condition is a consequentialist one, but we can remain neutral). Since Beth2 can control her post-intervention desires (as much as any normal person), and they reflect her character, and it seems efficient to hold Beth2 responsible for these actions, we ought to regard her as responsible. Beth, on the other hand, is dead, and responsible for nothing. This view, it must be admitted, also has a degree of plausibility. But it seems to ignore the fact that Beth2, in very significant ways, is not like the rest of us.

I’m going to suggest a middle-of-the-road view, and it’s a view that emerges from a focus on how we become moral agents – a historical view. It is somewhat indebted to Haji’s [2010] analysis of psychopaths, who, somewhat like Beth2, have peculiar personal histories. According to Haji, psychopaths are not responsible agents because, unlike ordinary people, from childhood onward they lack the capacity to respond to reason due to myriad cognitive deficits (which we do not need to get into here). Children are not (full) moral agents: they lack certain rational capacities, yet they have certain emotional capacities that psychopaths lack, which allows to them to pass the moral/conventional distinction, at least from 5-years-old onward. Still, their rational deficits impair their moral agency. It is not only psychopaths who lack moral agency: Haji suggests that anyone who is barred from acquiring moral competency from childhood (due to congenital or involuntarily acquired deficits) is not a moral agent (a ‘normative agent,’ in his terms), because such people are, in effect, still children. (This includes severely neglected and abused children who develop psychopathic traits not of their own choosing). These individuals lack control over their motives, as well as anything that could be called a moral personality. If we want to say that children are not full moral agents, we must grant that these individuals, who suffer from arrested moral development, also are not full moral agents.

Now consider Beth2, who has been globally manipulated to have a different moral personality. Beth2 has zero (authentic) personal history. She is, in this respect, like Davidson’s ‘swamp-person’ (though different in other salient respects) – she emerges ex nihilo, fully formed. In lacking a personal history, Beth2 is like a newborn baby – a paradigm case of non-responsibility. Yet unlike the newborn baby, Beth has intact moral capacities, albeit not her own moral capacities – they were implanted. Beth2, then, is not responsible in either an authenticity sense or a diachronic control sense. Nonetheless, her extant moral capacities (though not her own) allow her to reflect on her motivational set, explore the world, interact with other people, and live a relatively normal life after the intervention. In this regard, Beth2 differs from psychopaths, who can never acquire such capacities, and are in a permanent baby-fied state, morally speaking. Moreover, as time goes by, Beth3 will become increasingly different from Amy, warranting the judgment that Beth3 is a separate person – her own person. So over time, it becomes more and more reasonable to say that Beth3 is an independent moral agent with her own moral personality. Although Beth3 cannot completely overhaul her motivational system, she can make piecemeal changes over time, and these changes are attributable to her own choices and experiences.

With this in mind, I submit that we treat Beth2 as not responsible immediately post-intervention (since she lacks any authentic motives at that time), but increasingly responsible thereafter (since she has the capacity to acquire authentic moral motives and capacities over time, unlike psychopaths). This doesn’t mean that Beth2 will ever be as responsible as an ordinary (non-manipulated) person, but she is certainly more responsible than newborn babies and psychopaths, and increasingly responsible over time.

Another problem with saying that Beth2 is fully responsible for her post-manipulation behaviour is that this leaves no room for saying that the clandestine manipulator – the Dean or the futuristic neuroscientist or whoever – is responsible for Beth2’s behaviour, especially in the case that the moral intervention goes wrong and induces counter-moral effects.

Suppose that Beth2 goes on a killing spree immediately after being manipulated: is she responsible for this effect? Surely the intervener is to blame. One could say, like Frankfurt (1979), that two people can be fully responsible for a certain action, but this seems like a problematic case of overdetermination. Surely blame must be distributed, or displaced onto the one who preempted the effects. Indeed, Frankfurt’s proposal doesn’t fit with how we ordinarily treat coercion. Consider entrapment: if a law enforcement agent induces someone to commit a crime, the officer is responsible, not the victim. This might be because the victim lacked adequate control (due to coercion), acted against character, or because it’s not useful to blame victims – entrapment fits with all of these explanations. Shoemaker seems to appeal to the last consideration when he says of entrapment, we blame the public official and not the victim because “we think the government shouldn’t be in the business of encouraging crime” (1987: 311) – that is, we don’t want to encourage government corruption. But Shoemaker also appeals to fairness, which is tied to control and character: it’s not fair to blame victims who lacked sufficient control or weren’t themselves when they acted (which is also why it’s not useful to blame them). So on any standard criterion of responsibility, it’s not clear why we would blame a manipulation victim.

Now, suppose that the intervention worked and the Dean makes Beth2 a moral saint. If I am right, Beth2 isn’t praiseworthy for the immediate effects of the intervention because they’re not her own (on various construals). The intervener’s moral status is more complicated. While he might seem prima facie praiseworthy for Beth’s pro-moral traits, we also have to consider the fact that he’s patently blameworthy for intervening without informed consent or any semblance of due process (viz. decisional incapacity protocols), and this might vitiate or cancel out his prima facie praiseworthiness. If we consider praise and blame as competing attitudes, it makes sense to see the Dean as blameworthy on balance.

2. Partial

Next, let’s consider a partial manipulation case. Let’s s imagine that the Dean replaces half of Beth’s personality with Anne’s, creating Beth3. This is trickier than the global manipulation case inasmuch as Beth3 has some authentic mental states, but they are in competition with implanted states that are not her own. So we can’t say that Beth3 lacks authenticity or diachronic control entirely, yet she is deficient in both respects compared to an ordinary person. We might compare Beth3 to examples of neurocognitive disorders that cause internal fragmentation, such as alien hand syndrome and split-brain effects, which have attracted a lot of philosophical interest. These subjects have ‘alien’ motives like Beth3, but unlike split-brain patients, Beth2 can presumable enhance her control and motivational congruence over time – assuming that none of her implanted states are pathological. So Beth is somewhere between split-brain patients and non-pathological individuals.

There are three ways that we can go in assessing Beth3’s responsibility. (1) We can hold that Beth3 is not responsible (period) because she has insufficient control and insufficient depth of character to ground responsibility. (2) We can say that Beth3 is actually two agents, not one, and each agent is responsible for its own motives and downstream behaviours. King and Carruthers (2012) seem to suggest that, if responsibility exists (on which they seem unsure), commisurotomy patients and alien hand patients must be responsible for their aberrant behaviours, since the former have two “unified and integrated” personalities (205), and alien-hand gestures reflect a person’s attitudes, albeit unconscious ones. Furthermore, they think that consciousness cannot be a requirement of responsibility since most motives aren’t conscious anyways. If this is right, then perhaps Beth2 is two people, each responsible for ‘her’ own motives. This, to me, seems impossibly impracticable, because we can only address responsibility attributions to one self-contained agent. We cannot try to reason with one side of Beth3’s personality at a time, because Beth3 doesn’t experience herself as two people. She won’t respond to targeted praise and blame, aimed at adjacent but interconnected motivational hierarchies. And she might even find this kind of moral address baffling and/or offensive. So this won’t do, practically speaking. But there’s also a good case to be made that commisurotomy patients and the like lack control and character in the normal sense, given that they have significant cognitive deficits. So it’s reasonable to see them as impaired in their responsibility compared to cognitively normal people. And likewise for Beth3.

This leads to the third possibility, which I favour: the middle-of-the-road proposal. Beth3 is somewhat responsible immediately after implantation, and increasingly responsible thereafter. This is because Beth3 is subject to control-undermining motivational conflict and disorientation following the clandestine intervention, but she nonetheless has some intact moral (relevant rational, emotional, and motivational) capacities, which differentiate her from the psychopath, and which should allow her to regain psychological congruence over time, enhancing her control and authenticity. So Beth3 should be seen as increasingly responsible over time (under ordinary circumstances). That said, she will likely never be as responsible as someone who had an ordinary learning history, since most people never suffer from this degree of fragmentation. So she may have relatively diminished responsibility for a long time, even if she becomes more apt for praise and blame.

Once again, this analysis can be applied to effective interventions and ineffective ones. If Beth3 acquires pro-moral traits (as per the Dean’s intention), she is not immediately responsible for them, but she gains responsibility for any induced traits that persist and amplify over time – indeed, for all of her post-intervention traits. Regarding the intervener, he is not necessarily praiseworthy for the pro-moral effects of the intervention, inasmuch as he might be blameworthy for intervening without consent or due process, and this might outweigh any praise that he might otherwise warrant.

Worse still, if the Dean inadvertently implants counter-moral traits in Beth3, he is blameworthy for intervening without consent as well as the effects of the botched intervention.

3. Minimal

Finally, let’s consider the induced-choice subject. Call her Beth4. Suppose that Beth4 has been inculcated with a desire to give to charity, and she acts on this desire. (Note: presumably to be causally efficacious a desire must be combined with a supporting motivational structure, but for simplicity I’ll refer to this bundle, following Frankfurt’s example, simply as a desire. Assume than an induced desire comes with supporting motivational states). Is Beth4 praiseworthy? On my view, no, because her desire is not her own. But the intervener also is not praiseworthy, insofar as he is blameworthy for intervening without consent or due process, which (I think) cancels out the import of of any good intentions he may have had. (The road to hell is paved with good intentions, as they say). (Note that I am construing praise and blame as competing reactive attitudes; other people hold alternative conceptions of ‘responsibility,’ which I will conveniently ignore).

Next, suppose that the Dean intends to induce a pro-moral choice in Beth4, but inadvertently induces her to commit a murder. The Dean, I think, is blameworthy for the murder, because he is responsible for implanting the relevant desire in Beth4 without her consent. This can be construed as an omission case, in which the Dean was ignorant of the likely consequences of his choice, but is responsible because he failed to exercise proper discretion. (Compare this to Sher’s [2010] example of a soldier who falls asleep on duty; the Dean failed in his duties as a person, a citizen, a Dean… he failed on many levels. He is, as it were, a spectacular failure as a moral agent). The Dean acted in character, and on a suitably reasons-responsive mechanism, when he chose to surgically intervene on Beth4 without her consent, and he bears responsibility for this infraction and the fallout of his choice.



Moral enhancements & moral responsibility


I’m going to write a somewhat lengthy but off-the-cuff entry on moral enhancements, because I have to present something on them soon, in Portugal.

I’m going to write about (1) moral enhancement and moral responsibility, and how these things intersect (we might be responsible for failing to use moral interventions); (2) the possibility of duties to enhance oneself and others, and (3) passive moral interventions – the most controversial type – and whether we have a duty to use, submit to, or administer them.

A qualification: I don’t know very much about moral enhancement, so this is going to be a bit sketchy.

Moral enhancements and moral responsibility

Here’s what I know. A ‘moral enhancement’ is a “deliberate intervention [that] aims to improve an existing capacity that almost all human beings typically have, or to create a new capacity” (Buchanan 2011: 23). These interventions can be traditional (e.g., education and therapy), or neuroscientific (e.g., biomedical and biotechnological interventions). The latter are more controversial for various reasons. Examples include transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), deep brain stimulation (DBS), and psychoactive drugs, along with futuristic ‘Clockwork Orange’-type methods that we can only imagine. (Typical science fiction examples are dystopic, but we shouldn’t let this prejudice the discussion). These enhancements are moral insofar as they aim to enhance the subject’s moral-cognitive capacities, howsoever construed. (I’ll leave this vague).

Some philosophers hold that the distinction between traditional and modern interventions is that one is ‘direct’ while the other is ‘indirect’: TMS, for instance, directly stimulates the brain with electric currents, whereas education ‘indirectly’ influences cognitive processing. Focquaert and Schermer argue that the distinction is better characterised as one between ‘active’ and ‘passive’ interventions: traditional interventions typically require ‘active participation’ on behalf of the subject, whereas neuroscientific interventions work ‘by themselves’ (2015: 140-141). More precisely, passive interventions work quickly and relatively unconsciously, bypassing reflective deliberation. The authors acknowledge that this is a rough and imperfect distinction, and that interventions lie on a continuum; but they think that this distinction nicely captures a normative difference between the two methods. Passive interventions, they say, pose a disproportionate threat to autonomy and identity because (1) they limit continuous rational reflection and autonomous choice, (2) they may cause abrupt narrative identity changes, and (3) they may cause concealed narrative identity changes. These effects undermine the agent’s sense of self, causing self-alienation and subjective distress (2011: 145-147).

For this reason, the authors recommend that we introduce safeguards to minimise the negative effects of passive intervention – safeguards like informed consent and pre- and post-intervneiton counselling, which help subjects integrate their newfound moral capacities into their moral personality, or come to terms with their new moral personality, in case of radical transformation. So although passive interventions have a higher threshold of justification, they can be justified if their adverse effects are managed and minimised.

(Some objections to this view, with responses, can be found here).

Now for a few words on moral responsibility. In earlier posts, I’ve discussed three models of responsibility, two backward-looking (character and control theory) and one forward-looking (the agency-cultivation model). These theories have something in common: they hold agents responsible (blameworthy) for omissions. On character theory, we are responsible for failing to act virtuously, if a reasonable person would have done better in our circumstances (see Sher 2010). So someone can be blameworthy for forgetting about her friend’s birthday. On control theory, we are ‘indirectly’ responsible for failures to exercise reasons-responsiveness responsibly, in accordance with people’s ‘reasonable’ expectations. As Levy remarks when discussing ‘indirect’ responsibility for implicit bias, a person can be “be fully morally responsible for [a] behaviour [resulting from implicit bias], because it was reasonable to expect her to try to change her implicit attitudes prior to t” (2014; see also Holroyd 2012). Since we can be responsible for omissions on both models, it stands to reason that we can be responsible for failures to enhance our moral agency, if this is what a reasonable person would have done or expected of us in the circumstances. In fact, remediating measures for implicit bias can be seen as ‘moral enhancements,’ though they are closer to education than biomedical interventions. But the point is that there are grounds for blaming someone for eschewing moral enhancements of either type – active or passive – depending on the particularities of the case.

On the agency-cultivation model (ACM), it’s even more obvious that a person might be blameworthy for failing to use moral interventions, since blame functions to enhance moral agency. If blaming someone for not using a moral intervention would entice the person to use it, thus enhancing the person’s agency, blame is a fitting response. And if forcibly administering the intervention would enhance the person’s agency, this might be fitting, too.

All of these theories as I have presented them invite questions about when blame for failing to use moral enhancements, or for using them inappropriately, is apt. But this leads somewhat away from responsibility (as an agential capacity or cluster of traits that warrant blame and praise), to the domain of duties: from the question of what we are responsible for, to what we are responsible to do. These two things are related insofar as we can be responsible (blameworthy) for omitting to fulfil our responsibilities (duties) on all three models. But they are distinct enough that they necessitate separate treatments. First we figure out what our duty is, and then we determine if we are blameworthy for falling short of it.

Moral duties and moral perfection

What are our duties with respect to moral enhancements? We can approach this question from two directions: our individual duty to use or submit to moral interventions, and our duty to provide or administer them to people with moral deficits. This might seem to suggest a distinction between self-regarding duties and other-regarding duties, but this is a false dichotomy because the duty to enhance oneself is partly a duty to others – a duty to equip oneself to respect other people’s rights and interests. So both duties have an other-regarding dimension. The distinction I’m talking about is between duties to enhance oneself, and duties to enhance other other people: self-directed duties and other-directed duties.

These two duties also cannot be neatly demarcated because we might need to weigh self-directed duties against other-directed duties to achieve a proper balance. That is, given finite time and resources, my duty to enhance myself in some way might be outweighed by my duty to foster the capabilities of another person. So we need to work out a proper balance, and different normative frameworks will provide different answers. All frameworks, however, seem to support these two kinds of duties, though they balance them differently. For Kant, we have an absolute (perfect) duty to abstain from using other people as mere means, so we have a stringent duty to mitigate deficits in our own moral psychology that cause this kind of treatment; and we also have a weaker (imperfect) duty to foster other people’s capabilities. On a consequentialist picture, we have to enhance the capabilities of all in such a way as to maximise some good. Our duty to enhance ourself is no greater or lesser than our duty to foster others’ capabilities. Aristotle, too, believed that we have a duty to enhance ourselves and foster others’ capabilities by making good choices and forming virtuous relationships. Rather than arbitrate amongst these frameworks, we can just note that they all support the idea that we have duties to enhance ourselves and others. The question is how stringent these duties are, not whether they exist. Of course, in a modern context these questions take on new significance, because the duty to enhance oneself and others no longer just means reflecting well and providing social assistance; it could potentially mean taking and distributing psychoactive drugs, TMS, etc.

One pertinent question here is how much enhancement any individual morally ought to undergo. How much enhancement is enough enhancement? We can identify at least four accounts of the threshold of functioning we ought to strive for: (1) the ubermensche view: we must enhance our own and others’ capabilities to the greatest extent possible; (2) prioritarianism: we should prioritise the capabilities of the least well-off or the most morally impaired; (3) sufficientarianism: we should enhance people’s capabilities until they reach a sufficient minimal threshold of functioning, after which it is a matter of personal discretion; and (4) pure egalitarianism: we should foster everyone’s capabilities equally.

No matter which of these accounts we favour, they all face potential objections. The more stringent forms (the ubermensche view) are more susceptible to these objections than the less stringent forms (sufficientarianism). If we are considering enhancing our own capabilities, the scope for criticism is minimised, but we might still worry that our attempts to enhance ourselves morally might go awry, they might interfere with our ability to foster others’ capabilities, they might impel us to neglect valuable non-moral traits, or (relatedly) they might prevent us from becoming well-rounded people, capable of living flourishing lives (see Susan Wolf’s ‘Moral Saints’ 2004). When considering whether we should foster others’ capabilities, there are still more worries. Namely, in seeking to enhance other people – particularly if we do this through institutional mechanisms – we risk insulting and demeaning those deemed ‘morally defective,’ stigmatising people, jeopardising pluralism (which may be inherently valuable), undermining people’s autonomy, or fostering the wrong kinds of traits due to human error. That is, by intervening to enhance moral agency, we might inadvertently harm people.

The most controversial type of moral intervention – passive – is the most vulnerable to these objections, and others that I haven’t mentioned. From now on, I’ll just talk about this type. I’ll consider Focquaert and Schermer’s cautionary advice, and then offer some suggestions.

Passive intervention, autonomy, and identity

The authors argue that passive moral interventions are particularly morally problematic because they disproportionally jeopardise autonomy and identity, insofar as they limit continuous rational reflection and precipitate abrupt and concealed narrative identity changes. To minimise these adverse effects, interveners should provide informed consent procedures and pre- and post-intervention counselling. Let’s suppose that this is right, and also that we have a duty to enhance ourselves and others, as per the above discussion. This seems to have the following implications. First, a duty to submit to a passive moral intervention obtains only on condition that informed consent and pre-and post- intervention counselling are available and reasonably effective. So, a person can be blameworthy for failing to undergo a passive moral intervention (if at all) only if the intervention came with those provisions. Secondly, there is (at minimum) a duty to provide these safeguards if administering a passive intervention; so, if an intervener fails to do so, the person is thereby blameworthy. This is the upshot of holding that there is a duty to enhance oneself and others, and this duty includes providing harm-minimising safeguards.

That said, there are other considerations that might vitiate the perceived duty to enhance one’s own and others’ moral capabilities. I think that the most forceful objection, which may underlie other objections to these interventions, is that we can’t be sure of their effects. We can call this the knowledge constraint. If we can’t know, in medium-grained terms, the probable effects of a passive intervention, we can’t obtain informed consent in a strong sense, since we can’t adequately assess whether the effects will be good or bad. Let’s reconsider Focquaert and Schermer’s worries, and tie it to this concern. They say that (1) passive interventions threaten continuous rational reflection and autonomy. When someone undergoes TMS, for instance, the person doesn’t have the capacity to endorse or reject the effects of the magnetic stimulus. But why is this a problem? I don’t think it suffices to say that it undermines autonomy, because many autonomy-enhancing procedures undermine the capacity for continuous reflection: I forfeit this capacity when I undergo a root canal under general anaesthesia, but I can still give prior informed consent unproblematically. This isn’t just because a root canal is localised to the mouth (although this is a related issue). It’s mainly because I know precisely what the effects of the root canal will be, so I can consent to them. If dental procedures induced unforeseeable side-effects, informed consent for them would be much more problematic. This suggests that the unforeseeableness of the side-effects of a procedure, as opposed to the reflection-undermining nature of the procedure per se, is what undermines autonomy and has moral import.

With neuroscientific interventions, we can’t very accurately predict the general immediate and long-term effects , because these interventions function very coarsely, across a broad range of cognitive systems and processes, and their mechanisms are not fully understood. Similarly, the brain is very complex, and its mechanisms are not very well understood. And so the interactions between these mechanisms are pretty murky. For these reasons, any targeted (intended) effect of neurointerventions comes with a range of possible side-effects. If we just focus on the immediate side-effects of TMS, they include fainting, seizures, pain, as well as transient hypomania, hearing loss, impairment of working memory, and cognitive changes (unspecified). In terms of long-term effects, NICE found that there is insufficient evidence to evaluate safety for long-term and frequent uses. That is, not enough is known to predict the long-range effects in a scientifically responsible way. Speaking more generally, TMS is used for multiple conditions; its activation is very un-specified, targeting various brain regions that serve various functions. It can’t be used to, say, ‘cure schizophrenia’; it acts on multiple brain regions, bringing about a cluster of effects, some intended and others unintended. All neurointerventions work this way: they induce a cluster of effects. Subjects can’t select just one desired effect: undesired side-effects are very likely, if not inevitable. Given these considerations, it’s far from clear that there is an obligation for anyone to submit to passive interventions that act directly on the brain, and even less clear that anyone has an obligation to induce them on other people.

So, it seems that the threat to continuous rational reflection is a problem because we don’t know, in medium-grained terms, what the effects of the procedure will be in advance, which threatens prior informed consent. If we could predict the effects relatively accurately, the loss of continuous rational reflection would not be a problem.

(2) Passive interventions cause abrupt narrative identity changes. Again, I think that this is a problem because the end result of the passive intervention is impossible to predict in medium-grained terms. If we could provide someone with an accurate specification of the effects of a proposed intervention and gain the person’s consent, the ‘abruptness’ of the narrative identity change wouldn’t be an obstacle, it would be an advantage. If I could get a root canal ‘abruptly’ rather than slowly, I would choose the abrupt method – but only if I understood the consequences. If I could quit smoking ‘abruptly’ as a result of voluntary hypnosis, I would choose that option. Abrupt changes are problematic only if we can’t predict the outcomes of those changes.

(2) Passive interventions cause concealed narrative identity changes. This is also a problem only because we can’t predict the effects of the intervention. If we could, we might even prefer that the procedure be concealed. I might want to have a ‘concealed’ root canal – a root canal that I completely forget about after the fact, but with my prior consent – but not if the procedure induces unwanted side-effects that I can’t detect until after the fact. If side-effects are an issue, I want to be conscious so that I can do what I can to mitigate them.

The fact that passive moral interventions impinge on the brain rather than the body (not that this is a hard and fast distinction) is also problematic because our brain is the seat of our personal identity, and changes to our personal identity are especially jarring. Still, the analogy between cognitive interventions and bodily interventions is informative. If I sign up for an appendectomy and wake up with a third arm, this is a violation of my autonomy. Waking up a different, or radically altered, person, is that much more autonomy-undermining. In both cases, the lack of prior knowledge about probable outcomes is what violates the person’s autonomy: an unforeseen transformation is an affront to the self. (This is true even if the transformation is an accident: if a piano player’s hand is crushed by a boulder, this is autonomy-undermining, even if no one is to blame [see Oshana 2008]).

Post-intervention counselling might mitigate some of these concerns, because it allows the agent to ‘consent’ retroactively. But this is problematic for the following reasons.

(1) For no other procedure is retroactive consent permissible. If my teeth are rotting and someone kidnaps me and performs involuntary dental work while I’m unconscious, this is a moral infraction. (Note that when I was discussing clandestine changes above, I meant that they were permissible only if there was prior informed consent). Even if I’m pleased with the dental work, the dental intervener could have performed the procedure less invasively – with my consent – and to this extent, he’s blameworthy: he chose the most invasive intervention instead of the least invasive one. Now, when moral enhancements are at issue, the intervention may be prima facie justified by the potential positive consequences, but we have to consider (1) the strength of the benefits, (2) the probability of adverse side-effects, and (3) whether a less invasive intervention was available. If passive interventions are used as a first response, this is clearly impermissible. If they are used as a ‘last resort,’ when no alternative is available or all alternatives have been tried, we have to consider the moral import of possible side-effects. Consider Alex (shown above) from ‘A Clockwork Orange’: the movie is a horror story because the Ludovico technique made him miserable and dysfunctional, unintentionally. And he was not informed beforehand of the risks. Interveners are, I believe, blameworthy for using interventions that may cause severe adverse side-effects, because there is a duty to protect people from these kinds of risks. This not to say that passive interventions are never permissible, but they are not permissible if they carry severe or unknown risks to wellbeing.

(2) Because moral interventions target a person’s moral identity, there is an argument to be made that post-intervention ‘consent’ is not consent at all, because the agent on which the intervention acted – the pre-intervention agent – no longer exists, or is so drastically altered, consent is not possible for that agent. Moral interventions have the ability to ‘kill off’ the pre-intervention agent. This places a massive burden of justification on those who would intervene. We need to consider whether it is permissible to ‘kill off’ unwanted moral personalities, or radically alter them in a ways that preclude obtaining consent. When a person is radically altered by an intervention without consent, the person cannot consent after the treatment, so any post-intervention consent given is a different person’s. This is a radical departure from the standard model of informed consent, and this is something we need to consider. We also need to weight whether society should be choosing which moral personalities have value, as this might threaten pluralism and self-determination.

I should make a qualifying statement here. I don’t want to stigmatize the use of TMS and other existing passive interventions. Some people voluntarily use TMS for personal (prudential) reasons, which I would deem morally unproblematic. I’m specifically concerned with whether people have a duty to use passive interventions – not just existing ones, but also interventions that may arise in the future – to enhance their moral capabilities; and whether society has a duty to impose these interventions on people without their consent. I’m saying that it’s much harder to justify a categorical duty (as opposed to a subjective desire) to undergo passive interventions, and still harder to justify a duty to impose (as opposed to merely offer) interventions on people deemed morally deficient.

Back to responsibility

Here’s how this bears on responsibility. On a simplistic reading, it might seem that we have a duty to use moral interventions to enhance ourselves and others to a substantial (sufficientarian, if not ubermenschean) degree. And maybe this is true for traditional moral enhancements, which we can reflectively choose and consent to with full information. But it’s not clear that this is the case for passive moral interventions, just because we can’t tell if those interventions are going to have overall positive consequences. And this is because neurointerventions target clusters of traits, some of which may be adaptive while others may be maladaptive. So, in trying to morally enhance someone, we might inadvertently harm the person and even introduce new counter-moral traits. If so, we might be blameworthy for the consequences of those interventions. And if there is no clear duty to submit to passive moral interventions that might produce harmful and even counter-moral side effects, then a person might not be blameworthy for refusing them.

Consider stories like ‘A Clockwork Orange’ and ‘Brave New World.’ They’re about attempts at moral enhancement and social engineering gone horribly awry. And this is a legitimate worry. I’ve suggested that when technology is morally problematic, it’s not because it threatens rational reflection and narrative identity per se. Rather, it’s because it has unpredictable side-effects, and these side-effects might be morally problematic. This isn’t mean to imply that we have no duty to enhance ourselves and others, but rather that when trying to enhance our capabilities with modern methods, we should proceed with caution.


Implicit Bias: The limits of control/character: Continued.


This post continues from the last one. I was saying that if we need to trace responsibility back to a suitable prior moment (t-1) at which the agent could have foreseen the consequences of his choices (following Vargas’s 2005 description of control theory), then we need to assess not only that agent’s internal capacities at t-n, but also the agent’s ‘moral ecology,’ and the relationships between the agent and the moral ecology. This follows from the fact that ‘indirect control’ is a matter of whether an agent could have exercised or acquired a capacity using available resources in her local environment. (Indeed, these two things are related: we acquire capacities in part by exercising more basic capacities: by taking piano lessons, I learn how to play piano well, i.e., I acquire piano-playing reasons-responsiveness. This is a result of exercising a more basic capacity – the basic human capacity to master a symbolic system with a combination of tutelage and practice). According to Holroyd, if someone is implicitly biased but could have avoided becoming implicitly biased or expressing an implicit bias, the person may be blameworthy. I am suggesting that to determine a person’s blameworthiness, we must evaluate, not just the individual person at t-n, but the person’s location in the social ecology.

This picture suggest a different kind of objection to Fischer’s notion of control – the dominant model. Fischer explicitly states that to appraise a person’s responsibility status, we must home in on the ‘actual sequence’ of deliberation, ignoring counterfactual circumstances in which the agent would have deliberated differently. That is, control for Fischer is ‘actual-sequence control.’ This strategy is (I believe) meant to undercut incompatibilist and nihilistic objections to control: objections to the effect that no one is responsible for anything because no one is capable of exercising ultimate control (being an unmoved mover) in a determinist universe (G. Strawson 1986), or because control is irrelevant in light of moral luck: whether you’re capable of exercising compatibilist control is just a matter of luck, not agency (Levy 2008). I think this last view places too much importance on the moral ecology and not enough on agency, but we can return to this later. By restricting control to the actual sequence, we cut off counterfactual circumstances in which the agent is metaphysically determined, as well as circumstances in which all agents are equally capable of control – distant possible worlds. But there is a case to be made that even if we include some counterfactual circumstances as morally relevant – and thus, some possible worlds – we do not need to include all counterfactual possibilities. Even if the buck doesn’t stop at actual-sequence control, it might stop in the next nearest possible world, cutting off the kind of slippery-slope objections that lead to nihilism.

I’m going to make this case in a moment, but first consider an existing objection to actual-sequence control, from Levy (2008). Levy argues that, while counterfactual disabling circumstances superficially appear to be irrelevant (consider, for example, Frankfurt-type cases in which the counterfactual device is never activated), it is possible to construct a counterfactual enabling circumstance that seems to make a difference. An enabling circumstance is one in which the agent gains a capacity, in contrast to the standard disabling scenarios, in which the counterfactual device would prompt the agent to go against the demands of morality if it were activated. Here’s one of Levy’s examples:


Jillian is walking along the beach when she notices a child growing. Jillian is a good swimmer, but she is pathologically afraid of deep water. She is so constituted that her phobia would prevent her from rescuing the child were she to attempt to; she would be overcome by feelings of panic. Nevertheless, she is capable of trying to rescue the child, and she knows that she is capable of trying. Indeed, though she knows that she has the phobia, she does not know just how powerful it is; she thinks (wrongly) that she could effect a rescue. Unbeknownst to Jillian, a good-hearted neurosurgeon has implanted her with a chip with which he monitors Jillian’s neural states, and through which he can intervene if he desires to. Should Jillian decide (on her own) to rescue the child, the neurosurgeon will intervene to dampen her fear; she will not panic and will succeed, despite her anxiety, in swimming out to the child and rescuing her. (2008: 170, 2008b: 234).

Levy actually presents this scenario variably as an objection to control theory and an objection to character theory. Suppose that Jillian decides not to rescue the child, in spite of (falsely) believing that she can. In the first place, it seems as if Jillian is responsible (says Levy) because she believes that she can rescue the child, and fails to act on this belief. But if Fischer is right, then Jillian isn’t responsible because she can’t succeed by her own (independent) means. Without the help of the benevolent intervener, success is impossible, and the intervener is external to Jillian’s motivational set. To vindicate the intuition that Jillian is responsible, we need to include the counterfactual intervener; so counterfactual scenarios seem relevant. (At least, this is my understanding). In the second place, if we include the counterfactual scenario as relevant, we have to accept that Jillian’s motivational set, and thus her character, include this scenario as a component part, and so Jillian’s character is “smeared” across time and space (Levy 2008: 179). Hence, locational externalism (i.e., the extended mind hypothesis) is true. These proposals call into question the viability of actual-sequence control and of character as traditionally conceived. I take it that this is supposed to support responsibility nihilism, i.e., the idea that responsibility (in a desert-entailing sense) doesn’t exist, as per Levy’s thesis in ‘Hard Luck.’

I think that that some of Levy’s claims are accurate and others need to be modified. Here’s what I endorse and what I dispute. I agree that counterfactual circumstances matter – at least, some counterfactual circumstances (specifically, those in which the agent could have intervened and succeeded with some kind of help), but I disagree with the ‘intuition’ that Jillian is responsible for an omission in this particular case. The reason is that, if someone, for bizarre reasons, thinks that she can save someone from drowning, but there is good objective reason to think that she can’t, the person doesn’t have a duty to intervene. Arguably, if we are not lifeguards, we don’t have a standing duty to save someone from drowning in any circumstance, because the risk of drowning ourselves in the attempt is too high, even if we are excellent swimmers for ordinary people (not lifeguards). So there’s no reason to think that Jillian ought to act on her belief that she can help. Normal people don’t have a standing obligation to risk their lives to save drowning victims. What we ought to do is alert the lifeguard, call emergency medical services, or look for an indirect means of intervening that doesn’t risk our own safety. So if we don’t have an obligation to risk our lives to save drowning victims, then people with water-related anxiety disorders certainly don’t, even if they have bizarre beliefs about their capacities and their moral duties.

I raise this point in part because this is the response I usually get when I present this case to other people. We could adjust the scenario by stipulating that the child is drowning in a wading pool. Normal adults have a duty to save children from drowning in wading pools, surely. But Jillian is not a psychologically-normal adult, so the worry recurs. Just as it is unreasonable for a normal adult to think that she has a duty to save a drowning victim in open water, it may be unreasonable for someone with a water-induced phobia, which could endanger her safety, to think that she has a duty to save a wading-pool victim. The worry is that the sacrifice required of the person is (objectively) too great to ground the existence of a duty, even if the person thinks that she has a duty for bizarre, subjective reasons.

But now consider a case in which it’s more obvious that a moral duty obtains. I’ll try to construct it to resemble the Jillian scenario, i.e., to include a protagonist who cannot achieve some end using her own (internal) capacities, but could succeed with external support. Suppose that Jack can’t contain his anger towards women, and regularly berates his female employees, family members, servers at restaurants, and so on. Jack (falsely) believes that he can control his misogynistic anger using willpower alone, and decides to exercise his willpower. But this is a false belief – he has much less willpower than he imagines. Unbeknownst to Jack, a local therapist specialises in anger-management problems, and would have been able to help him if he had sought out her help. But Jack never does. So Jack tries to exercise his willpower and fails, and continues to demean women on a daily basis.

If we home in on Jack’s internal capacity for control, we have to excuse Jack, since he lacked the internal resources to suppress his misogynistic urges. But if we consider the counterfactual scenario (in which Jack visits the therapist) as relevant to Jack’s responsibility status, then we can hold him responsible. It seems very reasonable to say that Jack had the capacity, in a very basic sense, to look for resources to control his misogynistic anger. But Jack does not have unassisted actual-sequence control over his anger.

I think that this scenario presents a plausible argument for the idea that, although Jack lacks actual-sequence control over his misogynistic anger, he has counterfactual-sequence control over it, and this counterfactual control is relevant to Jack’s responsibility status. Jack would not be risking his life by seeking out therapy. In fact, he wouldn’t be sacrificing anything of moral value. And if psychiatric counselling is free, as it is in Canada and some of the moral socialist countries, he isn’t even sacrificing anything of prudential value. By not seeking help, he’s not exercising his (basic human) capacities in the way he should. And because he’s not exercising these capacities responsibly, he has a character flaw.

Now, assuming that all of this is plausible, there’s an argument to be made that the proposed counterfactual-control model initiates a slippery slope into responsibility nihilism. Once we allow that counterfactuals are relevant, we have to admit that determinism precludes agency. But that’s only true if we hold all counterfactual possibilities – or at least, very many counterfactual possibilities – to be morally relevant. Yes, in a deterministic universe no one is incompatibilist-responsible for anything. But why go back to the metaphysical basis of reality – the metaphysical underpinnings of human behaviour? Why engage in ‘panicky metaphysics’ at all, when we can stop at the moral ecology? All I’m suggesting in constructing the above example is that some counterfactual possibilities matter – the ones that the agent could have availed himself of relatively easily, without sacrificing anything of moral (and in this case, even prudential) value.

Recall that in my last post I noted that control theorists typically espouse an implicit ‘reasonableness’ constraint in their conception of ‘indirect responsibility’: they hold an agent responsible for omissions for which it is reasonable to complain against the agent. As Levy says when commenting on implicit bias, an agent might “be fully morally responsible for [a] behaviour [resulting from implicit bias], because it was reasonable to expect her to try to change her implicit attitudes prior to t” (2014). This implies that only counterfactual circumstances that were reasonably available to the agent are morally relevant – scenarios in which the sacrifice demanded of the agent is not overly stringent. I have argued that in the Jillian scenario, the moral demand is too high, but in the Jack case, it’s not. This gives us a foundation on which to say that someone can be responsible for failing to exercise counterfactual control if doing so was reasonable. Of course, ‘reasonableness’ is a vague concept, and I won’t precisify it here, but it’s a concept that makes intuitive sense, and one that we regularly rely on without clarification, to constrain the scope of normative concepts. (Consider Scanlon’s account of moral principles as those that no suitably-motivated person could reasonably reject; we get the point without delving into the semantics).

Character theorists of Sher’s stripe similarly hold that reasonableness is critical to responsibility. A person is responsible for an omission just in case a reasonable person with relevantly similar capacities would have done better. So once again, we are to judge the agent’s responsibility status by what it would be reasonable to expect of her, in light of certain counterfactual possibilities – what the agent could have achieved under conditions C.

If this is right, then counterfactual circumstances do matter morally. But not all, or just any, counterfactual circumstances are relevant. Just those that were reasonably available to the person, at relatively low personal cost. This goes back to what I was saying about the moral ecology, and about tracing. Counterfactual scenarios are part of the moral ecology, external to the person’s material brain. So when evaluating a person’s responsibility status, we have to consider the person’s relevant brain states, and the reasonably available counterfactual circumstances supported by the agent’s moral ecology. We have to look at the person’s capacities and the person’s moral ecology and the potential interaction between those two variables, to see if they support the possibility of agency cultivation. And with regard to tracing, we need to trace responsibility to that possibility. We need to assess whether Jack, for example, had the (general) capacity to acquire the (specific) capacity to remediate or suppress his misogynistic anger, given the resources of his moral ecology.

This suggests the following revisions to control theory and character theory. We need to see control as more than actual-sequence control to account for the possibility of indirect responsibility for omissions that were reasonably avoidable. Specifically, we need to include as morally relevant, counterfactual circumstances in which the agent could have interacted with the moral ecology in such a way as to bring about a new capacity, or (more precisely) to leverage an existing basic (undifferentiated) capacity into a more specific (specialised) capacity. And it suggests that we ought to regard character as diffuse or locally extended, i.e., co-constituted with agency-supporting or agency-enhancing social supports. (This is not a revision to Sher’s view, in fact, but it emphasises that aspect of it). And finally, it suggests that when ‘tracing’ back to control, we need to trace beyond the agent’s actual sequence, to reasonably available aspects of the agent’s moral ecology, which would have enhanced the agent’s capacities if the agent had taken the right kind of initiative. And similarly with character theory, we need to trace character to relevant features of the local ecology, to determine if the agent is using those features to the best of her ability. If she is not, she may be culpably indifferent. (In this way, tracing applies to character theory as well, though its reach is more limited – we don’t need to trace as far back).

These considerations strike against any theory that is too narrow in its conception of responsible agency, particular the actual-sequence control model. And it suggests that control theory and character theory are perhaps more similar than they may initially appear, in that control theory admits a greater scope for blame under the category of ‘indirect responsibility,’ properly understood. These considerations build on Levy’s objections to actual-sequence control and character internalism. But I recruit them to show that there is a broader scope for blame than we tend to think, and he does the opposite – he recruits them in support of responsibility nihilism. Our views are technically compatible, though, because he’s refuting a desert-based notion of responsibility, and a relatively harsh form of desert-based responsibility, on which blame (1) is justified by reference to an agent’s actual sequence of deliberation or internal traits, and (2) entails fairly punitive sanctions. I also reject this notion of responsibility, because it combines a metaphysically tenuous conception of agency with dubious assumptions about the kind of thing blame is (punishment) and proportionality (harshly punitive). I think that the same objections can be taken to support a modification of responsibility rather than a rejection of it.

Here’s one substantive alternative to the actual-sequence control model – the ‘limited counterfactual-sequence control model.’ People are responsible for (1) intentional infractions (like explicit bias), (2) failures to properly exercise control (e.g., manifestations of implicit bias that could have been avoided by suitable reflection), and (3) failures to enhance the capacity for control (e.g., failing to search for remediating measures available in the local moral ecology, when it would be reasonable to do this). And here’s a viable version of character theory: people are responsible for character defects just in case those defects could have been remediated with reasonable effort, using the resources of the local ecology. In case it’s not obvious, here’s why the local ecology matters for character theory. If Smith is a misogynist because he lives in 1950s middle America and doesn’t have access to good examples of egalitarian behaviour, while Jones is a misogynist in present-day New York just because he hates women, Jones has worse character than Smith, because he’s not only a misogynist, he’s also indifferent to women’s interests. That is, Jones exhibits a greater degree of indifference than Smith (see my 2015 paper and my 2013 paper for lengthier examples, and see also Fricker 2012). Some theorists assume that tracing doesn’t apply to character theory, but that’s false. We have to trace the causal source of a character defect, to see if the character defect is amplified by indifference to available reasons.

These are two viable versions of control theory and character theory that present plausible alternatives to responsibility nihilism. But there’s a third option that may seem to be a better fit with what I’ve said so far. It’s a consequential approach, along the lines of Vargas’ agency cultivation model (2013). On that view, we’re responsible to the extent that praise or blame is likely to enhance our agency (very crudely put). Here’s how this view works. Suppose that Smith is a misogynist who berates all the women in his life, but Smith is still a moral agent (not a full-blown, unresponsive psychopath or something of that nature; he has some vestige of the capacity to respond to reasons). Blame might function to enable or enhance Smith’s capacity to respect women (and it might function that way for all misogynists – let’s suppose that this is its general effect). So Smith is blameworthy. This approach, because forward-looking, might seem to eliminate the need for tracing, which might seem to be a desideratum, since tracing is hard. But I don’t think it does. First, we need to know if Smith is a misogynist, as opposed to, say, a foreigner who doesn’t know he’s using a misogynistic slur, or a brain-washing victim, or someone whose family is being held hostage on condition that he demean his female acquaintances, etc. I artificially stipulated that Smith is a misogynist above, but in real life, we need to discover things about a person’s circumstances to make correct moral appraisals, so we need to get to know people and inquire into their lives. Second, we might want to consider whether Smith had opportunities to develop a more egalitarian sensibility – control-based considerations. The point is, even on a forward-looking account, we need to know things about an agent’s capacities and environment, and so we need to do some non-negligible amount of tracing. We can’t just guess what someone is like on the basis of one time-slice. People are notorious for jumping to conclusions, but to be responsible in our responsibility attributions, we need to be committed to giving fair consideration to relevant data.

The upshot is that there are convincing arguments against narrow versions of control theory and character theory, but they don’t force us down a slippery slope to responsibility nihilism. There are viable (extended) versions of control theory and character theory that we can adopt; and consequentialism is also an option. But we should not, I think, assume that we can do away with tracing on any of these alternatives. If anything, once we grant that the moral ecology is relevant to responsibility –  more relevant than we might have previously thought – we have to extend the scope of tracing beyond the agent’s material brain. But I think that we implicitly do this anyways (in our ordinary judgments of praise and blame), which is why we consider people from past times and foreign cultures to be less blameworthy for certain infractions. Yet some accounts of responsibility don’t adequately explain this kind of contextual assessment – they don’t sufficiently appreciate the significant of context. Circumstances matter because they co-constitute, enable, and support – or conversely, impair – the capacities that underwrite responsible agency.


Here’s how all of this relates back to implicit bias. As I said in my first post on implicit bias, it’s not at all clear how wide the scope of control has to be for responsibility to obtain. If we think that reasonably-available counterfactual circumstances are morally relevant, we can hold people responsible for exhibiting implicit biases if they failed to use remediating measures that were locally available, provided that this was a reasonable expectation. People with special duties – people on hiring committees, for example – have stronger reasons to use these measures, and thus are more susceptible to blame for relevant omissions. And this is true even if they lack responsiveness to such measures now, provided that they could have acquired suitable patterned sensitivity at some time in the past, by a reasonable effort. Ordinary people can be blamed if we think that it was within their ability to avoid manifesting implicit bias through some reasonable act of will. The case for blame is stronger if we admit counterfactual circumstances into the equation, because then we have grounds for saying that someone is (indirectly) responsible for an omission, just in case a counterfactual enabling circumstance was within reach. This brings the view somewhat closer to modern character theory in its scope for attributing blame.


Implicit bias: The limits of control/charater



I’m going to write an entry pursuant upon my previous post on responsibility and implicit bias. (Find it here). There, I noted that there is no agreed-upon definition of ‘control’ (see Fishcer 2012, Levy 2014). And there’s also no agreed-upon definition of character (see, e.g., Angela Smith 2005, Holly Smith 2014, David Shoemaker 2014, and George Sher 2010 for different definitions of character). And this is likely why there are debates about the scope of moral responsibility within in each camp, as well as between camps. Some control theorists think that we can be responsible for the manifestation of implicit bias and others think that we can’t. And ditto for character theorists. It is debatable whether implicit biases, which are neither explicitly valued by the agent nor under the agent’s direct control, are blameworthy.

Let’s start with control, which is, I think, the easier metric. How ‘narrow’ or ‘internal’ is control? That is, is control over motive M merely a matter of whether we have conscious access to M? Certainly not, since we lack access to a great many mental states that are patently blameworthy. We take it that Smith can be responsible for killing a pedestrian when driving under the influence, because Smith was in a sound state of mind when he started drinking. This is a ‘benighted omission,’ in which Smith lacks control at t only because he impaired his reasons-responsive capacity at t-1. In this case, Smith bears ‘indirect responsibility’ for hitting the pedestrian because he had ‘indirect’ (prior time) control. The only thing that would excuse Smith would be if he were drunk only because he had been subjected to clandestine brainwashing by an evil neuroscientist who induced him to drink, or something of that nature – or so people tend to assume. (There are innumerable examples of ‘Frankfurt-type’ brainwashing scenarios, including in Fischer 2006, 2012).

The point is that direct conscious control at the time of action is not needed. Virtually every theorist agrees on this point. Only some kind of ‘indirect control’ is necessary. But it is still an open question how broad the scope of indirect control should be. According to Levy (2014), we aren’t directly responsible for the effects of implicit bias because we have at most ‘patchy’ control over these states, but we might be indirectly responsible for their effects. He doesn’t say much about indirect responsibility, however, which is a shame because this is arguably the more interesting question. If Smith selects a White male job candidate due to implicit bias, did he have indirect control over his choice? As Holroyd points out, we have indirect control over implicit biases through the use of strategies such as implementation intentions, countersterotypical exposure, explicit belief formation, and so on. So in principle, Smith could be held responsible on this basis. But much of this debate hangs on how reasonable it is to expect someone to preemptively use these strategies. As Levy states,

“an agent may lack direct responsibility for an action caused by their implicit attitudes, because given what her implicit attitudes were at t, it would not be reasonable to expect her to control her behavior, or to recognize its moral significance, or what have you. But the agent might nevertheless be fully morally responsible for the behavior, because it was reasonable to expect her to try to change her implicit attitudes prior to t” (2014).

So indirect responsibility ends up being tied to reasonable expectations. Is it reasonable to expect someone to use implementations intentions etc., prior to taking a certain action? It’s natural in our current climate to expect employers to take steps to remediate implicit bias, but is it reasonable to expect this of ordinary people? Suppose that Jones, an ordinary person with no special responsibilities, make a sexist joke, thinking that he’s being witty. He has no idea that he’s being sexist and is explicitly committed to egalitarianism. Is he responsible because he could have used remediating measures against implicit bias in the past?

If so, the scope of direct responsibility turns out to be very slight, while the scope for indirect responsibility turns out to be enormous. In fact, the control theory veritably collapses into character theory! Character theorists (for the most part) hold that we can be responsible for unconscious omissions such as implicit biases, provided that those mental states are caused by certain parts of our motivational set (as opposed to extraneous factors). So a character theorist might hold that someone is not responsible for acting under hypnosis (because this is an ‘alien’ motivation, external to the agent), but responsible for deeply-entrenched implicit biases that reliable cause patterns of behaviour. Well, that’s what control theorists would hold someone indirectly responsible for, too.

Consider for a moment Sher’s version of character theory (2010). He says that we’re responsible for an omission if it’s one that a reasonable person in our position would not have committed, provided that the omission stems from our own motivational psychology. So, we’re responsible for omissions for which a reasonable person could complain against us. That sounds a lot like the control view as I have just described it. On the latter, we’re responsible for omissions if we could have acquire the capacity to avoid them, by taking reasonable measures – by doing what a reasonable person would do in the circumstances. Construed this way, control view and character view turn out to be very similar.

Moving forward, let’s assume that a person can be responsible for A just in case it would have been reasonable to expect the person to acquire the capacity to control A at some point in the past. This somewhat circumscribes the scope of control, forbidding acquisition measures like killing someone, or severely injuring oneself, to enhance control. What’s ‘reasonable’ is still very debatable, but I won’t settle it here – let’s just grant that it rules out killing, death, and severe injury. Still, this doesn’t circumscribe control very much, because we still need to determine whether someone had the capacity within reason to acquire a better capacity for control, and doing this still requires careful analysis.

These remarks are somewhat speculative, because control theorists haven’t said much about indirect control. Fischer and Levy write a lot about direct responsibilility, but not much about indirect responsibility, except to note its existence. Yet direct responsibility, I think, turns out to be pretty irrelevant. Does it matter if we’re directly responsible for something, versus being indirectly responsible? If someone acts on implicit bias only because she failed to critically reflect on this mental state, is she more blameworthy than someone who fails to use remediating measures? Not obviously. Levy says that ‘indirect responsibility can underwrite a great deal of praise and blame; it is not necessarily a lesser kind of responsibility.’ We don’t have an argument to the effect that direct responsibility is a special, worse kind of responsibility, just because it is a more remote kind. Maybe direct responsibility matters because it tells us something about a person’s capacities: someone who is unaware of her implicit biases might be less capable of suppressing those biases. But now this seems irrelevant, since the critical question is not, ‘is S reasons-responsive now,’ but, ‘was S capable of becoming reasons-responsive at some ‘suitable prior time’ (to quote Vargas 2005)? We must trace reasons-responsiveness back – maybe way back – to prior times when S had the opportunity to improve herself. If indirect responsibility is a thing, the buck no longer stops at the agent’s direct capacity for control; we need to see if she was ‘indirectly,’ as some prior time, capable of acquiring direct control.

So for this reason, I don’t really understand why we need to be concerned with consciousness or direct responsibility at all. Correct me if I’m wrong here.

Indirect responsibility is slippery. It’s epistemically slipper. Here’s why: it requires that we ‘trace responsibility’ back to a ‘suitable prior time’ at which the agent could have foreseen the long-range consequences of her choices. This is what Vargas calls ‘the trouble with tracing (2005). Fischer subsequently responds, basically, that tracing isn’t really a problem, because we can generally foresee in ‘coarse grained’ terms what the consequences of our choices will be (2012). But I doubt this. I think we’re pretty terrible at predicting the future, and we’re terrible because we’re susceptible to all kinds of cognitive biases, including but not limited to implicit bias. (See also: self-serving bias, confirmation bias, confabulation, rationalisation, and all these). So, we’re generally bad at forecasting outcomes.

This is one dimension of the epistemological problem, but I’ve just adverted to another one: we not only need to determine whether someone satisfies the forecasting condition directly, but we also need to determine whether the person could have acquired a better forecasting capacity at some ‘suitable prior time.’ So we need to trace back beyond the person’s immediate capacity for forecasting (and beyond the person’s immediate capacity for control more generally), to see if the person had a prior opportunity to refine that capacity (or those capacities), in light of her circumstances. (Our circumstances are the resources that we use to acquire and hone our capacities, so they’re relevant here). Suppose that Jeff, the middle-aged middle manager, is a jerk, and that Vargas is right that Jeff could not foresee in his halcyon youth that he would one day become a jerk. This doesn’t settle the question of whether Jeff is all-things-considered responsible, because we need to trace back further still to see if Jeff could have acquired the capacity to foresee that he would become a jerk. Because if he could have, then he may be indirectly responsible for failing to acquire or hone that capacity, and thus indirectly- indirectly responsible for becoming a jerk. He’s responsible at n degrees of remoteness for his jerkiness.

If this is right, then control entails even more tracing than Vargas’ 2005 paper suggests. What I mean is, we can’t just home in on the agent’s brain at time t-n (some time in the agent’s personal history), and assess whether the agent had a particular capacity at that time. We need to abstract away from the agent’s capacity, to see if the agent could have enhanced, modified, or refined that capacity, using the resources of his environment. The capacity for control is not just a matter of an agent’s internal (physical, psychological, cognitive) capacities, but the relationship between those capacities and the world. So we can’t just trace back and look at the agent’s endogenous capacities at t-n. We have to look at those capacities, and the local environment, and the relationship between those two things.

Maybe Vargas intends for tracing to mean exactly this. In his later book (2012), he places a lot of emphasis on ‘the moral ecology,’ and the moral ecology consists of the conditions that support moral agency (2013). This view is a corollary of his agency-cultivation model. But I think that it’s informative to frame this perspective as a response to control theory, since it implies that, while control is relevant to responsibility, control is not an endogenous capacity, in the agent’s mind-brain, i.e., something that we can evaluate, in principle, with a brain scanner. Control is a relational property, between an agent and the environment.

Similarly with character: if character is a reliably-manifested property of an agent, then it’s a feature of the interaction between the agent as an individual and the environment. Sher’s view captures this insight: he sees character as a set of physical and psychological states that interact to produce an agent’s “characteristic patterns of thought and action” (2010: 124), and he describes this account as ‘suitably interpersonal (2010: 125). But insofar as a person is responsible for only ‘characteristic patterns,’ we need to identify the cause of a person’s action, to see if it is part of his character or not. If Jeff is curt with an employee, is it because he’s a jerk or just because he’s sick? If the latter, this isn’t part of his character. So character theory also requires tracing, though to a much more limited degree.

I’m going to continue this train of thought in the next post.

Responsibility and sympathy?


Tonight I was thinking about the relationship between responsibility and sympathy, and more specifically, whether there is one.

I could be wrong, but I don’t think that a lot of people have written about whether sympathy should affect our reactive attitudes. A lot of people have written about whether sympathy (or empathy) is required for someone to be a responsible agent – that is, for someone to be susceptible to moral address at all; but not much has ben said about whether, when contemplating someone who is unambiguously a moral agent and has done wrong, sympathy ought to mollify our blame, indignation, or resentment toward that person.

It might be natural to think that sympathy ought to mollify blame, but this isn’t obvious at all. On a strict retributivist view, a person deserves blame just in case she has done wrong and possesses certain agential capacities (rationality, reasons-responsiveness, second-order reflection, or what have you); whether the person has suffered pitiable hardships (which have not undermined her agency) has no bearing on whether she deserves blame. On a strict retributivist view, if you know that Smith is a moral agent and Smith has committed a murder, and you find out that Smith has had a wretchedly abusive childhood, and you feel sorry for him on this account, this is no reason for you to revise your original moral stance. Your natural sympathy is just a meaningless emotional effluence. Smith deserves blame because he satisfies all the retributivist criteria for blame: he committed a violation and he’s a moral agent. Your feelings about his plight are irrelevant.

As I’ve noted in earlier posts, Strawson did think that ‘peculiarly unfortunate formative circumstances’ could attenuate blame, but not because they elicit our sympathy. (At least, he never talks about sympathy). His rationale seems to be that these kinds of circumstances can prevent someone from developing any moral personality at all, and from being responsive to the reactive attitudes. Such people don’t satisfy the agency conditions of retributive blame – they’re not moral agents. But here, I’m talking about people who are responsible agents, but who had really challenging lives. Not necessarily such bad circumstances that they turned out to be psychopaths, but still really hard lives.

Watson (1987) wrote an interesting paper on the reactive attitudes with a section called ‘sympathy and antipathy,’ where he notes that murderous psychopaths like Robert Harris (a famous case) elicit a mix of sympathy and antipathy in us. We feel ambivalent because we see Harris as both a villain and a culprit. But Watson doesn’t take this to mean that sympathy should move us to excuse Harris. He thinks that whether we should blame him depends on whether he’s capable of responding to moral address, which is a lot like Strawson’s view. So it doesn’t seem like sympathy should play any role. All that matters is (a) whether the individual has done wrong, and (b) whether the individual is a moral agent. Sympathy doesn’t play a role in this equation. It’s just an irrelevant moral remainder.

But what if we don’t take a retributive stance? What if, like Vargas (2013), we think that blame functions to enhance moral agency? Well, then I think that sympathy is relevant, because if we lack appropriate sympathy toward someone, this can damage the person’s moral agency. Suppose that Salima has had a wretched life, but is still, by all appearances, a moral agent. In fact, Salima is surprisingly sensitive. But Salima has committed an infraction. If we blame Salima unsympathetically, it might make her a worse person; it might alienate her further from the moral community. People who have had wretched lives are usually already alienated, since wretched lives typically have alienating features: neglect, abuse, etc. Being unsympathetic to such people can push them of the fold. Towards traumatized people, we might decide to attenuate our blame, or suspend it altogether.

Should we adopt a stance of universal sympathy, and eschew the reactive attitudes altogether? Strawson seemed to think that this was impossible. On a forward-looking account, it might not be desirable, inasmuch as some people might benefit from blame. Maybe over-privileged people who are too self-entitled. Maybe people with ‘affluenza’ like Ethan Couch, who have never been properly held responsible. This doesn’t mean that they’re not moral agents, just that they’re very irresponsible moral agents. Perhaps, unlike people with wretched lives, they suffer from too much privilege, and blame would correct that.

This is obviously very speculative. Whether blame accomplishes anything is an empirical question. We need to study the effects of blame – blame as a reactive attitude – to see if it’s justified on an agency-cultivation model. This is a separate question from whether punishment accomplishes anything – punishment such as locking someone up in prison. I doubt that punishment is ever as effective as rehabilitation, and so I doubt that punishment is ever strongly justified. But theorists who write about the reactive attitudes aren’t talking about punishment, they’re talking about cognitive-conative states. It would be worth studying and writing about whether deploying these kinds of attitudes can be effective in certain types of cases, and if so, which types. Unfortunately I can’t do that here.