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01/12/2013

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Late to the party, but this is exciting since I was recently reflecting on similar issues. I actually think that difficultly is not blame-mitigating, but that other (putative) blame-mitigating factors also happen to be difficulty-generating. We can see this because there are cases where difficulty is not blame-mitigating, and there do not appear to be cases where difficulty alone is blame-mitigating in the absence of other blame-mitigating factors. Here are a few examples.

Cases where difficulty alone is not blame-mitigating:
(1) Complying with morality would require, say, a great deal of effort, but the effort would be expended at no morally relevant cost to the agent, i.e., none of her personal projects would be sacrificed and she can easily recover from the effort
(2) Complying with morality is difficulty because of personal flaws (as in the cases considered in the earlier comments)

Cases where difficulty appears blame-mitigating, but is accompanied by other factors:
(1) Complying with morality requires painful personal sacrifice
(2) Character factors such as mental illness make complying with morality difficult.

So I'm inclined to say that it isn't difficulty per se that reduces blameworthiness, but other factors, which just so happen to also make complying with morality difficult.

Gwen: What about Susan Wolf's JoJo? Raised in deprived formative moral circumstances, he embraces his dad's cruel values and then comes to torture peasants on a whim, thinking them sufficiently below him to render his actions appropriate. Contrary to Wolf's suggestion that he's not responsible, most people find him to be quite blameworthy, albeit less blameworthy than a control case like his dad. (David Faraci and I have gotten such results in two different studies.) What would mitigate JoJo's blameworthiness? We suggest it is the difficulty (for him) of discovering that expressions of nastiness to peasants are wrong. (Note that this is not the sort of difficulty focused on by most participants in this thread, i.e., difficulty in overcoming inclinations otherwise.)

So why couldn't difficulty alone (of this sort) be what mitigates his blameworthiness? What would be the other factor relevant to such mitigation? His poor formative circumstances? But we think that mitigates *in virtue of* its rendering his discovery of certain moral reasons more difficult. I'd be interested to hear more.

That's exciting that you did a study about this! I'm curious to hear more.

I'm still inclined to say that it's not the difficulty that mitigates JoJo's blameworthiness. Contrast JoJo to his father -- let's suppose the father's cruel values are so deeply entrenched that it would be very difficult for him to realize that he is wrong (probably true of actual nasty people). Suppose it would be just as difficult for him to discover this as it would for JoJo. Does this difficulty mitigate the father's blameworthiness? Surely not. This suggests that the mitigating factor for JoJo, if there is one, is something else, possibly to do with how he came to have the values that he did, or the degree to which he isn't responsible for his character.

Gwen’s framing of the issue is very helpful here. (Very glad you weighed in!) I am inclined to think that difficulty comes apart from degree of interests sacrificed. But I’m not yet convinced that both aren’t independent factors that often (but not always) go together. Consider case (1), which is supposed to show that it is not difficulty per se that mitigates blame. Perhaps that is right, but an example might help, and one thing that weighs on the other side is that it does appear to be praise-enhancing. (Perhaps Mother Theresa’s situation is an example here--we can suppose her projects are not sacrificed, but she expends a lot of effort.) There might be an asymmetry here, but it would be useful to know why, if there is. Case (2) raises tricky questions about tracing, so I’m not sure that this is a case that undermines the idea that difficulty is not an independent factor (albeit one that doesn’t always show up as mitigating or enhancing). But I’d like to think more about all this.

And really interesting results, David! I’d also like to hear more about your conception of difficulty. I agree that difficulty isn’t exhausted by the “overcoming of temptation to do otherwise,” but I’m wondering whether you have something in particular in mind when you hypothesize that the subjects in your experiment take the difficulty for JoJo as a mitigating factor.

Fascinating discussion and one that is under-analyzed in the free will and moral responsibility literature (so I'm glad people are thinking and writing about it). To me it's just obvious that MR, blame, etc. (appropriately) come in degrees and that one of the (appropriate) reasons is based on degree of difficulty in performing the relevant actions (but what accounts for the appropriate degrees is not obvious). I will offer another example just in case it helps others see these obvious truths.

Suppose (like me) you believe that you have an obligation to give more of your money than you actually do to aid organizations that would use it to relieve suffering (you don't have to go to Singeresque degrees of obligation here). I'm inclined to think that you are not as blameworthy for failing to fulfill this obligation as you would be for failing to fulfill other obligations to relieve suffering (e.g., to help someone whose suffering was more salient to you), and that one reason you are less blameworthy is because it is more difficult (psychologically, not practically) to fulfill the more general, less salient obligation to give more to aid organizations (or do other things that would help those whose suffering is not as immediate to you).

Perhaps this example obscures the point because there are so many contentious issues about the relevant obligations. But I think it is consistent with our practices (and accords with what I take to be one of the take-home messages of Wolf's JoJo paper--e.g., regarding why we mitigate blame towards our racist ancestors), and it may explain why many people have an easy time accepting Singeresque conclusions about what we ought to do and yet also have an easy time feeling little indignation (or guilt) towards people who don't give more (or am I just rationalizing my lack of guilt for not giving more?).

Here's a link to the first paper, "Insanity, Deep Selves, and Moral Responsibility" (http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs13164-010-0026-z?LI=true), and we have a second one coming out that confirms these results and also has interesting results for positive cases of moral ignorance, e.g., Huck Finn (once we sort out this stuff on difficulty!). Our idea is that JoJo has difficulty tracking moral reasons, but of a certain sort, namely, the more general reasons against being cruel (whereas most people's moral ignorance would be with respect to which specific reasons counsel against cruelty). We presented Jo the first (JoJo's dad) without any background, so people could fill in as they saw fit. They ranked him about as high on the blameworthiness scale as one could (6.5 out of 7 mean average). Presumably, without a specification of any sort of morally deprived background, they gave no benefit of the doubt about his difficulty in doing the right thing. I suspect they just saw him as pure evil, doing what's cruel because it's cruel.

JoJo, on the other hand, received scores around 5.5 on the blameworthiness scale, a statistically significant difference from his father. The only different background factor was his upbringing. So given that he'd obviously absorbed the values of his father completely, but without having been exposed to moral alternatives, we think people viewed him as less blameworthy--but still pretty blameworthy. If he were viewed as incapacitated--normatively incompetent/insane, as Wolf thinks--he should have been viewed much lower on the blameworthiness scale (or not blameworthy at all). But people clearly think he's not incapacitated. The natural explanation, then, is that they think it's just a lot more difficult for him--given his lack of exposure to moral alternatives--to figure out that cruelty is wrong. But he (we think) *should* be able to figure that out, just with a lot more effort and attention than it would take someone who'd been raised in less morally deprived circumstances. But this is just to say that difficulty seems to be the only relevant mitigating factor.

Thomas' Jim presents the possibility for one scenario that mitigates our praise: say that Jim has a condition (OCD/genetic obsession) that drove him to practice to the point of expertise, so that his effort was not assignably attributable to him per se, but formative elements of what we finally see as Jim's accomplishments (autistic expertise is a familiar phenomenon). So as far as inherent attributes are concerned, Jim and John are comparable. We need some further account to say that some given Jim is not susceptible to an analysis that renders him on a more level playing field than John as far as endowments are concerned.

Dana: Indeed, I think there is an asymmetry -- difficulty can be praise-augmenting, but not blame-mitigating. As it happens, I"m working on something to try to explain this. My thought is that what explains the augments praiseworthiness of difficult moral actions is the same as what explains why any difficult endeavour -- nonmoral or otherwise -- is praiseworthy or meritorious. Since the augmented praise isn't specially moral praise, there's less motivation to think that there is symmetry for blame.

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