Blog Coordinator

« Very Bad Wizards Podcast Updates | Main | Difficulty and Degrees of Blameworthiness and Praiseworthiness »



Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Dana: I agree that the smiling of the 20 pencil-person (20PP) is a confound. Suppose then that he just kind of grunts and scoots over one measly pencil with his foot. I think gratitude is still warranted, even if I might view him as blameworthy for his bad attitude (i.e., I'll judge him to be a jerk insofar as it would have been better of him had he not been so mean about it).

But now I see you have in mind something like the negative reactive attitudes as what blame consists in (at least relevant to this case and point). So we all agree, I think, that such blame can attach to agents for a set of acts that's wider than just violations of claim rights/second-personal reasons. The category of cases we have been discussing may fall under the rubric of "expectations": we have expectations that others will meet minimal standards of kindness or generosity but we ourselves cannot demand this of them. So the question is whether "oughts" attach to those expectations. (This is also Justin Capes' first question to me.) I think there is some split evidence in this thread, although most people come down on the side of thinking that the oughts do so attach. In particular, I take Dana to be saying, if the 20PP is *resentment*-worthy, then surely he ought not to have done what he did. (And if ought implies can, then....)

I still have the intuition that it's perfectly permissible for him to keep the pencils: they're his, after all, and I failed to plan ahead, etc. Perhaps this intuition may be bolstered by thinking of the following variant: everyone around me at the exam has many extra pencils, and I look pleadingly around to them all. Are they all under an obligation to give me a pencil? At most, we might think, *someone* is obligated to do so, but that obligation doesn't attach to any individual person. So what generates the contrary intuition in the original case is just that "someone" is identified exclusively as 20PP.

Justin: I think supererogation is actually a pretty vexed topic. I don't think being kind to you is something that I'm obligated to do, but I also don't think it's supererogatory. And Dana's right, there are times in which someone who meets his obligations in the face of very difficult circumstances merits gratitude (so I need to amend the argument I gave earlier to allow for that).

Finally, Justin, your case of the elderly gentleman is a good one. But why all the caveats (you've got nowhere to be, etc.)? It's probably because if this is the *only* action for which there's any reason, then there's an all-things-considered ought attached. But if there's any other thing that you'd have reason to do (e.g., someplace you needed to be), perhaps no all-things-considered ought could be generated here in virtue of the fact that the expectation-reason was so weak.

In fact, whether there's an all-things-considered ought for which someone is blameworthy in the case of expectations will surely depend on the strength of the expectation-reason. Suppose I'm sitting at a cafe on the corner and see someone holding his spear in front of him as he comes to the corner another person is about to round. I could save the person about to speared by calling out "Watch it!" But I find such accidents amusing, so I don't say anything. I have failed in adhering to a "mere" expectation, but surely the strength of that expectation reason was high enough to yield an all-things-considered ought.

Sorry to have gone on so long.

When the opinions that are held by individuals regarding the morality of a certain action are viewed as a set, the society effectively forms an overall belief regarding that action (i.e., a net opinion). When the majority of people within the society believe that a given action is sufficiently immoral, a law is passed to prohibit that action. If the majority doesn’t believe that a given action is sufficiently immoral to warrant a law, the action is simply tolerated by the society (e.g., X doesn’t want to share his pencils, and there aren’t enough votes to pass a law forcing him to do so). For humans, I’m thinking that morality boils down to being that simple – it’s subjective in nature.

When humans try to analyze morality any deeper than that, the analysis becomes about trying to find an “absolute morality” by which we’re able to *objectively* judge any given action. That causes the analysis to become infinitely complicated, because in order to define absolute morality, we must first be able to understand how any given action affects the overall ascent of life.

I don’t think we’d want to define absolute morality based upon anything less than the overall ascent of life (e.g., define absolute morality based upon what’s best for a certain subset of 3-space during a limited period of time), since that would create all kinds of contradictions as our viewpoint changed perspective across different levels of 3-D scale and periods of time. For example, we could define “absolute morality” in a manner that maximizes the lifespan and quality of life for one entity, while ignoring the resulting imbalances and subsequent destruction of a large number of other entities, thereby resulting in an overall descent of life, which wouldn’t meet the objective of doing what’s absolutely best.


The problem I'm having is figuring out why, if Beatrix did nothing wrong, the word "blame" is appropriate. But perhaps my problem is simply that it seems so clear to me that Beatrix did do something wrong. Do you think your argument would work just as well for, say, a trolley case? I still don't think that the person switching the trolley to save five by killing one could appropriately be "blamed" for the one's death, but here I'd say that blaming was "understandable" and not in itself morally blameworthy. If it works for the trolley case, I'd say that strengthens your argument. If not, then maybe the problem you have is similar to the one I have with the Beatrix version.

If it's appropriate to blame you, I think it would be for psychological not moral grounds.

Everything being equal, you should not blame someone who hasn't done something they ought not do. However, knowing human nature, it is perfectly understandable that one would blame in this case. More strongly: one might not be able to not feel blame.

So, I'm inclined to say: you are permitted to blame, not that you ought to or that it's morally appropriate.

Hi Dana. The conditional in question (If A is blameworthy for having done x, then A ought not to have done x) seems reasonably robust in a range of cases involving ought and obligation. I wonder if it remains robust when we vary the kind of ought judgments at stake. (Something like this thought seems to be at work in other posts by Justin, Michael, and David.) (1) For instance, one might think that blame (and praise) are tied more closely to the subjective ought. If so, blame might be in order for an action that was subjectively wrong, but not objectively wrong. Perhaps I can be blamed for administering a very risky treatment to a child that in fact saved her life and so was not objectively wrong. (Perhaps this is like Justin’s case.) (2) Or there might be advisory oughts the flouting of which is blameworthy but which does not involve violating a deontic ought or wrongdoing. Typically duty involves doing enough along some dimension. But we assess further increments above this threshold as better and worse. Perhaps blame in the form of (mild) self-reproach would be appropriate for my failing to optimize along some dimension when I did more than was required of me. Imagine Mother Teresa thinking that she ought to have succored the poor in Bombay, rather than Calcutta, because she could have done even more good there. Now we could say that blame here is tied to an axiological or advisory ought, but, it seems, we might have a counterexample to the claim that blame implies violation of a duty or a deontic ought. (Perhaps this is the issue Michael has in mind.) More generally, we might draw a mixed conclusion from such cases. On the one hand, if we consider the full range of kinds and grounds of blame but restrict ourselves to deontic uses of ought and ought not (wrongdoing), then the conditional seems jeopardized in cases such as (1) and (2). On the other hand, if the conditional can appeal to various kinds of ought and ought not, then there might be some reading of the conditional on which it is true in such cases. So, for instance, in (1) blame may presuppose a subjective ought not, even if not an objective one. In case (2), self-reproach may presuppose an advisory or axiological ought not, even if not a deontic one. Anyway, my $.02. Thanks for the interesting post.

Sorry! Can't help myself! (Drafted this before I saw the thoughtful posts from David Shoemaker and David Brink.)

Justin Capes, about your reply to David S-maker, I assume the way to understand David is that it would be kind to your neighbor not to mow, but, on the proposal he is exploring, it is false that you ought not to mow (and false that you ought to mow).

Justin Caouette, you assume that moral "amissness" entails impermissibility. That puts the point nicely; it gets to the rub of the issue.

And Dana, you take it that the issue here might ride on whether moral oughts come in tandem with the rights of others. Nice point.

A few scattered comments in response to all of you, though I wish to note again: I concede that you might well be correct.

First, note that Dana's suggestion of obligations without correlative rights does not seem to help with certain deontic-focused theories of MR. Wallace, for instance, thinks of holding MR in terms of holding another (or oneself) to an obligation to which one is committed. Being MR (including being blameworthy) is being an appropriate candidate for being so held. Presumably the “holding to” element here should be understood in terms of rights—or at least, it might be thought, that is what would normatively warrant someone in doing so. Darwall seems to think in similar terms--and his emphasis is on the 2nd personal (so it would be hard to wriggle out of this commitment with appeal to holding oneself to obligations). So we still might have a challenge to *certain* views about the relation between MR and (a restricted class of) obligations with cases like the pencil case, or Driver’s mowing the lawn case, even if we grant that there are relevant wrongs and relevant obligations at play with no corresponding rights.

Second, I see the appeal of thinking in terms of what we ought to do in a case like Justin's helping the elderly gentleman. But let me ask, can we infer from this ought that we are *required* to do this? Is our doing this a *requirement* of morality? Note that my question does not turn on the idea that the elderly gentleman has a right to our aid. Isn't anyone worried that morality's demands or requirements on this model creep too far into our lives? The same question applies to the pencils case: the 20 pencil-holder person is *required* by morality (even if not required by the 1 pencil-holder) to give a pencil? Now, if one wants to say but not , then I worry that the ‘ought’ at play is being treated very loosely and does not carry the full normative force that would give real substance to a principle like the one Dana proposed.

Third, to think that we cannot capture "amissness" without the notion of impermissibility may well be right. I confess, I feel the pull of it too. But is there not the worry that this (our) reaction is simply the upshot of our being a product of the particular (say) parochial, and historically limited moral vantage point that animates us? I am reminded of a paper Paul Russell recently gave in which, conjuring up Bernard Williams, he was complaining that philosophers like Wallace and Scanlon restrict the scope of moral responsibility too much by limiting it to the deontic sphere of obligation. Our thinking this way, and assuming responsibility is so limited, might be grounded in nothing more than the product of historical accident. So, why not think that there are other ways to capture “amissness” without failing-to-do-what-is-right, or without failing-to-do-what-is-required, or instead without violating-an-obligation or simply without impermissibility. Couldn’t something be morally or ethically amiss in doing something creepy, or bad, or mean, even if one is not under an obligation of any sort—is not required by anything, anybody, including just “the morality system”—not to be creepy, bad, or mean ? And couldn’t we be morally responsible and blameworthy for such conduct?

Fourth and finally, in conversation, my friend and former colleague Josh Gert has often chided me a bit about my disinclination to commit to a complete moral theory in developing a theory of moral responsibility. Without doing so, he says, we cannot really assess the theory of MR on offer. It strikes me that here we might be facing a case that confirms Josh’s point. I think Dana, Justin and Justin, as well as others, are really committed to a pretty robust picture of what morality is and what the scope of obligations are. This of course is just fine, but then I think it is a mistake to make the assertions being made simply by consulting one’s intuitions about cases (perhaps) unaware that what is driving these intuitions is a fairly substantive theoretical commitment. Likewise, it would be (is) a mistake of me to think I could (can) float these alternative conceptual proposals without accepting that, after all, taking them seriously requires at least acknowledging that an entire theory goes with them.

Sorry for my long ramble.

Very interesting case and discussion! Let me make a modest proposal for disentangling some of the issues in the hope that it doesn’t come too late. The main thing I’m going to add to what people have already said is a link between oughts and reasons, which turns out to favour distinguishing what one ought to do and what one has an obligation to do.

First, here’s four candidate principles for links between blameworthiness and moral status:

a) If you’re blameworthy for A-ing, A-ing is wrong (morally impermissible).

b) If you’re blameworthy for A-ing, A-ing is morally bad. (Not everything morally bad is morally impermissible, but everything morally impermissible is morally bad.)

c) If you’re blameworthy for A-ing, there’s something bad about A-ing. (Not everything bad is morally bad.)

d) If you’re blameworthy for A-ing, you ought not A. (You have most/sufficient reason not to A.)

(For there to be a distinction between c and d, it must be possible for there to be reasons against A-ing independently of there being something bad about A-ing. I think that’s true, although it’s not trivial to show that, since talk of there being something bad is so elastic.)

My inclination is to think that d is the correct principle, and that it makes sense of the cases discussed here. Let’s start with the Pencil Case. I’d line up the facts as follows:

1) The 20-penciler is blameworthy for not giving the pencil.
2) It is morally permissible for the 20-penciler to keep the pencil (she has no obligation to give the pencil).
3) The 20-penciler morally ought to give the pencil (she has most moral reason to give the pencil).

If these are true, then the following turns out to be false: If it is morally permissible for S not to A, it is not the case that S ought to A. I think that’s right. Oughts go with reasons, and there are reasons, moral reasons included, that go beyond those relevant to permissibility. (On this line, you ought to perform supererogatory actions, although you have no obligation to do so. At least when there’s no obligation, gratitude is appropriate.) I think that blameworthiness stricto sensu is linked to oughts. However, accountability in the broader (e.g. Scanlonian) sense isn’t. Suppose you have sufficient reason not to A, though it would be really nice for me if you did A. It’s not the case that you ought to A, so it’s not the case that you’re blameworthy in the reactive-attitude-implying sense. However, it may be appropriate for me to moderate my enthusiasm for greeting you, and thus to Scanlon-blame you for it.

I think the Lawnmower Case is like the Pencil Case: though the neighbour has a right to mow the lawn at 7 am (so that it is morally permissible for her to do so), she has sufficient moral reason not to do so, so she ought not do so. That she’s blameworthy is no counterexample to d.

What about the Kill Bill case? Here’s an idea. It’s common enough to distinguish between there being a reason for S to A and S having a reason to A, where for S to have a reason to A S has to be at least in a position to know of the fact that is the reason and of the fact that it is a reason. (I haven’t been careful with this in all cases above.) As I formulated the thesis d above, moral oughts are linked to reasons someone has. In Kill Bill, although there is a decisive reason for Beatrix to kill Bill, she doesn’t have that reason, so it isn’t the case that she morally ought to kill Bill. So she is blameworthy for doing so, although what she does is morally permissible (assuming that permissibility is a function of what moral reasons there actually are).

Thanks to all for the really interesting posts. I think that they bring out that defending the thesis requires clarification on various dimensions, such as what sort of blame is at issue and what sort of “ought” is at issue, but also a variety of other commitments, such as those to particular moral theories.

For example, as came up earlier with Justin’s Kill Bill example, one way of rejecting it as a counterexample to the thesis is to embrace the view that intentions or reasons are relevant to permissibility, contrary to the arguments of JJ Thomson and Scanlon among others.

David (Brink) and others raise the question of what sort of “ought” is at issue. He makes two different distinctions, one between advisory and deontic “oughts” and one between objective and subjective “oughts.” As I understand it, David’s Mother Theresa case is intended to show that one might appropriately blame oneself for not doing more, even when one has done what one ought to do in a deontic sense. But, the reasoning goes, the thesis might be saved if we are willing to include what seems a looser sense of “ought”, an advisory sense. It’s interesting in this case that it’s a case of self-reproach and the idea that we would reproach her seems inappropriate, to say the least. I think we would encourage Mother Theresa not to reproach herself, and wouldn’t take ourselves to be justified in reproaching her. Perhaps a kind of self-reproach could be appropriate in a case like this, but it may not be a moral reproach. For example, she might blame herself for miscalculating the potential numbers she might save. (So here another distinction arises, between moral and other blame. I was thinking that both blameworthiness and wrongness are to be read in the same way in the thesis--so for our purposes, both as moral.) And here I think she’d at most be blameworthy for incorrect reasoning, not for working in Calcutta. Perhaps this response complements Philip’s neat challenge to say when suboptimal acts that go well beyond what is required are blameworthy, if some are.

Now turn to the distinction between the subjective and objective ought. David suggests that it may be that one is blameworthy for failing to do what one subjectively ought to do, even when it is false that one has failed to do what one objectively ought to do. He uses the case of administering a risky drug that ends up saving a life in illustration as one in which you might be blameworthy despite doing what is objectively right. In assessing the case, and in trying to figure out whether the thesis itself is more defensible on one reading of “ought” rather than another, it will help to define the terms. On one understanding of objective ought, what one ought to do is what one ought to do if one knew all the facts; while on one understanding of “subjective” ought, what one ought to do is what one ought to do if one’s beliefs were true. But I don’t think that either of these characterizations quite captures an important meaning of “ought” (including the one that appears in both). I know that there’s a lot of work articulating different senses of “ought” on this dimension, and this is another dimension on which the thesis can be clarified. Full disclosure: I am particularly interested in the way in which the thesis in question interacts with the Ought Implies Can principle, and an argument that employs both with a univocal understanding of “ought.” Hopefully, more on this later…

And as Michael emphasizes, one’s moral theory will be crucial in how one approaches the thesis. It’s interesting to see how folks’ intuitions divide on the cases, and I do think this points to differences in the commitments of our (more or less explicit) moral theories.

Michael: FWIW, when I claimed I ought to help the man in my example, I was claiming that, given the details of the case, I had an all-things-considered moral obligation to help him. Moreover, I treat "S has an all-things-considered moral obligation to A," "It is objectively wrong for S not to A," and "S is all-things-considered morally required to A" as equivalent expressions. Certainly in doing so I've presupposed part of an overall moral theory, but I would want to resist Josh's claim that one needs a full blown moral theory in order to develop an adequate theory of moral responsibility.

I still think that various background details will shift our intuitions around quite a bit. Say that the 1-penciler uses a mechanical pencil she has found to be quite reliable and makes sure she has extra replacement leads in the barrel. To me that looks as if she has taken reasonable precautions of foresight about the situation. But say that the mechanism jams, she can't fix it, and so the extra leads are useless (and she valiantly tries to use them directly but they just shatter). Mr. 20 pencil on the other hand has an OCD that not only forces him to bring an overabundance of pencils but prevents him from giving any away. (You can easily add in the stated original detail that he also justifies his obsessive behavior to himself by attributing a lack of planning to the 1-penciler.) If one assumes no other people are around to lend assistance, then what? Here no one seems directly to blame in an attributable sense, but it still seems unjust in a larger sense (at least to me) that the 1-penciler can't obtain help here because of someone else's psychological condition.

The comments to this entry are closed.

Books about Agency

3QD Prize 2014: Marcus Arvan