Blame: It’s nature, targets, and functions


Blame: Its nature, targets, and functions.


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

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

  1. Introduction

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

I come to the following conclusions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Fittingness constraints: Communication to whom?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Functionalism: Communication to what end?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Conclusions

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Caveats & clarifications

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

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

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

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

 3. Empathy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Communicative habits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. Non-verbal communication & the body

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

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

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

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

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

6. Relational equality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7. Concluding remarks


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).