Optimistic Skepticism and Forward-Looking Blame

Posted on January 8, 2015 by

Below you can find the post in its entirety. Click here to see the original at flickers of freedom and to join in the discussion if you see fit.


Many philosophers (1) have spent substantial time wrestling with, expanding on, and arguing against the central ideas put forth in P.F. Strawson’s seminal piece “Freedom and Resentment”, and with good reason. In that essay, Strawson lays out many concerns that are worthy of deep reflection. In this post I would like to further reflect on what Strawson called the reactive attitudes (the list that we’re familiar with includes anger, resentment, forgiveness, love, and gratitude among others). And, in keeping with my last post I’ll be questioning a claim endorsed by a particular species of skepticism; optimistic skeptics.

Contra Strawson, many optimistic skeptics (and others) have suggested that losing the ability to appropriately direct these attitudes toward others would not be a big deal (see Caruso on this  acouple of weeks back) . They minimize the perceived loss of such attitudes by putting forth analogues that would remain in the wake of FW and MR skepticism. So, though some of them admit that we must give up the idea that desert-based blame can ever be justified, what remains is a forward-looking account of blame. They make similar moves re: other attitudes such as forgiveness (which I may post on next), anger and even moral responsibility itself (Pereboom 2013) (2). The optimistic skeptical narrative looks to be some variation of this: (i) show that we do not have the kind of free will associated with desert, (ii) show how the loss of FW entails the loss of desert and all the concepts and practices associated with it and, (iii) be optimistic about these losses. In this post I’d like to press on (iii) a bit by posing a problem for those who endorse a strictly forward-looking account of blame. One thought is that maybe these analogues aren’t doing the heavy lifting that the optimistic skeptics are hoping for. So, maybe posing a question or 2 about the application of these analogues might help. But first, maybe I should say a few more words about the desert-laden traditional reactive attitudes.

I think about the traditional reactive attitudes as responses to others who show us good-will, ill-will, and everything in between; they are responses to how others treat us in the world. They seem to help us communicate to others our feelings re: how they treat us and this seems important! Let’s consider a couple of examples:

Imagine getting into a packed elevator and suddenly someone steps so firmly on your foot that it breaks your toe. How would you feel? At the very least you would likely be in pain. But, beyond this pain, how you feel about getting your toe broken will depend largely on what *caused* this person (call her Juanita), to step on your foot. If, for instance, you find out that Juanita purposely stomped on your foot because she didn’t like the shirt you were wearing, you are likely to direct anger or some other negative reactive attitude toward her and you would be seemingly justified in doing so. You may even blame her for doing so. On the other hand, if it turned out that Juanita stepped on your foot because her friend Jim pushed her, then you are more likely to direct your negative reaction toward Jim as it would seem inappropriate to direct your negative emotions toward Juanita. But, even in this latter case there are other factors as well as answers to further questions that will have a significant impact on how you decide to respond. For instance, did Jim accidentally push Juanita onto your foot because an earthquake caused her to lose her footing? Likely, though still angry, one may feel unwarranted in *directing* that anger, or blame, toward Jim if that were the case. One question that will likely have an impact on your response is this: Did Jim *freely* push Juanita into you? If you found that Jim was coerced or forced into pushing Juanita you are likely to respond differently because Jim was not acting freely.

These examples point to a belief that many of us share: that in some cases it would be appropriate to direct our reactive attitudes (whether good or bad) toward others and in other cases it would not be. Beyond the communicative point I was hinting at earlier, the desert-base for appropriately directing these reactive attitudes (in at least some of the scenarios) seems quite intuitive as well.

FWIW, Strawson recognizes the importance that the traditional attitudes (grounded in basic-desert) have for  our moral lives. He suggested that if we were forced to suspend such attitudes toward others (due to theoretical commitments such as MR skepticism) then we would be forced to take an objective stance. Such a stance would imperil our interpersonal relationships because we would be forced to treat others as “little more than targets of social engineering” (Sommers 2007). But I’m rambling a bit.

As I mentioned when I opened this post, I’d like to focus this discussion on forward-looking blame (what it is and how is it grounded without desert). So for the time being let’s just assume that desert based concepts must go. Given that our practices often assume basic desert (both good and bad practices), how will our new blaming practices be grounded and what would this mean for our blaming practices (their scope, their requirements to be approrpiate, etc.)?

Forward-looking blame as I understand it, is blame that is not rooted in the belief that the person being blamed deserves to be blamed in any “basic” way. There is debate about what basic-desert entails (4) but let’s side-step that at as well. The proponent of forward-looking blame justifies the blaming practice by appealing to consequentialist justification.  There is no desert-base. Okay, if you’re still with me I’ll finally pose my question/issue, it regards prepunishment.

Prepunishment (5) is the idea that one could be punished before one actually commits a crime, think Minority Report. I like thinking about prepunishment because it’s a great way to pump intuitions about how we feel about desert. Anyway, it’s worrisome for some because it allows one to be blamed for something that has never occurred and it would be justified if it could be shown that doing so produces better consequences in the long run.

So, how do folks that aren’t *directly* in this literature feel about this worry? Is it serious? Is blaming someone (whatever that amounts to without the interaction taking place with directed desert-based feelings) *only*for the sake of changing their future behavior enough to keep our relationships in tact? Would losing desert-based  blame be harmful to our relationships?

I should note up front that I am well aware that we often over-utilize these traditional reactive attitudes and this often hinders  and ruins many relationships. I also think it’s worthwhile to mention that we do sometimes utilize a forward looking account of blame, for instance when we are trying to shape the lives of our children.

I’d also like to link a couple of articles by Zac Cogley who is writing some very interesting stuff on basic-desert and the reactive attitudes. See here and here.

(1) Two recent pieces that immediately come to mind are Michael Mckenna’s illuminating book ‘Conversation and Moral Responsibility’ (2012 OUP) and Neal Tognazzini’s piece (which I read this morning) titled “Reactive Attitudes and Volitional Necessity” (2014). I mention these two as examples of an extensive literature that includes some excellent scholarship.

(2) “Moral Responsibility without Desert” in Haji and Caouette (2013)

(3) In Michael Mckenna’s ‘Conversation and Responsibility’ (2012) he favorably discusses some nice features associated with the forward looking aspects of blame though his theory itself need not be understood in strictly forward-looking terms.

(4) See Manuel Vargas excellent book for more on this (Ch. 8 of ‘Building Better Beings” 2013 OUP)

(5) For a nice back and forth see Saul Smilanksy and C. New in Analysis on this. I believe I read something by Michael Robinson on this as well.