I'm very pleased to introduce Julia Driver, this month's Featured Philosopher. Julia's work should be no stranger to anyone reading PEASoup. She's written pathbreaking work on consequentialism, including its relationship to the virtues, and on a number of other important topics in ethics and its history. Julia joins us today for the first of two posts, the second to go live next week. Please join me in welcoming Julia!
Thanks very much to the PEA Soup group for inviting me to post on my research. I’ve decided to focus on my current research projects, discussing moral complicity this week and Humean constructivism next week. However, I would also be very happy to answer any questions about my earlier work on virtue theory, consequentialism, moral expertise, dream immorality, promising, ought implies can, imaginative resistance, Hume’s views on moral psychology and moral agency, philosophy and film, etc.
Not much systematic work has been done explicitly on moral complicity as opposed to legal complicity. Christopher Kutz has an interesting book out on it, in which he criticizes consequentialism for not being able to account for all the different ways in which someone can be wrongfully complicit. The heart of Kutz’s criticism of the consequentialist is that the consequentialist is committed to a certain principle, the Individual Difference Principle, which holds: “I am accountable for a harm only if what I have done made a difference to that harm’s occurrence….” (Complicity: Ethics and Law for a Collective Age, 116). This runs counter to the view that a person who participates in the production of a harm (in a very intuitive notion of ‘participates’) is to be held at least partly accountable even if her actions were causally inefficacious, that is, they made no difference to the outcome. To say they were causally inefficacious is not to say that they made no causal impact whatsoever, it is simply to say that they made no relevant causal impact in that the actions did not make a relevant difference to the outcome. Kutz’s illustrations of this involve causal overdetermination cases, such as the case of a bomber who drops a bomb on a target that has already been utterly destroyed. Other sorts of cases, also familiar from the philosophical literature, are cases that involve small contributions, in themselves insignificant, to an overall greater harm. Sandra taking the extra car trips and not walking to the office makes no ‘relevant’ difference to the overall harm of global climate change. That takes far, far more than Sandra’s contribution to carbon in the atmosphere. And generally these sorts of cases have been taken to be problematic for consequentialism since we still would like to blame people (somehow) even when they perform some actions that are part of a greater harm though not themselves causally efficacious. In these cases, they participate in the harm even if they don’t themselves causally generate it.
However, it gets even worse for the consequentialist. There are two types of complicity: participation complicity and tolerance complicity. Actually helping to bring about a harmful effect involves participation – those can be cases in which the aid does make a difference to the outcome, and the cases discussed above in which the participation doesn’t make a relevant difference. Tolerance complicity is something that comes up in bystander ethics: one isn’t causally contributing to the bad, but one isn’t doing anything to stop it either. A dramatic case of blaming people for tolerating an immoral system is Emerson’s speech against the ‘withdrawing citizens’ of Massachusetts who did not speak out and work against the Fugitive Slave Act (1850), which allowed for massive injustices against African Americans in the North. Tolerating the evil, Emerson held, makes one complicit in it. Of course, refusing to tolerate the Fugitive Slave Act and the practices it gave rise to would have had many good effects. But we can imagine cases where refusing to tolerate makes no difference to the outcomes. Perhaps when one goes to a family gathering and hears someone make a bigoted comment. Saying something, challenging the person, may do nothing to change that person’s attitudes or even the attitudes of any of the other people present, however, there still seems to be a reason to challenge the bigot, to speak up and not tolerate the bigoted speech. Of course, this reason is pro tanto, overrideable. If one’s job, and the well being of one’s family, is on the line, that would be a countervailing reason. But the simple fact that there is a reason even absent even the prospect of making a difference poses a challenge to the consequentialist.
The phenomenology of these sorts of cases suggests that something like self-respect is at stake. The pressure to say something in response, to protest an injustice, is tied to preservation of self-respect. In writing on a Kantian approach to these issues I have argued that Kantian approaches have an advantage in that self-respect is intrinsically significant. However, I also think that consequentialists can co-opt the phenomenology. The sort of consequentialism I have favored is a variety of global consequentialism, but one that allows for a variety of ways to engage in moral evaluation (that is, it is not simply restricted to ‘rightness’), and remains focused on factors relevant to agency (thus, we don’t morally evaluate shampoo). So, very roughly, the moral quality of x (action, character trait, intention) depends completely upon the consequences of x. There will be conflict, but in a way that is fine since it, again, reflects phenomenology such as that of normative ambivalence. Normative ambivalence generally occurs in cases where there is a split verdict – e.g. between action and character, where someone does the right thing, let’s say, but in so doing displays a morally bad character, a vice. A character trait is a virtue in when it systematically, across a population, generates good effects, though in any single individual case, it may not generate good effects and may even generate bad ones. One way to handle tolerance complicity cases in which tolerance causes not bad effects on its own is to say that the tolerator does nothing wrong if the failure to speak out would do no good; but the tolerator is nevertheless revealing something bad a bout his or her character. This approach could generalize to other cases – Sandra does nothing wrong in taking that extra car trip, though she may reveal something about her character that is regrettable (a failure to care about the environment or view herself as part of a community capable of changing things for the better). But I am not satisfied with this. Splitting action and character evaluation seems very intuitively plausible for normative ambivalence cases. But tolerance complicity cases don’t generate the normative ambivalence intuition. Tolerating evil is (pro tanto) just wrong. I think most would agree with this, but then have trouble accounting for why it is wrong. Intuitively, as I mentioned earlier, it seems connected to self-respect. I think that can be cashed out in terms of the fact that most us think that we have certain core values – values that underlie a kind of normative identity. The values that a person endorses as part of this identity need to be stood up for. Here’s an analogy with another kind of commitment to a friend. If someone publicly disparages a friend, one may feel compelled to speak up in defense of one’s friend even if one sincerely believes that speaking up will not change anyone’s mind. The point of speaking up in those circumstances is to reaffirm one’s values to oneself. On the view of moral agency that I favor, moral agents frequently engage in self-evaluation and reaffirmation of core values. Failing to speak up is like a betrayal of those values, and if one fails one will rightfully feel diminished.
Another way to go, that is completely compatible with consequentialism, would be to draw on some of Tom Hurka’s work on the value of attitudes. So, a pro attitude towards the good is itself good. Within this framework we might argue that cases of wrongful tolerance complicity involves in many cases having a bad attitude to an important value. The badness of the attitude in question needn’t be reducible to production of good states of affairs. Sometimes, of course a person tolerates wrongdoing even though she hates it (and thus she has a good attitude), but the toleration is due to some other competing reason. Perhaps she is in a situation where she would be attacked if she expressed her true views, for example, and thus she has a very compelling reason not to speak up. This is not wrongful tolerance complicity: her attitude is good, and she is not participating in the wrongdoing itself. I find this approach attractive, but need to think more about the implications. I am still attracted to the more traditional way of cashing out the value of attitudes – in terms of the difference the attitudes themselves will make. But this is not incompatible with also viewing them as having intrinsic value. Suggestions welcome!