Some Of Our Books


« Personal Identity and Moral Change | Main | CfA: Experience Machines »

May 26, 2015


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Terrifically interesting post! Thanks so much for sharing your work on the Soup. I will have to think more about lots of what you said but I had one immediate reaction that I thought I would share. This is not at all to your main point but I think I am perhaps more nervous about Williams’s proleptic mechanism than you revealed in your post and perhaps less eager for it to shape out moral landscape. But as your remarks on this topic were very brief, I hesitate to attribute much to you on this score and will just offer my own concerns. I think there are a variety of problems with Williams use of this idea for his broader purposes, but here let me focus on dangers of the mechanism itself. As you say, Williams points out that blaming someone for something when they have nothing in their subjective motivational sets that is responsive to the grounds for one’s blame can still be effective because they may care to avoid the blame itself, independently of the reasons for it. We will be especially likely to have such a concern to avoid blame from those we admire, our friends, and from the vindictive and powerful. And what we have to do to avoid such blame will hang a lot on how those we seek to avoid being blamed by are willing to use this tool to help shape our behavior. Those willing to haul it out frequently and insincerely will be more effective in using this tool than those using it judiciously and sincerely. Because this tool is especially a boon to the powerful and the manipulative, I am suspicious of it. This is not to deny, of course, that it can also be a force for good. But a fear of being blamed, regardless of the reason, seems as morally dangerous as it is potentially useful. I wonder if it should be thought to be more likely a force for good than for other things?

Very interesting post,

I was interested in the comparison of gifted forgiveness to more standard gifts. If we consider the fact that the value of a standard gift is socially constructed, public and shared, and that the relative "size" of the gift is in some sense also a function of the means available to the gifter, could we still make sense of forgiveness as a gift?

For me anyways, I'm not sure it does. For a normal gift, a cost is still paid, just by the gifter, not the one receiving the gift. So, by analogy, it seems that the forgiver is always, necessarily able to pay the cost of forgiveness themselves and that the act of public, gifted forgiveness is then very much analogous to blame. Thought of as such, moral justice forgiveness seems parasitic on elective forgiveness. In order to forgive the wrongdoer, the forgiver must pay the cost themselves and anything the wrongdoer did to "earn" forgiveness is more like remuneration or at least a public acknowledgement of the gift. Since the forgiver also sets the cost for forgiveness, it seems like they are always in a position to be giving more than the wrongdoer could earn.

Anyway, I hope that made sense, and would be curious if you had any comments.

Thanks very much for this post, Miranda! I think I am on board with your placing gifted forgiveness as parasitic on earned/moral justice forgiveness.

However I, in a way like Sobel (surprisingly), am troubled by the emphasis on a forward-looking, consequentialist grounding of blame and blaming practices. You say:

"Communicative Blame aims to inspire remorse understood as pained understanding of the wrong one has done. The upshot ... is that the role of Communicative Blame is to bring the wrongdoer and the blamer into an aligned moral understanding of what has gone on between them: a shared moral understanding."

Forgiveness is then the release of redundant blame-feeling once blame has achieved its point: shared moral understanding via remorse.

I'm in full agreement that blame is communicative (with feeling), and I also think remorse is the enabler of normatively successful (earned) forgiveness. But it seems on your account (especially in the adoption of Williams' proleptic feature) that there need be no necessary requirement that the blame fit, i.e., that it be a merited response (to a slight or wronging. say). That is to say, given the emphasis on the (forward-looking) point of communicative blame, is it only a contingent matter that the blame fit the crime, so to speak?

One way to bring out the worry is to press on the proleptic point. There are some people who do not (here and now) recognize the relevant moral reasons, and there are others who cannot recognize the relevant moral reasons. I think the latter--those without normative competence--aren't fitting objects of anger-blame, whereas the former (to the extent that they do have the relevant capacities) are quite fitting objects. But blaming the former doesn't strike me as mere blame with the aim of getting them eventually to see the relevant reasons. If they are capable now of doing so, then blame "fits," insofar as they are guilty of ignoring those reasons (which is just what bad behavior often consists in). But if they aren't capable (now) of doing so, then blame doesn't fit, as they lack the capacities required to meet blame's communicative demand (that they share our moral understanding, on your view). This is a "wrong kind of reason" for blame, then (if I've got your Williams-inspired story right), a reason which could conceivably apply to many non-meriting agents, in a worrisome way.

Many thanks for this point about the dangers of proleptic blame--how it can be used and abused in particularly effective ways by the powerful. I wholly agree. In fact I would go so far as to say that proleptic blame is an operation of interpersonal power. But if it is a permanent and essential feature of moral life (I think it is, for how else can be generate shared understanding?) then it is morally imperative that we quickly face up to its contingent relation to the good. I believe we just have to be clear-eyed about the proleptic power of blame being Janus-faced in this way. I see this fact about blame as another dimension of the contingency of moral life, which is inescapable, and in itself morally challenging.

Thanks for the point about gifts and the idea that someone always pays...Well I guess I tend to think that when forgiveness is given as a gift (as opposed to being earned by the wrongdoer) we could just about say that the forgiver 'pays'--they pay by letting go of the blame-feeling. I wouldn't personally wish to push that way of talking very much though. I mean, my own feeling is that there can be lots of things that people 'gift' to each other--such as love, commitment, concern, care...--where none of these needs paying for at any stage, though of course they do involve a certain expenditure of emotion and ethical effort on the part of the giver. So it is, I believe, with Gifted Forgiveness.
Incidentally, I think that the giving of Gifted Forgiveness is governed by fairly contingent and local norms, just as other kinds of present-giving is. Whereas with Moral Justice Forgiveness I'm claiming the principle norm that governs when to forgive is one found in human nature (the reactive attitudes determine that forgiveness is earned through remorse), by contrast when it comes to Gifted Forgiveness I think we should expect to see a lot more contingency around when it is and when it isn't appropriate to forgive. And I believe that is indeed what we see: people are often at odds about whether or not it is appropriate for X to have forgiven Y where Y wasn't even sorry. Some find 'I just couldn't bear to stay so angry' a sufficient justification for the change of interpersonal attitude; others can hear that as nothing more than wanting to forget about it. This kind of difference is on display in our philosophical literature, and I think it is just what we should expect to find in relation to a contingent iteration of the more basic practice of Moral Justice Forgiveness, about whose internal normativity there is, by contrast, no real disagreement.

Thank you for your reply!

I'm not sure if this is the best way to express what I'm thinking, but ... I feel like there are two aspects, or modes, to forgiveness: A public one, which I take you to be primarily concerned with here, and a private one, which is what I was trying to get at with my previous comment. I think its easy to imagine someone 'forgiving' another, either freely or after it was earned, but subsequently deeming that the act was insincere. I take that as evidence that forgiveness necessarily has an internal component. It seems to me, that if you take the private mode to be more primitive, as I'm inclined to, that elective forgiveness is the public expression of the more basic mode of forgiveness. That it is governed by subjective/private norms, fits with the fact that the norms governing its public display are contingent, I think. Earned forgiveness by contrast seems to be a more ritualized means of publicly navigating the blame-forgiveness process and is accordingly subject to more stringent social norms. The idea being that not only will the public 'earning' process help achieve a shared moral understanding, but it can also help the person wronged give-up/get-over/... the blame-feeling which would fester otherwise.

Perhaps you can tell, I've not really read much literature on the topic, but I find the post fascinating and appreciate your reply.


Thanks David S for pressing me on issues of how far blame is forward-looking. In my post I mentioned nothing about its backward-looking aspect, so I can certainly see why you ask! But rest assured I'm with those who regard blame as having both forward and backward aspects. Among the norms that govern appropriate blame are those that enjoin us to only blame people who have the general capacity to recognise moral reasons (=are responsible agents), and to blame people proportionately to the wrong they have done, and so on. I'm in complete agreement with you about the importance of 'fittingness'.
The forward aspect, for me, comes in when we take a step back from our practices of blame and ask whether they are practices we approve of, or wish to modify in some way. (We can't change the basic reactive attitude, but we could surely modify our ideas of what's proportionate, or what are the appropriate modes of expression etc.) It's a broadly Humean move of stepping back and assessing the social and moral merits of the practice are--though in truth I want a more critical, less purely explanatory, stance than Hume's, hence the interest in genealogy which, famously, may debunk the practice is aims to explain. I regard this stepping back as a way of taking responsibility for (the contingent aspects of) our moral practices. (As regards blame, this can seem like quite an urgent question if one is at all impressed by the worry some people have that blaming is essentially bad because it involves resentment and resentment is basically moral hatred or something like that.) Ultimately I see the critical self-evaluation made possible by stepping back as demonstrating increased collective autonomy with respect to how we go on.
Anyway, all this is really just to agree with you that proleptic blame is subject to the same norms of fittingness that non-proleptic blame is subject to; and my emphasis on the proleptic possibility in the original post was merely to bring out its social constructive power, and to connect that with the mirror proleptic possibility that I see in forgiveness.

Thanks very much, Miranda, this is very helpful. I wonder, therefore, if a slight alteration might help the proleptic cases avoid the above worries. You say that the function of communicative blame is "to bring shared moral understanding through remorse." I'm in complete agreement that remorse is our aim here. Side note that may be helpful to you: There's a rich body of psychological literature that discusses forgiveness. There are many features that predict its successful deployment -- apology, compensation, renunciation, and more -- but by far the best predictor is remorse. And this seems normatively right too.

OK, so what is remorse, precisely? Some people conflate it with guilt or shame (or a hybrid of the two), but this seems wrong. Rather, it seems to have a distinctive action tendency (which is what distinguishes emotions from one another generally), namely, the impulse to ruminate, even obsess, about the loss of value one caused. (This is especially obvious in cases where there can be no compensation or making right, as one has actually destroyed the valuable thing altogether.) But it can't just be that I think about the loss if I'm remorseful; after all, I could be cruel and delight in thinking about what destruction I caused. And it can't just be that I remember having caused the loss, because when I experienced it the first time, I didn't have remorse. So I must feel pain (as you note) in thinking about the loss I caused from your perspective. That is, to be remorseful is to, effectively, feel your loss in the way that you did. Call this empathic acknowledgment.

Note that this stops short of "shared moral understanding," at least given what you've said about it. All I'm doing is appreciating the loss I caused in you (as you did), not having any shared access to moral reasons (or not constructing them with you). But that seems enough to ground forgiveness.

Now here's the important point: perhaps blame "fits" lack of acknowledgment (disregard) at the front end of the blaming exchange, and so demands acknowledgment at the back end for normatively successful forgiveness. This may require not a normative competence/shared moral understanding capacity, but instead a certain empathic capacity. What we may ultimately want is shared moral understanding, but empathic acknowledgment (remorse) doesn't deliver that in one fell swoop; rather, perhaps it requires some kind of inductive generalization across many such instances of acknowledgment. This could allow us to fittingly blame someone who lacks the relevant moral reasons, and then appropriately forgive this person once he empathically acknowledges what he did, even if that doesn't get him shared moral understanding at that time. He may ultimately be caused to recognize the relevant moral reasons, and that will be good, but it will have been accomplished through fitting blame, which only demanded his empathic acknowledgment.

I apologize for the length of this comment: I fully acknowledge that it got out of hand. As I said before, I don't think this touches your main argument about the relation between gifted and earned forgiveness, which I find extremely plausible. It's just that I've been working on forgiveness and blame recently, and our views on it seem to align quite a bit.

Suppose I see David Shoemaker tell David Sobel a lie. Sobel and I blame Shoemaker for this (we both tell him it was a shoddy thing to do, etc.). Shoemaker feels and expresses remorse for his lie. And then I release my blame-feeling towards Shoemaker. Does this mean that I have forgiven Shoemaker for his lie to Sobel? But how could *I* forgive Shoemaker for his lie to Sobel?

And, adding to that if I may, surely his past shoddy treatment of me just makes this new incident, which I am glad you brought to my attention, all the more difficult for me or anyone else to forgive.

"I think you're a great guy, Sobel." Like that, Brandon?

Consider the time in the near future when, due to his points being systematically shown to be vacuous and his broader philosophical theses clearly utterly without foundation, Shoemaker lashes out at both Brandon and myself. Brandon, not knowing the man’s character, might forgive him for this. Yet he would not be forgiving Shoemaker for what he did to me (nor, of course, would I). Thus I think forgiveness need not cover the entire event but can just cover my relation to it.

I forgive you, Shoemaker!

Sobel, yes, this touches two issues. First, how do we explain the standing to forgive? Typically, for any given wrongdoing, there are fewer people who have the standing to forgive that there are people who have the standing to blame. So discharging blame (without exculpating, etc.) as such can't qualify as forgiving. Second, as you note, interpersonal wrongs are not usually atomized--newer wrongdoings can color the meaning (in Scanlon's sense) of old wrongdoings, and older wrongdoings can color the meaning of new wrongdoings.

Hi Prof. Fricker,

I may be late to the party, but I have a sort of methodological question. It can be put rather simply: is the method you're using sensitive to empirical confirmation?

Suppose anthropologists discover some culture that practices Gifted Forgiveness without practicing Moral Justice Forgiveness. In other words, members of this culture can make sense of the former *without* "thinking of it as... giving... something that would normally need to be earned through remorse but on this occasion isn’t." Would this cast doubt on the human universality (or "necessity") of the structure you've described?

I ask because I think many of us will be nervous about a method that calls itself "naturalistic" but does not make contact, at some point, with central confirmation-points that a scientific investigation would have to respect. It is possible that reflection on fictional examples by philosophers whose moral-conceptual scheme is representative of only a small fraction of the human race may not be well-suited to uncover actual human necessities.

Thanks all! (what a lot of philosophy goes on while one is sleeping in another time zone...). I'll try for succinctness on these interesting issues and questions:

Re moral understanding vs empathy: I intend 'moral understanding' as understanding that is emotionally inflected appropriately to the position one is in (blamer, or wrongdoer). I use 'remorse' to signify the distinctively pained moral understanding on the part of the wrongdoer who's feeling bad about what she's done, and the blame-feeling that is paradigmatically (though not quite necessarily) felt by the blamer involves emotions appropriate to the perspective of the victim. So I don't *think* there's a big difference between David Shoemaker's conception and my own here.

Re standing to forgive: I agree with Glen Pettigrove that it's an entirely normal kind of forgiveness to forgive A for hurting B, where B is someone other than oneself. I might forgive a teacher for being mean to my child. What explains this, I believe, is that there is a symmetry between blame and forgiveness: standing to forgive is determined by standing to blame. I can blame the mean teacher, so I can forgive him too.

Re naturalism and what if an anthropologist discovered a society that had a practice of Gifted Forgiveness but not Moral Justice Forgiveness. Yes, I think naturalistic explanations, even of the armchair kind, should be hostage to empirical fortune. This is a strength of Craig's State of Nature story, by the way, for he uses almost nothing other than basic epistemic needs geared to survival in a social situation of competition. This makes it pretty low-risk from the point of view of empirical refutation. My own story is slightly higher risk, because my starting point is the reactive attitudes. We should be careful not to build too much into them (hence my concern about Strawson characterising the reactive attitude of forgiveness as involving a commitment not to do the bad thing again--which is, I suspect, too much of a contingency to build into the reactive attitude itself, so we should leave it out). But, more importantly perhaps, I don't think my kind of naturalistic explanation really has to be making a strict claim of necessity--I'm happier with 'nearly necessary'. An explanation that seems to work for almost all human societies would be good enough.
On a more sceptical, and on a note that's less conciliatory to science, however, I would add that I think any anthropological claim about a given society neither manifesting nor having in its development a reactive attitude of Moral Justice Forgiveness would be a claim that's very very hard to verify. Science has joined us in the armchair by the time it is trying to adjudicate this kind of thing.

Your mistake was going to sleep, Miranda.

Thanks a lot for the reply. From what I can tell, we are indeed closely aligned. I also really like the thought that we should build as little contingency as possible into the various reactive attitudes we lean on in our theories (that's one reason I favor talking about anger at agents rather than resentment, which has been too much absconded into a judgmentalist framework). I very much look forward to reading more of your work.

Notice that in your parent-child case, the parent has a certain kind of special relationship to the child. This (or something like it) is commonly thought to be a requirement for "third-party" forgiveness. But is it your view that if I can blame anyone for anything (regardless of their relation to me), then I can also forgive them?

I should add that when people talk about whether someone has "standing to blame," they usually have in mind a *normative* question. Something like: Is it appropriate for S to blame P?

On the other hand, when people talk about whether someone has "standing to forgive," they usually have in mind a *conceptual or metaphysical* question. Something like: Is S even in a position to forgive P in the first place?

Upshot: a symmetry thesis about standing to blame/forgive must not switch between these two different uses of "standing."

Yes I tentatively think the best way to approach standing to forgive is via standing to blame, and I take a very liberal view of both. That's partly because I think the minimal case of blame is a mere judgement that the person is blameworthy--the judgement with the blame-feeling that attends paradigm blame (Communicative Blame). Obviously that attitude can be taken to anyone, no matter how distant and dispassionate one is about their activities. (A judge's dispassionate verdict, for instance, may precisely be that X is to blame for a crime. And I think that's a case of blaming X for the crime, even while the judge may feel no blame-feeling.)
I recognise of course that there are different, and perhaps equally good, ways to carve these things up (I entirely appreciate Scanlon's reasons for separating judgements of blame from 'blame' proper, but I don't think it's truer to our normal practice than allowing that 'blame' proper can either be attended with blame-feeling or not. More generally, I personally don't really believe in revisionism when it comes to ethics--at any rate, I try to avoid revisionism in my own attempts. I think of philosophical ethics as oughting to explain and illuminate and, where possible, cast critical light on our practices. But casting critical light is not the same as endorsing a revisionist view of X at a time when X isn't in fact as the view says it is.

On personal involvement as possibly required for forgiveness (as in my parent-child-teacher case), I don't think our actual practices of forgiveness require that--though I recognise I may be out of line with others' intuitions on this. But I think there's a tendency to over-moralise both blame and forgiveness, so that we can forget their rather broad remit. In the political domain, for instance, people often say (and mean) things like 'I just can't forgive Nick Clegg for going back on his word about student loans' [to take a UK example]. So it seems to me that just as I might blame a politician for going back on his word, so might I forgive him for doing so (i.e. I have a change of attitude towards that individual in respect of what he did, where the change of attitude is primarily a matter of relinquishing the blame-feeling).

Re standing: I appreciate that if standing to blame were a normative issue while standing to forgive were something else, then one had better not mix them up. I confess I am sceptical that the issue of standing to forgive is not a normative question. What is this conceptual or metaphysical issue that's supposed to be separate from the normative here? I'm sceptical that it isn't another moralistic construct that serves an unduly narrow view of forgiveness and its domain.

Thanks so much again for all these wonderful comments! My head is buzzing and I'm finding it all really helpful. Thank you :)

Notice, too, in the politician case, that a Brit who says those things is, in a very legitimate sense, the victim of that alleged wrongdoing. It would be weird, though, for me (as an American) (or a Japanese retiree) to claim to forgive Clegg for his policy choices that are not really wrongs against us.

Also, here is a way to think about the issue of standing to forgive. Consider two questions: (1) When does a phenomenon count as forgiveness? (2) When is forgiveness appropriate?

The thing to notice is that many accounts of the nature of forgiveness have built right into them the requirement that the putative forgiver stand in a certain kind of relationship to the wrongdoer (see, e.g., Haber, Murphy, Hampton, Hieronymi, and many, many others.). And so a person who only has indignation-blame (a third-person blaming emotion) is not in a position to forgive. Rather one must have resentment-blame (a second-person emotion*). And so in order to be able to forgive at all, someone must have a unique sort of relationship to the wrongdoer--simply having blamed them is not sufficient. This is a conceptual or metaphysical matter. The further, normative, question is: even supposing it is *possible* for me to forgive, is it a good thing to do?

It is interesting, however, that in our (Western) moral practices, there really is no third-person analogue to forgiveness. Perhaps this is what you are pushing at, and that is a really interesting question.

*Actually, I don't think that one must resent in order to forgive, but I think this for other reasons, not because I deny that one must have special standing to forgive, which can be cashed out in other ways.

Thanks Brandon - I know I'm out of line with many others in being attracted to the idea that forgiveness doesn't require a special relationship. And I may wind up changing my mind, but here's the line of thought for what it's worth...

First, you're quite right of course about the politician example I gave--that example merely illustrates that a forgiver doesn't have to be the wronged party (something many believe however). It doesn't show that a forgiver can be entirely un-wronged by the wrong. So let me try another example, which purports to be a case of genuine uninvolved third-party forgiveness. What if I were to tell you that (even as a UK citizen) 'I forgave Bill Clinton for lying' perhaps because I saw he was remorseful. People do sometimes say things like this, and I don't really see any reason to rule it out as metaphysically/conceptually inappropriate.

Maybe you'll disagree, but my own intuition is that all it takes for such a case to be intelligible is that the speaker was exercised enough about the lie (e.g. because she was sympathetic enough with those who were directly involved or implicated) to have felt some *blame-feeling* towards the culprit in respect of it. (Some might prefer to say she was exercised enough about the lie to *blame* him rather than merely finding him responsible/blameworthy.) But once that's all in place, then it seems to me hard to deny that she couldn't equally intelligibly relinquish the blame-feeling for reasons of a kind normally adequate to forgiveness--e.g. because he was remorseful.

Incidentally I'm not sure if your conversational model would rule this out. I don't see that it should, inasmuch as there could conceivably be a conversational context in which a UK citizen could say it without it seeming conversationally infelicitous? (It might be odd or inappropriate in all sorts of other ways of course!)

Rest assured I would at least think of an example like this as far from the paradigm case of forgiveness, but what I increasingly believe is that it is still a recognisable and intelligible iteration of the basic paradigm of Moral Justice Forgiveness, in which the wronged party forgives the wrongdoer in a second-personal attitudinal change. (I'm still not sure whether to go the whole hog and agree with you that the exemplar case is communicative, or 'directed'...I have put forward that view in regard to blame, but am not sure about the symmetry with forgiveness here. Lots to think on about...)

Well...I don' know. I may change my mind about this, but I do remain tempted by the thought that forgiveness tracks blame-feeling. By this I merely mean that wherever there is blame-feeling there can be (metaphysically/conceptually appropriate) forgiveness.

Okay - better stop. Thanks again!

The comments to this entry are closed.

Ethics at PEA Soup

PPE at PEA Soup

Like PEA Soup

Search PEA Soup


  • Unless otherwise indicated, the views expressed in any given post reflect the opinion of only that individual who posted the particular entry or comment.