By In Featured Philosophers, Moral Responsibility Comments (11)

Featured Philosopher: Julia Markovits

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.

11 Responses to Featured Philosopher: Julia Markovits

  1. Avi Appel says:

    Thanks for this post Julia!

    Everything you’ve said makes sense to me, though I’m curious regarding what you intend to say about remorse in your book. In the first half of this blog post you note that one problem with Rosen’s view is that it doesn’t adequately account for the feelings of remorse that someone should feel when they discover they used to act immorally (out of moral ignorance). But I’m not sure how your own theory can account for that very same phenomenon. Take a former slaveholder, for example, who moves North, enters a new moral community, and learns the error of his prior ways. So he is (justifiably) remorseful. But yet it is still the case that everyone in his new community (including himself) would have been just as morally ignorant had they been in his place (in the South). So on your standing-based account, it seems like he has no reason for remorse.

  2. Ben M-Y says:

    Hi Julia,

    Thanks for a very thought-provoking post. I look forward to the book!

    I have a question, though, about how you are understanding the appraiser’s moral community.

    You say: “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.”

    And this is supposed to help us make sense of what you claim is an intuitive thought that 18th C. opposition to slavery was more praiseworthy than opposition to slavery is now. (I’m not sure I agree with the claim that this is intuitive. But I’ll leave that aside for now.) If I understand you correctly, the idea is that the moral community of the 18th C. abolitionist is different from our own moral community in that it was rarer for members of the former to have had the moral strength to oppose slavery.

    But I worry that this explanation is problematic in that it erases enslaved people by exempting them from the relevant moral community.

    Surely, part of the explanation of what is wrong with slavery is that it exploits, dehumanizes, etc. people with moral standing and claims against such treatment–that is, members of the moral community. And if this is correct, then we should consider enslaved people to be members of the 18th C. abolitionist’s moral community. And, as many others have repeatedly pointed out, enslaved people were well aware of the moral evils of slavery and opposed it with great organization, dedication, and effort. Moreover, enslaved people accounted for a plurality, sometimes a majority, of the population is 18th C. slaveholding States. Thus, it seems as if the only way it is true to say that it was rare for members of the 18th C. abolitionist’s moral community to have the moral strength to oppose slavery is to exclude the enslaved from the moral community.

    This seems to be problematic both in that it undermines an intuitive explanation of what’s morally wrong with slavery and, more importantly, because it repeats a grave error of the past. Enslaved people were members of the moral community, and it was abhorrent to treat them otherwise.

    I would be very interested to hear what you think about this. Am I misunderstanding your view? Is there something I’m missing?


  3. Aaron Smuts says:

    “An action is more blameworthy, relative to an appraiser, the rarer it is for members of the appraiser’s moral community to have had lacked the moral strength that would have kept them from performing the same action, had they been in the agent’s place.”

    I’m not sure how this is supposed to account for diminished responsibility due to normative ignorance. I guess I’m not sure what you mean by “moral strength”. It sounds like will power or resolve. That helps make sense of the praiseworthiness of someone taking a great risk, making a great sacrifice, etc. But not ignorance. In some cases of bias, perhaps, but does it generally require anything we’d call “strength” to see the light?

  4. Thanks for this, Julia!

    Two small background questions, just so that I can get the lay of the land here. What do you mean by “degrees of blameworthiness”? If someone is more blameworthy than someone else, does that mean that she’s *more worthy of blame* or that she’s *worthy of more blame*? And what do each of these mean? Is being “more worthy” about stronger justification? Is “more blame” just about being angrier, say? I’m not trying to be obtuse or anally analytic; it’s just that I’ve always had some difficulty understanding how we were to take this talk.

    Second, I’m wondering why you have such a strong motivation to provide a unified/analogous account of blameworthiness and praiseworthiness, given two data points: first, it’s unclear what praise is supposed to consist in and whether it’s actually the contrary of blame (or is just orthogonal in terms of our responses); second, there’s plenty of evidence (e.g., Josh Knobe, John Doris, Dave Pizarro, and others) showing many asymmetries between how subjects dole out praise and blame (e.g., in some work I’ve done with David Faraci, people who are morally ignorant due to childhood deprivation are treated very differently when they do what’s blameworthy vs. what’s praiseworthy).

  5. Julia Markovits says:

    Thanks, all, for your comments (and for wading through such a long post)! I don’t have time to respond to all of them right now, but I’ll make a start and then return to the others when I next get a moment — thanks for your patience!

    Avi, this is a helpful question. Your question assumes that remorse is straightforwardly the first-personal instance of blame (that remorse is just blaming oneself). But I don’t think that’s right. I think remorse (or guilt) is what you should feel when you recognize that you have done something subjectively wrong. That’s true, on my view, of the slaveholder and the sexist regardless of whether or how much we should blame them. (That was the main consideration motivating my disagreement with Gideon Rosen’s take on these cases.)

    But what justifies thinking of remorse as different from blame in this way? My account of blame is a standing account — I’ve argued that we should blame people only when we have standing to do so, and we have standing to do so only when we justifiably think we would have done better in the agent’s shoes. But I’m not sure that makes sense as a constraint on feeling remorse. For one thing, unlike blaming, feeling remorse does not involve a claiming of the moral high ground (quite the contrary, of course). For another, I’ve suggested that when we blame someone else, we are making a sort of social decision — a decision about whom to count as “one of us” and on what terms. But it doesn’t make sense to think of our attitudes to ourselves in this way.

  6. Julia Markovits says:

    Ben, thanks for raising those worries. I do think they rest at least in part on a misreading of what I was trying to say, though they also raise some issues that I think can’t be resolved just by correcting the misreading.

    First, a short response to your parenthetical resistance to my claim that, intuitively, opposition to slavery in the 18th century was more praiseworthy than such opposition is today. I find the early abolitionists admirable in virtue of their abolitionism. I think Henri Grégoire, for example, was admirable for his opposition to slavery and for his other egalitarian views. But I certainly don’t admire my contemporaries for sharing those views. To take a more recent example, I admire my own father for being an co-equal caregiver, with my mother, of his five children, and for supporting her career the way he did. But I don’t admire my own partner for that–I expect it of him. (I also, of course, admire my mother for doing the same, at a time when institutions certainly did not make it easy to combine having children with a demanding job.) But just to be clear: I am not saying that 18th century slaveholding was not blameworthy at all, or that no one could have standing to blame it.

    Now on to your main worry: that, in treating the 18th-century abolitionist’s community as one in which few people recognized the wrongness of slavery, when, of course, many slaves did realize slavery was wrong, I am problematically “eras[ing] enslaved people by exempting them from the relevant moral community,” thereby “repeating a grave error of the past,” and, worse still, “undermining an intuitive explanation of what’s morally wrong with slavery,” namely, “that it exploits, dehumanizes, etc. people with moral standing and claims against such treatment–that is, members of the moral community.”

    I don’t think I’m (and certainly hope I’m not!) doing either of these things. In fact, the recognition of the fact that lots of people in the late 18th century could see the wrongness of slavery is one of my motivations for resisting Rosen’s solution to the puzzle–I don’t think the recognizing the moral truth, in these cases, was somehow beyond the reach of ordinary people (in the way that, say, recognizing the proof of Fermat’s last theorem is, or recognizing the patient’s allergy in my penicillin example was).

    Notice that my account doesn’t actually make any claims about who belongs to the agent’s moral community, or what members of that community usually do. The account makes reference only to the appraiser’s community, and asks what we judge we would have done in the agent’s shoes. So in the abolitionist case, it tells me to ask myself whether I think I (or a representative member of my moral community) would have been likely to have been an abolitionist had I been in that agent’s position. The fact that many people, especially the slaves themselves, recognized the wrongness of slavery doesn’t, in my view, entitle me to any confidence that I would have done any better than the slaveholder.

    Of course, a lot will turn on how exactly the thought experiment is to be performed: what should we build into the agent’s position? What about them do we hold fixed? What about ourselves do we hold fixed? Do we, for example, hold fixed the agent’s race? Do we hold fixed our own? Are there some cultural gaps so large that we simply cannot bridge them in our imagination, not just because we don’t know what we would have done had we been in the agent’s shoes (though this will often be the case), but also because we can’t imaginatively put ourselves in their shoes while still holding on to the notion that it is WE who occupy those shoes? Cases where the gap between us and the object of our assessment is so large that the thought experiment I describe simply cannot be performed? (The answer to this last question is, I believe, yes. And it lends support to the thesis Bernard Williams once identified as “the truth in relativism” — that there are some chasms of time and culture so great, that praising or blaming across those chasms has no place.)

    Your comment brings out a related worry: when (for example) asking ourselves if we would have done better than the 18th century slaveholder or the 1950s sexist, can we build facts about our own race or gender into the experiment? If so, then women might have more standing to blame the 50s sexist than men do; and African Americans might have more standing to blame 18th century slaveholders than caucasians do. I think there is some plausibility to this suggestion. It’s not clear to me that we can retain our sense that we are putting ourselves in the agent’s shoes if we must abstract away from the very features of ourselves that seem most relevant to the circumstances we’re envisioning. And this thought gets further support, I think, from thinking about the logic behind the standing constraint on blame, according to which, in deciding whether to praise or blame, we are making decisions about whom to count as “one of us.” It doesn’t seem reasonable to expect the potential victims of some bad practice to treat their tormentors as “one of them.”

    In the longer work which I’ve only inadequately summarized here, I talk a lot about these sorts of questions (though I don’t resolve them there, either). In any case, it seems to me a strength, of sorts, of the view I’m defending that the cases where it’s most unclear how we should design our thought experiment are also the ones in which we feel least confident in our (pre-theoretical) moral assessment of the agent.

    There’s a lot more to say here, but it would take me too many pages! But one more point is worth emphasizing in light of your worry that my account undermines an intuitive explanation of what’s wrong with slavery, namely “that it exploits, dehumanizes, etc. people with moral standing and claims against such treatment–that is, members of the moral community.” This worry, it seems to me, hangs on a misunderstanding of what I mean by membership in a moral community. I really have something descriptive, not normative, in mind here. A moral community is a group of people who identify with each other, and who hold themselves up, collectively, more or less, to the same standard. I certainly did not mean to suggest that an agent’s “moral community” consists of those people who have moral standing and who can make valid moral claims on each other, as your worry presupposes. Quite to the contrary–my account is an attempt to explain the partial relativism of praise and blame while leaving untouched the (I think, obviously true) judgment that in participating in the practice slavery, slaveholders were exploiting, dehumanizing, etc people with moral standing.

  7. Like Aaron, I am interested in hearing about how the “moral strength” aspect of the view deals with people whose mistake seems less like a dearth of fortitude and more like a failure to apprehend certain moral considerations. So for instance someone who was convinced by phrenology and other bogus race science and who on this basis thought some races were suited to servitude might have endorsed slavery out of partially paternalistic motives. In this case, what’s lacking is not what I’d call “moral strength” – if anything, this person is trying to do the right thing, rather than chickening out due to lack of strength. Rather, what is lacking is some other kind of moral sensibility: the moral and epistemic virtues of paying attention to marginalized groups, of thinking clearly and in an unbiased way about science and other fields of inquiry, and so on.

    Perhaps there never were these sorts of racists. Perhaps all racism is always at heart a matter of lacking the moral strength to avoid what we all know is wrong, and the epistemic failings I’ve pointed to are just things that one falls into once one has already made the wrong moral choice due to weakness. But, I don’t know if I’d accept this. Certainly I think that the main moral failing that many people make today, which is failing to realize the moral importance of non-human animals, isn’t due to the fact that many people today lack “moral strength.” It’s due to various epistemic defects, which I’m happy to grant are moralized (e.g. perhaps it’s a moral failing not to spend time investigating what it’s like to be in a factory farm) but I don’t know if I’d describe these as moral strength.

    In other words, I’m happy to grant that basically everyone has the moral strength to do the right thing vis a vis non-human animals. So, when I praise or blame people with respect to this topic, I don’t think I’m doing anything at all that relates to moral strength.

  8. Ben M-Y says:


    Thank you for this patient, detailed response. It is quite helpful.

    Your comment at the end, about your having something descriptive, not normative, in mind when you speak of the “moral community,” is particularly helpful. Some of what I said in my comment did rest on a misunderstanding of your view. Sorry about that.

    But I’m still not entirely sure that it is true that it was rare for members of the 18th C. abolitionist’s moral community to possess the moral strength to oppose slavery, even given the descriptive sense of “moral community” you intend. You gloss this descriptive sense as “a group of people who identify with each other, and who hold themselves up, collectively, more or less, to the same standard.” But, especially in the case of many abolitionists, this would appear to allow for many free and enslaved people of African and indigenous descent to be included in the moral community. And so it would seem to be unclear, at the very least, that it was rare for members of the abolitionist’s moral community to possess the moral strength to oppose slavery.

    As for the comparative claim, that it was *rarer* for members of the abolitionist’s moral community to oppose slavery than for members of my own, I’m also not sure about this. I would like to think so (in part, because I’d like be optimistic about my own moral community), but it’s not clear to me that this is the case. And even so, it does seem to me that the gap between the two, once we correctly characterize the relevant communities, is not that great. My original comment was animated by the thought that it would look like a very large gap if we exclude enslaved people and free people of color from the abolitionist’s moral community. But there’s no good reason to do that.

    This is relevant because, if there’s no gap, or the gap isn’t great, then this would seem to undermine the explanation you would like to give, in terms of the comparative claim about rarity of moral strength, for why the abolitionist is praiseworthy but those who oppose slavery now are not.

    I have some further thoughts about your very interesting comments about the heuristic of placing oneself in another’s shoes, and also about admiring abolitionists of the past. But I’ve taken up a lot of your time already.

    If you have any further thoughts on any of this, I’d be eager to hear them. And thanks for your engagement with me on these issues so far!

  9. Julia Markovits says:

    Hi Aaron and Danny,

    Thanks for your comments. You’re right: I definitely don’t just have “moral strength”, in the strength-of-will sense, in mind here. In the spelled out version of this work, I make clear that I intend “moral strength” in the analysis I offer to be a kind of placeholder for whatever it is about the agent’s character–courage, self-control, perceptiveness, having the right desires, etc, or lack of these–in virtue of which she acts well (or badly) where most others would act badly (or well).

    This is an important point, because there’s a temptation to think of moral heroism, in particular, in terms of strength in the thicker sense. In fact, a very common reaction I’ve gotten to my proposal is that, to the extent that the statistical rarity or ordinariness of some action shapes our judgments of praise- and blameworthiness, that’s just because this measure tracks the difficulty or costliness for the agent of acting rightly. And it’s difficulty or costliness, as opposed to rarity, that really explains what makes some right actions particularly praiseworthy or heroic, or some wrong actions (or failure to perform right ones) forgivable. On this view, the inappropriateness, say, of blaming someone who fails to do the right thing under duress, or the appropriateness of admiring someone who does the right thing when it’s particularly costly, is explained not by standing considerations but instead by those costs.

    This is, it seems to me, a very natural thought, but I think it’s mistaken. Thinking about a wider range of examples bears this out. Heroic actions are no less admirable in virtue of coming easily to the hero. And some actions are heroic despite not being costly to the hero. The early abolitionists were admirable, whether or not their abolitionism required risk-taking or sacrifice. Nor is sacrifice required, in my view, for the narrower label of heroism to be appropriate: consider, for example, the soldier who throws himself on a grenade to save his fellow soldiers, when the grenade would have killed him either way. This soldier does not run a great risk or make a great sacrifice in acting as he does, but he plausibly acts heroically nonetheless. Some actions that are commonplace to perform are both difficult and costly, but we don’t judge them to be particularly praiseworthy, and would indeed judge their non-performance blameworthy. Good parenting sometimes requires sacrifices of this sort, but we see such parenting as expected, not as especially admirable or heroic. For these reasons among others, I prefer to explain the relevance of statistics to moral appraisal via the standing account. And I prefer not to understand praiseworthiness or blameworthiness in terms of strength in the thicker sense.

  10. Julia Markovits says:

    Dear Dave,

    Thanks so much for your questions: they’ve pointed me in the direction of a bunch of papers, including yours with David Faraci, that I now definitely plan to read!

    But I should start with your first question, about what I mean by degrees of blameworthiness. You know, I’d never thought about the distinction you point to, between being more worthy of blame, and being worthy of more blame. I’m actually not sure which of those I had in mind — I think probably the latter. That is, I don’t think that being less blameworthy is a matter of it’s being a closer call whether blame (of any degree) is justified. It could, for example, be entirely clear that someone deserves some fairly minor degree of blame for some unimportant wrong act (say, slipping into a parking spot when someone else was waiting for it first). That seems to me (absent special circumstances) to be an act that the wronged party would have a strong justification for blaming/resenting, but surely not very much.

    Two points of furtherclarification about what I mean by “blameworthy”:

    First, I want to bracket the question of whether (and when) punishing someone who is blameworthy is appropriate (I think we can meaningfully talk about the appropriateness of the reactive attitude while remaining agnostic or even skeptical about the appropriateness of retributive behavior). Second, in most of my post above I’m talking about just one particular dimension of blame-/praiseworthiness — an appraiser-relative dimension — which I take to be subject to the standing-constraint that I describe. But I think there are other dimensions of blameworthiness that are not appraiser-relative (including the one I describe in my opening paragraph, that tracks the degree to which an agent is motivated by genuine normative reasons). Similarly, we can distinguish between two questions: on the one hand, questions about which actions are blameworthy, and on the other, questions about which actions we (or some identifiable appraiser) can appropriately blame. The bulk of my post above is about this second sort of question, but in my book I’m interested in both.

    Now for your second question. I’m very glad you raised these points, because asymmetries between praising and blaming are now something I want to think about much more. I’m hopeful that the literature you’re pointing me to will be a rich source of examples and data points against which to test and explore the views I’ve been developing. So thanks for that.

    I also want to clarify that I’m not committed to the view that praise and blame are symmetric, or even committed to an entirely unified account of the two. My point about Rosen’s account, in my post, was supposed to be narrower than that: that it seemed to me, intuitively, like the phenomenon of the time- or culture-relative aspect of moral appraisal showed up both in our practice of blaming and in our practice of praising, but Rosen’s story could at best explain only the case of blame. So I was looking for a unified account of that phenomenon in particular.

    Even if we accept standing constraints on both praise and blame, it doesn’t follow that we expect praise and blame to behave symmetrically. In fact, though I’ll need to think more about it, it seems to me that the account I offer above would predict precisely the praise/blame asymmetry you and David Faraci identify in your paper about JoJo and Huck:

    Why is it that we’re inclined to let agents (like JoJo) who behave badly due to bad upbringing at least partly off the hook, and withhold or reduce blame, but nonetheless want to praise people like Huck Finn, who behave well despite their bad upbringing? This looks mysterious if we our withholding blame from JoJo reflects a judgment (like Rosen might propose) that JoJo is non-culpably morally ignorant and so not responsible for what he does. If JoJo’s ignorance makes him non-responsible, why doesn’t Huck’s do the same? But my account would explain our reaction to JoJo differently: Jojo is not non-culpably ignorant, and he is responsible for what he does. But we have reason to believe that, had we been in his shoes, we might not have done any better. So we lack standing to blame him. That’s why he gets (partly) off the hook. But the opposite is true of Huck: we have reason to believe that, if we had been in Huck’s shoes, we might not have done as well as he did. And so (my account predicts) we should admire his action.

  11. David Shoemaker says:

    Thanks very much for your response, Julia! I’m sorry I didn’t reply earlier, as I was traveling, and now I fear I’ve missed the “hot zone” of discussion. But at any rate, I just wanted to register my agreement about the importance of bracketing punishment from blame, although I’m also curious just what’s meant by blame as well (merely having a reactive attitude, expressing, or something else?). Knowing this may also help with the asymmetry issues of blame and praise. But at any rate, you’re right, I missed the narrow point you were making to Rosen relative to the “symmetry.” And I’m of course especially keen to see that your view might well predict the JoJo/Huck results. Indeed, I find it especially promising on first glance, so I look forward to thinking more about this and seeing what you eventually produce. Thanks!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.