Moral Blindness, Cruelty, and Three Faces of Responsibility

I just read an interesting and thought-provoking argument from Dana Kay Nelkin [1] to the effect that psychopaths – understood here as agents which are morally blind in a particular way – could not be cruel, no matter what they do to people. I’m worried that this argument is too cautious in its application of that term, but in order to express my worry I’ll need to first talk about responsibility generally.

I’ve always thought that there are three kinds of responsibility discussed in Gary Watson’s seminal “Two Faces of Responsibility” [2]: the attributive kind, the aretaic kind, and accountability. Watson yokes the first two together, and I wish he had fleshed out the relation between them.

Attributability is a matter not of attributing properties like blame- and praiseworthiness to agents, which is the usage some of the literature following Watson seems to have settled on – after all, Watson intends to argue two kinds of blame need to be distinguished – but of attributing actions to agents. My going to the grocery store reflects my aims in a way that my accidentally dropping a vase does not. Accounts of attributive responsibility differ along what is required for an action to be attributable to me: must it reflect my deep self, my practical identity, or merely be something I do for a reason? So understood attributive responsibility is not a moral notion, except in the broadest of senses, for to assign this kind of responsibility is not yet to level censure or give praise. It’s also important to note that the appropriateness of ascriptions of this kind of responsibility do not obviously require anything more than bare agency: an ability to set (some) aims and act for (some) things seen as reasons.

X’s being (negatively) accountable to Y for an action is a matter of its being appropriate – fitting — for Y to apply some kind of sanction which expresses disapproval of X in virtue of their having performed that action. The censure is typically the having and expressing of an attitude like resentment, issuing a reprimand, or meting out punishment. (I tend to think merely harboring an attitude like resentment without expressing it is a form of sanction, by the way. It can deteriorate the quality of a valuable friendship.)

Holding someone responsible in the aretaic sense is, as the name suggests, a matter of assigning faults and credits of character and the like. As Watson stresses in his appendix, this goes beyond a bare notion of having been, in virtue of that action, “faulty as a person”, much as we might say a car was faulty for not having started. To judge someone faulty in this sense is to disapprove of them, or at the very least to judge them worthy of such disapproval. But it need not involve holding a powerful emotion like resentment or indignation. And as he also emphasizes, it can be appropriate for Y to disapprove of X in this sense even if it is inappropriate for Y to hold X accountable. The fault in question may be none of Y’s business, for instance.

(I suspect the difference between accountability and aretaic responsibility is just a difference between second- and third-personal practices of moral evaluation, censure, and reward, but I won’t get into that here.)

Attributability and aretaic responsibility are tightly linked, but they do come apart. Never mind weak-willed actions; think of omissions. Suppose that yesterday I forgot a dear friend’s birthday, having in a general sense known that she is the sort of person who would greatly appreciate a birthday note. My forgetting to do this wasn’t intentional, and it certainly did not reflect my values and commitments. It really isn’t attributable to me in anything more than the sense in which even my unintentional actions are attributable to me. Nevertheless I am responsible for it in the aretaic sense (and might even be accountable to my friend).

From here on I will focus on the relation between attributive and aretaic responsibility, so that when I speak of blameworthiness and fault I mean it in the aretaic sense.

So blameworthiness for an action does not require actual attributive responsibility for it. In the case above I’m blameworthy in virtue of possessing the capacity to have avoided the fault, in some way or other. Nevertheless I think that the capacity to have avoided a fault or even to recognize it as a fault isn’t in the general case necessary for the fault to apply.

Consider first not faults but credits. Imagine a small creature, the Fuzzle Bee, which only understands and is interested in actions insofar as they cause other people pleasure. That is, it has a very impoverished theory of persons as tall two-legged objects which are receptacles of pleasure, and it believes (rightly) that it can fill them with pleasure by waving at them. When the Fuzzle Bee sees something person-like walking by it gets very excited and waves, thinking that it is thereby causing them pleasure. It then feels very pleased at having done so. If its waving arm doesn’t function it gets very sad, but doesn’t know to do anything about it. It cannot consider whether people can feel excited or sad too.

That’s it – those are all the mental states it’s capable of having. I think anything less complicated would impugn the creature’s attributive responsibility – there would be too little of them in their actions, so to speak.

Now I don’t think the Fuzzle Bee has a very deep kindness, but it is kind. It sets as its end giving others pleasure, and acts for no other reason than that. Requiring more before attributing kindness would seem to exclude the sort of spur-of-the-moment, unreflective acts of kindness we appreciate from others and which surely don’t require the capacity to view others as moral agents. (It would also throw into jeopardy the kindness of animals, I think.) Nevertheless, the Fuzzle Bee could not do otherwise than wave when it recognizes a person, for it cannot recognize any other reason. That includes any reasons to desist or the fact that waving would be kind, which is an additional consideration in its favor. It’s important to note that as far as I can judge, the Fuzzle Bee just doesn’t have any moral concepts at all. But that just shows that it’s one thing to be kind and another to be able to recognize one’s kindness.

Next consider the Fuzzle Bee’s inverse, the Thumple. The Thumple thinks of people as tall two-legged objects which are receptacles of pain, and it thinks (rightly) that it can fill them with pain by hitting them at the top of their bodies and yelling, “Thump!” When the Thumple sees something person-like walking by it gets very excited and thumps them, feeling very powerful about having thus caused them pain. When its blows miss their target the Thumple itself feels a pain at the top of its body. It cannot consider whether people can feel excited or powerful too. And that is all there is to the Thumple’s psychology.

I think the case of the Thumple is morally analogous to that of the Fuzzle Bee: the Thumple doesn’t have a very deep cruelty, not least because it cannot understand what is morally problematic about its actions, but it is cruel. Never mind that it couldn’t act otherwise, much less wonder if it should. It is more than dangerous and dislikable; it is bad. It is vicious in the way that dogs can be vicious. (Recall that judgments of this kind do not entail that it is particularly fitting to curse at the Thumple, hold the Thumple to account, or haul it into court; it isn’t accountable.)

This is why I have difficulty getting on board with Nelkin’s symmetry argument (p. 366 ff) against the cruelty of psychopaths, whom she characterizes (at this stage of the paper) as having a kind of moral blindness: they are unable to come to a substantial understanding of others as making moral claims on them. (She considers a more nuanced view of the psychopath later; my concern is just with the morally blind.) Her argument has the same form as the one I just gave, except that she comes to the conclusion that psychopaths cannot be cruel. It seems that what’s necessary for an action to be cruel on her view is for its agent to (i) understand that the action causes suffering (ii) understand in general why suffering is morally bad and (iii) not care in the right way about (ii), either through indifference to suffering or through a desire to cause it. (See pp. 368, 370.) Here, cruelty is thought to require an attitude like contempt or disrespect.

I think this must be where I get off the boat. I agree that the Thumple would be morally worse (more blameworthy in the aretaic sense) if it understood people as moral agents and were filled to the brim with bitterness toward them, and so thumped contemptuously. (And that would be so even if it understood no reason for action except ones arising from its own bitterness.) I just don’t see why this would lead us to judge that the non-contemptuous Thumple is not cruel at all.

[1] Nelkin, Dana Kay. 2015. “Psychopaths, Incorrigible Racists, and the Faces of Responsibility”. Ethics, vol. 125 (2): 357-390.

[2] Watson, Gary. 1996. “Two Faces of Responsibility”. Philosophical Topics, vol. 24 (2): 227-248.


One Response to Moral Blindness, Cruelty, and Three Faces of Responsibility

  1. […] Moral Blindness, Cruelty, and Three Faces of Responsibility, Paul Boswell  argues that even if an agent is morally blind, they can still be considered to be […]

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