Welcome to our book forum on Elinor Mason‘s new book Ways to be Blameworthy: Rightness, Wrongness, and Responsibility. Below is a brief introduction to the book by Elinor Mason. As a reminder, you do not need to have read the book to participate in the discussion; feel free to ask about any aspect of the book or discussion below.
Here is a very short summary: there are three different ways to be blameworthy. First, do something you know is wrong. Second, be really bad, even if you are not aware that it is problematic, and third, voluntarily take on blameworthiness in cases where things are not clear.
As that very brief summary indicates, I think that the relationship between knowing you are acting wrongly and blameworthiness is very important. But the relationship goes both ways – what counts as acting wrongly might depend on whether you know what you are doing. We need to distinguish between different uses of ‘acting wrongly’: some depend on what happens in the world, and some depend on what the agent thinks she is doing. There is a scale here, from very objective accounts of rightness to intermediate positions (such as ‘prospectivism’) to fully subjective standards. But standards of right action are sensible only if it is sometimes possible for us to meet the standard. As I put it in the book, there is a ‘responsibility constraint’ that applies to all conceptions of rightness. That is just to say that useful deontic concepts must, to some degree be related to what we could be responsible for.
But of course, there are different relations here, we need to know how the responsibility constraint works. At one end of the scale the objectivist is content with a very weak version of the constraint. What really matters to the objectivist is how things turn out in the world. At the other end of the scale, the subjectivist is attracted to a very strong version of the responsibility constraint – agents can only be acting rightly regarding things that they are responsible for, such as their internal states.
I argue for a pluralist account of rightness. A moderately objective sense of rightness is useful as an aim and for moral learning. But my focus in the book is on subjective rightness and praise and blameworthiness. Subjective standards typically focus on what the agent thinks she is doing. I argue that the real issue here is whether an agent is acting in such a way that she is praiseworthy. So, we need to know what it is to be praiseworthy. I take this as a question in normative theory, not a question about metaphysical free will. My aim is to give a convincing story about the connections between acting (subjectively) rightly or wrongly and being praise or blameworthy, so that they are mutually explanatory.
In brief, I think that acting subjectively rightly is trying to do well by morality, and acting subjectively wrongly is a matter of not trying hard enough. I will point out two features (not bugs!) of that account. First, and obviously, I should say whether I am I talking about morality as the agent takes it be (however mistakenly), or morality as it is. I argue for the second option. Agents who act on conscience, that is, try hard to act well, by a terrible morality, are not praiseworthy. Praiseworthiness requires not just trying, but getting things right. In order to even be in the ballpark for acting subjectively rightly, agents must have a grasp of Morality (the capital letter denotes its objective status). I don’t say much about what Morality consists of in the book, but is important to point out that my account of Morality is broad, and allows for reasonable error. One can ‘have a grasp of Morality’ in my sense without getting everything right. (And I come back to those who do not grasp Morality).
Second, this account is different to other accounts of subjective rightness in focusing on trying, as opposed to what the agent believes. I argue that trying does a much better job of capturing the connection to praise and blameworthiness. The belief formulation cannot make sense of a crucial element of our subjective obligation: our ongoing and continuous obligation to improve our beliefs, and to be alert to new evidence.
Trying to do well by Morality involves grasping Morality and knowing that you are aiming to do well by Morality. So I disagree with the view often held by attributionists, those who argue that choice and control are less important to moral responsibility than the deep motivations that drive an agent, or the agent’s ‘deep self’ as it is often put. On this sort of account the agent might not know that her motivations are good, and might even believe that her motivations are leading her astray (as Nomy Arpaly argues about Huck Finn) .
I argue that this sort of attributionism fails to do justice to our ordinary account of praise- and blameworthiness. We do think that there is something to admire in people who have good motivations without moral knowledge (like Huck Finn), but we do not think them fully praiseworthy. And so why not make a distinction here? We should agree that admirable motivation is a necessary component of praiseworthiness, but it is not the whole story: moral knowledge is also necessary. I argue that that there is a reflexivity requirement on ordinary praise and blameworthiness: the agent must be able to recognize the moral status of her own behaviour and judge her action as something she should or should not have done.
I also address a rival from the other end of the spectrum, the ‘Searchlight’ theorists, who argue that the only way to be blameworthy is to have full awareness of the wrongness of one’s action, either at the time of action or at some earlier time from which the current action was predictable. I argue that this takes the reflexivity requirement too seriously. On the best understanding of the reflexivity requirement, agents can be blameworthy just so long as it makes sense to say that they should have known what they were doing at the time. All this requires is a good grasp of Morality in general.
Ok, so much for subjective wrongdoing and ordinary blameworthiness. What about people who act badly, not because they are failing to try, but because they don’t grasp Morality? We do blame these people, but, I argue, in a different way, and on a different basis, it is a different sort of blameworthiness. Our blame is not communicative, the sort of blame that seeks recognition. Rather, our blame in these cases is ‘detached’. And we are not blaming them for a self-aware fault (as failing to try is), but for the fact that their actions are problematic. Detached blame is a sort of ‘objective stance’ as Strawson puts it. It involves looking at what the person has done, and accepting that there is no point in engaging with why they did it. The wrongdoer is not going to be responsive to our criticisms. We move even further into an objective stance, if we see that the agent lacks the capacities necessary for agency. In that case, we may disapprove of their actions, but we are unlikely to think of them as blameworthy, even in the detached sense.
The basic idea is that knowing what you are doing is a very different way of acting wrongly (and being blameworthy) than doing something that is bad without recognizing that it is bad. But not all cases fit into those two categories. Some of our actions, probably more than we would like to admit, are a result of ambiguous agency. Agents who grasp morality and have all the appropriate capacities sometimes do bad things. To borrow an example from Randolph Clarke, imagine that I have promised my spouse that I will get milk on the way home. Imagine that there is nothing that I have failed to do that I should have done in order to remember. Thus, it seems that I am not blameworthy for the ignorance. However, it also seems plausible to Clarke, and to me, that I am blameworthy for there being no milk.
However, neither ordinary blame nor detached blame seems appropriate. I argue that in this sort of case, agents should take responsibility. This is not simply liability (which obviously is taken on or imposed in negligence type cases). It is more than that, it is a real blameworthiness, a license for the offended party to feel something approaching resentment, and for the offender herself to feel remorse. I give an account of the appropriate reactions here, and suggest that we should recognize that there are shades of agent regret, and that at one end, when an agent is willing to take ownership of the action, agent regret shades into remorse.
Thanks for reading, I’m looking forward to hearing what people think!