Very pleased to be able to introduce our next Featured Philosopher, my Upstate friend, Julia Markovits. Take it away Julia:
Thanks so much for inviting me to contribute!
I’m currently working on a book about praise- and blameworthiness. One thing I’ll have something to say about in the book is how to understand degrees of praise- and blameworthiness. In the book, I defend a kind of quality-of-will account, according to which one dimension of moral worth tracks the extent to which we are (or fail to be) motivated to act by the reasons that would make something the right thing to do. (I’ve defended this claim before, in my paper “Acting for the Right Reasons” (Philosophical Review, 2010).) That thesis gives us the tools to account for one kind of variation in degree of moral worth, since our motivating reasons can overlap more or less with the normative reasons that apply to us.
But this notion of degrees of overlap can’t explain some variations in degree of moral worth than seem to have a lot of intuitive support. For example (as I argued in another paper, “Saints, Heroes, Sages, and Villains, Philosophical Studies, 2012), it can’t explain what makes so-called “heroic” actions especially praiseworthy, since both heroic and ordinary actions may exhibit perfect overlap between the reasons motivating their performance and the normative reasons justifying them.
And here’s another sort of case we might want to explain: sometimes there seems to be a powerful intuitive difference in praise- or blameworthiness between two actions even when their agents are motivated by the same considerations to perform them, and even when the same considerations provide normative reasons for or against doing so. I have in mind cases that reveal the apparent time- or culture-relativism of praise and blame. For example, it is intuitive that opposition to slavery was more praiseworthy in the late 18th century that it is today. It is intuitive (President Trump’s defense of the white nationalists in Charlotte notwithstanding) that slaveholding in 1776 was less blameworthy than slavery-apologism is today. It is intuitive that the sexism of our grandparents is less blameworthy than the sexism of our contemporaries. And so on.
Nonetheless, I at least want to maintain, abolitionism was not supported by stronger reasons in the late 18thcentury than it is now. Nor was it supererogatory at the time. Slavery was no less wrong in 1776 than it is today. Sexism was no less wrong in 1950 than it is today. And so on. So how can we account for this sort of variation in degree of moral worth?
Gideon Rosen (“Culpability and Ignorance,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 2003) has proposed a (partial) account of this second sort of case. He endorses what he calls the “parity thesis”: that just as non-culpable nonmoral ignorance exculpates (a doctor is not blameworthy for prescribing penicillin to a patient who is allergic to it if she was nonculpably ignorant of the allergy after exercising all reasonable caution), so to non-culpable moral ignorance can exculpate. Moral ignorance is non-culpable when it results from a lack of reflection that is not “negligent” or “reckless,” but rather “ordinary.” If it would have taken an extraordinary person to recognize the moral truth, failure to recognize it cannot be culpable, even if the truth was in some sense accessible to the agent
I think there’s a lot to this thought: as you’ll see, I agree that degrees of moral worth to some extent track how ordinary or extraordinary the wrong- or right-doing in question is. But I want to resist Rosen’s appeal to the parity thesis to support his view. The analogy to the non-moral cases strikes me as troubling, for a number of reasons.
First, non-culpable non-moral ignorance does more than exculpate: it changes what we are morally obligated to do. Our non-culpably ignorant doctor is not just not to blame for prescribing penicillin to her allergic patient – she’s to blame if she doesn’t prescribe the penicillin! Her obligations to her patient are shaped by what she reasonably infers from her evidence, not by the actual medical truths. When she prescribes the penicillin, she does not act wrongly (in the subjective sense of wrong relevant to determining her obligations). But surely we don’t want to say that about the sexism and slavery cases! As I noted in describing those cases, abolitionism was no less morally required, and slavery and sexism no less morally forbidden, in the past than they are now.
Second, the parity thesis explanation of our puzzle cannot (as Rosen acknowledges) explain why it’s appropriate for early slaveholders or 50s sexists to feel remorse for their actions once they come to see the light. The doctor, after all, should not feel remorse when she learns of her patient’s allergy.
Third, the parity thesis explanation is designed to explain the time- or culture-relativism of blame, but it can’t explain the seemingly related phenomenon of the relativism of praise. Ideally, we should be looking for a unified explanation of these cases.
I propose such a uniform explanation, which holds on to Rosen’s insights about the significance of what’s “ordinary”, but does not entail a correlative (and in my view implausible) relativism about right and wrong actions (and relatedly, preserves the appropriateness of remorse for past wrongdoing). Fortuitously, it also supplies our missing account of heroic actions.
I appeal to a standing-based account of (one element of) praise- and blameworthiness. On my view:
An action is more praiseworthy [correlatively, more blameworthy], relative to an appraiser, the rarer it is for members of the appraiser’s moral community to have had [correlatively, lacked] the moral strength that would have led them to perform [correlatively, kept them from performing] the same action, had they been in the agent’s place.
So, for example, heroic acts are right acts that most members of the appraiser’s community would not have had the strength of will to perform, had they been in the agent’s circumstances. We especially admire the early abolitionists precisely because we judge we likely would have failed to show their moral insight or their moral courage had we been in their shoes. We condemn the confederate apologists among us because we think we would do better in their place, but not (as much) George Washington, because we correctly think we would not.
Here are some things I like about this view (in addition to its meeting the desiderata described above), and some important questions it raises:
The view explains the common phenomenon of demurral about ascriptions of heroism, while allowing that both the praiser and the demurrer could be right: the person we judge heroic may be assessing his own action against the backdrop of identification with a different community (consider, e.g, the firefighter who insists he is just doing his job—what his fellow firefighters would also have done).
The view illuminates otherwise puzzling no-middle-ground cases: cases of actions we deem heroic if performed, but whose non-performance we condemn. A recent heart-breaking case is that of the “school resource officer” Scott Peterson, who failed to challenge the shooter at Parkland High School. We may judge that we wouldn’t have the moral strength to take on first-responder jobs that put us at such risk (hence our praise of first-responders as heroes), but also that we would have the moral strength not to sign up for such a job if we were not willing to follow through in an emergency (hence the condemnation of Peterson).
The view illuminates the fascinating case of people who resent ascriptions of heroism. Two examples I’d love to talk more about: soldiers returning from war, who express resentment at being “thanked for their service” (Richtel, “Please Don’t Thank Me For My Service,” NYT, Feb. 21, 2015); and the case of Stacie Lewis, the parent of a severely disabled child (“A Hero or Just a Parent,” NYT, Oct. 13, 2010). Lewis, for example, rejects the label “hero,” because she behaves towards her daughter just as she believes most others in her position would have done. But she also resents the label, with its suggestion that caring for her daughter is somehow (in contrast to other parents, caring for other children) more than should be expected of her.
Why should it matter to moral appraisal whether we think we’d have acted similarly in the agents shoes? Not, I argue, because this provides us with a good guide for how difficult or costly the action in question was. And not, as “attribution theorists” in social psychology would have it, because, when we correctly judge that most of us would have done a certain thing under certain circumstances, that shows that such behavior can reasonably be attributed to the circumstances rather than to the agent. (I can talk more about why I reject these explanations in the discussion.)
Instead, I want to make two suggestions: first, the standing account correctly recognizes that blaming someone (as opposed to merely being angry with them) involves claiming a moral high ground. Second, (and I draw here on some further ideas of Gideon Rosen’s, offered in a different context (Rosen, “Culpability, Duress, and Excuses”)), in blaming, we are making a social move—we are withdrawing (or threatening to withdraw) attitudes of ordinary sociability. We are, as Rosen puts it, questioning whether to treat such agents as “one of us—as entitled to the presumption of sociability to which any stranger would be entitled.” Conversely, when we single someone out for special praise, we send the message that one could fail to act as she did and still count as “one of us.”
This means, among other things, that the decisions we make about when to praise and blame signal something to the objects of our assessment about whether and how we identify with them. The thought experiment I claim our practice of moral assessment commits us to entails this. One way of understanding Lewis’s annoyance at being called a hero is in terms of this thought experiment. When we call Lewis a hero, we suggest that we could not imagine making sacrifices like her for a severely disabled child. In resenting the label, she makes clear that she wants us to identify with her as a “just” a fellow parent, who loves her child, not to single her out as belonging to a different class of people altogether. In this way, praise, just like blame, can be socially costly.