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.