Thanks so much for inviting me to contribute today! Recently, I’ve been thinking about the relationship between different kinds of ignorance and moral blameworthiness. I’m interested in how we should respond to wrong action that is (partly) attributable to moral ignorance, where that ignorance has a cultural dimension.
If the criteria for the rightness and wrongness of actions is not, fundamentally, culture-relative (and I think it is not), can we make room for the possibility that the appropriateness of praising or blaming a certain right or wrong action is culture-relative? For example, in virtue of what is 18th century abolitionism more admirable than opposition to slavery today? In what sense (if any) is 18th century slaveholding less blameworthy that slaveholding is/would be today?
Gideon Rosen has argued that just as non-moral ignorance can exculpate, so too can moral ignorance (“Culpability and Ignorance,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 2003). He labels this the “parity thesis” (p. 64). In many cases, he notes, the fact that we’re ignorant of some relevant non-moral facts absolves us of blame for the actions we perform out of ignorance. This is true not only when we couldn’t have known those facts, but also when we could have known them, but our ignorance is non-culpable, because it is not the result of negligence or recklessness or deliberate misconduct in the management of our opinion. (Say I put salt in your tea, thinking it’s sugar (it’s in a bag marked “Sugar”). I could easily have discovered that it’s salt, by sampling it first. But it’s not negligent or reckless to trust that a white crystalline substance found in my kitchen in a bag labeled “Sugar” is, in fact, sugar. So I’m not blameworthy for my ignorance, or for salting your tea.)
Rosen argues that the same line of thinking exculpates many wrong acts performed out of moral ignorance. In the moral case, just as in the non-moral case, Rosen thinks, it would be intuitively unfair to blame someone for doing something if he blamelessly believes there’s no compelling moral reason not to do it. And, Rosen argues, there can be cases of blameless moral ignorance. Ancient Hittite slaveholders, he thinks, cannot be blamed for failing to recognize the wrongness of slavery; similarly, the sexism of fathers in the 50s, who encouraged their sons but not their daughters to go to college, is non-culpable. (He assumes that the moral ignorance in each case is not derivative of non-moral ignorance.) These people are blameless for their ignorance, according to Rosen: “[t]hat [they have] failed to see through a pervasive and well-protected ideology need not be a sign of culpable recklessness or negligence on [their] part. It might just be a sign of ordinariness. And if that’s right we should conclude that [their] ignorance is not [their] fault.” (pp. 67-68) (The examples suggest, and Rosen suspects, that blameless moral ignorance of this sort will in fact be widespread, and may justify a much more general skepticism about holding people responsible for wrong actions.)
Whatever we think about the culpability of the moral ignorance exhibited by the Hittite slaveholder or the 50s dad, it does seem, intuitively, like their wrong actions are less blameworthy than similar behavior would be today. It takes a worse person to be pro-slavery or sexist in our culture than it took in their cultures. Rosen’s parity thesis and his accompanying account of non-culpable ignorance seem to explain those intuitions, and so gains some further support from them directly.
The analogy to non-moral ignorance on which Rosen relies strikes me, however, as troubling. That’s because non-culpable non-moral ignorance does more than just exculpate: it changes what we’re obligated to do. Not only am I not to blame for salting your tea; if you ask for sugar and I, despite my ignorance, refuse you the crystalline substance in my kitchen, I’ve acted wrongly. Or imagine a doctor who refuses me the penicillin she justifiably believes I need: she fails in her obligations to me even if, unbeknownst to us both, it turns out I’m allergic. Moreover, while I may regret putting salt in your tea, and my doctor may regret giving me penicillin if I’m allergic, we shouldn’t feel guilt or remorse for our actions, once we discover the truth. (I actually think the same thing about agent-regret, as opposed to simple regret, for reasons we can talk more about if you’re interested.)
But surely we don’t want to reach similar conclusions in Rosen’s cases of moral ignorance! Surely it’s not the case that the Hittite slaveholder was right (not just blameless) to support slavery, or that the 50s dad was obligated to give preference to his sons’ college ambitions. And surely they should feel guilt or remorse if they were to learn the error of their ways. I worry that Rosen’s account entails not just a (plausible) relativism of blame but also a more thoroughgoing (and decidedly less plausible) moral relativism: Rosen’s argument that the moral ignorance of ancient slaveholders and 1950s sexists is non-culpable worryingly entails that ancient slaveholding and 1950s sexism were not wrong (in the subjective sense of “wrong” that’s relevant to establishing our obligations).
We might respond to this worry in two ways.
First, we can reject the parity thesis, and insist that non-culpable moral ignorance doesn’t exculpate after all. The view that non-culpable ignorance exculpates might gain some support from a sort of Control Principle (of the sort Thomas Nagel defends in his paper on moral luck): I can be blamed for outcomes only if they are, in the relevant sense, in my control (or if my lack of control is my fault). And control of the outcome of my actions may require conscious awareness of how what I’m doing will effect the world. Non-moral ignorance undermines this sort of control, but it’s not clear that moral ignorance does: it doesn’t prevent me from knowing what I am doing, under the relevant description (e.g., putting salt in the tea, shutting down my daughter’s college ambitions, etc), even if it prevents me from knowing the moral status of what I’m doing.
Second, we can accept the parity thesis, but insist that moral ignorance is very rarely non-culpable in the relevant sense. A better version of the parity thesis might say that epistemically justified ignorance or false belief (of any sort) exculpates. It’s not clear to me that the false beliefs had by the Hittite Lord or 50s dad are epistemically justified, even if it would be in some sense inappropriate for us to blame them, because of how ordinary these false beliefs were (more on this below). There are, I think, good reasons for thinking that testimonial evidence in these sorts of cases provides less justification for moral beliefs for non-moral beliefs. (One good reason: in the case of recognizing moral experts to rely on, much more than in the case of recognizing non-moral experts, it may take one to know one.)
I won’t say more about these strategies now. I want, instead, to suggest an alternative account of the relativism of blame – one that accommodates my intuitions about the absolutism of obligation. Rosen is right that ancient or even 18th century slave-holders seem less culpable that someone with similar attitudes to slavery today. Furthermore, early abolitionists, or early sex-egalitarians, are more praiseworthy than people with similar attitudes today. But our explanation of that fact should not entail that slavery or sexism were less wrong in previous times than they are today.
We have the resources to explain this once we recognize that the appropriateness of our praising or blaming an action depends not just on facts about the action, or about the agent’s motivations, but also on facts about us, and our motivations: we need standing to praise and blame. In particular, whether or not we can appropriately praise or blame an action depends in part on our judgments about how we would have acted had we been in the agent’s place: we admire people who act in right ways we think we would not have done had we been in their place, and we lack standing to blame people who do wrong things we think we too would have done in their shoes. (I’ve defended a view like this in more detail elsewhere, in “Saints, Heroes, Sages, and Villains,” Phil Studies 2012.) We lack standing to blame the Hittite slaveholder or the 50s dad because we know would almost certainly have believed and done the same in their place. But it doesn’t follow that their false moral beliefs were justified or exculpating in the same way that false non-moral beliefs can be.
Two follow-up questions I’d like to think more about:
(1) How should the cultural relativism of blame inform our attitudes to widespread or common-place wrongdoing today?
(2) Are there cultural divides so great that some forms of moral assessment across those divides are inappropriate, because we cannot meaningfully ask ourselves how we would have behaved had we been in the agent’s circumstances (because those circumstances are somehow incompatible with our being who we are)? This would lead to something like Bernard Williams’ relativism of distance…