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John Fischer

Thanks again to Derk for such a great start to this series.

About the justification of blame/punishment, why do we in philosophy look for a single principle or idea? Why not think that (say) punishment is justified by a set of principles, forward-looking and backward-looking? For instance, and this is rough, punishment might be thought to be justified as giving a person what she deserves based on her (problematic) behavior so as (in part) to morally educate that individual and persons in general. The relevant kind of "moral education" might be specified in different ways, such as improvement in the capacities for reasons-responsiveness (ala Vargas), or in the forward-looking ways envisaged by Sher and Pereboom et. al.

Just a few thoughts about doing away with the retributive element: how are the people who lost everything to Bernie Madoff supposed to react? No anger? That's asking a lot, and it is just unreasonable. Also: how about those who lost loved ones in the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers (or pentagon or...) Are they supposed to "chill," as Sister Prejean allegedly does, eschewing (or, more likely, suppressing) anger and other retributive emotions?

Finally, when many of the relatives of the vicitims of Dylan Roof's murderous rampage in Charleston forgave him almost immediately, I couldn't help but think that either the professions of forgiveness are aspirational but not necessarily "accurate in reality," or the individuals are not respecting themselves. It is just not human not to have anger and/or other retributive emotions, and to express them, in a context like this.

Thomas Nadelhoffer

For starters, I wanted to respond very quickly to John. I think it seems unnatural to us partly for cultural reasons. For instance, I can imagine there are *lots* of Buddhist monks who respond to being wronged *very* differently than we respond. I don't view their response as "not human," nor do I view it as problematically detached. I don't even think that they need be suppressing anything (which is something meditative practices often insist you don’t do). So, I find their responses admirable and even more civilized. For all that, I am not sure that I could acquire that kind of exalted equanimity even if I dedicate my life to it—which brings me to one of the issues I wanted to raise in response to Derk’s interesting talk.

Derk mentioned the Humean notion of malleability (and durability—a related issue). In supporting his own revisionist view, Derk discussed various cross-cultural differences. But the difficulty is deeper than that. There are at least three (related) variables: (a) different environments (that can be more or less suitable for different personality traits, beliefs, and behaviors), (b) different cultures (that value different personality traits, beliefs, and behaviors), and (c) individual differences in personality traits and other dispositions within a particular environment and/or culture. So, when we are talking about the malleability of certain traits, it won’t do just to focus on whether we find these traits (or not) in some cultures rather than others or in some environments rather than others. There will be individual differences that also play critical role. Moreover, different environments and cultures will select for some individual differences more (or less) than others.

For instance, if we look at American society, we are more vengeful than our European or Asian counterparts. But even so, some Americans are fiercely vengeful and others are almost supernaturally forgiving. The fact that some people are capable of the latter doesn’t mean there is any malleability when it comes to the former (and here we are limiting ourselves to a single culture). Some people are simply much angrier (or more peaceful) than others. This is only partly a function of environment or culture. Innate dispositions play a role as well. But this means that we probably shouldn’t spend much time worrying about whether people per se are malleable or whether a belief per se is durable. We’ve got to be more fine-grained that this in our analysis. Just because a Buddhist monk in East Asia can exemplify equanimity doesn’t mean that I can. There is only so much plasticity at the individual level where these things are concerned.

This has actually been one of the most difficult and frustrating features of my own journey exploring the debate about free will and responsibility. I genuinely don’t think we are free and I don’t think basic desert makes sense. As such, I think that lots of our reactive attitudes are unjustified. Yet, for all that, my responses to harm and injustice are deeply retributive (if not vengeful). Pointing out that others who hold the same beliefs as I do about free will and responsibility don’t have the same attachment to the negative reactive attitudes isn’t helpful. The same would be true if someone were to point to an entire culture where no one is attached to the reactive attitudes. I have been easily agitated and angry since I was a young child. Other children don’t exhibit these traits. This human, all too human, individual difference will make some beliefs more or less durable to one person than to another, even in the same environment and culture.

John Fischer

Galen Strawson also adverts to Buddhist Monks in his reply to his father's views about resentment and indignation. Good point, but I don't know how much weight to give it, since these are very rarified, and presumably rare as well, communities (or individuals). For me it is like invoking time-travel to make a philosophical point; it is interesting, but often I don't know quite what to make of it (sorry friends and former students!).

Your point about the gap between your theoretical approach and the reality of your emotional ecosystem reminds me of Peter Singer. He had always argued for a kind of impartiality, and utilitarianism, according to which it is wrong to spend extra time and expend extra resources on someone just because of a special relationship, at least in certain circumstances. He then reported that he changed his mind when his mother got sick...

Your post is, as always, thoughtful and honest, which I greatly appreciate. How many of us can confront what our theorizing suggests is our "dark side"?

Thomas Nadelhoffer


Thanks for your kind words! I just wanted to clarify the point I meant to make with the Buddhist monks. I wasn't suggesting that because they are capable of great equanimity, we are all capable of such equanimity. Indeed, I think that is false. It was to highlight important culture differences. Someone growing up in a Buddhist culture is far more likely to be capable of stilling the flames of anger than someone growing up in the American south. It is possible for many of them in a way that it may not be possible for many of us. That was the first point.

The other point had to do with your viewing the kind of forgiveness in question as somehow morally problematic in itself--as excessive in a morally suspicious way. Here I just meant to suggest that viewing it that way is, at least in part, a cultural artifact. While burning oneself alive in political protest may seem conceivable to others but not us, burning someone else alive for a serious harm caused by them may be conceivable to us but not to others. The limits of moral permissibility and appropriateness are culturally bound. So, while I understand the outrage of (some of) the victims of Dylan Roof--especially as someone who lives in Charleston--I also appreciate that others might find the moral outrage as problematic. This highlights the problem with appeals to malleability, durability, and the like.

p.s. Thanks for kicking off the discussion. I hope others join us.

Neal Tognazzini

Thanks to Derk for going first, and thanks to Thomas for organizing this whole thing. I'm looking forward to future discussions.

I've got two thoughts to share here, though I know that Derk is under no obligation to respond or even read the thread, so no worries if these thoughts just float off into cyberspace.

First, one of Derk's main arguments here is that a "unified" forward-looking view is preferable to a "two-tier" forward-looking view because in cases where angry blame is likely to backfire (i.e., likely to lead to the target of the blame digging in their heels and/or increasing their tendency to perform the type of action for which they are being blamed), the blamers won't be insulated from the forward-looking considerations that ultimately justify their blame, and thus will be less likely to do things to trigger the backfire effect.

That seems compelling, though I'm wondering whether *angry blame* is really the culprit when it comes to the backfire effect. Derk is willing to allow for the justifiability of blame understood as confrontational protest, where the blamer is genuinely attempting to get the target of their blame to see certain moral reasons. But isn't this sort of non-desert-presupposing blame as likely to backfire? I suppose this is at least partly an empirical issue, but I'm curious about whether desert-presupposing angry blame really manifests that much differently in our interpersonal relationships than non-desert-presupposing confrontational protest.

Second, and relatedly: the more I hear about what forms non-desert-presupposing blame can take, the more I wonder whether I ever blame anyone in the desert-presupposing sense. I realize that's not a question, but that thought does leave me a bit puzzled about what's really at stake in the debate between compatibilists and skeptics.

Derk Pereboom

I agree with John on a non-unitary account of blame and of the treatment of offenders. In the latter case, I argue that the self-defense right and consequentialist deterrence each have a role (and I set out my case for this in Ch. 4 of Wrongdoing and the Moral Emotions). On the naturalness of attitudes that feature desert, Thomas is right that this varies across cultures and across individuals. But even if they are natural for many of us, it may still be that we ought not to justify action and policy on its basis. At the same time, due to its naturalness, if people are victims of injustice, it often isn’t right to criticize people for having these attitudes, or to criticize them for being motivated to act on their basis if so acting has another justification that’s in the clear (I also argue for this view in the new book).

Neal, on the backfire effect, it’s real, but we don’t have a clear and comprehensive picture of its causes. Anger sometimes causes it, and sometimes doesn’t, and it can be caused by non-angry interventions. In a study I mentioned, Fieke Harink and Gerben A. Van Kleef (“Be Hard on the Interests and Soft on the Values: Conflict Issue Moderates the Effects of Anger in Negotiations,” British Journal of Social Psychology 51 (2012): 741–52) contend that while at least in the short-term anger is effective in conflicts about interests, it’s not effective in conflicts about values, and this is because in conflicts closely tied to a person’s values, norms, and identity, expressions of anger occasion the backfire effect, that is, an outcome in which value beliefs and actions targeted for revision are strengthened and not weakened by the interaction. (I discuss this material in “Undivided Forward–Looking Moral Responsibility,” The Monist, 2021.) But non-angry interventions can also cause the backfire effect. In "Going Public in an Era of Social Media: Tweets, Corrections, and Public Opinion," Dino Christenson, Sarah Kreps, and Doug Kriner saw a backfire effect resulting from non-angry attempts to modify political beliefs. The point I want to stress is that because interventions of various sorts can result in a backfire effect, sometimes very pronounced, it’s important to keep this in mind when one intervenes, so as to try to avoid subverting the forward-looking aims of the practice of holding morally responsible.

John Fischer

Here is a link to an interesting interview with my colleague, Myisha Cherry, which has just appeared in The New Yorker:

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