Moral Fault and Moral Responsibility: Why We Should Always Blame

In this post, I will argue that blame is an expression of a judgement about moral fault. A moral fault is a property F of some object O in virtue of which O impedes the attainment of some morally optimific state of affairs. The orthodox position stands against this. It limits blameworthiness to those objects that are morally responsible for wrong actions. O is morally responsible for some act A if and only if O is responsive to moral reasons pertaining to A. This orthodox position does have a few arguments in its favour given that moral fault accounts of blame tend to have a number of unintuitive consequences. Moral responsibility, however, has a far worse consequence than any implied by moral fault, namely robust blame skepticism such as that defended by Gideon Rosen. My argument will focus specifically on this.

Rosen argues that blame requires either original responsibility or derivative responsibility. There are two conditions that must be met in order for O to be originally responsible for A: there must be some moral reason R that is a decisive reason for why one ought not to do A, and O must be aware of R. Sometimes, O might not be aware of R because O has failed to “discharge one of [its] procedural epistemic obligations.”[i] O may be originally responsible for this failure. And if that is the case then O is derivatively responsible for A.

So far so good. Rosen’s account meets all the normal expectations of an account of moral responsibility. It has the right sorts of excusing conditions and the right sorts of requirements. But blame is about more than just moral responsibility. Blame requires a judgement of moral responsibility, and a particular expression of that judgement. This expression is unpleasant and possibly harmful, and therefore the prospective blamer must be certain that O is in fact morally responsible for A before she can act. This certainty, however, will always elude us. The temporal distance and the opacity of other minds bars us from any knowledge about whether O was in fact aware of R when it did A. Hence we can never hold someone originally responsible for A. But we likewise cannot hold someone derivatively responsible for A either, since every instance of derivative responsibility requires some instance of original responsibility and the problem reasserts itself. Blame skepticism here is unavoidable.

Blame skepticism is a detestable conclusion. Blame serves an important role in moral education and in deterring wrongdoing.[ii] We ought therefore to preserve some account of blame. This is where moral fault comes in. Judgements of moral fault have a much less demanding epistemic burden, and hence are not vulnerable to blame skepticism in the same way. But this is so in part because moral fault accounts of blame are incredibly harsh. Objects are accountable for any failure to realise some morally optimific state of affairs, whatever the reason. They are blameworthy for the their own bad intentions and the ill effects of moral luck all the same. But this shouldn’t be too problematic. It is uncontroversial that ordinary objects of blame are imperfect. Humans and other creatures have their limitations, and we should not be denied from pointing these out from time to time. We need only remember that as blamers, we too would be blameworthy for failing to realise some morally optimific state of affairs, and we may fail to do so because we blamed another. Luckily, then, blame need not be fire and brimstone. It may also be a prod or a joke, a stern glare or a quick lesson.

Endnotes

[i] Rosen, “Skepticism about Moral Responsibility,” Philosophical Perspectives, 18(Ethics), 2004: 309

[ii] For more on the function of blame, see Christopher Bennett, “The Expressive Function of Blame” in D. Justin Coates and Neal A. Tognazzini [Eds.], Blame: Its Nature and Norms, Oxford University Press (Oxford, UK), 2013: 66-83; and Christopher E. Franklin, “Valuing Blame” in D. Justin Coates and Neal A. Tognazzini [Eds.], Blame: Its Nature and Norms, Oxford University Press (Oxford, UK), 2013: 207-223.

A Brief Analysis of the Euthyphro Dilemma

The Euthyphro Dilemma is typically considered to be a problem for divine command theories of moral properties. The dilemma in this guise usually goes like this: Either X is good/right because God commands it, or God commands X because it is good/right. The dilemma afflicts versions of divine command theory that take the good to be prior to the right as well as versions that take the right to be prior to the good. While the dilemma is definitely an issue for divine command theories, it is not a special problem for them. The Euthyphro Dilemma can actually be raised against any theory that aims to account for something general in terms of something particular.

The Euthyphro Dilemma will be a problem for any theory that attempts to account for the general in terms of the particular. For example, exemplar nominalism has to deal with the dilemma because it attempts to account for the appearance of commonly had properties (the general) in terms of an exemplar (the particular). To account for the seemingly common property of being red, the exemplar nominalist will pick out an exemplar particular that is red and then account for commonality by introducing a resemblance relation. So, something is red if and only if it resembles a or the red exemplar. This account has to deal with the Euthyphro Dilemma, though. Either X is red because it resembles the exemplar or X resembles the exemplar because it is red. The nominalist will opt for the former horn, since the latter is to introduce universals or at least tropes.

Ideal observer theories also have to deal with the Euthyphro Dilemma. The structural similarities between these theories and divine command theories will give rise to the dilemma, because both kinds of theories attempt to account for moral properties in terms of a particular. In the case of divine command theories, the particular is God, but for ideal observer theories, the particular is usually a hypothetical, idealized member of the moral community. Call the ideal observer, “Jeffrey”. Either X is good/right because Jeffrey approves of it, or Jeffrey approves of it because X is good/right. Like the theistic dilemma, this secularized dilemma arises because the Jeffrey is a particular, and he is supposed to account for something general, which is the good and the right in this case (and the bad and the wrong).

Trying to account for moral properties in terms of Jeffrey isn’t the only way the Euthyphro Dilemma can manifest itself as a problem for ideal observer theories. If we attempt to account for aesthetic properties in terms of Jeffrey, the same dilemma arises. Either X is beautiful because Jeffrey thinks so, or Jeffrey thinks so because X is beautiful. If we try using Jeffrey to account for cognitive/epistemic goods, the same dilemma will also arise. The same thing goes for attempting to account for truth in terms of a cognitive community, which is itself a very large particular.

So, it seems to me that the common thread running through these manifestations of Euthyphro is that each theory attempts to account for something general in terms of a particular. One issue that I have not yet explored is if it is the concreteness of the particular that raises the issue, or if abstract particulars like numbers could also be problematic when used to account for the general. Let me know what you think of my analysis of the Euthyphro Dilemma in the comments below.

Non-Moral Values Can Override Moral Values

It seems to me that there are states of affairs in which an agent ought to act immorally to secure non-moral goods. Here is one example:

Suppose that Michelangelo had to steal the marble that he used to form David. There was no other way to secure the materials to construct his sculpture. Michelangelo noticed that there was a marble dealer who had excess marble that he planned on selling for a massive discount. It was obvious to Michelangelo that the marble dealer would not miss the excess marble, since it would not impact his profit margins in a significant way. However, that excess marble belongs to the dealer; he has property rights over the marble. So by taking the marble without paying, Michelangelo has violated the dealer’s property rights. In other words, he did something immoral. But by virtue of crafting David, Michelangelo has instantiated aesthetic value that seems to excuse or maybe even justify his theft.

It seems like Michelangelo ought to have stolen that excess marble in this situation. The aesthetic values instantiated by David seem to override the moral requirement not to steal from the marble dealer.

Potential responses that occur to me are:

1. Those aesthetic values are actually moral values.

2. Michelangelo ought not to have stolen the marble.

3. The aesthetic considerations don’t override the moral considerations because they are incomparable.

The first response is to affirm that morality is tyrannical, which I have discussed in previous posts (here, here, and here). The second response just denies that Michelangelo ought to have stolen from the marble dealer. Since this thought experiment is intended to elicit intuitions from people, it does not constitute an argument in favor of the thesis that Michelangelo ought to have stolen the marble. However, for those who find the thought experiment convincing, they will need an argument for why their elicited intuitions are mistaken. So proponents of the second response need an argument for why the property rights of the marble dealer override the concerns of Michelangelo.

The third response is the most promising, and I will discuss comparability of values in later posts. For now, I will say that it seems like you can compare courses of action that would either instantiate moral values or aesthetic values in terms of whether or not the outcomes are on par. If two outcomes are on par, then it seems to me that the agent making the decision is free to go in either direction. So there seems to be at least some sense in which different kinds of values can be compared (which is not to deny that there are other senses as well).

Let me know what you think of the thought experiment and if I missed any promising responses to it in the comments below.

 

Emotions and Morality: An Introduction

When doing moral theory, the question of emotion will inevitably arise. Some theorists think that emotions should not play any moral role because they are antithetical to reliable reasoning. Others doubt that emotions are a wholly distorting influence. Some theorists believe that emotions are an integral part of our moral lives. In this post, I’m going to briefly introduce some ways in which emotions may feature in our theorizing about morality.

A popular view of emotion is to think of them as intentional states that present their objects in an evaluative way. For instance, being happy about graduating from college is to have the state of affairs of graduating from college being presented to a subject such that she has certain positive feelings towards it. She is happy about graduating, so graduating is the content of her emotion, but it is represented in a positive light. The way in which this view of emotion can be relevant to moral theorizing is when the object of emotion is a moral state of affairs. Your emotions get moralized in this sense when they are about moral states of affairs. Guilt is considered an example of a moral emotion in this sense. Feeling guilty about something is usually morally relevant because the intentional object of the guilt will be a moral state of affairs, such as breaking a promise. 

Another way in which emotions can be relevant to morality is if they provide us access to moral facts. If emotions are our means of contact with moral reality, then emotions are epistemically relevant to morality. Emotions may then be ways of representing states of affairs with a certain sensitivity to morally salient features of what’s being represented. One simplistic possibility is that our emotional reaction to the idea of pushing a man off a bridge to stop a train that is headed for five people tied to the track provides us with epistemic access to the separateness of persons, which explains why it’s wrong to push the man to his death.

However, there may be a flip side to the epistemic view of emotions. Emotions could also distort our sensitivity to morally salient features of states of affairs. Peter Singer has defended a view similar to this when he argued that deontological intuitions are subject to distorting influences rooted in our evolutionary development.

Emotions can also be the ways in which we are motivated to act morally. It could be the case that we need emotions to move us to act morally, which would make emotions necessary for moral action. On this view, a robot with the set of true moral beliefs would be unmoved to act on them if it is incapable of experiencing emotions. Mere belief is insufficient on this account of moral emotions. A view like this is developed and defended by Antonio Damasio.

We may also be subject to evaluation based on the emotions we experience. There are probably good and bad ways to behave at a funeral. If somebody began laughing uncontrollably, we would probably consider that to be inappropriate, whereas we would be tolerant of grieving in the form of loud crying. A similar view is defended by Justin D’Arms and Daniel Jacobson.

One last way that emotions can be relevant to moral theorizing is if they are integral to our moral development. Perhaps eliciting certain emotions is a necessary means of moral education. Making developing moral agents experience things like guilt over wrongdoing by pointing out how they’ve let a loved one down could be formative for them. In this sense, emotions are part of the development of moral agents.

There are probably other ways in which emotions are morally relevant that I’ve missed. If you are aware of any more, let me know in the comments section below.

 

Tyrannical Reasons

In a previous post I outlined what I think it is for a moral theory to be tyrannical. One kind of tyrannical moral theory takes the class of our moral reasons to be identical to the class of our all things considered reasons.

When we act, we do so for reasons. Reasons are things that count in favor of acting one way or another, or refraining from acting. I have a reason to eat breakfast in the morning because I feel hungry. My feeling of hunger is a reason to eat breakfast, which is to say that it counts in favor of acting in a certain way. However, I may be running late to a very important meeting, and I cannot make and eat breakfast in the small amount of time I have to myself this morning. So, my hunger may not count as an all things considered reason (ATC reason) to eat breakfast. There are overriding reasons not to eat breakfast that are grounded in the fact that the outcome of my meeting is more valuable than satiating my hunger for a few hours. In other words, I have an ATC reason not to eat breakfast, but rather to attend my meeting.

Some moral theories classify moral reasons as ATC reasons. One example is hedonistic maximizing act consequentialism. On such a view, all of our moral reasons are grounded in the maximization of pleasure among sentient beings, and if a person acts in a situation such that she fails to maximize pleasure to the best of her ability, then she is morally blameworthy in some way. The reason she is morally blameworthy is because she did not act according to her ATC reason, which is to maximize pleasure. This sort of theory entails that if you can maximize pleasure when you can act a certain way, then you ought to maximize pleasure by acting that way, which is to say that maximizing pleasure is our ATC reason. So, on hedonistic maximizing consequentialism, the class of ATC reasons is identical to the class of moral reasons; they are one and the same.

Theories of this kind are tyrannical because they moralize everything. Our actions, when rational, are done because of our ATC reasons, which means that all of our rational actions are based on all things considered reasons. ATC reasons are themselves grounded in values, so to have an ATC reason to do something is to have a reason to do something because it is valuable in some way and its value overrides other considerations. If all of our ATC reasons are moral reasons, then not only are all of our rational actions necessarily moral actions, actions that are morally evaluable, but all of the values in which our ATC reasons are grounded must be moral values. So, the view that all ATC reasons are moral reasons is tyrannical.

Another way to bring out this entailment is by considering Henry Bemis, the protagonist of the Twilight Zone episode called Time Enough at Last. To cut to the chase, Henry finds himself emerging from a bank vault after a nuclear attack. He notices that there is nobody around to stop him from spending all of his time reading books, so that’s what he does, until he unfortunately breaks his glasses.

Henry seems to have an ATC reason to spend all of his free time reading books, and to devote the rest of his time to maintaining his health so he can keep reading. But this does not seem like a moral reason. Before his post nuclear war life, Henry did not have ATC reasons to spend all of his time reading, because he had a job that imposed duties onto him that prevented him from being able to justifiably read all the time, not to mention his wife who was unhappy with how he spent his free time. It seems odd to say that once those duties vanish he is now morally evaluable as bad or as having done something wrong if he spends a bit of time not reading or maintaining his existence to keep reading. He may be acting irrationally because he has an ATC reason to read as much as possible, but he is not acting immorally. So, it seems wrong to say that Henry’s ATC reasons are identical to his moral reasons.

Those who disagree with me about tyrannical moral theories will probably not have the same intuitions as I do when considering cases like Henry Bemis, or if they do, they will have stronger intuitions supporting some particular (kind of) theory or other which override the intuitions about these cases. However, for those who think there is a distinct realm of non-moral value, or that our ATC reasons are not necessarily moral reasons, cases like Henry’s will reveal the implausibility of tyrannical moral theories.