AOS: Moral Responsibility

AOC: Ethics, Social Epistemology, Moral Psychology, Philosophy of Race

The core of my philosophical research concerns various dimensions of moral responsibility: its metaphysics, its epistemology, and its practice. I have related interests in moral psychology concerning the ethics of blame, in the philosophy of narrative and interpretation, and in methodological questions about instrumentalism and revisionism in moral theory.

  1. The Descriptive Epistemology of Responsibility

One strand of my research stems from the contention that canonical theories of responsibility typically pay very little attention to the epistemic dimensions of our responsibility practices, and that what attention is paid ignores the significantly socially mediated, interpretive, and non-consciously cued nature of those dimensions. In contrast, I seek to describe how our actual epistemic practices of responsibility operate. In “Path Models, Mind-Reading, and Responsibility Attribution” (In Preparation) I condense the second chapter of my dissertation in order to argue for a specific model of the attribution of responsibility which I dub the “Ping-Pong” model. Its core insight is that judgments about responsibility start from diverse inputs, and then “ping-pong" back and forth between conscious deliberation and non-conscious (or automatic) reactions, emotions and mental processes. Each “volley” returns a proto-judgment with a certain trajectory on it -- spin and direction which affects the next step of the attributive process until a final judgement is reached. I argue that the psychological literature supports the kind of model I outline, and that it is both more accurate and better able to pinpoint sources of epistemic error and distortion than its competitors.

Drawing on these insights, in “Blaming Badly” (Under Review) I argue for the following two claims: First, that there are good philosophical and empirical reasons to doubt that our ordinary, everyday attributions of responsibility track the things that metaphysical theories of responsibility identify as central to blame. Second, therefore, that we are reliably bad blamers. Underwriting these two claims is an argument that our psychologies leave us especially vulnerable to epistemic “disruption” where we are likely to be sensitive to the social statuses and identities of those around us.

  1. The Ethics of Blame

In, “Blame for Me and Not For Thee” (Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 25: 265–282 (2022)) I draw on these insights to make an argument about the ethics of blame. I argue for the introduction of a new set of norms concerning blame and social status: that the socially powerful ought to blame the socially dispossessed less frequently, and that the less-powerful ought to blame the socially powerful more frequently. The focus of the paper is the norm of Powerful Restraint, which demands that the powerful reign in their blaming tendencies, and that social pressure be applied to achieve compliance. I argue that such a norm is justified given the pernicious moral effects of the epistemic distortion I describe. I defend it against objections that it is paternalistic, that it is unrealistic, and that it involves a kind of disrespect to the less socially powerful.

In “Getting Away with Murder” (Under Review), I turn to a concrete case, examining reactions to the recent killing of Ahmaud Arbery as exemplars of the distortion of our reasoning about moral responsibility. I conclude that many of our responsibility practices rely on what we might call an “epistemology of ignorance.” This ignorance operates with greatest effect on the socially powerful, with the result that they are often in a poor position to be accurate judges of the responsibility of oppressed, low-status, and powerless individuals.

  1. Narrative, Interpretation, and Moral Responsibility

A distinct strand of my research concerns the use of interpretation and narrative in moral responsibility practice. In “Narrative Capacity, Explanations, and Reasons-Responsiveness” (In preparation), I respond to recent claims that the capacity for narrative thinking increases (and perhaps partially constitutes) our moral responsibility. While defenses of this idea so far have not been specific as to the nature of this capacity, I claim that the ability to understand and form narrative explanations, in particular, is the sense of narrative that matters for moral-responsibility-reasoning, and that giving a precise account of narrative explanation allows us to respond to and sidestep many of the common critiques of narrative in the philosophical literature.

In “Interpretation, Narrative Explanation, and Normative Constraints” (In preparation), I tackle the criticism that narratives are inherently falsifying or somehow ethically dangerous head on. I concede that one danger of our epistemic situation is that it is easy to confuse our interpretations with descriptive facts about the world. However, I argue that properly constrained narrative explanations needn’t be seen as “anti-realist” or false to the world. Accordingly, I argue for three norms of good interpretation in the attribution of moral responsibility. Roughly, (1) that agents’ intentions do not entirely fix the meaning of actions, (2) that interpretations must have fidelity to the constituent “low-level” facts involved in a narrative, and (3) that we can sort better or worse interpretations by paying attention to context, coherence, and the instrumental aims of a practice.

  1. Methodology

My final research interest builds on these instrumentalist claims, and concerns issues of methodology in the responsibility literature. In “What’s the Relationship between the Theory and Practice of Moral Responsibility?” (Humana Mente 15 (42): 29-62 (2022)), Manuel Vargas and I identify a novel challenge to standard understandings of responsibility practices, animated by experimental studies of biases and heuristics. We argue that this is a version of a general methodological challenge for theorizing about responsibility. That is, it is difficult for a theory to give us both guidance in real world contexts and an account of the metaphysical and normative foundations of responsibility without treating wide swaths of ordinary practice as defective. The general upshot is that theories must either hew more closely to actual practice than they appear to, or they must provide some normative foundation for responsibility that does not go through actual practice.

Finally, in “Modeling in the Epistemology of Responsibility” (in preparation) I plan to argue that attention to work in the philosophy of science on modelling can help us better understand the way we discuss hypothetical and actual agents in the responsibility literature, including the relationship of real agents to interpretive descriptions of their properties and actions, and issues of realism and anti-realism.