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Gabriel De Marco and Thomas Douglas – Nudge Transparency Is Not Required for Nudge Resistibility

In this post, Gabriel De Marco and Thomas Douglas discuss the article they recently published in Ergo. The full-length version of their article can be found here.

Image of a variety of cakes on display.
“Cakes” (1963) Wayne Thiebaud © National Gallery of Art


Food Placement. In order to encourage healthy eating, cafeteria staff place healthy food options at eye-level, whereas unhealthy options are placed lower down. Diners are more likely to pick healthy foods and less likely to pick unhealthy foods than they would have been had foods instead been distributed randomly.

Interventions like this are often called nudges. Though many agree that it is, at least sometimes, permissible to nudge people, there is a thriving debate about when, exactly, it is so.

In the now-voluminous literature on the ethics of nudging, some authors have suggested that nudging is permissible only when the nudge is easy to resist. But what does it take for a nudge to be easy to resist? Authors rarely give accounts of this, yet they often seem to assume what we call

The Awareness Condition (AC). A nudge is easy to resist only if the agent can easily become aware of it.

We think AC is false. In our paper, we mount a more developed argument for this, but in this blog post we simply advance one counterexample and consider one possible response to it.

Here’s the counterexample:

Giovanni and Liliana: Giovanni, the owner of a company, wants his workers to pay for the more expensive, unhealthy snacks in the company cafeteria, so, without informing his office workers, he instructs the cafeteria staff to place these snacks at eye level. While in line at the cafeteria, Liliana (who is on a diet) sees the unhealthy food, and is a bit tempted by it, partly as a result of the nudge. Recognizing the temptation, she performs a relatively easy self-control exercise: she reminds herself of her plan to eat healthily, and why she has it. She thinks about how following a diet is going to be difficult, and once she starts making exceptions, it’s just going to be easier to make exceptions later on. After this, she decides to take the salad and leave the chocolate pudding behind. Although she was aware that she was tempted to pick the chocolate pudding, she was not aware that she was being nudged, nor did she have the capacity to easily become aware of this, since Giovanni went to great lengths to hide his intentions.

Did Liliana resist the nudge? We think so. We also think that the nudge was easily resistible for her, even though she did not have the capacity to easily become aware of the fact that she was being nudged. If you agree, then we have a straightforward counterexample to AC.

In response, someone might argue that, although Liliana resists something, she does not resist the nudge. Rather, she resists the effects of the nudge: the (increased) motivation to pick the chocolate pudding. Resisting the nudge, rather than its effects, requires that one intends to act contrary to the nudge. But Liliana doesn’t intend to do that. Although she intends to pick the healthy option, to pick the salad, or to not pick the chocolate pudding, she does not intend to act contrary to the nudge.

If resisting a nudge requires that one intend to act contrary to the nudge, then Liliana does not resist the nudge, and the counterexample to AC fails. Yet we do not think that resisting a nudge requires that one intend to act contrary to the nudge. While we grant that a way of resisting a nudge is to do so while intending to act contrary to it, and that resisting it in this way requires awareness of the nudge, we do not think that this is the only way to resist a nudge. Partly, we think this because we find it plausible that Liliana (and agents in other similar cases) do resist the nudge.

But further, we think that, if resisting a nudge requires intending to act contrary to the nudge, this will cast doubt on the thought that nudges ought to be easy to resist. Suppose that there are two reasonable ways of understanding “resisting a nudge.” On one understanding, resistance requires that the agent acts contrary to the nudge and intends to do so. Liliana does not resist the nudge on this understanding. On a second, broader way of understanding resistance, one need not intend to act contrary to the nudge in order to resist it; it is enough simply to act contrary to the nudge. Liliana does resist the nudge in this way.

Now consider two claims:

The strong claim: A nudge is permissible only if it is easy to act contrary to it with the intention of doing so.

The weak claim: A nudge is permissible only if it is easy to act contrary to it.

Are these claims plausible? We think that the weak claim might be, but the strong claim is not.

Consider again Food Placement. This was a case of a nudge just like Giovanni’s nudge, except that the food placement is intended to get more people to pick the healthy food option over the unhealthy one, rather than the reverse. In this version of the case, Giovanni wants to do what is in the best interests of his staff. According to the strong claim, this nudge would be impermissible insofar as his staff cannot easily become aware of the nudge. And this is so even though it would be permissible for Giovanni to put the healthy foods at eye level randomly. Moreover, it would remain so even if all the following are true:

  1. the nudge only very slightly increases the nudgee’s motivation to take the healthy food,
  2. the nudgee acts contrary to this motivation and picks the same unhealthy food she would have picked in the absence of the nudge,
  3. she finds it very easy to act contrary to the nudge in this way,
  4. her acting contrary to the nudge in this way is a reflection of her values or desires, and
  5. her acting contrary to the nudge is the result of normal deliberation which is not significantly influenced by the nudge.

We find it hard to believe that this nudge is impermissible, or even more weakly, that we have a strong or substantial reason against implementing it.

We think, then, that if nudges have to be easily resistible in order to be ethically acceptable, this will be because something like the weak claim holds. On this view, a nudge can meet this requirement if it is easy for the nudgee to resist it in our broader sense, and this is compatible with it being difficult for the nudgee to become aware of the nudge, as in our Giovanni and Liliana case.

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About the authors

Gabriel De Marco is a Research Fellow in Applied Moral Philosophy at the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics. His research focuses on free will, moral responsibility, and the ethics of influence.

Tom Douglas is Professor of Applied Philosophy and Director of Research at the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics. His research focuses especially on the ethics of using medical and neuro-scientific technologies for non-therapeutic purposes, such as cognitive enhancement, crime prevention, and infectious disease control. He is currently leading the project ‘Protecting Minds: The Right to Mental Integrity and the Ethics of Arational Influence‘, funded by the European Research Council.

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Corey Dethier – “Interpreting the Probabilistic Language in IPCC Reports”

A young sibyl (sacred interpreter of the word of god in pagan religions) argues with an old prophet (sacred interpreter of the word of god in monotheistic religions). It looks as if the discussion will go on for a long while.
Detail of “A sibyl and a prophet” (ca. 1495) Andrea Mantegna

In this post, Corey Dethier discusses his article recently published in Ergo. The full-length version of Corey’s article can be found here.

Every few years, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) releases reports on the current status of climate science. These reports are massive reviews of the existing literature by the most qualified experts in the field. As such, IPCC reports are widely taken to represent our best understanding of what the science currently tells us. For this reason, the IPCC’s findings are important, as is their method of presentation.

The IPCC typically qualifies its findings using different scales. In its 2013 report, for example, the IPCC says that the sensitivity of global temperatures to increases in CO2 concentration is “likely in the range 1.5°C to 4.5°C (high confidence), extremely unlikely less than 1°C (high confidence) and very unlikely greater than 6°C (medium confidence)” (IPCC 2013, 81).

You might wonder what exactly these qualifications mean. On what grounds does the IPCC say that something is “likely” as opposed to “very likely”? And why does it assign “high confidence” to some claims and “medium confidence” to others? If you do wonder about this, you are not alone. Even many of the scientists involved in writing the IPCC reports find these qualifications confusing (Janzwood 2020; Mach et al. 2017). My recent paper – “Interpreting the Probabilistic Language in IPCC Reports” – aims to clarify this issue, with particular focus on the IPCC’s appeal to the likelihood scale.

Traditionally, probabilistic language such as “likely” has been interpreted in two ways. On a frequentist interpretation, something is “likely” when it happens with relatively high frequency in similar situations, while it is “very likely” when it happens with a much greater frequency. On a personalist interpretation, something is “likely” when you are more confident that it will happen than not, while something is “very likely” when you are much more confident.

Which of these interpretations better fits the IPCC’s practice? I argue that neither of them does. My main reason is that both interpretations are closely tied to specific methodologies in statistics. The frequentist interpretation is appropriate for “classical” statistical testing, whereas the personalist interpretation is appropriate when “Bayesian” methods are used. The details about the differences between these methods do not matter for our present purposes. My main point is that climate scientists use both kinds of statistics in their research, and since the IPCC’s report reviews all of the relevant literature, the same language is used to summarize results derived from both methods.

If neither of the traditional interpretations works, what should we use instead? My suggestion is the following: we should understand the IPCC’s use of probabilistic terms more like a letter grade (an A or a B or a C, etc.) than as strict probabilistic claims implying a certain probabilistic methodology.

An A in geometry or English suggests that a student is well-versed in the subject according to the standards of the class. If the standards are sufficiently rigorous, we can conclude that the student will probably do well when faced with new problems in the same subject area. But an A in geometry does not mean that the student will correctly solve geometry problems with a given frequency, nor does it specify an appropriate amount of confidence that you should have that they’ll solve a new geometry problem. 

The IPCC’s use of terms such as “likely” is similar. When the IPCC says that a claim is likely, that’s like saying that it got a C in a very hard test. When the IPCC says that sensitivity is “extremely unlikely less than 1°C”, that’s like saying that this claim fails the test entirely. In this analogy, the IPCC’s judgments of confidence reflect the experts’ evaluation of the quality of the class or test: “high confidence” means that the experts think that the test was very good. But even when a claim passes the test with full marks, and the test is judged to be very good, this only gives us a qualitative evaluation. Just as you shouldn’t conclude that an A student will get 90% of problems right in the future, you also shouldn’t conclude that something that the IPCC categorizes as “very likely” will happen at least 90% of the time. The judgment has an important qualitative component, which a purely numerical interpretation would miss.

It would be nice – for economists, for insurance companies, and for philosophers obsessed with precision – if the IPCC could make purely quantitative probabilistic claims. At the end of my paper, I discuss whether the IPCC should strive to do so. I’m on the fence: there are both costs and benefits. Crucially, however, my analysis suggests that this would require the IPCC to go beyond its current remit: in order to present results that allow for a precise quantitative interpretation of its probability claims, the IPCC would have to do more than simply summarize the current state of the research. 

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  • IPCC (2013). Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Thomas F. Stocker, Dahe Qin at al. (Eds.). Cambridge University Press.
  • Janzwood, Scott (2020). “Confident, Likely, or Both? The Implementation of the Uncertainty Language Framework in IPCC Special Reports”. Climatic Change 162, 1655–75.
  • Mach, Katharine J., Michael D. Mastrandrea, at al. (2017). “Unleashing Expert Judgment in Assessment”. Global Environmental Change 44, 1–14.

About the author

Corey Dethier is a postdoctoral fellow at the Minnesota Center for Philosophy of Science. He has published on a variety of topics relating to epistemology, rationality, and scientific method, but his main research focus is on epistemological and methodological issues in climate science, particularly those raised by the use of idealized statistical models to answer questions about climate change.

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Christine Bratu – “How (Not) To Wrong Others with Our Thoughts”

image of two cherubs thinking
Detail of the San Sisto Madonna (c. 1513-1514) Raphael

In this post, Christine Bratu discusses her article recently published in Ergo. The full-length version of Christine’s article can be found here.

Imagine Jim attends a fancy reception and, seeing a person of color standing around in a tuxedo, concludes that they are a waiter (when, in fact, they, too, are a guest). Alternatively, picture Anna who, during a prestigious conference, sees a young woman setting up a laptop at the lectern and concludes that she is part of the organizing team (when, in fact, this woman is the renowned professor who will give the keynote lecture). In many of us, cases like these elicit the fundamental intuition that there is something morally problematic going on.

Some philosophers have used this intuition to argue for the possibility of doxastic wronging (Basu 2018, 2019a, 2019b; Basu and Schroeder 2019; Keller 2018). Cases like these, they argue, show that we have the moral duty not to have bigoted beliefs about each other. On their interpretation, the situations above are morally troublesome because, by believing classic racist and sexist stereotypes, Jim and Anna violate a duty they have towards their fellow party guest and keynote speaker, respectively. According to proponents of doxastic wronging, positing this morally grounded epistemic duty is the best way to explain our intuition, since in the situations depicted neither protagonist acts in a reprehensible way (in fact, neither of them acts at all!) – it’s their racist and sexist beliefs as such that are the problem.

I think this proposal is intriguing. Group-based discrimination is a serious moral and political problem, and the moral duty not to have bigoted beliefs seems perfectly tailored to strike at its root. Nevertheless, in my article I argue that we should reject the existence of such a duty: there is no such thing as doxastic wronging. I argue for this by presenting what I call the liberal challenge.

I start from the assumption that positing any new, morally grounded epistemic duties comes at a price, because it constitutes a curtailment of our freedom of thought. We should only accept such curtailment if we can thereby gain something comparably important. I then point out three strategies that advocates of doxastic wronging could adopt to convince us that we are gaining something comparably important, and I explain why I think that all three of them fail.

First, the advocates of doxastic wronging could claim that positing a duty not to have bigoted beliefs helps us avoid bigoted actions. This strategy fails, I argue, because we are already under the moral obligation not to act in bigoted ways. If the reason for limiting our freedom of thought is merely to decrease the risk of bigoted actions, then placing us under this new obligation is superfluous.

Second, these philosophers could claim that positing a duty not to have bigoted beliefs helps us avoid practical vices that bigoted beliefs manifest such as, for instance, arrogance. This strategy fails, I argue, because – while we might be morally better, i.e. more virtuous, if we avoided vices like arrogance – we are under no moral obligation to do so.

Thirdly, they could claim that positing a duty not to have bigoted beliefs is necessary to avoid the intrinsic harm of being the object of bigoted beliefs. This third strategy starts off more promisingly as it is based on a correct observation. Most of us desire not to be the objects of bigoted beliefs. People who think about us in bigoted ways frustrate this legitimate desire, and so it seems that they thereby harm us. Yet even if we grant that bigoted beliefs harm their targets, we cannot conclude that the resulting harm is important enough to justify restricting our freedom of thought. People frustrate each other’s legitimate desires all the time. We frustrate our parents’ legitimate desire to see us flourish when we let our talents go to waste, and we frustrate our partners’ legitimate desire to continue the relationship when we break up with them. Cases like these show that frustrating someone’s legitimate desire is not sufficient for our behavior to count as morally impermissible. To make this strategy work, proponents of doxastic wronging must, in addition, argue that the desire not to be the objects of bigoted beliefs is so important that its frustration is morally impermissible. However, I contend that they can only do so by appealing to the impermissibility of either bigoted actions or vices that bigoted beliefs manifest. In other words, they can only do by falling back on one of the former two strategies. And since I’ve already shown that such strategies fail, so does this one.

If we reject the duty not to have bigoted beliefs – as I argue we should – what about our initial intuition? What is wrong with Jim’s assumption that a person of color is most likely a waiter rather than a guest , or with Anna’s assumption that a young woman at the conference podium is most likely an organizer rather than the keynote?

It seems to me that the best way to make sense of these cases is to explain them not in terms of doxastic wronging, but rather in terms of doxastic harming. People like Jim and Anna do not violate any obligations they have toward their targets when they think about them in racist or sexist ways. However, they do frustrate their desire not to be the objects of bigoted beliefs, and they thereby harm them. When we reproach people like Jim and Anna for their hurtful thoughts, we are accusing them not of having done something they were morally not allowed to do, but rather of having done something it would have been better not to do (even though they were morally allowed to do it).

The change in perspective I propose does not make light of the morally problematic nature of bigoted beliefs. On the contrary, it ensures that the criticism we level against people who entertain such beliefs hits its mark properly by avoiding moralistic overreach and by making morally grounded demands on what other people believe.

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  • Basu, Rima (2018). “Can Beliefs Wrong?” Philosophical Topics 46 (1): 1–17.
  • Basu, Rima (2019a). “The Wrongs of Racist Beliefs”. Philosophical Studies 176 (9): 2497–515.
  • Basu, Rima (2019b). “What We Epistemically Owe to Each Other”. Philosophical Studies 176 (4): 915–31.
  • Basu, Rima and Mark Schroeder (2019). “Doxastic Wronging”. In Brian Kim and Matthew McGrath (Eds.), Pragmatic Encroachment in Epistemology, 181–205.
  • Keller, Simon (2018). “Belief for Someone Else’s Sake”. Philosophical Topics 46 (1): 19–35.

About the author

Christine Bratu is a professor of philosophy at the University of Göttingen in Germany. She received her PhD in philosophy from the Ludwig-Maximilian University of Munich. Her research interests are in feminist philosophy, moral and political philosophy (especially issues of disrespect and discrimination) and topics at the intersection between ethics and epistemology. 

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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.