Another prominent locus of responsibility discourse is Strawson’s theory of the reactive attitudes. Strawson is one of the most influential contemporary responsibility theorists, being a central catalyst for mainstream compatibilism. On Strawson’s view, responsibility is an interpersonal practice in which we deploy (feel or express) the reactive attitudes, consisting of approbation, praise, disapprobation, resentment, indignation, and the like (1963). Michael McKenna defends a more specific, situated version of Strawsonianism, on which the reactive attitudes are part of a conversational practice with three paradigmatic stages: (1) a moral contribution, in which someone perform 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, explaining or accounting for her actions (2013). McKenna’s view situates Strawson’s theory within a two-person conversational exchange. The stages of this exchange often include the familiar speech acts of: accusing, blaming or praising someone; accepting responsibility, apologizing, or offering amends; and offering an explanation, excuse or justification.
This is a helpful elaboration of Strawson’s model, as it gives responsibility a concrete form and helps us to understand what Strawson meant when he described responsibility—somewhat ambiguously—as an ‘interpersonal practice.’ McKenna’s explanation is a step in the right direction, I think, in that it clarifies the context in which responsibility takes place (a two-person dialogue), and the some of the discursive forms that our reactive attitudes and responses often take.
But this is only part of the context, surely. McKenna’s account describes a two-person exchange, but says nothing about broader social conditions in which the exchange takes place. It’s reasonable to think that EI could affect our ability to participate in our roles as moral addressors and moral accounters in a rational way—a way that enhances, or at least preserves, the responsible agency of the conversational partners. We might, for example, deploy the reactive attitudes on the basis of implicit or explicit bias in a climate of EI, or respond to blame in biased ways. If so, then our epistemic climate impairs the proper functioning of our moral conversations—it prevents them from proceeding in a fair and constructive way.
We can bring this into relief by homing in on the second and third stages of McKenna’s conversational model, and situating them against a background of EI.
- In the moral address stage, addressors might unfairly underestimate the moral standing of disadvantaged group members due to implicit bias. They might also deploy the reactive attitude in discriminatory and punishing ways, if they are explicitly biased. In either case, there will be a tendency to excessively blame and criticize disadvantaged group members compared to other people. There will also be a tendency to reject or discount the moral accounts of members of disadvantaged groups, since EI tends to result in ‘testimonial injustice’—the unfair discrediting of people’s testimony on the basis of the demographic attributes and social scripts about those attributes. Testimonial injustice includes biased responses to the testimony constitutive of a moral accounts—accounts that testify to one’s innocence, that respond defensively to unfair blame and censure, and so on. Testimonial injustice can prevent the moral addressor from responding appropriately to the moral account of disadvantaged group members. It can also operate in the inverse way, prompting the person to overestimate his own credibility and moral worth.
- In the moral accounting stage, stereotype threat and low self-regard might inhibit the performance of members of disadvantaged groups, in their role as moral accounters; for example, it might prevent them from providing confident rebuttals to misplaced blame, or assertively defending their moral standing in the face of unfair and biased recriminations. (This is obviously not a necessary effect of EI, but it is something to watch for if we want to be responsible moral accounters). In addition, stereotyped individuals may not receive proper uptake (or due credit) from others for their moral accounts due to EI effects. By contrast, privileged group members are more likely to have high epistemic confidence, enabling them to defend their moral standing more effectively—perhaps too effectively: given too much epistemic confidence, one might be tempted to deny apt blame and censure.
These considerations show how EI can affect our moral conversations in biasing and responsibility-impairing ways. The cognitive effects of EI can place negatively stereotyped groups in a position of relative disadvantage in moral conversation. This is a kind of ‘moral-conversational disenfranchisement, which we should be cognizant of if we want to be responsible (rational) members of moral conversation.
In addition to these direct effects, EI might undermine our moral conversations in more insidious ways. Specifically, it might undermine the ‘epistemic warrant’—the degree of justification or authority—that every single one of our moral claims has, including our reactive attitudes and moral accounts, viz., the central constituents of moral conversation. Why is this? We can explain this phenomenon by reference to standpoint epistemology (see, e.g., Harding 2015, Longino 2001, Potter 1993), which holds that our knowledge claims are epistemically underwritten not only by our individual beliefs and attitudes, but also by the background assumptions shared by our culture—the total network of beliefs and attitudes held by everyone with whom we share a form of life. This means that flaws in our epistemic environment—such as pervasive negative stereotypes and social scripts—undermine the epistemic warrant of our knowledge claims, including (but not restricted to) our moral knowledge claims, i.e., our claims about what is morally the case. Hence, when we claim that S is blameworthy or S is excused from responsibility or what have you, we must treat this is a mere moral belief or opinion, not a piece of moral knowledge. We must, in other words, be modest in our moral claims, and amenable to revising those claims in light of new information. One way of increasing the justification of our moral claims is to be vigilant about the role of cognitive distortions in our conversations—but this won’t give us moral knowledge. To be truly confident, we need to fix the flaws in our collective discourse. We need to reject the harmful stereotypes, subtle biases, and exclusions that we encounter on a regular basis.
Notably, there are ways of indirectly controlling and remediating implicit biases, which have received extensive research—methods such as counter-stereotypical exposure and implementation intentions (see Kelly et al. 2010). Privileged people are arguably blameworthy for failing to use these methods to improve their moral profile (Holroyd 2012). But on the other hand, these methods are of limited immediate efficacy and questionable long-term efficacy. In a climate of epistemic injustice, implicit bias is practically inevitable, even for the most reflectively scrupulous among us. It is a dangerous mistake to think that meticulous self-examination will inoculate us against implicit bias. While we out to try to be critically reflective and vigilant about the role of implicit biases and other cognitive distortions in our moral reasoning, this doesn’t exhaust our moral responsibilities. We also need to take substantial measures to improve the quality of our public discourse.
Biased responsibility practices are not only unfair to the disadvantaged parties, but harmful to the entire moral community, since discriminatory treatment tends to alienate disenfranchised groups—those who are not getting the moral credit they deserve—and alienation in turn tends to create subcultures of disaffected individuals who reject the prevailing social contract. This is one of the reasons that EI undermines our relational responsibility—it deters some people from participating in moral conversations at all, or participating in good faith; and it also excludes the people who have the most epistemic insight and authority vis-à-vis our flawed social discourses and institution—the people we most need to contribute. When we exclude people from moral conversation, we undermine our moral culture.
Interestingly, ethical theorists tend to suppose that most people are already and at all times recognized members of the moral ingroup, or ‘moral community.’ This includes Strawson, who takes for granted that most people are subject to the ‘participant stance,’ with only a few ‘deranged’ people falling outside of the moral community as we know it. Similarly, Scanlon says that morality includes all “suitably motivated” individuals (1998: 189), meaning those willing to cooperate in the social order; and he seems to think—though I could be wrong—that most people are interested in cooperation, and are also given a seat at the table and treated as equal contributors. There is, in any case, no discussion about how some people’s speech counts for more than others in our public discourse and public understandings. Rawls took a completely different tack, assuming that only landowning white males were fit to be contractors in the original position; and Kant similarly included only White males in the sphere of moral reasoning. In the real world, our moral-conversational practices may superficially purport to be open to everyone, and grounded on fair and impartial principles, but that’s not how they work. In reality, these practices resemble Kant’s and Rawls’ Eurocentric worldview more than we might like to admit, inasmuch as landowning White males still contribute disproportionally to public discourse, and receive more credit, trust, and respect than they deserve (in general). This is because EI functions in such a way as to favour historically privileged groups—those who were previously regarded as the only moral agents, or at least the paradigm case. This radical ignorance is a predictable effect of a high degree of EI. As Fricker points out, EI creates disparities in our social interactions, representing some people as moral credible and socially valuable than others; since moral conversation is a social interaction, it is not immune from the structural inequalities that beset our broader social interactions.
To eliminate stratification in the moral community, we need to work to eliminate the biases and unjustified assumptions that (still) play a role in our responsibility system.
Before closing, I’ll anticipate an upcoming discussion by noting that, on Strawson’s view, when we unfairly morally appraise someone, we (technically) objectify the person by failing to respond to the person’s quality of will. Strawson says that the reactive attitudes must respond to the target’s quality of will. We can suspend or modify these attitudes if the person is either temporarily or permanently cognitive impaired—for instance, cases of hypnosis or severe cognitive disability. If I am right that we often (intentionally or unintentionally) morally appraise people on the basis of extraneous factors, such as EI or the cognitive effects of EI, as opposed to homing in on the person’s actual quality of will, it appears that we often modify the reactive attitudes for no good reason. In some cases, we might illegimately ‘take the objective attitude’ toward the person, although the person is not, in fact, morally incapacitated—we are just treating the person as if he were. In other cases, we might illicitly blame someone, modifying the reactive attitudes in a punitive way.
By thinking about responsibility against the backdrop of EI, we pinpoint characteristic ways in which our responsibly attributions can, and often do, go wrong.
I will expand on these points in post #6.