The Blame Game

A question occurred to me the other day, and I’ve been thinking about it off and on since then.  I thought it post-able, so here goes.

Why are we more prone to blame people who violate moral norms than people who violate epistemic norms?  Why do people who are lazy or indifferent when it comes to following the norms of will-formation elicit more opprobrium than do people who are lazy or indifferent when it comes to following the norms of belief-formation?  Why are moral norms weightier than epistemic norms, in such a way that their violation would warrant more blame?

To see what I’m getting at, consider the following two cases:

(1)  Smith makes a fortune selling snake oil to the gullible public.  As it happens, though, Smith firmly and sincerely believes in the therapeutic value of snake oil, despite a dearth of supporting evidence and plenty of evidence of its uselessness.  Smith, in short, is a careless epistemic agent, but his ‘heart is in the right place.’

(2)  Jones makes a fortune selling snake oil to the gullible public.  Jones knows full well that snake oil is useless, but he is a very persuasive liar.  Jones, in short, is a careful epistemic agent, but his heart is not in the right place.

I expect everyone (ok, most people) will share my intuition that Jones is a worse person/more blameworthy than Smith.  Since the only difference between Jones and Smith is that Jones violates moral norms whereas Smith violates epistemic norms, it must be, if our intuitions are justified, that violating moral norms is worse/more blameworthy than violating epistemic norms.  But why?

It’s possible that my question is uninteresting–meaning, in a philosophical context, ‘easily answered.’  The intuition that Jones is worse/more blameworthy than Smith is, fully spelled out, the intuition that Jones is a morally worse person than Smith and, from a moral point of view, more blameworthy than Smith.  And the obvious justification for this intuition would appeal to relevant moral differences between the two men–viz., Jones is a deceitful profiteer who preys on the weakness of others, Smith is not.  If we were evaluating Jones and Smith from the epistemic point of view, or from the perspective of epistemic norms, then Smith is worse/more blameworthy than Jones.

In sum, the initial response goes, Jones is worse/more blameworthy qua moral agent, and Smith is worse/more blameworthy qua epistemic agent.

That’s fine, but it doesn’t really get to the heart of my question.  I think there is a question lurking here that is not (as) easily answered–viz., is there a normative perspective from which we can say, with justification, that it is better or worse to be a bad epistemic agent than a bad moral agent?

Now maybe this question is easily answered, and maybe the easy answer is ‘no.’  That is, judgments that P1 is better/worse than P2 are always judgments from some first-order normative perspective (epistemic, moral, prudential, etc.), and there is no higher-order normative perspective from which we can say, with justification, that it is better/worse to do well according to the standards of one perspective rather than another. Let’s call this the Incommensurability Thesis, since there are only 100 or so theses in philosophy that go by this name.  🙂

The Incommensurability Thesis strikes me as troubling, primarily because we do in fact make normative claims that seem to presuppose a higher-order normative perspective.  We say, for example, that people who are lazy and careless with respect to their own interests–the prudentially irrational, say–but conscientious when it comes to the interests of others, are better people than those who are lazy and careless with respect to the interests of others but conscientious when it comes to their own interests.  And we don’t just mean–I don’t think, anyway–that they are better in the trivial sense that they are better from the perspective of compliance with moral norms.  We mean that, other things equalit is better/more important to comply with moral norms than prudential norms.  And we wish to claim that, as in my cases (1) & (2), that, other things equal, it is better/more important to comply with moral norms than epistemic norms, and not just in the trivial sense that it is morally better to comply with moral norms than epistemic norms.

But how could we justify higher-order normative claims like these without begging all the relevant questions?  For example, I’m initially tempted to suggest that compliance with moral norms is particularly bad/blameworthy because non-compliance with moral norms is more likely than non-compliance in other normative realms to harm the interests of others (here I’m interpreting ‘interests’ very broadly to include Kantian conceptions of morality).  But of course the idea that we ought not to harm the interests of others is itself a moral norm, and so the initially tempting response seems to amount to little more than the claim that non-compliance with moral norms is particularly bad/blameworthy because non-compliance with moral norms is particularly bad/blameworthy.  To put this point another way: if I ask you why it is so important to comply with rules that protect the interests of others, it does no good to appeal to the importance of others’ interests.  If I were convinced of the importance of others’ interests, I would’t need to be convinced of the importance of complying with rules which protects the interests of others.

I’m toying with the thought that the special importance we place on compliance with moral norms may, at the end of the day, simply reflect the way in which general compliance with moral norms impacts our own self-interest.  The world is better for us after all when others comply with the rules of morality, and we are, generally speaking, less affected when others display stupidity and/or prudential irrationality (though these kinds of deficiencies, too, can do significant harm to the interests of others in ways that are not always sufficiently appreciated).  But this seems to me like a rather cynical explanation of the importance we place on compliance with moral norms, and an implicit denial of morality’s alleged ‘authority.’  Also, it can’t explain why most normal people experience the normative weight/significance of morality even in cases–indeed, perhaps especially in cases–where the norms of morality and their own self-interest come apart.

{It occurs to me now as I am writing these thoughts down that I’ve unwittingly crept up on a very old question in philosophy–viz., whether it is possible to give a non-moral justification of morality.  Sigh.  Here I was thinking I was on the trail of something fresh.  Anyway, I’ve written too much not to post this.}


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5 Responses to The Blame Game

  1. Carolyn Richardson says:

    From an Aristotelian perspective, as you know, moral and epistemic norms are simply two varieties of norms applicable to human beings just in virtue of their nature. He would make sense of both forms of norm in terms of the behaviour of the (morally and theoretically) virtuous person. I don’t know whether Aristotle would have shared the widespread intuition you describe about Smith and Jones, but, if *not*, then that provides a clue as to the reason for our reaction. And it’s the reason you explore. Only in post-Enlightenment (?) moral thought do we think of being a good person as a matter of how we treat others. Aristotle doesn’t really worry about that (in the Nicomachean Ethics, anyway). And so if the intuition is one that we moderns have and Aristotle doesn’t, then perhaps it does have to do with the fact that non-compliance with moral norms is more likely to harm others. I think you’re right that that’s begging the question, and so it’s not a good reason for us to react as we do. But it might be the correct *explanation* for our reaction. And it would just mean that (perhaps for no good reason) we treat moral norms as more important than epistemic ones. Maybe we shouldn’t have split the normative in two…

  2. David says:

    Thanks for your comment, Carolyn! Yeah, maybe we shouldn’t have split the normative in two, but we’ve done it now, and I suspect there’s no turning back: not all the king’s horses and all the king’s men could put normativity together again. 🙂

    My friend Burkay made an interesting suggestion on Facebook, which is close to the ‘agency’ justification I tried out on you earlier–viz., we judge non-compliance with epistemic norms less harshly because compliance is relatively difficult. What do you think of that proposal?

  3. Josh says:

    Does it matter that we’d generally attribute a failure to follow epistemic norms to a lack of intelligence, meaning that there was something inherent in the person who failed to follow them that made them less blameworthy in general. Hence the general intuition in favor of laws that protect the mentally handicapped.

    In fact, isn’t the existence of different sentencing guidelines for people with severely low IQ’s, as compared with those whose IQ’s are considered in the “normal range” a parallel instance of this intuition?

    And if it is – this may be because of an asymmetry between the two types of norms involved here, or a dependence relationship. One requires sufficient access to epistemic norms to be able to be considered morally blameworthy, but not vice versa. There is not a generally felt intuition about people who are extremely epistemic-norm-complaint but extremely moral-norm-non-compliant as somehow lacking in a power they have no control over. We wouldn’t say “he’s really good when it comes to knowing things, but he can’t help it when it comes to morality” but we *would* say “he’s really not that smart, but his heart is in the right place” (as your example does).

    We tend to assume that if one is good at knowing things, they are ipso facto capable of making moral decisions, or we feel more comfortable blaming them for bad ones. This may be because that’s true at a deeper level – you can only be so morally responsible if you are epistemologically challenged (i.e., unintelligent).

  4. David says:

    That’s interesting, Josh–so the idea is that we judge violations of moral norms more harshly than violations of epistemic norms because we assume people are responsible for (or in control of) the former to a degree that they are not responsible for (or in control of) the latter. I wonder about cases, though, where a person seems to violate epistemic norms out of a kind of intellectual laziness or indifference to the truth, and not because they are just, say, kind of dim. My guess is that in cases like these we still wouldn’t judge violations as harshly as we would behavior that expresses indifference towards the interests of others.

  5. Josh says:

    I’m curious – where are you getting this notion of “epistemic norms” from? Is there such a thing as a norm which requires that people not be intellectually lazy? I know we sometimes criticize others for being intellectually lazy, but I don’t know if this is nearly a universal intuition. It seems like a lot of those intuitions can be resolved into moral intuitions actually. I only generally really get mad at an intellectually lazy person if that laziness ends up leading them to take actions I believe they shouldn’t have (granted, that happens most of the time, but if it’s really just an issue of them not wanting to know, I’m not sure if that’s really an issue I take offense with.

    For example – I do find global-warming skeptics, especially woefully ill-informed ones, quite frustrating. But it’s usually because of what they use that skepticism to justify (oil-drilling, Hummer driving, whatever). If they were an intellectually lazy global warming skeptic who also walked or rode the train to work, recycled, etc. I’m not sure I would be as frustrated. It’s just rare to encounter people who fall short in terms of epistemic norms but then don’t *also* fall short morally.

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