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October 21, 2013


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Hi Julia,

Cool topic! I like the idea that these failures matter because they reveal failures of personal integrity or, in one sense, self-respect. This is just a minor extension of what you are thinking, I guess, but you could add something more about the interpersonal value of being someone with self-respect. One way to go is to note that someone who has integrity of the relevant sort will, on average, be able to have more valuable relationships with others. I would develop this idea by noting two related things that make good relationships (some not all) valuable: (1) they help us notice and improve our values and our degree of personal integrity and (2) they involve reasonable trust which makes reliance and disclosure/sharing reasonable.

Someone who exhibits personal integrity/self-respect of the forms you mention seems to both signal that she is a good candidate for being in such a relationship and to better able to live up to that promise.

Showing integrity or regret for a lack there of also seems to have interpersonal effects insofar as it inspires others to "check themselves", rise to the occasion, etc.

Last, perhaps given how much of bad human behavior results from giving in to social pressure (I am thinking of Kant on unsocial sociability, etc) it makes sense that we would have the intuition that acts that manifest a lack of integrity are wrong.

Brad, thanks for the comments. Everything you say sounds very reasonable -- a bit of evidence for what you say is that when we are in a situation without an audience (e.g. let's say I'm watching TV alone and hear Sean Hannity say something outrageous), the same pressure isn't there to speak up. Also, if I am in a situation where I can assume that my entire audience already knows my views and will not take my silence as a kind of assent, the pressure is lessened.

This is a very interesting post, Julia! I have a small question. Does Kutz acknowledge that some philosophers think consequentialism does *not* involve a commitment to the Individual Difference Principle? If so, does he say why these philosophers are wrong to construe consequentialism in this way. I'm thinking, in particular, of Ch. 3 of Reasons and Persons ("Five Mistakes in Moral Mathematics").

Hi Daniel, yes he does discuss Parfit (pp. 129 ff.), though he thinks Parfit's account fails as a consequentialist account. His view is that Parfit's principle that an act may be wrong in virtue of being 'one in a set of actions that together harm other people' seems to work fine in cases where the harm in question is dispersed, so that we can imagine that each agent can be assigned some bit of the actual harm. He doesn't think it works so well in cases where the harm is not dispersed. His example is that of 1,000 bombers killing a single victim. I found his criticism not entirely clear, but I think he believes in that case since after the first bomb drops the victim is dead, it is hard for Parfit to account for how the bombers are acting 'together.' He argues that Parfit's account may get the right answer by 'fiat' -- that is, the answer that each bomber shares or is complicit in the wrong -- but does not give a good account of why that is the case.

I don't think the criticism of Parfit is adequate, and would like to discuss that in the larger work. I also think that there is work to be done in giving Parfit's account a rationale as to why participation in a collective harm is wrong. So I would count as a consequentialist who would deny the individual difference principle myself.

Thanks for the cool post, Julia! I find this topic fascinating and perplexing. One worry I have about consequentialist treatments of this issue has to do with their seeming to ground accountability attitudes toward things like moral complicity (and toward others' attitudes generally) in the consequences of the agential features (e.g., quality of will) in question. I tend to think we simply care about certain agential features, regardless of their consequences (even on the systematic treatment you favor). This may be further grounded in our caring about something like mutual recognition, or acknowledgment. But at any rate, our (reactive) attitudes when these features we care about are betrayed seem to have a deeply retributive element to them that seems fitting regardless of the consequences of either doing so or the successful elimination of the betraying attitudes themselves.

But regardless, your talk of the "phenomenology" of complicity is really what caught my eye. While the types of cases you mention -- trivial causality and tolerance -- are important, I was wondering what you might think about the following sort of case. Tamler Sommers, in his book Relative Justice, brings to our attention the case of some Koreans responding to the the shootings at Virginia Tech a few years back (by a young Korean man). Many were deeply ashamed. When asked "Why?" (in an incredulous tone, by an NPR reporter), one Korean woman said, "He was a fellow Korean." This phenomenology was reported in a variety of places, and it was explained by Adrian Hong (a board member of the Mirae Foundation) as follows: "First-generation Koreans tend to have a cultural sense of shared responsibility."

This seems to be another kind of moral complicity, with deep phenomenological (and I would say metaphysical) roots. These are surely people of good will, though, who nevertheless have a kind of self-directed "responsibility-response", where not only was there no causation (however trivial), there was also no wrongful tolerance. But it also strikes me as too dismissive simply to reject their feelings as unfitting, or otherwise out of bounds. Now perhaps this is tangential to your concerns, but then I'd like to know (a) why, and (b) what you think anyway. :-)

Dave, that is a really interesting case. They feel shame, but no guilt, right? I certainly don't think that there is any complicity involved in these cases (clearly the disavow the act in question), so the question is why might the shame be appropriate. Well, I don't think it reflects badly on someone if that person is not ashamed of the wrongdoing of someone else given the lack of any influence and the lack of any endorsement. But then is shame in some weaker sense an appropriate response? Maybe if one thinks that others are likely to view one as endorsing the behavior in question then shame will prompt one to openly disavow it? I'm just speculating. I think a lot of our social interactions involve engaging in assurance behaviors, and displays of shame under these circumstances might be a kind of assurance behavior -- but again, just speculating.

Yes, Julia, shame, not guilt (I think). I do think shame is a "responsibility-response," as I put it, so one way to put your response is that it's accountability that you're interested in (as Kutz's original principle has it), where guilt is the fitting response to various sorts of wrongness/badness more closely related to individual agency (and presupposing different capacities), but there may be (are) other conceptions of responsibility (e.g., attributability) that could somehow incorporate the idea of "shared responsibility" in question. So more than mere "assurance behaviors," it could also be a sense of a kind of failure of (shared) character thought to be an ideal of Eastern culture. But this too is speculation. Thanks!

Hello Julia (if I may)

Nice post. Complicity is fascinating, and also really tricky.

In your response case of standing up to racism, even when this will not make a difference to the attitudes of the racist, I wondered whether it was right to focus on reaffirming one's core values, self-respect, or more generally one’s attitudes.

Here is one doubt. It seems that what is required is for the person to speak out. Yet speaking out does not seem required in order for one to reaffirm one’s core values, or to have the right attitudes to racism. Both things seem satisfied by private thought and judgement. Yet private thought and judgement seem insufficient in your kind of case.

Here is related doubt: it seems as though the impulse to speak out ought to be driven by a concern for the victims of racism, and not by a concern that one’s own atittudes are right or that one’s core values are affirmed.

What is needed here is an account of the legitimate demand that victims of racism can have to have public attitudes about them challenged, even when doing so will not be effective in changing attitudes. I think that they might have a legitimate demand that their moral status is publicly affirmed, and a failure to satisfy this demand when it is easy to do so might wrong them. This in itself doesn’t have much to do with complicity, for the person who fails to meet this demand might simply do so out of laziness, for example.

Perhaps the feeling that those who stand by are complicit comes from the fact that the racist relies on the assumption that his audience affirms his view if it is not challenged. The racist may implicitly co-opt the audience in making the speech to them. He speaks in a way that demands a challenge, and yet relies on the fact that this challenge will not be forthcoming. In doing so, he puts the audience in a dilemma. He implicitly says something like this – if you reject what I say, you would believe that the victims would have a demand that you speak up. If you do not speak up, you must agree that the victims lack the status that would ground the demand. Thus when he speaks and he is not challenged, his speech gains extra force from the impression that is created that the audience affirms his view. A failure publicly to distance oneself from racism is to allow oneself to be co-opted in this way, and that makes one complicit.

What do you think?

Dear Julia,

I elaborate on similar issues in the article "My emissions make no difference", recently published in Environmental Ethics. My aim is to develop a few ways in which I think consequentalists can make room for the complicity intuition, and it seems that we reach rather similar conclusions. In particular, I defend the appeal to the value of attitudes. But I also think consequentialists can appeal to side effects and alternative actions, and they can perhaps also appeal to collective duties.

Would be great to get your views on this.

-- Joakim

Hi Victor, thanks very much for that very helpful comment. I completely agree with your point that bigotry ought to be challenged, not simply for the sake of personal integrity, but also because victims of bigotry deserve to have it challenged. I do think that a lot of pragmatic factors play into our ascriptions of complicity in these cases, and that you point out an extremely important one: how does the audience perceive, or reasonably perceive, silence? Some people do take silence for assent, and this means that one really does need to speak out in such cases -- at least, one has a pro tanto reason to speak out. It is hard for me to disentangle this from the view that such speaking out does have good effects (or, at least, traits which make one more likely to speak out have such good effects) because I think that encouraging the bigot does have bad effects (even if one cannot change the bigot's own attitudes). I am trying to wrestle with the intuition that even absent any good effects at all one should speak out. Your point is a good one -- there is something about genuine respect and concern for others that demands this.

Hi Joakim,, thanks -- I will definitely read your article. I find the issue of collective duty and responsibility fascinating -- this was also touched on in Dave's post. One possibility that I've toyed with is to bite the bullet and maintain that if one's action makes no difference, then one hasn't done anything wrong, *but* one may still be revealing a bad character and the bad character itself is worthy of negative evaluation. That is, the action which is causally ineffectual is still evidence of something worthy of negative evaluation. I'm not satisfied with this though, as I think it doesn't do a good job with the phenomenology -- wrongful complicity attaches to actions, not character alone, intuitively; it may be part of an answer but doesn't seem to handle all cases or all aspects of many cases.

Hi Julia,

I've been ruminating on this question for a few days and I'm still not sure it makes any sense. I'm interested in normative ambivalence cases. To focus the discussion, consider something that I myself have been trying to figure out. (Admittedly not the most pressing moral issue, but it struck me for one reason or another.) At KU, we're asked to fill out special information cards on the progress of student athletes in our courses, usually a couple of times per semester. These reports go to special academic advisors that, presumably, direct special help to the student athletes. I find this deeply troubling, at least for the following reason: to have a special office of academic success for student athletes is deeply unfair, especially to those students who are engaged in no-less-demanding extracurricular activities (drama students, student musicians, students participating in special scientific inquiries, etc.). So were I to participate, I would find myself complicit in this practice, which I think is really skeezy and probably bad all-things-considered.

But here's a further thought: my lack of participation is going to change precisely nothing, is not going to make KU any more fair. Furthermore, participating seems pareto-optimal; after all, I'm benefiting the student-athletes at a cost to no one.

So this seems to be a normative ambivalence case. And I'm tempted, given this reasoning and my general consequentialist sympathies, to think that I morally ought to participate, for the reasoning on display above. You seem OK with this, insofar as the rightness of the action of participating depends on the consequences. But then I worry. If it's really right that participating tells something bad about my character, I would experience---in fact, do experience---substantial normative pressure not to contribute. I would reconsider the rightness of contributing.

I suppose one could react in a number of ways to my intuition. One might react by refusing to so strongly divorce the morality of an act from the quality of the character trait it displays. Alternatively, one could react by downgrading the normativity of one or the other (act or trait). (The act is right, maybe, but you shouldn't really perform it because it would display a bad character; or your character is bad, but this doesn't really tell you anything about how you ought to live, etc., etc.) Or one might just live with the dilemma: to act rightly, you must display a bad character. That's life (something like that).

Not sure how you might react to these cases. (I'm really just thinking with my fingers here.)

Hi Dale, thanks for that -- another interesting case. One thing that I didn't bring up in the original post, because I'm not sure what I think about it yet, is the distinction between complicity and wrongful complicity. It may be that complicity should be viewed like causation in that, really, there's lots of it all over the place. However, in picking out particular acts as complicit we are guided by pragmatic features, and factors such as whether we think the particular act rises to the level of 'wrongful'. Just intuitively, one factor that seems relevant is what steps someone takes to mitigate their involvement, or change the system that they are complicit in. So, in the case you bring up, there may be complicity in involving yourself in the system but it doesn't rise to the level of wrongful complicity for the reasons your cite; further, you can mitigate the complicity by doing things like protesting the system -- complaining about it to the appropriate authorities -- or some other type of protest.

With regard to complicity, failure to stop evil is the same as agreeing to evil. Rubenstein in his excellent book "The Cunning of History" points out that bureaucracies allow people to "morally" distance themselves from the evil they allow to continue through inaction and by "contributing" to the outcome.

Hi Lara, thanks very much for that reference. I'm not sure that I would say they are always the same -- context matters a great deal -- but certainly there are cases like this. It brings up the grim issue of how 'distancing' in general makes people feel less complicit. Bureaucracies will use those methods to suit them.

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