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Matt: great questions. I am inclined to say that it was wrong for Adam to break the vase, but that he has an excuse: non-culpable ignorance. Similar remarks apply to Fred. It was wrong of him to shoot Barney in the face with the cork, but he has an excuse: he wasn't culpably negligent. In short, one can act wrongly, I'm inclined to say, even if one did so because of a sincere and reasonable mistake. Wrongdoing, as I see it, is (very roughly) a function of what reasons there are, not which ones you are aware of. Note: one doesn't have to be a consequentialist to accept that claim.

Your first case is tougher though. Tom may not be blameworthy, but is that the same as saying he is excused? I'm not sure. I'm not blameworthy for hitting Jerry, but that's not because I have excuse; it's because I didn't hit Jerry. Mightn't a similar thing be said about Tom? If so, then the standard view is safe.

One last thought. While I find the issues you've raised fascinating, sometimes I wonder how much of this is just a verbal dispute. Sometimes I think it is, but at others I'm not so sure.

HI Matt,

Nice post.

First, it strikes me that the naive view as you call it might be a bit more popular than you suggest. I have only read a couple of pieces that have rejected this view (one by Capes and a couple by Ish Haji) and a few philosophers seem to implicitly endorse it. I'm not in the law literature but BW principle seems to be one that some philosophers like.

Anyhow, I was hoping you could say a bit more about the second worry, that the standard view " generates very substantive, and potentially worrisome, moral commitments". Is the worry that you would be forced to blame others or at least hold others morally responsible for things you don't think they should be held responsible for?

I agree with Justin that what Adam and Fred did is wrong. Here is an example that brings this line of thought out. Suppose I think I am adding fluoride to the water supply and due to someone else mislabeling the bottles (not my error), I add cyanide instead. Everyone in Southern California dies, yes 20 million people. On your view, Matt, you would say what I did is not wrong. Given a trichotomy in which any action has to be either wrong, permissible, or right, then what I did is either permissible or right. That seems implausible.

Here is one more quick thought. Anyone (like me or Justin) who says Adam and Fred acted wrongly needs a way to say that these agents aren’t blameworthy. The most plausible way to do this is to appeal to quality of will: these agents did not express ill will in what they did so they are not blameworthy.

Matt, you want to say what Adam and Fred did is *not* wrong. But the kinds of ethical theories—theories such as Kant’s deontology or certain versions of subjective consequentialism—that get you that conclusion rely on quality of will. These theories say whether a person acts rightly or wrongly depends on the quality of will that is expressed in his action (recall Kant’s great line about a good will shining like a precious jewel).

It seems then that you either accept a Quality of Will view of blameworthiness directly. Or you tie blameworthiness tightly to wrongness, and adopt an ethical theory that places quality of will at center stage for wrongness. Either way, quality of will is doing the work.

Justin & Chandra, thanks for your comments. There’s a lot contain within each, actually, so it’ll take me a little space to reply.

You both agree that wrongness remains in the cases I've described, except maybe Tom's spasm. But then we can safely ignore that case, since he doesn't act anyway. (I take it one way in which this might be a verbal dispute, Justin, is in whether Tom offers an "excuse" or not when he explains that it was a spasm. But whether it counts or not might depend on whether the std view is correct or not.)

Chandra, you support this line of thinking with your own example of an honest and sincere (and non-culpable) mistake. I'm not sure I see why it's any different from mine, except that maybe you're relying on the harm caused being very large and so there's more pressure to say that the action is wrong. I guess I don't see that. I see that the outcome is far worse than in the box tossing case, but I'm not sure that matters once we control for the genuineness of the mistake.

Still, I should grant upfront that I think mistakes are the hardest cases I've given. I'm not sure what further evidence to provide in support of the naive view on this score, but I'm also not sure further adducing cases, even ones in which lots of harm is caused, compels me to change my mind.

But it might help to consider Justin's suggestion that wrongness is determined by the reasons against an action. So, Adam has an important reason against tossing the box, because it's likely to break the vase inside, even though he doesn't know there is the vase inside and so isn't aware of that reason. Similarly, Chandra has a reason not to add the "fluoride" that's really cyanide, though he doesn't know it.

Now, I find reasons talk to often be obscure, since I think reasons come pretty cheap. So I agree that they each can have these reasons, though I’m less sure that this shows that acting contrary to such reasons makes their actions wrong. Here’s one way I might reply. Consider Adam as he is about to toss the box. Should he refrain from tossing it? You guys want to say “yes”. Is he aware of that reason? Well, no. Should he be aware of it? Well, I don’t think so. It’s not as if he failed following the balance of reasons up to tossing the box, at least not if we are agreed the mistake is reasonable. So he was reasonable up to that point, so he would have to have been unreasonable, acting against the balance of reasons, to be aware of the reason that now is to make his tossing the box wrong. If all that’s right, I think I begin to lose my grip on any difference between an action’s being wrong and it generating a bad outcome.

I think this is even easier to see in the accidental cases. Fred follows the balance of reasons in opening the bottle, and doing so carefully further follows his reasons. The only sense in which he shouldn’t have opened the bottle was that something bad happened as a result. It would seem to me that even Tom has these sorts of reasons to avoid hitting Jerry via spasm. But is ‘wrong’ really to be understood as ‘being unjustified in bringing about’? I fear I must be missing something.

As for Chandra’s point about Quality of Will, I’m really unsure what these are supposed to be. (That isn’t your fault, Chandra, and I know you’ve written about this so my apologies for being ignorant of your treatment. But I’ve never seen a particularly perspicuous characterization.) I certainly don’t think they are a necessary component of any reasonable theory in this domain. If pushed, I’d admit that there’s something we can call a quality of will, but it’s downstream of action. I’m very skeptical of upstream qualities of will.

Oof - that was long. Sorry!

Matt: I agree with your assessment of those examples (i.e., there is no wrongdoing), and your point that wrongdoing and blameworthiness track each other, but I'm not sure I get the contrast between the standard view and the naive view you described; more precisely, I get the impression that the standard view is compatible with the naive view, for the following reason:

If BW = Responsibility + wrongdoing, that seems compatible with the view that excuses reduce or eliminate responsibility for wrongdoing - so, the behavior would be morally wrong, but the person would not be either blameworthy or responsible.

That aside, your examples (and any others I could find), seem to indicate that wrongdoing and blameworthiness track each other as you say (if your assessment is correct, which I agree with), so perhaps, a simpler view (which I guess might be described as more naive in your terminology) would be that a person is blameworthy if and only if he or she behaves immorally, i.e., if and only if he or she acts wrongly. Responsibility might be a necessary condition for BW/wrongdoing/immoral behavior.
So, wrongdoing (or immoral behavior) and blameworthiness would necessarily go hand in hand. Perhaps, different people are using the terms somewhat differently, though, because I get the impression that to say that someone acted wrongly, immorally, etc., is to blame them.

Regarding cases in which the outcome is very bad, etc., my impression is that the question of immorality/wrongdoing depends on the mind of the agent, not on other factors - though the mind includes not only intentions, of course, but what the evidence is, etc. -, and so I agree in particular that there is no wrongdoing in the 20 million casualties scenario, or even if the outcome is worse. That would apply even to cases in which there is a moral obligation to carry out certain action (in spite of consequnces the person properly didn't know).

For example, let's suppose that a soldier believes she needs to press a button so that a missile would be fired and would intercept another missile launched by some terrorists, saving a city from a nuclear bomb. Given the evidence available to her, let's say her belief is a proper assessment. She should believe what she does believe. So, she's ordered to press the button, and save the city.
In a situation like that (she has no reason to suspect other, worse or similarly bad consequences) she has a moral obligation to press the button. If she failed to press it because she did not want to save the city, or because she forgot about it, or because she believes God will save the city, etc., she would be acting immorally/wrongly, and would be blameworthy, whereas if she pressed the button in order to save the city, she would be doing what has morally ought to, given the information available to her.

If we add to the scenario something about the result, in my view that doesn't change the moral evaluation about her obligation, or about her being BW if she does not press the button, etc.
For example, we may add that some terrorist hackers, or someone else (whoever they are) modified things so that pressing a button will launch a full scale nuclear attack on other nuclear powers, effectively ending the lives of billions and our civilization. As I see it, her behavior would remain just as immoral if she failed to press the button, and not immoral if she did.

Matt: you argue that Adam and Fred acted reasonably, given the information they had, and I agree. But just as a person might reasonably believe something false (say, because all the evidence of which the person is aware suggests that p even though p is false) so too a person might reasonably do something wrong in cases where all the reasons of which the person is aware suggest that A-ing is permissible when, in fact, it isn't.

You've convinced me, though, that the Fred case is tougher than I initially thought. So here's an alternative handling of that case. Fred didn't act wrongly; he was justified in opening the bottle. After all, the odds of his hitting Barney were presumably low, and he had good reasons (presumably) to open the bottle and no other good reasons not to. So he didn't act wrongly. So, he doesn't need an excuse for his behavior; it was morally justified.

Now, I've argued in print that showing your harmful action to be justified isn't enough to get you off the hook; blameworthiness doesn't require wrongdoing. Still, I can accept a closely related claim. Suppose you act badly iff you either act wrongly or from an objectionable quality of will. (I assume you can act on the basis of an objectionable quality of will without acting wrongly). Then I can say that an agent has an excuse iff he acted badly but isn't blameworthy, and that an agent has a justification iff, appearances to the contrary, the agent didn't act badly.


Thanks - I agree that judgments about wrongness are akin to judgments about blameworthiness. But that's not a claim I can directly defend here. Instead, I only want to give some support for the naive view (with which it sounds like you're on board).

Good, Justin. So we agree on some of the epistemic stuff. But do you think an action's being wrong is like a proposition's being false? I guess I think an action’s being bad is like that, but not it’s being wrong. (Then again, I’m not really sure what I think about “wrongness” per se.) Could you say more about the analogy, if you think it holds?

I suppose we can say Fred was justified in opening the bottle, but this doesn’t tell us about his relationship to shooting Barney. Is this also justified? Presumably not, as he didn’t have good reasons for doing so. Indeed, he didn’t take himself to have any reasons for doing so, since he only did it accidentally. So I’m not sure how much mileage we can get out of appealing to justifications here.

Similarly, I’m not sure what to make of your final claims. I think it’s an interesting suggestion to make acting badly dependent on acting wrongly. Could you say more about what acting badly is? I don’t know that I have much of independent grasp on the distinction between it and acting wrongly.

I'd say that an excuse is an acceptable reason for violating a norm. The classic excuse is "My dog ate it", which is an acceptable reason (if true, and not your fault!) for violating the norm of handing in your homework. In the moral domain, being lost and alone in the woods in a blizzard would be an excuse for breaking into a cabin. The moral norm of not breaking into other people's houses has been violated, but for an acceptable reason.

I'd say that Tom, Fred, and Adam didn't actually violate any norms. Yes, they caused harm, but they didn't run afoul of any rules of morality in doing so. From the stories as given, it seems that they all took a reasonable amount of care not to harm others, but failed anyway. Thus none of them has (or needs) an excuse.

Chandra's poisoning of LA is somewhat different. Given the fact that adding chemicals to a city's water supply is something that needs more care than just reading the label, it seems that he might indeed have violated a norm. That's what (I think) makes that story seem a little more like there was wrong-doing. But add in some extra care (testing the chemicals before adding them, say), together with a non-culpable reason for that care not to have been effective, and the wrong-doing seems (to me) to go away. It becomes a story of a man who caused a horrifying amount of harm thru no fault of his own.

I'd further say that the acceptable reason for violating a norm means that the violation is not an instance of wrong-doing. Wrong-doing is (IMV) a *culpable* violation of a norm, and the (known) existence of a good reason to violate the norm makes it non-culpable. And because there's no wrong-doing (in my view), it's OK (under the naive view) if we continue to hold the norm violator responsible for his actions. Thus the person who broke into the cabin is responsible for the damage done during the break-in, but not blameworthy for that damage. He should pay for the damages done, but not be punished for doing that damage. For Tom, Fred, and Adam, not only should they not be punished for the harm they've done, they shouldn't even be forced to pay for it. Paying for it would be optional, and perhaps even praiseworthy.

That said, I'd say that the question of whether there "really was wrong-doing", and even whether these people "really are responsible" for their actions is not terribly important. What's important is what can/should/must be done in response to the events described. So long as we all agree that Adam doesn't owe Eve a new vase, how we come to that conclusion is only relevant insofar as it tells us how other cases will be decided.

Matt, you are right part of the purpose of my cyanide example was to ramp up the pressure against your claim that Adam/Fred type actions are not wrong. The other point I made was about the trichotomy: An action has to be either forbidden, permissible or required. Which of these is [pouring cyanide in the water based on faulty information and killing 20 million people]? It is certainly not required, and you say it is not forbidden (i.e., wrong). So it must be permissible. That seems strange to say the least.

As for quality of will, you are right to demand a good account. I think we can make very good sense of this notion in terms of deep self theory. Obviously, that is a huge issue that I won’t try to get into here. But I’m hoping you’ll keep your mind open about the prospects for this kind of view.

Thanks, Mark.

I agree with a lot of what you say. I wonder what account you'd give of justifications, though, and whether you'd want to distinguish them from excuses. Your examples look more like justifications to me, where we do bad things for good reasons, and are overall justified despite the bad thing done.

Matt, I take reasons to be facts that tell for or against something. In the case of theoretical reasons, they are facts that tell for or against believing something. In the case of practical reasons, they are facts that tell for or against doing something.

As I said, the case about Fred is tough. A lot depends, I suspect, on the nature and extent of the harm done and the likelihood that it would happen as a result of the intentional action. If the chance that Fred would harm Barney was high enough, and the harm done to Barney severe enough, then I'd go with my first response and say Fred wasn't justified in opening the bottle or shooting Barney in the face, that he therefore acted wrongly, but that he has an excuse. If, on the other hand, his reasons for opening the bottle were strong, the risk to Barney small, and the harm to Barney that might result small also, then I'd say he was justified in hitting Barney in the nose and thus doesn't need an excuse.

Finally, about the acting badly stuff, for me it's a technical term. An agent S acts badly iff either (i) S does something wrong or (ii) S does something from an objectionable quality of will. My claim was simply that, while I don't think blameworthiness requires wrongdoing, it does require acting badly (in the sense just given). An agent who fails to act badly (in my sense) was justified in acting as he did and thus isn't blameworthy.

Thanks, Chandra.

I don't mean to be dismissive of a quality of will view at all. I'm just reporting why I didn't take up the point further.

It is common in introductory ethics to explain the trichotomy you propose. I've never been very comfortable with it. Permissions and forbiddens look to me close to speech acts, and I've always found it puzzling that morality should be conceived of as something that permits and forbids. To me it all sounds metaphorical. But those are my hangups. I guess I don’t think it sounds all that odd to say the mistaken is ‘permissible’, anymore than to say it is ‘not wrong’.

But as I said, I agree that the mistake cases are the hardest. Are you apt to say the same thing about the true accidents (like Fred’s shooting)?

Matt: I'd say an excuse is a kind of justification: an excuse is for a norm violation, while a justification is for any kind of action (or state?) that makes people ask "Why did/do/are you?"

This is an interesting thread; thanks Matt for kicking off a lot of good discussion.

Aren't some actions simply devoid of moral worth or are morally neutral in virtue of being morally vacuous? Most of the time when we open the refrigerator door we're doing nothing of moral importance, except very remotely since it could be argued that lots of such seemingly morally neutral actions gain moral color in a large enough perspective and in certain cases. (I'm an alcoholic and getting another drink, thus potentially harming my kids or such in short- or long-term effects.) But to say that every act is (im-)permissible (here a binary elision of permissibility with right actions) attributes distinct moral color to all human actions. I'd prefer to say that human action is either morally permissible, impermissible, or neither. Picking up a odd-looking rock on the beach may satisfy my curiosity, and maybe one could say in a stretch that is a matter of character-building virtue (I'm really being creative here), but I'd say it's just a morally neutral act.

Could acts with real (and huge) moral consequences involve agents whom we rule to be morally neutral with respect to those consequences? I'd say that Chandra's cyanide-fluoridator is one such. If one is employed to add chemicals to water in a safe fashion, and one discharges those duties accordingly, then one is simply a voluntary cog in a larger machine--one has knowingly become part of a process that one believes to be either non-moral (this stuff harms no one, so I'm reliably told) or beneficial (fluoride fights tooth-decay). As long as one dutifully does the job, that is all that can be expected (there is no ill-will in being a fluoridator; procedures are properly followed). Unless the chemicals seem "funny" or something's not quite right, the fluoridator simply does what needs to be done. The fact that others in greater places of responsibility have failed--gross negligence in ordering/packaging the deadly cyanide--does not transfer to someone doing her (reflectively accepted) right and proper job. All things being equal, the fluoridator's immediate acts are morally neutral with respect to the horrible outcome. She is a cog in a machine that went terribly wrong elsewhere in the mechanism.

I'd written a longer post musing about the real case of potential cogs in an immoral machine--those who volunteer as the final "key-turners" for launching nuclear missiles--but that would take us far afield. But even there, there are arguments to be made that they are not responsible for the death of millions should that happen (crucially based on the reflective choice to serve as key-turners in the first place).

Thanks for the clarification, Mark. It sounds a little like you're using 'justification' in place of 'explanation'. I agree that justifications can be explanations, but I don't think all explanations are justifications. One could ask of any action why the agent did that, but I don't think all replies would amount to justifications of the action (not even attempted justifications).

Thanks, Al. I think I think there are morally neutral actions. My only hesitation is that I'm also tempted to say that when we act we are often failing to do other things, and these failures can themselves morally color our actions. For instance, since much of what we do is made possible by a range of structures, institutions, practices, and like in the world, to the extent that those structures, institutions, and practices are morally questionable, our actions might inherit some of that moral fishiness. Participating in a global economy that is marginalizing or exploiting workers might be an inescapable (or nearly so) feature of my buying a shirt.

At the same time, I'm not sure about this line of thinking, and I do find it plausible that at least some actions, like tying my shoes before leaving the house, must be largely morally neutral. (Although, maybe not if they were made in a sweatshop.)

So, I agree with the basic point, but one line of resistance for me is precisely the idea you seem to be suggesting, that playing a role in complicated schemes might excuse us. I actually think we may be embroiled in all that moral messiness.

It's worth noting that some theorists do deny moral neutrality, or at least responsibility for such actions. So, it sounds like Chandra can accept neutrality only as an instance of permissibility. While other theorists (e.g., Wallace and Al Mele) are on record as denying MR for morally neutral actions. I don't find such denials particularly plausible.

I'd say that explanation is wider again than justification. You can explain why a plane crashed without justifying the plane's crashing.

I was a bit quick on the description of justification, tho. It's only for volitional actions and states we have some control over. "Why are you tall?" and "Why do you breathe?" are not questions that give rise to justifications. I'm not quite sure how to make the definition precise, but then I'm of the opinion that things don't always need to be precise.

Consider whether we're responsible for morally neutral actions. I, like you, think it gives us a simpler, cleaner theory when we include morally neutral actions amongst the things we're responsible for. But I don't think it's important that we do so. What difference does it make to our findings of blameworthiness or praiseworthiness if morally neutral actions are/are not responsible actions? I'm not sure there's any; and if there is, I'm not sure it can't be handled by small changes in how other terms are applied. In short, I don't care whether anyone considers morally neutral actions as responsible actions.

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