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.

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