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Eyal Tal and Hannah Tierney – “Cruel Intentions and Evil Deeds”

Pop-art depiction of a man and woman riding away in a car with evil intentions
“In the Car” (1963) © Roy Lichtenstein

In this post, Hannah Tierney and Eyal Tal discuss the article they recently published in Ergo. The full-length version of their article can be found here.

Doing the right thing can be difficult. Doing the morally worthy thing can be even harder.

Accounts of moral worth aim to determine the kinds of motivations that elevate merely right actions—actions that happen to conform to the correct normative theory—to morally worthy actions—actions that merit praise or credit.

Some argue that an agent performs a morally worthy action if and only if they do it because the action is morally right (Herman 1981; Jeske 1998; Sliwa 2016; Johnson King 2020). Others argue that a morally worthy action is that which an agent performs because of features that make the action right (Arpaly 2003; Arpaly & Schroeder 2014; Markovits 2010).

What sets these views apart is the kind of motivation each takes to be essential for an action’s moral worth.

When an agent is motivated to do the right thing because of the action’s moral rightness, she has a higher-order motivation to perform this action. When an agent is motivated to do the right thing because of a particular right-making feature of the action, she has a first-order motivation to perform this action. Higher-order theorists (Sliwa 2016; Johnson King 2020) argue that higher-order motivations are necessary and sufficient for moral worth, while first-order motivations are largely irrelevant. In contrast, first-order theorists (Arpaly 2003; Markovits 2010) argue that first-order motivations are necessary and sufficient for moral worth, while higher-order motivations are irrelevant.

In an important sense, higher-order and first-order views of moral worth are diametrically opposed. The motivations that one camp argues are necessary and sufficient for moral worth are the very motivations that the other camp argues are irrelevant.

Nevertheless, proponents of these opposing views share something important. With the exception of Arpaly (2003) and Arpaly & Schroeder (2014), they theorize about the nature of moral worth by focusing mainly on the moral worth of, and praiseworthiness or creditworthiness for, right actions.

Yet each of these properties has a negatively valenced counterpart that attaches to wrong actions. Just as agents can deserve praise or credit for doing the right thing, they can deserve blame or discredit for doing the wrong thing. While the former actions have moral worth, the latter actions have what we will call moral counterworth.

In our paper, we explore the moral counterworth of wrong actions in order to shed new light on the nature of moral worth. Contrary to theorists in both camps, we argue that more than one kind of motivation can affect the moral worth of actions. 

Compare the following cases: 

Selfish Gossip: Cecile learns of a good friend’s embarrassing secret. She knows that it would be wrong to reveal it, and she does not wish to do wrong. While at a party, an opportunity to be the centre of attention arises. Wanting to be popular, Cecile succumbs to temptation and reveals her friend’s secret. 
Cruel Gossip: Sebastian learns of a good friend’s embarrassing secret. He knows that it would be wrong to reveal it, and he does not wish to do wrong. While at a party, an opportunity arises to humiliate his friend by revealing the secret. Wanting to embarrass his friend, Sebastian succumbs to temptation and reveals his friend’s secret.

Though both Cecile and Sebastian are blameworthy for revealing their friend’s secret, they are not equally blameworthy. Sebastian is (much) more blameworthy than Cecile and his action possesses more counterworth than Cecile’s action.

What could explain this difference? The only difference between Cecile and Sebastian lies in their first-order motivations. Cecile’s motivation to reveal her friend’s secret is selfish—she cares more about being popular than her friend’s privacy. But Sebastian’s motivation to tell the secret is cruel—he desires to harm his friend by embarrassing them.

Sebastian’s cruel first-order motivation renders him more blameworthy than Cecile. If this is right, then first-order motivations are not irrelevant to moral counterworth—they can directly contribute to the degree to which an agent is blameworthy. 

Reflecting on cases of wrong actions indicates that higher-order motivations can impact moral counterworth as well.

Compare the case of Selfish Gossip, in which Cecile reveals a friend’s secret in order to be the centre of attention despite having the higher-order motivation not to perform wrong actions, to the following case:

Evil Gossip: Isabelle learns of a good friend’s embarrassing secret. She knows that it would be wrong to reveal it, and she wishes to do wrong. While at a party, an opportunity to be the centre of attention arises. Wanting to both be popular and do wrong, Isabelle reveals her friend’s secret.

While both Cecile and Isabelle are blameworthy for their actions, Isabelle is (much) more blameworthy. The relevant difference between Cecile and Isabelle lies in their higher-order motivations.

Cecile possesses a higher-order motivation not to reveal her friend’s secret—she knows that doing so is wrong and does not want to do the wrong thing. In contrast, Isabelle possesses a higher-order motivation to reveal the secret—she wants to reveal the secret because doing so is wrong. 

We submit that Isabelle’s motivation to do wrong renders her more blameworthy than Cecile. And if we are right that Isabelle’s motivation to do wrong enhances the degree to which she is blameworthy for doing wrong, then higher-order motivations are not irrelevant to moral counterworth. 

From here, we defend the following argument: 

(1)	First-order and higher-order motivations can each affect moral counterworth.
(2)	Moral counterworth and moral worth are relevantly similar, such that the kinds of motivations that affect the former can also affect the latter.
(3)	First-order motivations and higher-order motivations can each affect the moral worth of an agent’s action.

In our paper, we defend each premise from potential objections and conclude by explaining how reflection on moral counterworth serves to support recently developed accounts of moral worth that make room for the relevance of both higher-order and first-order motivations. (Isserow 2019, 2020; Portmore 2022; Singh 2020)

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  • Arpaly, N. (2003). Unprincipled Virtue: An Inquiry into Moral Agency. Oxford University Press. 
  • Arpaly, N. & Schroeder, T. (2014). In Praise of Desire. Oxford University Press. 
  • Herman, B. (1981). “On the Value of Acting from the Motive of Duty.” Philosophical Review 66: 359–382.
  • Isserow, J. (2019). “Moral Worth and Doing the Right Thing by Accident.” Australasian Journal of Philosophy 97: 251–264.
  • Isserow, J. (2020). “Moral Worth: Having it Both Ways.” The Journal of Philosophy 117(10): 529–556. 
  • Jeske, D. (1998). “A Defense of Acting from Duty.” The Journal of Value Inquiry 32(1): 61–74.
  • Johnson King, Z. (2020). “Accidentally Doing the Right Thing.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 1: 186–206.
  • Markovits, J. (2010). “Acting for the Right Reasons.” The Philosophical Review 119 (2): 201–242. 
  • Portmore, D. (2022) “Moral Worth and our Ultimate Moral Concerns.” Oxford Studies in Normative Ethics, volume 12. 
  • Singh, K. (2020). “Moral Worth, Credit, and Non-Accidentality.”  Oxford Studies in Normative Ethics, volume 10. 
  • Sliwa, P. (2016). “Moral Worth and Moral Knowledge.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 93(2): 393–418. 

About the authors

Eyal Tal received his PhD in philosophy from University of Arizona. He is interested in epistemology, ethics, metaethics, metaphysics, philosophy of psychiatry, and philosophy of science.

Hannah Tierney is Assistant Professor in the philosophy department at the University of California, Davis. She specializes in ethics and metaphysics, and she writes mainly on issues of free will, moral responsibility, and personal identity.

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Alycia LaGuardia-LoBianco – “Trauma and Compassionate Blame”

Allegoric fresco representing the sufferings of weak mankind, the well-armed strong, compassion and ambition in their quest for happiness.
Detail from the Beethoven Frieze “The Sufferings of Weak Mankind, the Well-Armed Strong, Compassion and Ambition” (1902) Gustav Klimt

In this post, Alycia LaGuardia-LoBianco discusses the article she recently published in Ergo. The full-length version of Alycia’s article can be found here.

When someone we love hurts us, our responses are influenced by our relationship with her: our hurt is tinged with love, care, expectations, a shared history, among other things. These responses may be further complicated if, in addition, that person’s harmful behavior has been shaped by a traumatic past. Having experienced a traumatic event may partly shape the way a person behaves. For instance, a veteran may lash out at her family; a victim of abuse may repeat that abuse on his family. Though this is of course not true for all survivors of trauma, there can be ways that past trauma shapes present behavior. And as a result of recognizing that a loved one’s harmful behavior may be caused by their past trauma, we may think that we shouldn’t blame them for the hurt they caused. After all, shouldn’t the trauma they’ve suffered exempt them from blame? 

I argue that the recognition of traumatic histories should have an impact on how we blame loved ones—but not by making blame inappropriate. Rather, these histories should motivate us to take a broader view of that person’s wrongdoing in the context of their traumatic past. It should motivate what I call ‘compassionate blame’: an attitude that considers the person as both someone who has caused harm and someone who has suffered harm. This attitude recognizes the unfortunate reality that someone has been unfairly shaped to commit harms, so that blame for that harm is bound up with compassion for the person who suffered. 

Should we blame those with a traumatic past for their harmful behavior?

When considering traumatic influences on harmful behavior, an intuitive view holds that survivors ought not be blamed for what they’ve done: traumatic histories exempt them from blame. Why might this be the case?

First, we might think that it is inappropriate to blame survivors because they have suffered from the trauma they’ve experienced. To heap blame upon a survivor may seem cruel or callous; they have already endured enough. This reason for exempting survivors is a version of a concern against blaming the victim, and it is admirably merciful.

However, the fact that one has suffered does not bear on whether they are blameworthy for their behavior, even when that suffering is relevantly connected to the subsequent harm committed. The consideration of avoiding a further burden on survivors may have an impact on how we express our blame, but it does not actually change whether survivors are blameworthy. So, the fact that survivors have suffered cannot be an exempting condition for blame.

Second, we might think that survivors ought not be blamed because they did not control the traumatic circumstances they endured. If the conditions that partly shaped a person’s behaviors are outside their control, we may be reluctant to blame them for those behaviors. After all, it seems an intuitive aspect of moral responsibility that we are only responsible for actions over which we have some relevant control. 

Although we should recognize that we are all vulnerable to good and bad luck, we should nonetheless be hesitant to forego responsibility because of it. Our choices and actions are built out of conditions of our past which are not entirely of our choosing. That we are sometimes responsible for conditions over which we had no control—including the ways our characters have been partly shaped by forces beyond us—is a widespread feature of our lives, and it does not normally undermine responsibility.

Similarly, genuine relationships seem to require a basic expectation of responsibility even among the vicissitudes of luck. Exempting a survivor’s behavior because of their past may result in treating them merely as the product of their trauma, and this would seem to hinder a genuine relationship with them. Moreover, exemption from blame risks undermining the seriousness of the wrong at issue.

Behind these objections is a broad concern about proper regard for survivors. We don’t want to patronizingly reduce survivors to their trauma, or to avoid blaming them in a way that is unfair to their victims, even though we do want to remain sensitive to their past suffering. Our relationship is with the person, not with their past, so we should, first, acknowledge that survivors are responsible for what they have done wrong, and then also ask how the reality of their trauma should impact our response. 

Cultivating an attitude of compassionate blame

It may be tempting to conclude from the foregoing arguments that, because trauma does not exempt, survivors should be straightforwardly blamed. Against this, I suggest that the reality of trauma should impact our blaming practices: we should be sensitive to the trauma endured and the harm committed in an attitude of compassionate blame.

Compassion is an emotion in which “the perception of the other’s negative condition evokes sorrow or suffering in the one who feels the emotion” (Snow 1991: 196) along with a set of beliefs about the other’s suffering (Snow 1991: 198). Blame adds an emotional valence to our beliefs regarding the connection between the survivor’s traumatic circumstances and their harmful behavior. Though they may seem to pull us in different directions, the feelings of compassion and blame are perfectly compatible, and we have complex emotional experiences of this sort all the time.

Compassionate blame allows us to recognize the seriousness of the harms at issue, treat the survivor as a responsible person, and appropriately acknowledge their suffering. It enables us to respond appropriately to a difficult situation in which those who have been hurt hurt others, and to do so in a way that attends to the complex moral features of these relationships.

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  • Snow, N. E. (1991). Compassion. American Philosophical Quarterly, 28(3), 195–205. 

About the author

photo of the author

Alycia LaGuardia-LoBianco is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Grand Valley State University, where she teaches and researches in feminist philosophy, ethics, moral psychology, and the philosophy of psychiatry. She is especially curious about how experiences of oppression, trauma, and mental illness shape personal identity and responsibility.