Mason: Ways to be Blameworthy

Welcome to our book forum on Elinor Mason‘s new book Ways to be Blameworthy: Rightness, Wrongness, and ResponsibilityBelow is a brief introduction to the book by Elinor Mason. As a reminder, you do not need to have read the book to participate in the discussion; feel free to ask about any aspect of the book or discussion below.

From Mason:

Here is a very short summary: there are three different ways to be blameworthy. First, do something you know is wrong. Second, be really bad, even if you are not aware that it is problematic, and third, voluntarily take on blameworthiness in cases where things are not clear.

 

As that very brief summary indicates, I think that the relationship between knowing you are acting wrongly and blameworthiness is very important. But the relationship goes both ways – what counts as acting wrongly might depend on whether you know what you are doing. We need to distinguish between different uses of ‘acting wrongly’: some depend on what happens in the world, and some depend on what the agent thinks she is doing. There is a scale here, from very objective accounts of rightness to intermediate positions (such as ‘prospectivism’) to fully subjective standards. But standards of right action are sensible only if it is sometimes possible for us to meet the standard. As I put it in the book, there is a ‘responsibility constraint’ that applies to all conceptions of rightness. That is just to say that useful deontic concepts must, to some degree be related to what we could be responsible for.

But of course, there are different relations here, we need to know how the responsibility constraint works. At one end of the scale the objectivist is content with a very weak version of the constraint. What really matters to the objectivist is how things turn out in the world. At the other end of the scale, the subjectivist is attracted to a very strong version of the responsibility constraint – agents can only be acting rightly regarding things that they are responsible for, such as their internal states.

I argue for a pluralist account of rightness. A moderately objective sense of rightness is useful as an aim and for moral learning. But my focus in the book is on subjective rightness and praise and blameworthiness. Subjective standards typically focus on what the agent thinks she is doing. I argue that the real issue here is whether an agent is acting in such a way that she is praiseworthy. So, we need to know what it is to be praiseworthy. I take this as a question in normative theory, not a question about metaphysical free will. My aim is to give a convincing story about the connections between acting (subjectively) rightly or wrongly and being praise or blameworthy, so that they are mutually explanatory.

In brief, I think that acting subjectively rightly is trying to do well by morality, and acting subjectively wrongly is a matter of not trying hard enough. I will point out two features (not bugs!) of that account. First, and obviously, I should say whether I am I talking about morality as the agent takes it be (however mistakenly), or morality as it is. I argue for the second option. Agents who act on conscience, that is, try hard to act well, by a terrible morality, are not praiseworthy. Praiseworthiness requires not just trying, but getting things right. In order to even be in the ballpark for acting subjectively rightly, agents must have a grasp of Morality (the capital letter denotes its objective status). I don’t say much about what Morality consists of in the book, but is important to point out that my account of Morality is broad, and allows for reasonable error. One can ‘have a grasp of Morality’ in my sense without getting everything right. (And I come back to those who do not grasp Morality).

Second, this account is different to other accounts of subjective rightness in focusing on trying, as opposed to what the agent believes. I argue that trying does a much better job of capturing the connection to praise and blameworthiness. The belief formulation cannot make sense of a crucial element of our subjective obligation: our ongoing and continuous obligation to improve our beliefs, and to be alert to new evidence.

Trying to do well by Morality involves grasping Morality and knowing that you are aiming to do well by Morality.  So I disagree with the view often held by attributionists, those who argue that choice and control are less important to moral responsibility than the deep motivations that drive an agent, or the agent’s ‘deep self’ as it is often put. On this sort of account the agent might not know that her motivations are good, and might even believe that her motivations are leading her astray (as Nomy Arpaly argues about Huck Finn) .

I argue that this sort of attributionism fails to do justice to our ordinary account of praise- and blameworthiness. We do think that there is something to admire in people who have good motivations without moral knowledge (like Huck Finn), but we do not think them fully praiseworthy. And so why not make a distinction here? We should agree that admirable motivation is a necessary component of praiseworthiness, but it is not the whole story: moral knowledge is also necessary. I argue that that there is a reflexivity requirement on ordinary praise and blameworthiness: the agent must be able to recognize the moral status of her own behaviour and judge her action as something she should or should not have done.

I also address a rival from the other end of the spectrum, the ‘Searchlight’ theorists, who argue that the only way to be blameworthy is to have full awareness of the wrongness of one’s action, either at the time of action or at some earlier time from which the current action was predictable. I argue that this takes the reflexivity requirement too seriously. On the best understanding of the reflexivity requirement, agents can be blameworthy just so long as it makes sense to say that they should have known what they were doing at the time. All this requires is a good grasp of Morality in general.

Ok, so much for subjective wrongdoing and ordinary blameworthiness. What about people who act badly, not because they are failing to try, but because they don’t grasp Morality? We do blame these people, but, I argue, in a different way, and on a different basis, it is a different sort of blameworthiness. Our blame is not communicative, the sort of blame that seeks recognition. Rather, our blame in these cases is ‘detached’. And we are not blaming them for a self-aware fault (as failing to try is), but for the fact that their actions are problematic. Detached blame is a sort of ‘objective stance’ as Strawson puts it. It involves looking at what the person has done, and accepting that there is no point in engaging with why they did it. The wrongdoer is not going to be responsive to our criticisms. We move even further into an objective stance, if we see that the agent lacks the capacities necessary for agency. In that case, we may disapprove of their actions, but we are unlikely to think of them as blameworthy, even in the detached sense.

The basic idea is that knowing what you are doing is a very different way of acting wrongly (and being blameworthy) than doing something that is bad without recognizing that it is bad. But not all cases fit into those two categories. Some of our actions, probably more than we would like to admit, are a result of ambiguous agency. Agents who grasp morality and have all the appropriate capacities sometimes do bad things. To borrow an example from Randolph Clarke, imagine that I have promised my spouse that I will get milk on the way home. Imagine that there is nothing that I have failed to do that I should have done in order to remember. Thus, it seems that I am not blameworthy for the ignorance. However, it also seems plausible to Clarke, and to me, that I am blameworthy for there being no milk.

However, neither ordinary blame nor detached blame seems appropriate. I argue that in this sort of case, agents should take responsibility. This is not simply liability (which obviously is taken on or imposed in negligence type cases). It is more than that, it is a real blameworthiness, a license for the offended party to feel something approaching resentment, and for the offender herself to feel remorse. I give an account of the appropriate reactions here, and suggest that we should recognize that there are shades of agent regret, and that at one end, when an agent is willing to take ownership of the action, agent regret shades into remorse.

 

Thanks for reading, I’m looking forward to hearing what people think!

 

 

13 Replies to “Mason: Ways to be Blameworthy

  1. Hi Ellie,
    I love the book! I did have a question about the last sort of blame, that involves taking responsibility. There is a bit of literature on ‘slips’ — cases in which people make mistakes because they are distracted, or on automatic pilot, etc. Some of these cases are deeply tragic, as when a parent forgets to drop a child off at day care and leaves them in the car. Is this the kind of case you have in mind? It seems natural that a parent would take responsibility, though it would be psychologically crushing. In this case, do you have a view on who the apt forgiver is? Would this be a case in which blameworthiness can at least be mitigated by self-forgiveness (assuming there is no other parent)? If so, my intuition is that it just seems odd to think that blameworthiness can be mitigated by self-forgiveness, unless it is through a lengthy process of self-reflection, remorse, etc. I suppose that one could have a view of the aptness of forgiveness which requires this. But that is also controversial, since many view forgiveness as completely up to the will of the forgiver.

  2. Hi Julia- thanks!
    Yes, I am thinking of the cases often called ‘slips’ or negligence. I call them cases of ambiguous agency to focus on the fact that they are not fully agential, yet not fully outside of agency either. The cases I have in mind are really the non-tragic cases, the cases where you do something that is hurtful, or annoying, or costly, but not actually tragic. I think that those cases are pretty common – we often unwittingly do things that cause harm without it being traceable to a prior fault. And in fact that tragic cases are some evidence for that: no-one would seriously think that there is prior fault or bad motivation in those cases. So I think the mechanism is the same. But, as you say, the fact that taking responsibility and blameworthiness in those cases would be psychologically crushing is relevant here. I think that in that kind of case, though many people would blame themselves, and accept the blame of others affected by the tragedy, it is not healthy in the way that it is healthy to take on responsibility in more mundane cases. In mundane cases, there are lots of tractable things at stake – our relationships can be mended, our engagement in the practices of holding each other responsible and our sense of our own agency can be shored up, and so on. But in the really tragic cases these things are just swamped by the tragedy. I don’t have much to say in the book beyond that. To be honest, I find those cases really hard to think about, they are so distressing.

    On forgiveness: you are skeptical that self-forgiveness can mitigate blameworthiness. I think I agree. My main thought is that we should sometimes invite others to blame us, it is not about self-blame. (For what it’s worth, it does seem to me that self-blame would ease with self forgiveness, and aptly so.) But I agree that self-forgiveness does not make it any more apt for others to forgive. I’m thinking more about forgiveness at the moment. I am inclining towards a fairly deflationist view, that forgiveness isn’t one thing, but a name for various different ways of letting go of resentment. But that’s another story.

  3. Hi Ellie – I’ve read about 1/3 of the book so far so and I’m really enjoying it, but apologies in advance if you address my question in the book.

    I have two questions: My first question is more of a clarification and my second question concerns how the three types of blameworthiness might interact in a particular case. To begin I want to consider the third type of blameworthiness that you describe above and in the book. But first for clarification: is it correct (on your view) to say that when the spouse (for ease of reference lets call them Charlie) who forgets the milk takes responsibility for the bad/morally problematic action, in taking responsibility, that act licenses the other (Maria) to feel attitudes of resentment/blame etc. or is the Maria warranted to such attitudes prior to the taking of responsibility by Charlie? Here I’m trying to understand the ordering of things and how it could be the case that in taking responsibility that gives license to the other to certain attitudes, but before that licensing those attitudes might be considered inappropriate or unwarranted? (Is this right or am I misunderstanding?)

    That said, my second question: if it were the case that Charlie failed to take responsibility, would there be in some sense, an additional wrong performed, and therefore, would be blameworthy in a different way? I’m not sure what kind of blameworthiness the failure to take responsibility would be classed as on your account, so I was hoping you might be able to say more on this case. My intuition tells me that it would likely be the first way but I think it is plausible to think that perhaps it might be the second if we take the failure to take responsibility when morality provides us with reason to do so can indicate a lack of a proper grasp of morality….but I guess this leads us to a third (more practical) question: how is one to be able to know which agents lack the requisite grasp of morality to be able to know which way we should blame the offender?

    Hope that makes sense and thank you in advance!

  4. Hi Kayleigh, thanks for these interesting questions! First the clarification on the order of blame and license to feel resentment. I think that what always happens before we blame, is that we form a judgment, warranted or not, about how and in what way the perpetrator is blameworthy. And if we are being fair, we suspend blame until we have a warranted judgement about what was going on – about what the perpetrator was doing, whether they were trying hard enough, what they knew, and so on. I am imagining in these cases that a good hearted interlocutor would suspend judgment until they knew more. So, in a sense, the question of whether blame is warranted before they know more is not really relevant – the relevant question is whether the injured party should be blaming without an account on what happened, and I think that answer to that is ‘no’. (Of course, there may be complexities here – it may be that Charlie is usually such an inconsiderate twerp that Maria is justified in assuming he has been a twerp on this occasion. But I am imagining a case where it is not usually twerpishness).

    So then, they communicate about what happened, and as it is a case of ambiguous agency, Charlie has two options, he can either take responsibility, or deny it. I don’t that the responsibility facts as they stand make either response of Charlie’s more fitting. Charlie is entitled to say, ‘nope, just a glitch, not on me’. But I think he would be being a better friend, a better participant in the interpersonal practices of morality and responsibility, if he takes responsibility.

    So, I don’t think Maria can blame him in the ordinary communicative way for not taking responsibility, that is precisely what Charlie is blocking, and not unfairly. Rather, I think she can withdraw from him, and start to think of him differently. That’s a sort of localized detached blame, as if he was outside of the moral community. What Charlie has done, in refusing to take responsibility, is draw the limits of his own moral responsibility in a very strict way, and that makes him less attractive as a member of the moral community. The problem is not ordinary wrongdoing that we might blame him for in the ordinary way. Charlie is not failing to try hard enough to do well. The problem is at a different stage, he just isn’t willing to engage at the level that most of us hope for in personal relationships. We want people to think of themselves as responsible, as answerable. Especially when they injure us. In ambiguous agency cases it is not easy to say whether they ‘really are’, and so it’s open to take different attitudes. But I think that from our loved ones, we want more responsibility taking, not less. I don’t think that’s true in impersonal relationships.

    The question of how we know when someone has a sufficient grasp of Morality is really difficult. In our everyday lives we expect that most people we encounter grasp Morality. Then we encounter hard cases, and we are not used to thinking about what they know or not. Sometimes we just can’t tell. I think cases like Huck Finn’s are complex because that he is in a sort of transition stage, so perhaps it is just indeterminate. I have been thinking about this a lot lately, in the context of these ultra rich people who seek to profit from opportunities thrown up by the pandemic. It seems like they have had ample opportunity to learn the basic of morality. And yet, they behave as if they don’t know that their actions are reprehensible.

  5. Hi Elinor

    I got a huge amount out of this book. Thank you very much !

    The last exchange has got me even more interested in how you delineate the scope of taking responsibility. It seems that the main reason you guve for the milk-forgetter to
    take responsibility (and participate in a kind of accountability conversation) is that his doing this is part of the value of the relationship between himself and his partner. I think a version of this idea is very plausible – that certain relationships depend on certain accountability practices for their value – and I think we can make a good argument for this by noting the role of special duties in relationships.

    Still I wonder what in your view stops this from generalising beyond personal relationships, in the following way. It seems sensible to think that part of the value of not only special relationships, but also of our relationships as agents more generally, depends on us making appropriate responses to having wronged each other, e.g. through apology, compensation, etc. Where such responses don’t take place, the relationship between the wrongdoer and victim suffers a loss in value.

    This leads me to think that deeply morally ignorant people can have a strong reason to take responsibility and enable a blaming conversation. And, where the ignorance is too deep for the morally ignorant to do this ‘off their own bat‘, the morally knowledgeable can have a strong reason to help them do that, by communicatively blaming them. Yet, this seems to support something the book tends to reject: that it can be apt to communicatively blame the deeply ignorant.

    I think something similar works in the partner case too. If the milk-forgetter is not ready to initiate an accountability conversation, the other partner has a reason (grounded in the value of their partnership) to initiate it instead. And it does seem to me apt for the other partner to do that, as she too has reason to instantiate a valuable relationship.

    So, I guess the thing I’ve been thinking about since reading the book is: what blocks this type of move from the partner case to a more general argument for taking responsibility? Of course one difference is that there are better communicative prospects in the partner case, as the partner is not deeply ignorant. But then again, the reason to have the accountability conversation here seems not so much to solidify knowledge about wrongdoing, but to do something that a good relationship requires.

    Anyway, thanks again for a really great book! And to everyone else for the really great questions.

  6. Hi Kartik,
    Thanks for reading and for raising these interesting issues! Yes, the idea is that taking responsibility is justified by the value that has for relationships. And I do think that the rationale can generalize beyond personal relationships sometimes, but we disagree about the case of the deeply morally ignorant. So let me first say where I think there can be expansion. I talk about this briefly in the book, but I say more about it in another article, (‘Respecting Each Other and Taking Responsibility for our Biases’ in Social Dimensions of Moral Responsibility, ed.s Marina Oshana, Katrina Hutchison and Catriona Mackenzie, Oxford University Press). I argue that personal relationships require an extra investment, not just doing certain actions, but having a certain attitude about the actions we do. I think we need to take a maximal, rather than a minimal, approach to our responsibility zone, and be willing to take responsibility if we fail in our duties, even when it is through ambiguous agency. But there might be some impersonal contexts where the willingness to extend our responsibility zone is important too, for example, fully respecting others as fellow members of a community. So I think that if someone fails in a duty of respect, repairing that damage, restoring a respectful attitude, might require taking responsibility. The example I use is a doctor who fails to treat a patient appropriately because of implicit racial bias. Of course, implicit bias is complex and controversial. But I think that it is plausible that it counts as a sort of ambiguous agency. A doctor who fails in a duty because of implicit bias has not just failed in their duty to treat the patient, but in their duty to respect the patient. It seems to me they should be willing to take responsibility, even if we agree that implicit bias does not involve bad will, but merely some sort of automated process that bypasses the will. That sort of case contrasts with a different kind of slip that a doctor might make, simple failure, such as forgetting to check blood pressure. That doesn’t violate a duty of respect, and in that case it does not seem to me the doctor needs to engage with the patient in the same way that people should engage in personal relationships.

    But that’s not really what you are interested in, I think! I take it that one way to put your point is that if the justification for responsibility and blame practices is about enabling inter-personal relationships, there is no reason to exclude the deeply morally ignorant, And on my sort of view, the internal constraints on when blame is appropriate are particularly flexible, as I allow that you can take responsibility even when you don’t clearly meet the internal conditions. So why not broaden that to whenever it would be beneficial?

    I have a couple of things to say about that. First, a general point. I do think that what justifies our responsibility practices is our relationships, but I also think we need internal constraints on the practices. So there is a two-level justification structure, as with rule consequentialism. And with all two-level justification structures, there is an issue about when the second level justification bleeds through and infects the first level. This is the familiar challenge to rule-consequentialism that it collapses in act-consequentialism: if following the rule does not have good consequences, why follow it? So part of what I am trying to do is show that ambiguous agency in personal relationship is a special sort of case, where the second level justifications (that it maintains personal relationships) can be applied directly to the practice of holding responsible, without implying a more general seepage. What makes the case special is that the agency is ambiguous – it is not the case that our best account of what generally makes people blameworthy here has an alternative answer. So it is not as if we are blaming people just because it would be good for our relationships to do so.

    The second point is that if someone is deeply morally ignorant, they would not be willing to take responsibility (thought they may fake it), and I don’t think there is any benefit to engaging in ordinary communicative blame. That is not to deny that we should try proleptic blame in cases we are not sure about, cases that may be transitional, or changeable. But then, those are not cases of deep moral ignorance in my sense. So in that sort of case I think we can only blame in the detached way. We can withdraw and shun, but there is no hope of a genuine relationship.

    By the way, I agree that the partner in the milk case would be justified in initiating a blame conversation and trying to prod her partner into taking responsibility. We all need a hint sometimes. But if he doesn’t take responsibility, if he just insists (and this is not uncommon!) that it was not bad will, not his fault, then she can’t carry on as if he has taken responsibility, she has to take a different tack.

  7. Hi, Ellie, thanks for doing this! I have a brief question: Is there a distinctive way of being *self*-blameworthy? Communicative/conversational accounts have a very hard time with self-blame (as McKenna, e.g., admits in his book), as it’s hard to make sense of, or see the point in, communicating something to oneself, when you already know what it is you’re communicating. (And self-blame surely isn’t detached blame, is it?)
    Hope I didn’t miss a footnote on this somewhere!

  8. Thanks David. You didn’t miss anything, self-blame, along with forgiveness is on my list of things to think about more! And I know there is a lot of recent work on it that I intend to catch up with. But here are two quick thoughts. First, in ordinary discourse when we talk about self-blame I think we are often just talking about remorse, or about believing oneself to be blameworthy. So, that mops up a lot of the pressure to theorize self-blame.

    But I think it is at least plausible that there is such a thing as self-blame proper on the communicative model. I think that sometimes we do go through a conversation with ourselves, and it is not far from what we do with others. I interrogate my friend to see why she did something, and to discern whether she is blameworthy. And then I want to make sure that she sees that she did it, and that she should have tried harder. I can do the same thing with myself: I ask myself why I did that thing, and if I really knew I could try harder at the time. And, a bit like waiting for a response from my friend, I wait for a response from myself. I find out what I really think by reflecting and processing. I suppose it is a sort of self-therapy. Obviously, that needs more defense, it’s just a start.

  9. Ellie –
    I’m delighted that your book has come out, and that we’ll now have the opportunity to reflect on the rich array of questions and answers it provides.
    I’d like to focus this question on your account of subjective rightness as “trying to do well by Morality” (p. 47), where “Morality” is the correct account of what is right and wrong, not just what the agent believes to be the correct account. In sorting out what this means, your Chapter3 is very helpful in thinking through how we should understand “trying.” In particular I like your discussions of having a goal that one may be unconsciously trying to achieve, whether trying to achieve a goal implies that one believes one will actually succeed in achieving the goal, how trying to achieve an overarching goal may involve balancing the achievement of sub-goals (where one can legitimately try less hard to achieve the less important sub-goals), and how what counts as trying to achieve a goal can vary with the agent’s assessed importance of the goal.
    What puzzles me is a kind of tension between what you say about subjective rightness and trying, and what you say about objective rightness. On p. 20 you say that “objectivist accounts of our deontic concepts are useful as a standard to aim for,” and on p. 51 you say that “ ‘Trying’ means taking steps that the agent believes most likely to achieve her goal.” The question then is what a person’s goal is when she tries to do well by Morality. You point out correctly that in trying to do well by Morality one is not necessarily trying to do what the objective deontic standard requires, or even to do what is most likely to be objectively right, since that would not make sense of the Dr. Jill examples. You also point out that one cannot be trying to do what is subjectively right, since that would be circular (p. 64). What you say is that “We should think of the aim of subjective obligation as being a good balance of the various good and right-making features in a situation, given any relevant uncertainty…it is not aiming for a particular predefined balance.” (p. 64). And later, when talking about whether certain risky choices as a parent are worth the risks, you answer “Hard to say” (p. 70).
    It seems to me that this account of subjective rightness consciously leaves the moral agent with little or no advice about how she is to balance the various values and principles of morality, and how she is to take risk into account. She’s left to her own devices, with no well-articulated goal to aim at. If there were principles of objective and subjective rightness that illuminated which values are more important than other values (and by how much), or what risks it is reasonable to take in pursuing a balance between those values, then the agent could make use of your advice to “Do well by Morality.” But without any more concrete linking of such principles with everyday decisions about how to balance these things, I fear the everyday decision-maker is left up in the air.
    Is this your intention? And if so, is it because, like Particularists and some Virtue theorists, you hold there is no articulable definitive answer to such questions? Or is it because you don’t see any way to provide such answers without inviting an infinite regress of agential uncertainty? Or is for some other reason?

  10. Hi Holly, thanks for this! In short, yes, my view ultimately lacks concrete guidance, it just tells the agent to do her best. And, yes, basically I think that there is a limit to how much concrete guidance a moral theory can give because of what you refer to as a regress of agential uncertainty. As you put it in your book, when an agent is uncertain we can provide her with a principle to use, e.g. ‘maximize expected utility’. But there is always a worry that the agent won’t know which principle to use, and so we need a higher order rule, and so on. I think that there is also a problem of complexity. The situation, and the agent’s state of mind and knowledge, will vary enormously, and what would count as concrete advice is going to vary correspondingly.

    To take one of my favorite examples, imagine you want to give instructions to bake a cake. Recipe books assume a certain level of knowledge, and are pitched accordingly, and they assume availability of ingredients. That’s fine under normal circumstances. What imagine a recipe book that tried to cover all possible audiences, and all ranges of ingredient availability and possible substitutions. It would be neverending.

    But more importantly, why should a moral theory do that? Is a moral theory a recipe for right action? I don’t think it is. In fact, I think that there are various different things that go on in different parts of a moral theory.

    1. A value theory is an account of what sort of things are good and right, and does not itself prescribe anything. That’s what the foundation of accounts of rightness consist of, and in that sense it is the objective standard that we are aiming for. (I need to phrase this really carefully: generally that objective value theory is NOT what I am referring to when I refer to objectivist standards of right action. Rather, those are the standards that say that an agent acts rightly when she actually does well by the value theory). I know my usage is a bit non-standard here – I am using ‘value theory’ to include both goodness and deontic value, when it is often used to refer to accounts of goodness only. In the book I call it Morality, referring to the general account of what sorts of things are good and bad, to be done, not to be done, and so on. We can’t get a story about right action directly from that, because that is contextual and variable, it sometimes involves trade-offs and so on. Stories about right action are stories about how to respond to and manage the values in the general value theory.

    2. Accounts of what makes an action right must refer to its relationship to the value theory. Accounts of right action vary: so moderately objective accounts of right action *are* a sort of recipe. They specify an aim and tell you how to get there. And that is useful – as you quote me as saying, objective standard of rightness are useful. But I don’t think they are fundamental. Like a cake recipe, they have a conditional structure. They say: In some situations that’s all you need, but in others, you don’t have what you need, so you set that recipe aside and look for another. And crucially, the recipe itself needn’t say, ‘if you can’t follow this recipe look for another book’. But obviously, that’s what’s you should do. So what are you doing when you look for another book? I think you are simply doing your best to achieve your aim, a decent cake. And that’s what I think the subjective standard of rightness captures, the overarching strategy, anchored by an objective aim (doing well by the value theory/making a decent cake). It’s useful to sum up the strategy without substance: rather than saying that what we should do is start with Ottolenghi, then move to Delia Smith, then move to Anna Jones, then move to Jamie Oliver, and so on. We should say, ‘try to find a recipe that works for you, given what you know and what ingredients you can get’, and that in turn can be summed up, ‘find a way to make a decent cake’.

    I agree that the subjective sense of rightness, the sense that tells you to do your best to achieve your aim of doing well by Morality, does not specify how to balance risks, or how to weigh up different values. As such it is not particularly helpful for someone who knows nothing about anything (but neither is a series of objective recipes, because of the regress). If someone is completely baffled by everything, nothing can help them. But for someone who knows what a cake is, they will most likely also know that recipes can be found in recipe books, that they vary in difficulty, and so on. And someone who has a good grasp on the value theory, the basics of Morality, might not know what to do on a particular occasion, but they can figure out what sort of things to look form learn about, who to ask for advice, and so on. And in doing that they are doing what they subjectively ought to do.

    The subjective sense of rightness, as I argue in the book, is what matches up with praiseworthiness. If someone has tried hard to do well, they are praiseworthy, even if they end up missing the mark. Subjective obligation is a different sort of thing to objectivist accounts of obligation. And so I think it is not a worry that subjective obligation doesn’t give concrete guidance.

  11. Hi Ellie, I just read through this and I will order your book immediately. I’ve got a draft article, one that I’ve prepared for the Doug Husak festschrift that we (Antony Duff and I) expect (still) to host at Rutgers in Nov. My piece is called “Blame and Punishment.” In that piece, I’m responding to Husak’s account of blame as depending, at least in most cases, on being aware that one is acting wrongly. It’s paradigmatically about akrasia for Husak. And importantly, he thinks that negligence is not a basis for blameworthiness. This is, as I guess you know, a fraught topic in the criminal law, where many theorists resist using negligence as a basis for criminal liability, but the law undeniably and, as far as I know, universally uses it as a possible basis for criminal liability.

    So my question for you is: Do you discuss the application of your views here to the criminal law in your book? If so, I’ll read what you have to say there. But if not, have you thought much about this topic, enough to say a bit about it here?

  12. Hi Alec, thanks for that, delighted this made you want to read the book!

    I have thought a little about the application to criminal law. First, I think it is not at all obvious that negligence is not blameworthy. In the book. I explore one way that we could make sense of the blameworthiness of negligence. But I don’t think that the taking responsibility framework is really suited to criminal law applications: it’s all about personal relationships. I want to think more about how it might be adapted. I do think that there is another way to argue that negligence is aptly punishable in criminal law, and I explore this in a forthcoming paper on rape law (‘Rape, Recklessness, and Sexist Ideology’ forthcoming in Agency, Negligence and Responsibility, ed.s Veronica Rodriguez-Blanco and George Pavlakos, Cambridge University Press).

    The basic argument is that not all cases of mistakes about consent can be understood as recklessness. Sometimes, as when the man is in the grip of sexist ideology, he is not being reckless. This might appear to mean that he should not be held responsible. I argue that negligence can be blameworthy (punishable) so long as we understand negligence in a moralized sense, that is, that there is something he should have known, morally, and that he does not know because of structural barriers. So just to be clear, it is not that he morally ought to have known it, and was reckless or something in not knowing it, but that morally, this is the sort of thing people should know. I try to show that moralized negligence is an appropriate grounds for mens rea.

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