Scapegoating: Politically motivated blaming & punishing

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

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

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

2. Socioeconomic Inequality

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

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

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

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

3. The cultural scapegoating of socioeconomically disadvantaged groups

Here are some examples of systemic scapegoating.

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

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

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

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


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

4. Scapegoating & social scripts

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Who is responsible?

Who is responsible for the scapegoating of historically disadvantaged groups?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Blame: 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



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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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