Moral Blindness, Cruelty, and Three Faces of Responsibility

February 16, 2015

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.

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Internal Reasons That Cannot Motivate

February 8, 2013

Bernard Williams begins an influential essay [1] by defining internalism about reasons as follows:

Internalism   There is a reason for person A to φ only if A has some motive which would be furthered by his or her φ-ing.

Plenty of philosophers have found something intuitive about this idea, but there has also been no shortage of disagreement over the exact sense in which A must “have some motive” which φ-ing must further. In the introduction to a recent anthology of literature on internal reasons, Kieran Setiya [2] seems to think that the most attractive versions of internalism are those which satisfy the explanatory constraint. Bernard Williams gives it best:

EX   If something can be a reason for action, then it can be someone’s reason for acting on a particular occasion, and then it would figure in an explanation of that action. (p. 106)

There are at least a few reasons for adhering to EX. You might think that there is a unified account of explanatory and normative reasons, and that EX is a link in that unification. You might think that what it is for A to have a motivation which would be furthered by A’s φ-ing is just for there to be some p such that A is disposed to make p A‘s motivating reason for φ-ing. If you’re inclined to believe either of these, you’ll probably think with Setiya that the broadest plausible version of internalism is IR:

IR   The fact that p is a reason for A to φ only if A is capable of being moved to φ by the belief that p. (p. 4)

However, I don’t see how EX could possibly be true, as I don’t think it can overcome the kinds of cases which motivate so-called “advice models” of reasons. I argue that an agent can have a reason for action which, qua reason, could not possibly motivate them. This undercuts the motivation for thinking that IR is the correct way of understanding internalism.

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Prescriptive Metaethics

October 4, 2009

By and large, metaethicists have focused on descriptive questions about the nature of our moral discourse. For instance, is it in the business of stating facts, or of expressing affective states? If the former, are there such facts? If the latter, how is this reconciled with the role that moral language plays in reasoning?…

There is one clear exception. Some who are interested in error theory have shifted their attention from the descriptive question to a prescriptive/ practical one–namely, “Are we to retain moral language? And if so, how are we to treat it?” (I give the practical variant since it might be thought problematic for an error theorist to ask a question framed in terms of “should.”) The reason for this shift is that the prescriptive/practical question seems quite pressing in the case of error theory. Error theory seems to force the question. The two most prominent answers discussed by error theorists, to my (limited) knowledge, are eliminativism and moral fictionalism (of the prescriptive variety).
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Zombie Spouses

August 8, 2009

Would you be worse-off with respect to well-being if your spouse didn’t really love you, but only seemed to? Lots of people think you would be and are therefore persuaded that well-being/welfare must consist of something more than pleasure, happiness, or other mental states.

For example, Shelly Kagan’s “Deceived Businessman” believes he has a faithful, loving spouse but has an adulterous spouse who secretly despises him. Kagan argues that since the businessman is blissfully unaware of his spouse’s deceptions, mental state theories of well-being cannot distinguish between the deceived businessman and his doppelganger whose identical beliefs about his circumstances are true. Kagan concludes, “In thinking about this man’s life, it is difficult to believe that it is all a life could be, that this life has gone about as well as a life could go. Yet this seems to be the very conclusion mental state theories must reach! … So mental state theories must be wrong” (see Kagan’s Normative Ethics, p. 35).

OK, how about this: In 25%-Zombie world, every fourth person is a zombie, and every fourth spouse is a zombie. The non-zombie denizens of 25%-Zombie world know that every fourth person/spouse is a zombie who behaves exactly like (and is indistinguishable from) a normal person but feels nothing and doesn’t love anyone. (Never mind how they know this. It’s true, they believe it, et cetera.) I think the non-zombies would find it disconcerting that there were so many zombies around, but most would eventually get over it, marry someone, and assume that some other sucker had the zombie spouse. Many of the non-zombies would be wrong about this, but neither they (the non-zombies with zombie spouses) nor anyone else would ever know which spouses were zombies.

I don’t think the non-zombies with zombie spouses would, on average, be any worse off with respect to well-being than non-zombies with non-zombie spouses. (Of course, they’d all be worse off than average spouses in our world, since we don’t have to worry about whether our spouses might be zombies, but this worse-off-ness would apply to all married non-zombies in 25%-Zombie world, whether or not they were married to zombies.) What do you think? If you agree with me, do you think this constitutes a counter-example to thought experiments like Kagan’s Deceived Businessman? I sure do, but you might have guessed that.

I think that in our world, disloyal or unloving spouses usually are distinguishable from faithful, loving spouses because the former don’t feel and display the same respect and love for their spouses as do the latter. So deceived spouses typically suffer tangible, discernible harms to well-being that undeceived spouses typically do not suffer. However, if unloving spouses were completely indistinguishable from loving ones (e.g., because they were zombies or superb deceivers who never came out of character), I don’t think the unloved spouses would suffer any harms to well-being. Their situation might “look worse” to epistemically privileged readers of thought experiments since we know, e.g., that Donna’s husband is unfaithful or that Jack’s wife is a zombie, but that strikes me as a purely aesthetic matter — something that doesn’t look quite right from “the view from nowhere” — rather than anything to do with well-being.


A Troublesome Quartet

April 5, 2009

Based on the following line of thought, it seems to me that if one is a buck-passing existence-internalist who accepts a certain thesis about motivational diversity, then she or he should give up on one of those commitments or give up thinking that anything has intrinsic value. (There are other ways to frame the matter, of course.) But I’m not yet sure that the following line of thought is unproblematic. Feedback is welcome!

    P1: (Intrinsic Value) Something has intrinsic value. [In other words: Something is worthy of being valued (by anyone) for its own sake.]

    P2: (Fitting Attitudes Reduction) Something’s being worthy of being valued (by anyone) for its own sake just is for it to be such that there is reason for anyone to value it for its own sake.

    C1: So, there is something such that there is reason for anyone to value it for its own sake. (from P1 and P2)

    P3: (Existence-Internalist Thesis) For any thing X and any agent A, there is reason for A to value X for its own sake only if a (specified) X-related motivational fact about A obtains.

    P4: (Motivational Diversity) For any thing X, there is some possible agent A such that the (specified) X-related motivational fact about A does not obtain.

    C2: So, for any thing X, there is some possible agent A for whom there is not reason for A to value X for its own sake. (from P3 and P4)

    C3: So, it is not the case that there is something such that there is reason for anyone to value it for its own sake. (from C2)

    C4: So, C1 & C3 (Contradiction)


Why I might have reason not to eat honey

February 22, 2009

I’m a vegan, and someone recently asked me whether I ate honey, and if not, why not.  I wasn’t sure what to say, because I don’t eat honey, but I’m not sure I have good reason not to.

I take myself to have good reason not to eat fish, mammals, and birds or related animal products on the following grounds:

(1) These animals are sentient, i.e., they can have positive or negative affective responses to stimuli.

(2) Ceteris paribus, I prefer states of affairs in which sentient creatures don’t suffer (that’s them negative affective responses I was talkin’ about).

(3) Animal agriculture, including the production of eggs and dairy products, causes a great deal of suffering.

(4) I don’t think that the fact that I used to enjoy eating animal products gets me past the ceteris paribus in (2).

Therefore, I eat other things now (plants and salt, mostly).

In the case of honey, I’m not sure I have the same kind of reason, because I don’t know whether bees and other insects are sentient.  They don’t have brains, but they have rudimentary nervous systems and seem to respond aversively to certain harmful stimuli, etc., but it’s tough to say.  I currently give them the benefit of the doubt, but if I liked honey more, I might not.

So there you have it; “Peter Singer for one,” you might say.  Unlike Singer, I don’t think that everyone has a duty or reason to maximize utility, so I don’t assume that everyone has the same reasons I have for eschewing animal products.

That said, I’m curious to know why others don’t take themselves to have similar reasons to mine.  It seems to me that most people would agree, on reflection, that they don’t like the idea of animal suffering and would prefer that it weren’t so prevalent.  I doubt most people think that their current gustatory practices provide them with irreplaceable benefits.   So what gives?

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Bystanders to Oppressions

April 20, 2008

I attended several interesting talks at the Central APA. This time, I tried to select more politically-oriented sessions, despite my lack of knowledge in that area. Subsequently, I was exposed to a lot of interesting issues I probably would never have thought about otherwise. One symposium that particularly got me thinking was “Responsibility for Resisting Oppression”, with Bernard Boxill, Thomas Hill, Jean Harvey, and Sarah Buss. One topic that came up was the responsibilities of “bystanders” to resisting oppressions, compared to that of the oppressed themselves.

That got me thinking: Who is a bystander? For example, are we bystanders to the Chinese government’s oppression of Tibetans? Suppose that information about this oppression were nearly impossible to get, then are we nevertheless bystanders? This hypothetical has implications for assessing our responsibilities as bystanders in everyday situations. There are many instances of systematic injustice in workplace or private homes. We might then ask: Are we bystanders to those, and if so, what are our responsibilities? Reflecting on these scenarios rather naively suggests an epistemic condition on answering the question ‘who is a bystander’: we are bystanders when we can easily obtain knowledge of the oppression.

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