I’ve just read T.M. Scanlon’s chapter on blame in his latest book Moral Dimensions. The discussion is subtle, provocative, and quite insightful. It has already caused me to rethink some of my own views on moral responsibility in general and blame in particular. Nevertheless, I have a few questions/worries about the account that may be worth discussing over the course of a few posts. In this post, I’ll just focus on his account of moral responsibility, and in later posts I hope to focus on his accounts of blame and the ethics of blaming. (And I apologize in advance for the length of this post.)
There are three important and related concepts discussed in the account. First, I am morally responsible for X (where X is an action or attitude) just in case X is properly attributable to me. Second, I am blameworthy for X just in case X reveals something about my “attitudes toward others that impairs the relations that others can have with” me (128). Third, for you to blame me for X is for you (a) to judge me to be blameworthy for X, and (b) to modify your relationship with me (or reaffirm a previous such modification) in the way deemed appropriate by your judgment in (a).
While I hope to discuss blame in more detail in a later post (and so will reserve my exposition of Scanlon’s view of blame until then), it’s worth saying something briefly now about the relation between (a) and (b). As Scanlon formulates the view, a judgment of blameworthiness is a necessary condition of blame. But this doesn’t seem right, given that blame primarily consists, allegedly, in a modification of one’s attitudes towards the blamed person, and one could modify one’s attitudes towards someone in this way without, or even contrary to, a judgment about that person’s blameworthiness. Suppose, for example, that I’m in thrall to someone who’s saved my life. As I follow him around, I see him treating certain people very poorly, and while consciously I rationalize his behavior and so make no judgments about his blameworthiness (or in fact I judge that he’s not blameworthy), I nevertheless (subtly, unconsciously) modify my attitudes towards him, eventually perhaps finding myself less enthralled with him. (And it’s still true of me that this modification of attitudes is one that would be made appropriate by a judgment of blameworthiness, were I to make such a judgment.) If blame is merely the modification of certain attitudes, therefore, and such attitudes are modifiable under my conscious radar, so to speak, or independently of my judgment “faculty,” then it’s doubtful that the judgment of blameworthiness is necessary for blame. Of course, one might think that all attitudinal modifications merely reflect shifts in evaluative judgments, but then it would just be unclear what’s added to the conditions of blame by including the reference to judgments of blameworthiness.
My main point here, though, is about moral responsibility, although what I’ll say is connected to the point just made. For Scanlon, to say that I’m morally responsible for X is just to say that X is properly attributable to me for purposes of moral appraisal. This means one can be morally responsible for actions, say, that are morally bad, good, or neutral. To be blameworthy for an action, for example, is for that action to be attributable to one and for it to be morally bad (roughly put). (As an aside, despite Scanlon’s affinity for citing Strawson throughout his discussion, this is, I think, a distinctly non-Strawsonian account of moral responsibility. For Strawson, being morally responsible for X is a matter of being (appropriately) held responsible for X, where Scanlon’s is a view according to which being appropriately held responsible (i.e., blamed) depends on an antecedent judgment of being responsible.)
So what does it mean for X to be properly attributable to me? This is unclear in the current text. One might think that, given his past remarks, Scanlon would maintain that X is attributable to me just in case it is responsive to my considered judgments. But he explicitly denies this view (193), holding instead that something may be attributable to me even if it’s not responsive in this way. For example, he says, I may firmly judge that the fact that hiring some job candidate would please a colleague I dislike isn’t a reason to decide against that candidate and yet this fact may still seem to me to be a reason to do so. My attitude thus resists my judgments and so isn’t under my reflective control; nevertheless, claims Scanlon, this attitude is still mine, an attitude for which I’m morally responsible. Something similar holds for the person who firmly rejects racism but nevertheless occasionally thinks someone’s race is a reason for treating him as inferior: the racist reaction is still his, and so is something for which he’s the appropriate subject of moral appraisal (although we may temper our actual blame of him).
I have a few questions/worries about this story. First, what makes an attitude one’s own in this sense if it’s not in fact connected or responsive to some evaluative judgment? Angela Smith, who has followed earlier Scanlon in her own work (and who Scanlon in the new work cites), suggests that attitudes are one’s own just in case one is answerable for them, which is a matter of their being ultimately grounded in reasons (which, after all, can be dredged up to respond to and defend against the answerability demand). For her, one’s attitudes are reflective of one’s evaluative judgments, and such judgments are simply ways of regarding something as having evaluative significance, and things are regarded as having evaluative significance for reasons. Thus, one could be answerable for an attitude in virtue of its being grounded on such reasons.
It looks, though, as if Scanlon is now disavowing the connection between answerability and responsibility. As he notes, when something seems to me to be a reason, it’s up to me to decide whether or not it’s actually a reason, and its being up to me in this sense is just for me to be answerable for it (something which I can be called on to defend or justify), for such a decision is a judgment that itself is grounded on reasons. But if considerations can continue to strike me as reasons even though I’ve decided that they’re not, then such attitudes look as if they operate independently of any grounding reasons and so aren’t things for which I’m actually answerable any more: in what way could it be subject to a call for defense? So now we have two questions before us: what actually makes such an attitude my own, and can I really be responsible for an attitude without being answerable for it?
Now one might insist that such attitudes are still grounded in reasons, even though they are not grounded in, or responsive to, my reflective evaluative judgments. I must confess that I’m not sure what this could mean, though. I can well understand how there might be explanatory reasons for my holding certain attitudes, but answerability is surely about one’s justifying reasons, and if one has these, then how could they not straightforwardly support evaluative judgments? Is the claim, then, that these attitudes just aren’t responsive to one’s reflective or conscious evaluative judgments? And would this imply, therefore, that they are responsive to one’s unreflective or unconscious judgments? But what could that mean, precisely, especially if one consistently disavowed such “judgments"? Further, if this were the case it seems answerability would still be missing, for how could one answer for or defend one’s unconscious judgments, especially if they were judgments one actively and reflectively disavowed?
All of this is to build up to asking about the case of the kleptomaniac or the obsessive compulsive. For absent a clear story about attributability, it’s hard to see why the kleptomaniac’s desire to steal, or the OCD victim’s attitudes towards handwashing, wouldn’t be properly attributable to these agents, such that they would both be morally responsible for these attitudes (i.e., open to moral appraisal for them). After all, their attitudes do tell us something “interesting about [them] over time” (197), and the fact that these attitudes are unresponsive to their reflective judgments is irrelevant. But this implication would seem quite counterintuitive. Surely the fact that his hands have germs strikes him as a reason to wash them for 12 hours/day is more plausibly thought to be an assailant on the OCD victim’s psyche rather than a constitutive part of it, something for which he’s not responsible. But it’s hard to see just how we could mark a distinction between the OCD victim and the recalcitrant racist, say, given the machinery Scanlon has constructed.
I may have just missed something in the account, though, so I’d be grateful for any help on these points.