Thursday, March 19, 2015

On Being Blameworthy for Unwelcome Thoughts, Reactions, and Biases

As Aristotle notes (NE III.1, 1110a), if the wind picks you up and blows you somewhere you don't want to go, your going there is involuntary, and you shouldn't be praised or blamed for it. Generally, we don't hold people morally responsible for events outside their control. The generalization has exceptions, though. You're still blameworthy if you've irresponsibly put yourself in a position where you lack control, such as through recreational drugs or through knowingly driving a car with defective brakes.

Spontaneous reactions and unwelcome thoughts are in some sense outside our control. Indeed, trying to vanquish them seems sometimes only to enhance them, as in the famous case of trying not to think of a pink elephant. A particularly interesting set of cases are unwelcome racist, sexist, and ableist thoughts and reactions: If you reflexively utter racist slurs silently to yourself, or if you imagine having sex with someone with whom you're supposed to be having a professional conversation, or if you feel flashes of disgust at someone's blameless disability, are you morally blameworthy for those unwelcome thoughts and reactions? Let's stipulate that you repudiate those thoughts and reactions as soon as they occur and even work to compensate for any bias.

To help fix ideas, let's consider a hypothetical. Hemlata, let's say, lacks the kind of muscular control that most people have, so that she has a disvalued facial posture, uses a wheelchair to get around, and speaks in a way that people who don't know her find difficult to understand. Let’s also suppose that Hemlata is a sweet, competent person and a good philosopher. If the psychological literature on implicit bias is any guide, it's likely that it will be more difficult for Hemlata to get credit for intelligence and philosophical skill than it will be for otherwise similar people without her disabilities.

Now suppose that Hemlata meets Kyle – at a meeting of the American Philosophical Association, say. Kyle’s first, uncontrolled reaction to Hemlata is disgust. But he thinks to himself that disgust is not an appropriate reaction, so he tries to suppress it. He is only partly successful: He keeps having negative emotional reactions looking at Hemlata. He doesn’t feel comfortable around her. He dislikes the sound of her voice. He feels that he should be nice to her; he tries to be nice. But it feels forced, and it’s a relief when a good excuse arises for him to leave and chat with someone else. When Hemlata makes a remark about the talk that they’ve both just seen, Kyle is less immediately disposed to see the value of the remark than he would be if he were chatting with someone non-disabled. But then Kyle thinks he should try harder to appreciate the value of Hemlata's comments, given Hemlata's disability; so he makes an effort to do so. Kyle says to Hemlata that disabled philosophers are just as capable as non-disabled philosophers, and just as interesting to speak with – maybe more interesting! – and that they deserve fully equal treatment and respect. He says this quite sincerely. He even feels it passionately as he says it. But Kyle will not be seeking out Hemlata again. He thinks he will; he resolves to. But when the time comes to think about how he wants to spend the evening, he finds a good enough reason to justify hitting the pub with someone else instead.

Question: How should we think about Kyle?

I propose that we give Kyle full credit for his thoughtful egalitarian judgments and intentions but also full blame for his spontaneous, uncontrolled – to some extent uncontrollable – ableism. The fact that his ableist reactions are outside of his control does not mitigate his blameworthiness for them. When the wind blows you somewhere, the fact that you ended up there does not reflect your attitudes or personality. In contrast, in Kyle's case, his ableist reactions, repudiated though they are, are partly constitutive of his attitudes and personality. Hemlata would not be wrong to find Kyle morally blameworthy for his unwelcome ableist reactions.

Compare with the case of personality traits: Some people are more naturally sweet, some more naturally jerkish than others. Excepting bizarre or pathological cases, we praise or blame people for those dispositions without much attention to whether they worked hard to attain them or came by them easily or can't help but have them. Likewise, if you've been a spontaneous egalitarian as far back as you can remember, great! And if you've worked hard to become a thoroughgoing spontaneous egalitarian despite a strong natural tendency toward bias, also great, in a different way. And someone whose immediate reactions are so deeply, ineradicably sexist, racist, and ableist that there is no hope of ever obliterating those reactions is not thereby excused.

This is a harder line, I think, than most philosophers take who write about blameworthiness for implicit bias (e.g., Jennifer Saul and Neil Levy).

Part of my thought here is that words and theories and ineffective intentions are cheap. It's easy to say egalitarian things, with a feeling of sincerity. For 21st century liberals you almost have to be a contrarian not to go along with endorsing egalitarian views at an intellectual level. It seems reasonable to give ourselves some credit for that, since egalitarianism (about the right things) is good. But we take it too easy on ourselves if we think that such conscious endorsements and intentions are the main thing to which credit and blame should attach: Our spontaneous responses to people, our implicit biases, and the actual pattern of decisions we make are often not as handsome as our words and resolutions, and such things also can matter quite a bit to the people against whom we have these unwelcome thoughts, reactions, and biases. It seems a bit like excuse-making to step away from accepting full blame for that aspect of ourselves.

(This, by the way, is the topic of the talk I'll be giving at the Pacific APA meeting, in the Group Session from 6-9 pm Saturday evening, April 4.)

[image source]

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Appendix:

One compromise approach is to say that people are blameworthy only because, and to the extent, that their reactions are under their indirect control: Although Kyle now can't effectively eliminate his unwelcome reactions to Hemlata, he could earlier have engaged in a course of self-cultivation which could have reduced or eliminated his tendency toward such reactions, for example by repeatingly exposing himself to positive exemplars of disabled people. He should have taken those measures, but he didn't.

Although I'm broadly sympathetic with that line of response, I see at least two problems with insisting that at least indirect control is necessary: First, indirect control comes in degrees. Presumably, for some people, some biases or unwelcome patterns of reaction would be fairly easily controlled if they made the effort, while for other people those same patterns might be practically impossible to eliminate; but in the ordinary course of assigning praise and blame we rarely inquire into such interpersonal differences in difficulty. Second, the full suite of unwelcome thoughts, reactions, and biases, if we consider not only sexism and racism but also the manifold versions of ableism, ageism, classism, bias based on physical attractiveness, and cultural bias, as well as the full pattern of unjustifiable angry, dismissive, insulting, and unkind thoughts we can have about people even separate from bias – well, it's so huge that a self-improvement project focused on eliminating all of them would be hopeless and arguably so time-consuming that it would squeeze out many other things that also deserve attention. We are forced to choose our targets for self-improvement. But the practical impossibility of a program of self-cultivation that eliminates all unwelcome thoughts, reactions, and biases shouldn't excuse us from being blameworthy for those thoughts, reactions, and biases that remain. Given the difficulty, it's appropriately merciful to cut people some slack – but that slack should be something like understanding and forgiveness rather than excuse from praise and blame.

Update April 3:

I've been getting a lot of helpful critique, both in the comments section and orally. Let me add two important qualifications:

(1.) Pathologically obsessive thoughts probably deserve a different approach.

(2.) The case I am most interested in is self-blame and self-critique, especially among those of us with a tendency to want to let ourselves off the hook. Secondarily, I want to affirm Hemlata's mixed reaction to Kyle (and other parallel cases). What I'm least interested in is licensing a person in a position of power to have a low opinion of others because of whatever unwelcome thoughts, reactions, and biases those others might have that the person in power might or might not have.

51 comments:

Ryan Gomez said...

Professor:

I'm getting stuck with an issue of causality here. In Aristotle's case, the person was not blame because they did not cause the wind to blow. But, when we consider Kyle, there seems to be an infinite regression in terms of causality.

Presumably, Kyle was not born ableist. His implicit biases stem from his personality and attitudes, which in turn stem from his environment, which in turn stem from his upbringing, which in turn stem from his parents at birth. I don't think anyone would seriously contend that Kyle is blameworthy because he was born, but perhaps there is a point in his life where he becomes blameworthy?

If Kyle grew up with parents who were also implicitly ableist, Kyle will (presumably) have those same ableist biases. But to blame Kyle when he first meets a disabled person and has those same implicit ableist biases seems to be blaming him for being born to his parents.

At the same time, I understand your point that Kyle's implicit ableism is part of his personality and attitude. When Kyle is an adult, I would tend to agree with you that Kyle is blameworthy for his ableism because he is at a point where he can decide how to act and behave.

I suppose that goes along with the appendix, but it does seem that Kyle's blameworthiness lies somewhere on a continuum—as a child he's not blameworthy, but as he grows up he becomes blameworthy. I suppose the question becomes, at what point is Kyle blameworthy?

Kris Rhodes said...

On some reflection after reading your blog entry, I guess I don't consider personality traits to be blameworthy in general. I think we can approve or disapprove of them, without assigning blame concerning them.

I'd mark the distinction as being analogous to the following. If you go to a basketball coach and ask for some pointers concerning free throws, and he watches you shoot a few, and finds your posture isn't right, then he might _disapprove_ of your posture, saying you should work on it, without thereby _blaming_ you for having the wrong posture. He may understand you have never had any reason to think you needed a different posture, and find you wholly non-blameworthy in the matter--yet still disapprove of your posture and recommend that you work on it.

Similarly, if someone's a jerk by inclination, I would not necessarily blame them for it. Rather, I'd think (or say, if they caught me in the right mood or if they asked) that they "should work on it." I disapprove, but don't blame.

Similarly, I disapprove of the natural attitudes of the person you described in your blog post--and he disapproves of them as well. But I don't blame him for those attitudes. Rather, I insist that he should work on them. It sounds like he agrees.

As usual, a regress looms. What if it's not a person's natural inclination to see their own negative personality traits as "something to work on"? Have I committed myself to not blaming them even for this? Are certain unreflectively jerkish people going to be completely unblameable?

I might bite that bullet. What would it mean to do so? I would have to be saying that, when it comes to such people, I strongly disapprove of them, and also completely don't blame them for how they are. So what does this disapproval amount to, if it doesn't allow, somewhere down the line, for me to blame them for not "working on" that which earned my disapprobation? Basically, it means I've written them off as beyond help, and I just work around them as necessary, rather than working with them in hopes that they might improve. This sounds harsh but remember we're talking about a completely unreformed and unreflective jerk. Sometimes writing a person off is the best you can do.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Ryan and Kris: Thanks for those very interesting comments!

Ryan: I agree that an infant is not blameworthy for bias, but the adult is. The standard view would be that the reason has something to do with the adult's but not the infant's ability to appreciate bias for which it is and to some extent control it (perhaps indirectly). So if I'm going to abandon control as a necessary condition, I'll need a different explanation for why infants are not blameworthy. My inclination here -- though I'll need to think about it more -- is to stick with a version of knowledge condition. Adults should be able to see the inappropriateness of certain ways of responding, and it's because they either do see that, or should see that, that we are right to blame them. So there's a possible-knowledge condition for blame, but shorn from the idea that the knowledge is necessary only because knowledge is required for control. I'm not entirely happy with this answer though, since it still leaves the question of why knowledge should be a condition at all....

Kris: This sounds a bit like some of the "hard determinist" (= no free will) reactions to praise, blame, and punishment, but limited to a restricted range of cases rather than the whole range. I agree there's something to that -- and (as P.F. Strawson notices) we do sometimes have that kind of reaction to young children and people with serious cognitive disabilities. I agree that your view is a bit unintuitive when faced with the incorrigible jerk; but I've got some bullets to bite too, so.... One further thought: Since blame is so widely present in my view, it's maybe not as sharp a sting to accept some blame as it would be if blameworthiness were more rare; and more grounds for mercy.

Ryan Gomez said...

Professor,

I was looking over the PDF that is in your "implicit bias" link. On p. 21 the paper talks about having a sense of accountability and being able to take the perspective of others as a way to debias one self. These might be reasons why a person is morally blameworthy for implicit biases even though they cannot control their reactions.

To continue talking about Kyle, his initial reaction at meeting Hemlata is disgust. However, he acts to suppress his disgust and tries to be nice to her. It seems likely that Kyle, in his attempts to suppress his true feelings about Hemlata, never actually comes to terms with his implicit ableism. Kyle knows that he should not feel this way about Hemlata, but he is never forced to have a sense of accountability about his feelings; Kyle justifies his spending time at the bar over spending time with Hemlata for one reason or another.

Clearly I'm no ethicist, but having a sense of accountability for one's actions or reactions seems prerequisite for a morally praiseworthy person. A petty thief who turns himself in is morally praiseworthy even though his action was immoral. Although, just because you are not morally praiseworthy, does not mean that you are morally blameworthy. Perhaps there is something to be said about Kyle's lack of accountability here as demonstrated by his inability to confront his implicit ableism? Although, that also seems to require Kyle to make his implicit bias explicit.

The second point, on failing to take the perspective of others, might be more persuasive as a reason to hold Kyle morally blameworthy. There seems to be an implicit (for lack of a better word) attitude in Kyle's reaction that suggests that he thinks less of Hemlata. Kyle is fails to respect Hemlata as a person because he lacks any sort of empathy for Hemlata. Kyle might unconsciously lack empathy for her, but we still hold sociopaths morally responsible for behavior due to lack of empathy. Lack of empathy for one type of person is no less morally blameworthy than lack of empathy for everyone.

I'm trying to think of ways to abandon control and knowledge as necessary conditions for holding Kyle morally blameworthy, and perhaps these debiasing techniques are worth exploring.

Scott Bakker said...

Praise and blame are imperfect tools adapted to expedite matters too complicated to be handled any other way. If you take this claim as a starting point, then the 'over-thinking' complaint that philosophers so commonly hear from their relatives begins to make sense. Perhaps these tools break down when you begin adducing finer-grained information, such as teasing apart implicit attitudes and explicit declarations, because they are meant to provide decisive as opposed to 'fair' resolutions. Ancestrally speaking, the real question is whether Kyle can be trusted to *do* the right thing. Think of the 'ambivalence neglect' we suffer on a daily basis. Ambivalence (like hypocrisy more generally) is pervasive, ubiquitous, but we all seem to instinctively overlook it, to 'let sleeping appearances lie' - unless, that is, we perceive some kind of social advantage to calling it out publicly, or because the implicit attitude strikes us as too intense to continue sleeping - to not be acted on. This is what makes things like implicit attitude tests so troubling: not just because they reveal something unsettling (ambivalence), but because they canonize as scientific fact information too elusive for our social-cognitive tools to get anything but an opportunistic handle on.

Luke said...

You might like the following from Harry Frankfurt's Taking Ourselves Seriously:

>>     Some philosophers have argued that a person becomes responsible for his own character insofar as he shapes it by voluntary choices and actions that cause him to develop habits of discipline or indulgence and hence that make his character what it is. According to Aristotle, no one can help acting as his virtuous or vicious character requires him to act; but in some measure a person's character is nonetheless voluntary, because "we are ourselves … part-causes of our state of character" (Niomachean Ethics, III.5, III4.b22). In other words, we are responsible for what we are to the extent that we have cause ourselves–by our voluntary behavior—to become that way.
>>     I think Aristotle is wrong about this. Becoming responsible for one's character is not essentially a matter of producing that character but of taking responsibility for it. This happens when a person selectively identifies with certain of his own attitudes and dispositions, whether or not it was he that caused himself to have them. In identifying with them, he incorporates those attitudes and dispositions into himself and makes them his own. What counts is our current effort to define and to manage ourselves, and not the story of how we came to be in the situation with which we are now attempting to cope. (172)

Then there is Bruce Waller's Against Moral Responsibility, which is always fun.

chinaphil said...

There are so many variables to negotiate here.

First, do we take a relative or absolute approach to good and bad? E.g. in the trolleycar problems, do we see killing one person as good (because it's the best option available) or as bad (because it's still killing).

Then, how do we relate good and bad to praise and blame? I really liked Kris's distinction between blaming and disapproving.

Then, how do we relate agency and praise and blame?

On each of those there seem to be quite a wide range of reasonable positions. The conclusion you reach emerges from one such set of reasonable positions. But I do think there are a couple of problems.

First, I think this is empirically wrong:
"in the ordinary course of assigning praise and blame we rarely inquire into such interpersonal differences in difficulty"
Actually, I hear this sort of thing all the time: "I know she sometimes says some pretty regressive things, but what can you do, she's 70 years old." etc. In fact I think this sort of subtle accommodation to personality difference is precisely the thing that humans are great at. In general we fail to follow hard-and-fast rules.

The other objection is that this way prejudice lies. Black people commit more crimes; presumably they have more uncontrolled desires to commit crimes; you've just found an additional way to blame them. Hemlata, sweet as she is, sometimes gets fed up with dealing with the Kyles of this world, and has been known to think uncharitable thoughts about them. She gets your additional blame, too. I'm not sure if you want to try to separate the moral quality "blameworthiness" from the social act "blaming" to try to escape this consequence, but I wouldn't buy that move.

The Ultimate Philosopher said...
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The Ultimate Philosopher said...

Not wanting to sound flippant: So let's say we concede the point that people are more blameworthy for their cognitive biases than we thought previously. What now? (As in: what do we advisedly do about it now that we hadn't been advisedly doing about it already?)

Callan S. said...

I propose that we give Kyle full credit for his thoughtful egalitarian judgments and intentions but also full blame for his spontaneous, uncontrolled – to some extent uncontrollable – ableism. The fact that his ableist reactions are outside of his control does not mitigate his blameworthiness for them. When the wind blows you somewhere, the fact that you ended up there does not reflect your attitudes or personality. In contrast, in Kyle's case, his ableist reactions, repudiated though they are, are partly constitutive of his attitudes and personality. Hemlata would not be wrong to find Kyle morally blameworthy for his unwelcome ableist reactions.

I don't get this just at this point - to blame. Blame generally means taking some sort of sanctioning action in real life. I mean, what would you think of actually killing someone because they just spontaniously thought of murdering someone? To me it makes me think to do so would be the far worse action. So what do we have here with blame about thoughts? To take real life sanction against the person just because they thought something but didn't do something in real life?*

I dunno about the next step where he never follows up with Hemlata. Is it like smoking - he tries to quit, but relapses? Or does he not even notice he's relapsed? The example seems only to take into account the, so to speak, smoking - and not his intent (or lack there of) toward it.

* In a dark ages scenario, however, it might be effective to head someone off at the pass right at this point because resources are short and you don't have room to f' about - regardless that you might burn some innocents due to false possitives along the way. But these days we have a bit more fat to spare/room to give than in the dark ages.

Doug Portmore said...

Interesting post! You assume that Kyle's disgust is not under his direct control. It's not clear to me that this is right. Kyle's disgust is not under his volitional control in that he cannot at will determine whether he feels disgust. But I don't think that volitional control is the sort of control that's essentially tied to having obligations and being accountable. Consider that our beliefs are typically not under our direct volitional control and yet we are obliged to believe in accordance with our evidence and accountable for failing to do so. This suggests to me that the relevant notion of control is what I've called rational control, where a subject S has rational control over whether or not she X's if and only if she has the capacity to respond appropriately to the relevant sorts of reasons and whether or not she X's just depends on whether and how she responds to her reasons. So insofar as we assume both that Kyle is a rational agent who is capable of responding appropriately to his reasons and that he lacks sufficient reason to feel disgust (which you suggest is the case by calling his disgust inappropriate), then he is accountable for his disgust. But this is not despite lacking control, but in virtue of his having (rational) control.

J. Jebari said...

I take it that the upshot of your argument is to reject an intuitive asymmetry between praise and blame. That is you are arguing that, we find people praiseworthy for their egalitarian attitudes and that this means that we should also find people blameworthy for biased attitudes.

So there seem to be two different responses to this. One is to simply argue that the asymmetry is justified. For instance, one might argue that an important difference between the egalitarian case and the ableist case is that in the former case Kyle endorses his attitudes while in the latter case he does not.

Given that it seems quite plausible that one might implicitly endorse something while explicitly rejecting it (e.g. by explicitly rejecting prejudice while, at the same time, realizing that one has a bias but failing to take any measures to mitigate or reduce the effects of that bias on other people), using the notion of endorsement to analyze issues surrounding the connection between blame and bias might do a better job of answering the "what next" question.

The other response would be to highlight the fact that an asymmetry between praise and blame is standard fare when it comes to accountability, although usually it cuts the other way. Specifically, in the supererogation literature, one of the central problems is understanding why one is almost always blameworthy for doing the wrong thing but usually not praiseworthy for doing the right thing. So from this perspective, if the fundamental reason that you are arguing we should blame people for their biases is a rejection of an asymmetry between praise and blame, then this should leave you committed to rejecting the asymmetry across the board. I don't know how hard of a bullet that is to bite, but I think it does change the picture somewhat. For instance, it might mean that we should only adopt the practice of blaming people for their biases if we also adopt the practice of regularly praising people for their normal morally right behavior (e.g. praising a friend for not stealing from you when they had an opportunity).

Dave Baker said...

Doug Portmore:

It sounds like Eric is describing a case in which Kyle is *not* capable of responding to reasons against feeling disgust. In the example, it seems that he fully recognizes the reasons not to feel the way he feels, would prefer not to feel that way, etc, and still finds himself disgusted.

Eric, your mention of a case in which someone involuntarily says slurs under their breath makes me wonder how you'd feel about a related case. Does your view entail that we should blame people with Tourette's who exhibit coprolalia (involuntary swearing)?

Doug Portmore said...

Dave Baker:

"It sounds like Eric is describing a case in which Kyle is *not* capable of responding to reasons against feeling disgust. In the example, it seems that he fully recognizes the reasons not to feel the way he feels, would prefer not to feel that way, etc, and still finds himself disgusted."

In Eric's example, it's clear that Kyle fully recognizes the reasons not to feel disgust and, nevertheless, feels disgust. So he is not responding appropriately to his reasons. But this doesn't show that Kyle is incapable of responding appropriately to his reasons. Consider that I fully recognize the reasons that I have for exercising and yet I fail to exercise. But this doesn't show that I'm incapable of responding appropriately to these reasons. All it shows is that I'm not responding appropriately to these reasons. Whether I'm capable of responding appropriately to these prudential reasons that I have for exercising depends, I think, on whether my act-producing mechanism is at least moderately reasons-responsive in a range of counter-factual situations. That is, would I respond appropriately to these sorts of reasons in a range of counter-factual situations -- cases where, say, the stakes are higher or I'm feeling less lazy. In any case, if Kyle is incapable of responding appropriately to the relevant reasons for not feeling disgust, then I fail to see why we should accept Eric's claim that Kyle's disgust is inappropriate and blameworthy. I wouldn't, for instance, think that a cat could be blameworthy for wanting to play with its prey or that it would be inappropriate for it to have this desire, and this is because I don't think that the cat's desire-producing mechanism is reasons-responsive -- at least, not responsive to these sorts of moral reasons for not wanting this. Or perhaps disgust is no more a reasons-responsive attitude than hunger is. But, again, in that case I fail to see why we should accept Eric's claim that Kyle's disgust is inappropriate and blameworthy.

So it seems to me that insofar as we are willing to share Eric's intuitions that Kyle's disgust is inappropriate and blameworthy, it is likely because we're thinking that Kyle has rational control over whether or not he feels disgust.

Callan S. said...

Scott, I don't get you - do you mean something like that despite all these moral things being so intensely important at times, we are, for example, unable to just sit down and write out our moral code? Instead we end up waiting until situation (or hypothetical) pings our intuitions. There is no direct access (like we have, say, when writing out the alphabet)?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Ryan, thanks for your thoughtful comments! I think you are right about the importance of holding oneself accountable. Part of what I don't like about the "no control therefore excusable" move is that it seems to justify holding oneself less accountable.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Scott: Interesting point about praise and blame being crude tools -- I'm trying to splinter things up by splitting the attitude into component pieces and then holding each piece up separately for scrutiny on a praise-blame dimension; but you're right that even that might be too simple.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Luke: I agree this is connected with Frankfurt -- but he's one of my targets for disagreement, not agreement, at least as I understand him. Kyle might feel alienated from his disgust reactions, think of them as not the real him, not endorse them at a higher level, and not take responsibility for them. But I want to say that they *are* part of him and that he should take responsibility for them. Maybe there are resources in Frankfurt for this -- he's a subtle thinker with a large corpus.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

chinaphil: Thanks as always for the interesting comment! On the empirical point, I agree that we sometimes do what you say -- and your specific case is a common type of instance. But I think think it's on the rare side, especially for unwelcome jerkish type reactions.

The issue of holding people in bad situations responsible for unethical conduct is a tricky one, but one possibility is to hold them fully responsible rather than mitigating their responsibility but at the same time treating the act as an act in a broader context, so perhaps less bad than a similar act in a different context.

I agree about the variety of moving parts in the theories here. More than one reasonable set of options for making sense of the normativity, I think.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Ultimate Philosopher: At risk of sounding flippant in reply: assume more responsibility, feel worse about it, feel less comfortable with ourselves.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Callan: Well, capital punishment for thoughts of murder would be a bit extreme! More seriously, I think the *amount* of blame for blameworthy thoughts will in general be far less than the amount of blame for those same actions if they were actually conducted. But that doesn't mean *no* blame. Furthermore, there might be no blame in some broad range of circumstances: fantasizing someone's death might not be blameworthy at all, depending on the circumstances and the nature of the fantasy. I'm not ready to commit one way or the other on that one yet! Also, I would favor being stricter with oneself than with others.

Luke said...

Dr. Schwitzgebel, how does the following fit into your model? From Taking Ourselves Seriously:

>>     However, the mere fact that a person has a desire does not give him a reason. What it gives him is a problem. He has the problem of whether to identify with the desire and thus validate it as eligible for satisfaction, or whether to dissociate himself from it, treat it as categorically unacceptable, and try to suppress it or rid himself of it entirely. If he identifies with the desire, he acknowledges that satisfying it is to be assigned some position—however inferior—in the order of his preferences and priorities. If he externalizes the desire, he determines to give it no position in that order at all. (175)

It's not clear that he means "responsibility" in the same way as you. It seems more like "take responsibility" means something like "I want this part of me to be part of my identity." What this does is let there be two causal sources of your behavior and speech: those of you, and those of this alien being you are obligated to squash whenever it pipes up. Heh, I wonder how closely one could compare Romans 7 to Frankfurt's essay.

Dave Baker said...

>So it seems to me that insofar as we are willing to share Eric's intuitions that Kyle's disgust is inappropriate and blameworthy, it is likely because we're thinking that Kyle has rational control over whether or not he feels disgust.

That sounds right. For my part, I actually don't share Eric's intuitions about the case! But that's probably because I took him to be describing a case where it's really beyond Kyle's power to control his disgust reaction.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...
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Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Doug and Dave: Thanks for the helpful comments on this issue. Dave's reply does capture my thought. I'd push back against your closing thought, Doug. It doesn't even taste like a "bullet" to me: The disgust as I'm imagining it for Kyle is no more under his rational control; he is no more *capable* of responding to the reasons not to feel it, than in the case of hunger; and yet he is blameworthy for it. I guess that's the starting intuition here that I'm hoping the case brings out -- though I recognize that not everyone will share that evaluation.

You might be willing to grant that and then fall back on some sort of indirect control or tracing argument like in the Appendix of the post. That I feel a bit more confused about, but I want to see if I can still sustain a hard line that doesn't require even that sort of indirect control.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

J. Jebari: Interesting connection to the asymmetry in supererogation! I confess to somewhat unusual thoughts about supererogation, which respect symmetry -- though I'm not sure I'm ready to commit to them. My hunch is to jettison supererogation entirely and to say that we are blameworthy for not being saints while at the same time also being praiseworthy for not being assassins. It has a kind of simplicity to it, though also some intuitive costs and probably also some troubling theoretical implications that I haven't yet sussed out.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Luke: "If he externalizes the desire, he determines to give it no position in that order at all."

My reaction is to think that it's a little too easy to disavow responsibility for one's dark side by externalizing one's unwelcome thoughts and desires in that way. They might often be more "you" and a better overall predictor of your behavior than all the nice-sounding stuff that you endorse when you step back and think about it. My inclination is to think that Frankfurt puts too much weight on the centrality of such reflective endorsements and conscious preferences.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

This has been a very interesting helpful comments stream -- thanks, everyone!

Follow-up comments welcome too!

Lynne said...

This highlights what's so wrong with the blame game angle in morality discussion. We all find ourselves in a present that is largely (and for many, wholly) the effect of our past choices. When we say someone is blameworthy, it can only refer to the past (which then makes blame a nonsensical response on our part) - and the person we blame is actually helpless in the present with respect to their past choices. The bullet left the gun and must run its course. If things manifest today which we label blameworthy, we err, and we err because we fail to understand cause and effect. We react as if an action is causeless and can be labelled in isolation. This is not to say that everything is therefore OK. But it is saying that to blame is always an intellectual error.

Callan S. said...

Eric, I think there'd be a physical action component to the blame. I bring up capital punishment as a question of exactly what physical actions would blaming someone involve? How far does it go? Just saying someones to blame doesn't explain how far physical punishment will go.

Luke said...

Professor Schwitzgebel,

> My reaction is to think that it's a little too easy to disavow responsibility for one's dark side by externalizing one's unwelcome thoughts and desires in that way.

I don't think Frankfurt means to disavow culpability. I didn't make it far enough into Christine M. Korsgaard's The Sources of Normativity before I had to return it to the library, but a philosophy friend of mine said that she discusses the idea of holding an identity of oneself as a source of normativity and how it can shatter; an example would be a soldier, who always follows orders, being faced with disobeying a grossly immoral order. If he disobeys this order an identity will be lost to him, but if he obeys the order, his identity will alter permanently. It strikes me that keeping track of what a person wants to think of his/her identity (or identities, as one can be a soldier and a father) is important, including in the realm of your blog post.

> They might often be more "you" and a better overall predictor of your behavior than all the nice-sounding stuff that you endorse when you step back and think about it.

Frankfurt starts getting into these waters:

>> What a person finds in himself may not just seem oddly disconnected from him. It may be dangerously antithetical to his intentions and to his conception of himself. Some of the psychic raw material that we confront may be so objectionable to us that we cannot permit it to determine our attitudes or our behavior. We cannot help having that dark side. How- ever, we are resolved to keep it from producing any direct effect upon the design and conduct of our lives. (Taking Ourselves Seriously, 174)

Here we don't have the "dark passenger" (Dexter, anyone?) taking over. But it can:

>> Let us suppose that a certain motive has been rejected as unacceptable. Our attempt to immunize ourselves against it may not work. The resistance we mobilize may be insufficient. The externalized impulse or desire may succeed, by its sheer power, in defeating us and forcing its way. In that case, the outlaw imposes itself upon us without authority, and against our will. This suggests a useful way of understanding what it is for a person’s will to be free. (177)

If this state continues, I should think that such a person would be happy to give control over to human being(s) who at the minimum will prevent "the outlaw" from incurring damage, but who will hopefully also help cure the akrasia, or whatever is going on. While Frankfurt doesn't get into this, Meir Dan-Cohen's response in the book, titled "Socializing Harry", compares two legal cases to explore the culpability question.

Incidentally, a friend of mine told me that he worked on new legal reasoning for the "insanity defense", drawing up a legal/philosophical anthropology which works given current conceptions of human nature. Would this be interesting enough to you for me to request it?

David Duffy said...

J. Jebari puts his finger on it, and your suggested answer has an awful lot of praise and blame flying around. Mervyn Peake's Mr Pye is pretty good on the normativity/superrogation thing.

Callan S. said...

If he disobeys this order an identity will be lost to him, but if he obeys the order, his identity will alter permanently.

Character development!

If this state continues, I should think that such a person would be happy to give control over to human being(s) who at the minimum will prevent "the outlaw" from incurring damage, but who will hopefully also help cure the akrasia, or whatever is going on.

Depends if the 'outlaw' can shut them down so they can even be there to be happy.

I like a horse and rider analogy - sometimes the horse just bolts. The rider is just dragged a long - and may simply lack the capacity to control anything.

The Ultimate Philosopher said...

Eric Schwitzgebel said... "Ultimate Philosopher: At risk of sounding flippant in reply: assume more responsibility, feel worse about it, feel less comfortable with ourselves."

Thanks, I'll think on that. :-)

Anonymous said...

Seems like a pretty okay guy to me.

Josh Glasgow said...

Interesting post! I'm particularly interested in your contrast of being blown by the wind--which is not reflective of attitudes or personality--and having reactions that are reflective of attitudes or personality. (Are reactions reflective of attitudes, or are they just attitudes?) I share your judgment about Kyle, but I think we have to be careful about the relevance of this kind of 'reflectiveness' when attributing responsibility for attitudes. I think that we can construct cases that are exactly parallel to a case like Kyle's, except where he is alienated from the ableist attitude in whatever sense is relevant to make it not reflective of his personality. (Agreeing that in the original version of the case, Kyle is not alienated in this way--his reaction is in fact reflective of his personality in some significant way.) Nevertheless, I think we still be blame alienated Kyle--I don't think alienation exculpates, when it comes to these kinds of implicit biases. So I don't think we use the reflection stipulation when we attribute responsibility to Kyle. (Put yourself in alienated Kyle's shoes: wouldn't you still judge yourself responsible for the awful reaction even if you knew it was not reflective of your personality?)

Note that if that's right, then what's puzzling is that in other cases, alienation seems to exculpate the agent from responsibility for attitudes. For example, we can imagine someone forgets to return something to a friend, and that this forgetting (like many forgettings!) is exactly as alienated as the alienated Kyle. I think that in this case, unlike the case of alienated Kyle, we do think that alienation exculpates. So then the question becomes what the distinguishing factor is.

One answer (shameless self-promotion alert!), for what it's worth, is that the distinguishing factor is harm. (For this argument, see my "Alienation and Responsibility," Michael Brownstein and Jennifer Saul, eds. Implicit Bias and Philosophy Volume II: Moral Responsibility, Structural Injustice, and Ethics, Oxford University Press, forthcoming.)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for all the continuing comments, folks!

Lynne: I think we're probably starting out from such different points that it's going to be hard to find common argumentative ground without more discussion than is possible here. I'd rather see a world with lots of acknowledged praiseworthiness and blameworthiness but also mercy and understanding than one with much less of all of the above.

Callan: Hemlata might, for example, put a somewhat lower priority on answering Kyle's email than the email of someone who is more thoroughly anti-ableist, assuming she correctly discerns the situation. That's about the level of "punishment" I'm thinking of here.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Luke: What I think I'm seeing in Frankfurt, at least in these quotes, is a bit too sharp a division between what is endorsed and non-alienated and what is alienated and not representative of the conscious self. Most of what is undesirable of us is somewhere between the two, I'd suggest, and also at the same time fully "us".

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

David: I haven't read Mr Pye. Putting that one in my file for "sounds interesting". (Typically what happens to things in that file is that they linger until someone else also recommends them, triggering more decisive action.)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Josh: Send me that paper if you'd like. I'd be interested to take a look at it. I'm inclined to think there is a similar blame (and praise) for forgettings (cf. Angela Smith. A very interesting comparison case. See also my post: Forgetting as an Unwitting Confession of Your Values.
http://schwitzsplinters.blogspot.com/2012/09/forgetting-as-unwitting-confession-of.html

Luke said...

Professor,

> What I think I'm seeing in Frankfurt, at least in these quotes, is a bit too sharp a division between what is endorsed and non-alienated and what is alienated and not representative of the conscious self. Most of what is undesirable of us is somewhere between the two, I'd suggest, and also at the same time fully "us".

Curious; I have been reading quite a bit about the dangers of dichotomous thinking, lately. Hilary Putnam's The Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy is a great example of this. It strikes me that regardless of whether there is a fuzz between the poles, that we do necessarily think about the poles. The insanity defense must recognize that "not-you" can take over "you". People defend what they perceive as their core identity more strongly than peripheral aspects.

It seems that people generally like to either think in binary opposites, or refuse to acknowledge any binary opposites as establishing a spectrum. What about both recognizing binary opposites, but also recognizing that there is a spectrum? Those parts of us we wish to disown, and thus "not take responsibility" for, in Frankfurt's parlance, are parts for which we are still culpable, but to explicitly disown them would be to invite others to help us fight them. This seems like it might be a valuable way to think and act.

P.S. You might like the following paper:

Daniels, Norman. "Moral theory and the plasticity of persons." The Monist (1979): 265-287.

Josh Glasgow said...

Will do, Eric.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if your arguments could also be applied to unwelcome thoughts on sexuality. What about something like rape fantasies of people who don't want to act on it?

Would it be blameworthy and/or morally wrong to

a) have rape fantasies, but don't want to have this fantasies?
b) have rape fantasies and get aroused by them, but don't want to be aroused by them?
c) have rape fantasies, get aroused by them and enjoy the arousal?

Corina said...

Nice story. Some comments from my side:
1) It is somehow implicit the story that H is somehow harmed or discriminated by K. However, maybe H is just doing fine without K. Substitute H by Stephen Hawkins and K by a graduate student of physics. Is there some impact on the story?
2) Is it a kind of blameworthy non-egalitarian behaviour to prefer a visit in a pub with some person. How far-reaching is an egalitarian attitude. I tend to think that preferred companions in the pub, cinema (also dating preferences) etc, are outside of the scope where I need to behave everyone egalitarian.
3) Could we not say that the more blameworthy part is not the bias but the apparent conflict to his conscious beliefs and his way to deal with it? His egalitarian view seems to be not very sincere or a lie. He says that disabled persons are equally capable of philosophy and she might think that he is able to equally appreciate her contributions but that is not true. His attitude towards his attitude is somehow blameworthy.
4) Finally, I think this could be a good example of a paradox of non-discrimination. Because we accept egalitarian, everyone is so afraid of her/his biases that he doesn't want to have the discriminated groups around because they challenge their egalitarian view. We should not be disgusted by disability. We fear our disgust. The apparent solution: Get away from the disabled... The result: More discrimination.
I don't think that this problem actually might exist not just in thought experiments. And though I am tempted to agree on the blameworthiness of unwanted thoughts, I think that giving people this feeling is not a very good agenda against discrimination.

Callan S. said...

Hemlata might, for example, put a somewhat lower priority on answering Kyle's email than the email of someone who is more thoroughly anti-ableist, assuming she correctly discerns the situation. That's about the level of "punishment" I'm thinking of here.

Did she decide that amount of punishment - or did she just go off reflex (and the amount of action she takes just kind of happening outside of any control on her part - which, despite her being wronged, doesn't sound so right?)...which is ironically what she's blaming Kyle for. Him going off his reflex.

Anonymous said...

The topic of moral blame for automatic thoughts is interesting, but the examples given are weak and problematic. They present a slippery slope into a dogmatic, absolute, kind of relativism. I'm even surprised the words like "ability" and "disability" are present, since the idea presented seems to be that all "abilities" are equal.

Egalitarianism makes sense politically, in hiring practices, legal rights, etc. However, the stance here goes further, in that apparently our emotional reactions are supposed to be egalitarian. That sounds like the ideal of a robot, not a living being.

We are attracted or repulsed by others for various reasons: charm, intelligence, physical beauty, moral character, sense of humor, talents, etc. Are we to pretend none of these matter? Are we to disavow all criteria for deciding the company we keep? To use your example, should we have to go to "the pub" with everyone, regardless of our preferences and emotions of attraction or repulsion towards them?

This sounds like demanding of us that we enjoy all foods equally, even those that we find disgusting. Why is it our moral obligation to attempt to remove disgust? If we remove disgust, we should also remove its positive mirror image, desire or attraction. We should attempt to react to all things and people in exactly the same manner. Which makes no sense at all.

Furthermore, the article does not itself adhere to such equanimity, as it does judge people, even for things beyond their control, such as automatic thoughts or being "jerky". If such judgments are acceptable, then why not a reaction of disgust or attraction to persons, even for traits beyond their control?

Anonymous said...

P.S. What's wrong with having sexual thoughts about someone while engaged in a "professional" conversation? You do realize that the workplace is where many (perhaps most) people meet their partners and future spouses?

If anything, it's the boring professional conversation that is problematic. Sexual attraction can make even the most boring workplace more pleasant.

Sexual harassment is another matter, of course, but this article takes the extreme stance of banishing such feelings and thoughts as "thought-crimes".

Work to live, rather than live to work.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the continuing comments, folks!

Anon Mar 24: I'm inclined to extend to those cases, but I don't want to be too condemnatory about it. If one can work one's way to healthier fantasies, that's good.

Callan: Reflex can be bad or good -- that's the point!

Anon Mar 25: You interpret my claims in too blanket a way. For example, foods do not have interests, so we don't harm them by thinking negative things about them; and some traits such as jerkitude are blameworthy so it's okay to have a reflexively negative attitude toward manifestations of it. I feel some of the pull of the concern that you seem to be expressing, about excessive conformity of thought; who wants to be disallowed to have negative thoughts about people? But it's hard to know how to respond to an inaccurate portrayal of my view.

Callan S. said...

Eric, how do you know if it's good or bad? By another reflex?

I mean, the central issue is that Kyle doesn't reflect on his reflex and outline the extent of it in human readable format - and it gets the better of him.

Couldn't Hemlata's reflex be getting the better of her just as much and for just the same reason?

Anonymous said...

This moral view strikes me as not just wrong but outright perverse.

One very well known psychological maladies people fall prey to is obsessive thoughts. Typically these thoughts are both very intrusive and guilt inducing. They will often involve imagining oneself doing things that one would actually never do, but torturing oneself with the thought of doing those things. One might imagine oneself killing one's child, or engaged in disturbing or immoral sexual acts, or shouting horrible things to people; some of those thoughts might seem in some sense very "pleasurable" at the time in which they intrude -- and it is this very "pleasure" that most torments the obsessive personality. As part of this syndrome one might very well, for example, see someone who has a disability and react negatively.

A standard method in which this syndrome is treated in psychotherapy is to emphasize to the sufferer that the thoughts are out of his or her control, that they don't really define him or her as a person, and that he/she would never actually do those things, and that h/she is responsible only for what he/she actually does.

Your view seems to be to say, well of course you are blameworthy for those thoughts! Good people don't have them!

Seriously, what kind of perverse moral view is this?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon: Thanks for that critique. I was thinking of non-pathological cases, but you're probably right that it would have this perverse result if applied to pathological cases. One quick fix would be to explicitly set aside such cases. Another more subtle move -- I don't know if it quite works -- would be to acknowledge that people having those thoughts are rightly acknowledging that there is something blameworthy about them, but that they are being much too harsh on themselves about it, emphasizing the distance between imagery and action.