I am pleased to introduce the next PEA Soup Featured Philosopher, Miranda Fricker. Profesor Fricker is currently the Director of the Mind Association, the author of the insightful and very influential book, Epistemic Injustice, and she is posting today about her next book project. Please feel free to add comments or questions below!
Thanks for inviting me to contribute! I’d like to put forward one or two of the main lines of thought for a book project I’m working on—Explaining Blame and Forgiveness. My main point will be about the surprisingly close relation between two apparently very different kinds of forgiveness; but first I need to say something about philosophical method, and to summarise a view of blame that I’ve put forward elsewhere.
Method: I’ve long been fascinated with State of Nature genealogical explanations of concepts or practices (the two contemporary inspirations being Edward Craig’s book Knowledge and the State of Nature, and Bernard Williams’ Truth and Truthfulness). My own belief is that the method is entirely coherent as a way of achieving a philosophical explanation of actual practice; but I accept that many find it obscure how a largely fictional story of ‘origins’ is supposed to produce a philosophical explanation of anything real, and that this makes it desirable to find a way of securing the explanatory pay-off without all the fictionalising that puts some people off. This I believe we can do, but only if we manage to be thoroughly explicit about how this kind of State of Nature method is supposed to work, so let me do that now: In such an explanation, what’s claimed about the State of Nature (e.g. that it contains a concept or practice with such and such features) is really a claim about what is basic in our actual concept or practice. The narrative or diachronic dimension of the fiction can be misleading in this regard, because it leads one to mistake a deliberately fictional (or part-fictional) genealogy of X for a real history of X. More precisely, what tends to mislead us is that such a story can seem as if it purports to tell us how we actually came to have a practice of X with this or that feature, when really it is an attempt to do something quite different: it is an effort to substantiate a philosophical claim about which features of our actual practice are necessary and which features are by contrast increasingly contingent. (N.B. ‘necessary’ here does not mean metaphysically necessary. Rather it means necessary in the qualified sense of ‘practically’ necessary in the manner of basic survival needs—which is the idea Craig exploits; or again ‘humanly’ necessary in the manner of Strawsonian ‘reactive attitudes and feelings’—which is the sense I shall go on to exploit here for purposes of explaining forgiveness.)
What I think can fruitfully be made more explicit in all this talk of the contrast between what’s necessary and what’s contingent is that the contrast as it is played out in these State of Nature stories is also one between features of X that are explanatorily basic and features of X that are non-basic or derivative. Genealogical priority works as a metaphor for explanatory priority. The hoped for philosophical pay-off will always be (something like) ‘the fact that we have a practice of X with this or that feature is explained by these features being present in, or derived from, the practice of X that human beings are bound to have, given the immediate imperatives of the simplest formation of society’. Now this analysis of how State of Nature genealogies really work furnishes the more candid and transparent methodological possibility I want, one designed to deliver the explanatory pay-off but without the fictionalising. Here’s the proposal. We present a hypothesis about what the paradigm practice of X is like—i.e. the form of the practice that we reckon displays its most basic point and purpose—and we then test out the hypothesis by seeing if we can plausibly represent other, non-paradigm forms of the practice as explanatorily dependent or derivative. They may, for instance, display the distinctive point and purpose in a different, somewhat disguised manner. In which case it can be a worthwhile philosophical task to lift the disguise.
Blame: I have argued elsewhere that the paradigm case of blame is Communicative Blame, where you wrong me and I react by communicating, with feeling, that you are at fault for what you’ve done. With this hypothesised, the next question is to ask what the point and purpose of Communicative Blame is. What role does it play in our lives? And the answer is that Communicative Blame aims to inspire remorse understood as pained understanding of the wrong one has done. The upshot (and I merely report all this without argument so that it can serve as a premise to what I want to propose in a moment about forgiveness) is that the role of Communicative Blame is to bring the wrongdoer and the blamer into an aligned moral understanding of what has gone on between them: a shared moral understanding. This communicative mechanism can function not only in relation to wrongdoers who already recognise the moral reasons one is blaming them for failing to be appropriately moved by; it can work, as Williams has explained, in relation to wrongdoers who do not yet recognise those reasons. That is, it can work proleptically. Roughly speaking, if you are wronged by someone who is utterly unmoved by the relevant moral reason to treat you decently, then you may well communicate blame to them, and it will not be without point to do so, provided the wrongdoer has sufficient underlying respect for you to be susceptible to your admonitions. For if they are indeed susceptible, then over time they may thereby be caused to recognise the reason they previously lacked. This is how the communication of blame can socially construct shared moral reasons.
Forgiveness: So how does this picture of blame have bearing on forgiveness? The literature on forgiveness displays a broad division between those who conceive of it as earned, through remorse or apology, and those who conceive of it as fundamentally non-earned, or ‘elective’—a gift. There are also some pluralists, and I am on the side of pluralism here, but I find a mere declaration of pluralism to be less satisfying than the achievement of an overall framework that makes room for plurality while ordering the different varieties of forgiveness in a unifying explanatory scheme. Such a scheme will reveal one variety as basic in the sense of explanatorily prior to the others. How might this work in relation to varieties of forgiveness? Let’s take the function of Communicative Blame as our starting point: to bring shared moral understanding through remorse. Once that is achieved, if it is achieved, continued blame-feeling serves no further point or purpose, but merely threatens to fester if it is left unreleased from the individual’s psychology, or indeed left churning without movement in the moral social system. In short, continuing with blame-feeling that has become redundant makes all parties feel bad to no purpose, and so we’re better off without it. Now this, I propose, gives us the point of basic forgiveness: the release of redundant blame-feeling. In this case, the blame-feeling has become redundant because Communicative Blame has achieved its point, and so what we have here is the familiar case of forgiveness earned through remorse—let us call it Moral Justice Forgiveness. At base, the logic of the reactive attitudes of blame and forgiveness is the logic of Communicative Blame and Moral Justice Forgiveness. Our reactive attitudes are attitudes of a simple interpersonal moral justice, and in that simple pattern of reactions it is through remorse that someone earns another’s forgiveness. I therefore hypothesise Moral Justice Forgiveness as our paradigm case of forgiveness—the explanatorily basic case.
Its credentials as explanatorily basic depend on two things. First, that it is psychologically simple enough, and socially necessary enough, to be a plausible candidate for something found in human nature. I’m going to take that as read because I take as my touchstone for moral nature the Strawsonian reactive attitudes, of which something like Moral Justice Forgiveness is one. (In fact Strawson’s own characterisation of the reactive attitude of forgiveness is slightly more complex than Moral Justice Forgiveness, as it includes a commitment on the part of the wrongdoer not to do the bad thing again, whereas I suspect that isn’t quite necessary. But be that as it may.)
Second, the claim that Moral Justice Forgiveness is explanatorily basic depends upon our being able to convincingly represent other, non-paradigm, cases of forgiveness as explanatorily derivative—as iterations of the more basic practice. I believe there are many varieties of forgiveness, but I shall focus here exclusively on a canonical example of the broad kind we might label Gifted Forgiveness. So our question is: can the practice of Gifted Forgiveness be convincingly represented as an iteration of a more basic practice of Moral Justice Forgiveness? I think the answer is Yes. The variety of Gifted Forgiveness I wish to focus on here is exemplified in the much cited literary example from Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. The Bishop forgives Jean Valjean for betraying his trust and stealing the rectory silver, despite the fact that Valjean expresses no remorse. This is an archetypal case of Gifted Forgiveness, but (here’s the point) we can only make sense of it as forgiveness by thinking of it as the Bishop giving Valjean something that would normally need to be earned through remorse but on this occasion isn’t. Therein lies the distinctive moral meaning and value of Gifted Forgiveness, and it can now be seen as parasitic on the moral meaning and value of Moral Justice Forgiveness. Here we see the generic derivativeness of Gifted Forgiveness: as with the notion of a gift quite generally, its meaning and value consists in the fact that something for which one must normally pay is being given for free. That’s what makes this kind of forgiveness so moving.
But the Bishop’s forgiveness of Valjean also displays something that reveals it as more specifically derivative of Moral Justice Forgiveness. Bearing in mind its power to move us, I propose that Gifted Forgiveness of this kind is best understood as working proleptically. In forgiving the unremorseful Valjean, the Bishop effectively treats Valjean as if he were already remorseful. And in so doing, given a basic respect for the Bishop on Valjean’s part, the Bishop may thereby cause Valjean, over time, to feel remorse after all. Here, then, my suggestion is that we see this classic case of Gifted Forgiveness as gaining its meaning and value from Moral Justice Forgiveness considered as the more basic practice. Gifted Forgiveness that functions proleptically in this way is a temporally displaced version of the more basic practice. We would not be able to make sense of the Bishop’s treatment of Valjean as a case of forgiveness without already having a grasp of the practice of Moral Justice Forgiveness, and crucially of its point and purpose.
Some might say this explains away this kind of Gifted Forgiveness, revealing it as not distinct after all but merely a case of Moral Justice Forgiveness in disguise. That would be an interesting result in a way; but for my part I would not put it like that. I don’t see any reason to erase the differences between the two. Rather I prefer to see each as a distinctive practice of forgiveness, where we can best understand the one by explaining it as an iteration of the other. I think the relation of explanatory priority I have tried to reveal gives us a reason to regard Gifted Forgiveness as a contingent historical achievement, one that we can only make naturalistic sense of by relating it to the basic case of Moral Justice Forgiveness, but which should also be prized as transcending it in some measure.
 I have rehearsed this method in ‘What’s the Point of Blame? A Paradigm Based Explanation’, NOUS early view 2015
 See Williams, Bernard. (1995) ‘Internal Reasons and The Obscurity of Blame’, in Making Sense of Humanity and other philosophical papers 1982-1993 Cambridge, Cambridge University Press; p. 40-43.