Featured Philosopher: Ellie Mason

Excited to be able to introduce our next fantastic featured philosopher. Take it away Ellie Mason!

Thanks so much for inviting me to do this! I’d like to talk about the central idea of my book (Ways to be Blameworthy: Rightness, Wrongness, and Responsibility, forthcoming with OUP at the end of this month). The idea is that ordinary praiseworthiness and blameworthiness go along with subjectively right and wrong action. I’ll say what I mean by that, but first, a little background.

The work I am doing straddles ethics and moral responsibility theory. Insofar as it is ethics, what I am doing is ‘normative ethics’, to be contrasted with ‘meta-ethics’. By that I mean that I am not primarily concerned with the ultimate truthmakers for claims about rightness or wrongness. I am not arguing about relativism and realism. Rather, I am interested in what limits our deontic concepts (things like rightness and wrongness) and makes them applicable – when does it make sense to say that something is wrong instead of just bad, for example?

Likewise, though we do not tend to talk about ‘meta-responsibility theory’ and ‘normative responsibility theory’, I am doing normative responsibility theory. I am trying to coin this phrase – I think it is a useful way to think about a project that a lot of people currently working on agency and responsibility are engaged in. It is parallel to normative ethics, in that we are not thinking about free will and determinism, but about when responsibility concepts are correctly attributed.

I start with rightness and wrongness. As I put it in the book, there is a ‘responsibility constraint’ on those concepts: they must, to some degree, be related to what we could be responsible for. No account of rightness would claim that it can be right to do things that are always impossible for us, such as teletransport.

There are different accounts of rightness and wrongness, which meet stronger and weaker versions of the responsibility constraint. In the literature these have been labeled as objectivist and subjectivist (confusing terminology, given that objectivism and subjectivism are used in so many different ways). But there is more variety than these two labels suggest: objective senses of rightness can be more or less objective, more or less independent of the agent’s thoughts about what she is doing. A hyper objective account of rightness says that the right action is the best one an agent could possibly do. A moderately objective account of rightness might say that the right action is the one that an ideally rational agent would do, or perhaps, the one a reasonable agent would do. Subjective rightness is based on the agent’s actual point of view, it says something like, ‘the right action is the one the agent takes to be best’.

The more objective the sense of rightness and wrongness, the easier it is to act wrongly by accident, blamelessly. In other words, the more objective we go, the less of a correlation there is with praiseworthiness and blameworthiness.

This leads to the important question, what is it that fundamentally makes agents praiseworthy or blameworthy? If an agent can act wrongly without being blameworthy, what is it that makes her blameworthy when she is blameworthy? This has historically been a question in the literature on free will and determinism, and is associated with the notion of desert.

In the book I do not frame the issue in terms of desert. My aim is to give a convincing story about the connections between acting wrongly in a certain way and being blameworthy. The basic picture is that subjective rightness and wrongness – what the agent is doing by her own lights – is what makes her praiseworthy or blameworthy.

There are a few wrinkles to iron out. Here are two. First, the standard way to formulate subjective rightness is in terms of the agent’s beliefs: something like, ‘an agent acts subjectively rightly when she does what she believes is the most morally suitable thing to do’. But the belief formulation cannot make sense of our ongoing and continuous obligation to improve our beliefs, and to be alert to new evidence. If we base subjective obligation on belief, we cannot criticize an agent who acts on her current beliefs, even if those beliefs are faulty. So, I think it is better to say that we have a subjective obligation totryto do well by morality. ‘Trying’ (unlike believing) is regulated by the idea of a practical aim – trying is always trying to do something, and so is not static, it automatically includes responsiveness to the aim.

Second, we need to say whether we are talking about the value system that the agent happens to have, or the correct value system. (I understand ‘correct’ here in a way that is meta-ethically neutral!). For subjective rightness to align with praiseworthiness in the right sense, we need some sort of anchor in the correct moral view. It is a virtue of some sort to follow one’s own conscience, but it is not enough for praiseworthiness. Morally misguided agents do not seem praiseworthy. So we need to think of having moral knowledge, getting it right, as a precondition for being in the sphere of subjective rightness and wrongness and ordinary praise-and blameworthiness.

There is a common view that moral knowledge is not necessary, rather, being motivated in the right direction is sufficient for praiseworthiness. However, although there is something to admire in people who have good motivations, they do not seem fully praiseworthy, especially when they consciously avow an incorrect account of morality. Imagine an agent drawn to the good like a moth to the flame. For those who know this literature: I am denying that Huck Finn is fully praiseworthy – he has good motives, but he is a little like a moth to the flame. Perhaps though, when we think of good motivations in cases like this we are assuming that there is some moral knowledge, just not fully accessed. I, that case I think that isenough for praiseworthiness. Fully clear knowledge at the moment of action is not required. Blurry knowledge is fine. What is necessary for ordinary praiseworthiness and blameworthiness is that agent have a good grasp of morality, and that they are trying (perhaps not fully consciously) to do well.

That leaves out a lot of people, who are not even in the ballpark of subjective obligation, and it could be simple bad luck that they out rather than in. I have a story about them, but I wont get into that here. What seems very plausible to me is that what makes people praiseworthy in the ordinary sense is trying to do well by (the correct) morality.

10 Replies to “Featured Philosopher: Ellie Mason

  1. Great stuff, Ellie, can’t wait for the book! You say, “So, I think it is better to say that we have a subjective obligation to try to do well by morality.” So is this only an account of *moral* responsibility and subjective *moral* rightness? How do you make sense of the fact that we seem to have continuous blaming and praising practices across many normative domains, e.g., prudential, aesthetic, athletic…. Do you want to include those under the rubric of responsibility, and if so, do you want to appeal to objective and subjective rightness, and trying to do well by domain D in each? Or are you thinking there’s something distinctive and special about moral responsibility?

  2. Thanks for the comment David. I do think that other praising and blaming practices have the same structure – that we think of trying to do well by value x as being praiseworthy in a special way. In moirality, I think that is the ordinary way. But it might be that in other domains, other sorts of praiseworthiness are more interesting to us than they are in the moral domain. So, in the moral domain I think that there is also ‘detached’ praise and blameworthiness, which is basically what Aristotle calls natural virtue (or vice). Just being naturally good or bad. I think Huck is definitely praiseworthy in the detached way. (I call it ‘detached’ because I think we are not fully engaged with someone when we praise them in the detached way – it is not communicative the way that ordinary praise and blame are, it does not aim to latch onto something in the recipient.) We are way less interested in detached than ordinary praise- and blameworthiness in our every day moral practices, though we talk about them a lot in moral philosophy. But it might be different in the aesthetic realm. We recognise trying to do well by the right aesthetic values as something important, but we might be interested in (and use) detached praiseworthiness much more. I think it is still detached though, still an analogue of the moral case. It is more *admiration* than praise. Not sure how prudence compares – again, I think there is the same structure, but it seems likely that again, as with aesthetic value, we can recognise the same distinction, but we are more interested in the natural talent than the trying. Here is another way to put that: the notion of desert is much more important in the moral case. I don’t want to make heavy weather of desert, but that is roughly what my account of subjective wrongdoing is trying to capture.

  3. Ellie’s analysis seems spot on. I am inclined to think, like Joseph Butler (no surprise there) that prudence does indeed have the same structure. (Indeed, I don’t see a sharp distinction between the moral and other practical virtues.) But I was unclear why you think, in the case of prudence, we are more interested in the natural talent than the trying.
    BTW, Ellie was too modest to mention her many other achievements, which include smashing the patriarchy. Right on!

  4. Thanks David. My remark about prudence was very speculative. Just thinking about someone who tries very hard to be prudent but has an imperfect record of success versus someone who doesn’t think about it much or think of themselves as having prudence as an aim and yet unerringly does the prudent thing, I am inclined to think we ‘praise’ the latter more. And that that contrats with the moral case. But I am very willin to be convinced that I am wrong about that. I need to think more about prudence. But I also need to smash the patriarchy…

  5. Thanks for the great post. I’m very much looking forward to reading your book! Here’s my comment: Many people argue that blameworthiness does not require wrongness because there are suberogatory actions (here’s one of Julia Driver’s famous cases: “in boarding a train the person who is first gets first choice of seats. But suppose that the train is almost full, and a couple wish to sit together, and there is only one place where there are two seats together. If the person ahead of them takes one of those seats, when he could have taken another less convenient seat, and knowing that the two behind him wanted to sit together, then he has done something blameworthy. … [H]e has no obligation to pass up the more convenient seat.”). If we assume that Driver and others are correct that the person does not have the obligation to pass up the seat and if we imagine that the person knows that he does not have the obligation then we seem forced to conclude that what he does is not subjectively wrong. But it still seems appropriate to blame her. What do you think about this?

  6. Thanks Leo, good question. The point that Julia Driver is making here is really interesting – that we can sometimes act badly within our ultimate rights. Obviously, it is a fundamentally anti-consequentialist point. On a traditional consequentialist view, we should always do the best we can. It might look like I am committed to saying that we should always try for the best we can. But I am not committed to that – I am saying we should try to do well. Sometimes that means doing what is obligatory and things are as simple as that, but not always. I don’t think that we should always make a sharp divide between right and wrong – we should not always talk about obligations. I think that we should be trying to do well by morality overall. Sometimes that might mean doing one particular act – there is only one act that will do – perhaps you have to tell the truth, for example. Telling only part of the truth is no better than telling a total lie. So you have to try to tell the truth, and if you don’t, you are blameworthy. The only way to do well by morality here is to tell the truth. But sometimes there isn’t just one right action, there is a range of actions that are ok, and some are better than others (rightness is scalar, as Alastair Norcross puts it). In that case I want to say that you can try to well by morality to various degrees, and be praiseworthy to different degrees. Trying harder than you need to doesn’t get you extra credit – it is not that more effort is always better. We should match our efforts to the value of the outcomes – that is just what trying to do well by a value is. I can try to get the room tidy, or really really tidy. The latter is better, and I am more praiseworthy, but the first is ok too. Trying to get it so tidy that Marie Kondo would approve seems like a waste of time, not praiseworthy.

    Ok, so that leaves the question, in a case like the train seat case, how could we slip into blameworthiness without slipping into wrongness? There I think we can make a distinction between subjective wrongness in my sense and the sort of ultimate wrongness that might best be expressed in the language of rights. I think we should try to do well by morality, and that we are acting wrongly if we are not trying to do well. We might be ‘doing well’ in the sense that we are not going beyond our ultimate rights (as when we take up extra seats in a train) but that isn’t doing well in the way that I mean. So someone who takes up more seats than they have to is not trying very hard – not as hard as they should, and so they are not praiseworthy and even a little bit blameworthy. It might be within their rights, but that seems like a different way of talking about the situation. It is subjective wrongdoing because it isn’t trying to do well. There is no reason not to take the single seat and let the other passengers sit together. So as Driver says, we can act badly and be blameworthy, and be acting subjectively wrongly in my sense, but still be acting within our rights. Of course, I need to say more about the way we think of rights, and how that framework can be independent of the subjective wrongdoing framework, but that’s the approach I would take.

  7. Ellie, on prudence. Obviously, it will depend on the precise way in which someone does not think about prudence (much) but does the prudent thing. But it certainly seems possible. Someone who does not overspend, drink too much, etc. not because they are constantly monitoring their self-interest, but because it would be silly or pointless, or even just doesn’t appeal. (My bishop makes a distinction between acting from considerations of self-love and acting from a passion that tends to promote the goodness of its owner.) But is it different in ethics? Take the case of Trochme (spelling?) the village that sheltered Jews. When interviewed after the war the village priest offered a moral / theological explanation of why he persuaded the villagers to do it. His wife said “When people turn up at your door with nowhere to go, what else can you do?” Both are morally admirable characters, though what we admire them for may be different.
    Pass the sledgehammer! Just seen post about State Senator who thinks women are inferior because Eve was made from Adam’s rib, which is an inferior cut of meat.
    David McN

  8. Hi David. Right – exactly – it depends on the exact way that someone doesn’t think about what they are doing. So in the book I go into what trying is, and how we can be trying without consciously trying so long as we have doing well by morality as an overall aim. I think we can be trying to do well withour thinking of ourselves as doing that in the moment. But I don’t think it counts as trying to do X if you don’t have X as one of your known aims. And I think a pretty commonsensical analysis of trying gives us very plausible results for subjective rightdoing and for praiseworthiness.

  9. Ellie, I agree with you about morality; I simply think the analysis you just gave is probably true of prudence also. I need to read the book!

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