A preliminary argument against moral blameworthiness

For a while now I’ve advocated not an absence of morality, but an absence of moral blameworthiness. Here’s a first, brief attempt to jot down the basic idea.

There’s two arguments. First let’s consider the epistemic conditions that must hold to make a moral judgment. For any enunciator of a moral judgment, e.g. “this murder, being unprovoked, was wrong,” the speaker must have knowledge of specific details of the case — who committed the crime? was there malice aforethought? — and also moral knowledge, knowledge with normative validity. To judge something as moral or immoral, then, requires information of one kind which is open to forensic methods and of another kind which is … highly contested as to its epistemic foundations. Obvious thus far. Now, this is the situation of the bystander judging retroactively. The perpetrator of the immoral act is in an even worse predicament. Most people would agree, as a basic axiom of juvenile jurisprudence, that a person must have “knowledge of right and wrong” in order to be morally blameworthy. This allows us to discriminate between mentally competent adults, on the one hand, and children or mentally challenged individuals on the other. However, like we have said, this domain of right and wrong is highly contested by highly intelligent people, enough to cast skepticism into all but the most stubborn, and so most people, acting according to their ethics, understand themselves to be acting uncertainly. And, unlike the bystander judging retroactively, the perpetrator is on a time crunch, and must make snap decisions without the luxury of an analysis of the objective conditions — who, what, how, why — or a literature review of the subjective conditions, the theories.

So, to sum up, moral blameworthiness requires knowledge of right and wrong. This knowledge is highly contested (and widely considered to be emotional rather than rational); thus, people must act, but must act under highly uncertain information. Without an agreed-upon rubric moral action is more or less guessed. The doer is in a more uncertain situation than the judger so his judgment is likely to be less justified, more forgivably wrong.

Okay, but now as a friend has pointed out, where morality is highly contested is on the margins, and not the fundamentals. There is a lot of agreement that unprovoked murder is wrong, this does not seem highly contested (though certainly there is disagreement provided the forensic circumstances). So, can we not hold a murderer morally accountable?

Here, in response to that, is the second argument, which is much more fundamental and probably exposes me to some logical consequences I don’t want to accept. With action, there is something we could call a “regression to non-autonomy.” Traditional perspectives on morality and punishment emphasized the individual making a choice to commit an offense. This choice reflected bad moral character. More recently, the social sciences have impacted the way we think about choices: people are shaped by their environments, and often they do not choose these environments. Get the picture? But, it is even worse than that. We could say that the murderer chose to pull the trigger; but, he did not choose to be the sort of person who in that situation would pull the trigger. That person was a product of their environment and their genes. Aren’t they also a product of “themselves”? Yes, but they did not choose to be themselves; they simply are. And, even when someone “chooses to be a better person,” this choice logically presupposes the ability to choose to become a better person, which, again, is an ability bestowed upon some and not upon others and is never of our own choosing. Thus if we go back far enough we find autonomy, or a self-creative element, is not at root in our behavior and choices. And non-autonomous action cannot be considered morally blameworthy.

This is my argument (I do not claim originality; many people have said similar things). The murderer is doing something immoral, but finding them worthy of blame seems, to me, almost if not always out of the question. This ends up being hard to accept psychologically: I want to find history’s greatest villains morally culpable. I cannot, though. Instead of any sort of retributivist punishment — found, now, to be psychologically satisfying but morally confused — we are left only with punishment policy that seeks to deter or isolate offenders, the category of “moral blameworthiness” found to be lacking.

I invite criticisms of the arguments as sketched out here — preferrably, ones that don’t require us to get into what actually is moral or the status of free will.

9 thoughts on “A preliminary argument against moral blameworthiness

  1. I owe the insight of the neoclassical school versus “positivist” theories of punishment to Rothbard’s “The Ethics of Liberty,” although I disagree with him. And I believe W. V. O. Quine said something similar to the second argument — we cannot choose what we will to do, we just will to do it. Sam Harris said something similar too in his short book on free will.

  2. My basic disagreement is around the definition of the self.

    In a subject/object metaphysics, as is common in the West, I think conventional wisdom holds that there is something called a self. But this is just an artificial, albeit very useful, division. A self is not an objective thing. It is intrinsically connected within a web of interactions with the environment, with the past and future. When I eat a piece of cake I can say it was an act of free will, or that I was unable to control myself. Both are true, it just depends on how I choose to identify myself and my will. (Oops, I am running into your free will fence!)

    I think what you are doing is saying that an objective self cannot be held morally blameworthy because of the impacts of external forces which shape this self. But the objective self is a fiction, so you are throwing out blame based upon a fictional convenience.

    I think it would be more accurate to say that blame is a useful moral reproach for behavior which is to be discouraged in order to facilitate social cooperation and coordination. Once blame is created, then the created self recursively gains the identity of being blamed, which is undesirable, thus incentivizing different behavior (for the responsible party, for others choosing how to deal with the party, and to observers thinking how to act in the future.)

    I think we are dealing with recursive interconnected feedback loops where we pretend there are objective entities. There really aren’t and when we use this fiction to build moral reasoning we are just constructing justifications out of fiction. It is best to just say that the nested feedback loops work best with useful concepts like self and blame (and yes, free will).

    • I am saying, yes, that external forces shape the Self, but not only this. That would be a little too lightweight of an argument, I think. I am additionally pointing out that moral blameworthiness seems to require a bar of autonomy — ultimate rational decision-making and control — which is not available to the actors we ordinarily apply moral judgments toward.

      I think you agree with my general conclusion if not my way of getting there. Blame becomes a pragmatic category, serving social purposes like deterring deviant, undesirable behavior and psychological satisfaction but without an independent logical basis (the criteria being absent). Because, if there is no Self, then there is also no self-generated creative action anyway, and moral blameworthiness makes even less sense.

      Maybe I should have used the word “fault” in there somewhere.

    • My concern too is deeper. Let me try it another way…

      If there is no autonomous self to blame (and I agree there isn’t and never has been), then there is also no autonomous self BEING blamed (or held “morally culpable”). Both are extremely useful fictions or stories. The self may be a fiction, but it is a fiction which can and should be held morally culpable. Blameworthiness can and should be added as an important part of the fiction.

      Perhaps it would be helpful to read what Wlikinson refers to as the fallacy of disappointed expectations, which may be in play here.


  3. Concerning your first argument, this is what you appear to be saying:

    1. Moral blameworthiness requires a knowledge of right and wrong.
    2. Knowledge if right and wrong is highly uncertain.
    3. Therefore, there can be no moral blameworthiness.

    My biggest problem with your argument is your defense of the second premise. You say that right and wrong are “highly contested by highly intelligent people,” and offer that as a reason for why most people should be skeptical. But I don’t think that is any reason to be skeptical at all. Highly intelligent people believe lots of silly things, but that’s no reason for an average person to be skeptical. Doubts about the laws of logic seem to prevail among highly intelligent people more so than average people, but surely that is no reason for an average person to doubt the law of non-contradiction. A person, whether intelligent or not, is justified in believing what seems obvious to them, and if “Murder is wrong” seem obvious to an average or unintelligent person, then they are justified in believing that murder is wrong in spite of what some highly intelligent people think.

    I also agree with your friend. While there may be difficult moral decisions, as long as there are clear cases of moral rights and wrongs, that’s all that’s necessary for blameworthiness. A person may not be very blamable for coming to the wrong conclusion about a difficult moral dilemma, but that doesn’t excuse them for acting wrongly in a clear case.

    I have much more to say about your second argument, but it’s already 10:36 pm, so I’ll stop here. Maybe I’ll come back tomorrow.

  4. I’m back! Okay, to your second argument. Your second argument seems to be. . .

    1. Our actions are determined by our character.
    2. Our character is determined by factors that lie outside of the will.
    3. Therefore, our actions are determined by factors that lie outside of the will.
    4. If our actions are determined by factors that lie outside of the will, then our actions cannot be blameworthy.
    5. Therefore, our actions are not blameworthy.

    You didn’t defend your the first premise. It appeared to be a mere assumption in your argument. I listed it because without it, your argument wouldn’t go through. If somebody subscribed to libertarian freedom, they might concede that a person’s character influences their decisions, but they would not concede that it determines their decisions. Your argument would need a bit more work to convince a libertarian.

    I’m not a libertarian, though, so I’ll concede the first premise. I can only concede the second premise by qualifying it. It is possible for a person’s character to change because of prior decisions that person makes. We can actually change our desires. For example, let’s say i desire chocolate every day, and I usually give in to that desire. But let’s say I also have a desire to overcome my desire for chocolate. So I force myself to resist the desire for chocolate for a period of time, let’s say 20 days. After 20 days, my desire for chocolate diminishes. In the same way, people can develop good or bad habits by the things they choose to practice. So, our character may be influenced by factors that lie outside of the will, but there are also factors that lie inside of the will that shape our character.

    You might respond by saying I’ve only postponed things. After all, the desire to change my character could be the result of something that lies outside of my will. With that being the case, you could say that ULTIMATELY, my character is determined by factors that lie outside of the will. I won’t dispute that.

    So the second premise is true with a qualification, and the third premise follows with that same qualification.

    The main problem I have is with the fourth premise. There are two problem I have with it. The first is that it doesn’t make a distinction between distant causes and immediate causes. The second, concerning immediate causes, is that it doesn’t make a distinction between physical causes and mental causes. Both of these distinctions seem morally relevant to me.

    Concerning the first distinction, the immediate cause of some act might be a desire, while the distant cause might be a butterfly flapping its wings on the other side of the world that somehow, through some convoluted chain of causation, lead to the desire. The virtue or vice in a desire lies in its nature, not in its cause. Things like kindness are praiseworthy simply because they are kind, and things like cruelty are blameworthy simply because they are cruel. It’s irrelevant what prior circumstances lead to a person having a cruel or kind character. Cruelty is no less a vice just because a person was caused to be cruel by being mistreated earlier in life.

    Concerning the second distinction, most of us will agree that if the immediate cause of your action is some blind mechanistic physical cause, then we can be worthy neither of praise nor of blame. The reason is because in that case, the action isn’t really a choice at all. The will isn’t involved. The person is passively acted upon, but the person’s volition isn’t engaged in the act.

    If we treat mental causes the same way we treat physical causes, then we end up with counter-intuitive results. You and I would probably agree that if my arm were strapped to a machine and caused by that machine to move in such a way that my hand slaps my neighbor, then I cannot be blamed for slapping my neighbor.

    But suppose we treat desire the same way. The stronger my desire to do wrong, the harder it is to resist, and the harder it is to resist, the closer it is to determining my action. If we treat the desire the same way we treat the machine that makes me slap my neighbor, then as long as I’m unable to resist giving in to the desire, I can’t be blamed for slapping my neighbor. I could be excused merely on the basis that I wanted to do it so bad. I could rightly say, “It’s not my fault; I WANTED to do it!” But suppose the desire is not strong enough to determine my action. It’s only strong enough to influence my action to some degree. In that case, it would follow that the stronger my desire to do wrong, the less blameworthy I am for doing wrong. The reason is because the stronger my desire to do wrong, the harder it is to resist, and the harder it is to resist, the closer it is to determining my action.

    But that is counter-intuitive. It’s the exact opposite of how we intuitively treat the connection between desires and choices. We typically blame people BECAUSE of the motive or desire they acted on. If I shove an old lady because I hate old ladies, then most people would blame me. But if I shove the same old lady because I want to save her from being hit by a bus, then the same people would praise me. So the same act–shoving the old lady–is either praised or blamed depending on the desire that lead to it, whether it was a virtuous desire or a vicious desire.

    Since the nature of the desire that leads to our actions is what makes the action praiseworthy or blameworthy, it follows that the greater hand that desire plays in bringing about our action, the more our action is worthy of praise or blame. If our desires DETERMINE our actions, then they have EVERYTHING to do with our actions, in which case we are most praiseworthy or blameworthy when our actions are determined by our desires.

    Another way to put this is to say that our actions are culpable to the degree that we do them on purpose. To do something on purpose is to have a connection between an intention, motive, or desire on the one hand, and the action on the other. The further we divorce our actions from our antecedent desires, etc., the less those actions are really under our control since we are not doing them on purpose. That’s the problem with libertarianism. Libertarian acts ultimately boil down to accidents since they are divorced from antecedent mental conditions.

  5. “blameworthiness” with respect to morality seems to rest upon the source of the code and upon who decides it has been violated. Most such violations seem to be conflicts between individual and social goods. Blameworthiness seems mostly to consist of majority disapproval of individual or minority behavior. Such shaming seems universal human behavior, used to reinforce social goods in conflict with individual goods, to expand the idea.
    Objectively, groups enforce their accepted behavior this way. It is in human DNA to act so. The behavioral codes so enforced proceed generally from the same source; the two ideas cannot be separated. Summed up: Blaming is innate, a part of human social behavior, or so it seems to me.

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