Author:McKenna, Michael

How SHOULD WE understand basic desert as a justification for blaming? Many philosophers account for free will by identifying it with the control condition for basic desert-entailing moral responsibility. (1) On such a view, a blameworthy person deserves blame just because of how she acted--for instance, because she knowingly and freely acted morally wrong. Crucially the justification provided by desert is not rooted in any other normative consideration, such as utility or the reasonableness of entering into a contract with others. (2) But what precisely does basic desert come to? And what is it about blame that makes it the thing that a blameworthy person deserves? Moreover, how is any particular instance of blame fitted properly--rather than ill fitted--for a blameworthy person's particular act so that it is the thing that is deserved? As it turns out, there are challenges to understanding basic desert for blame, challenges having nothing to do with skepticism about free will. One challenge concerns whether the only good in harming a person by blaming her is exclusively instrumental. Another challenge concerns traditional worries about retributivist theories of punishment that might threaten deserved blame too. Given these challenges, there may be reason to reject desert-based conceptions of the justification of blame for reasons altogether distinct from any worries about free will. In what follows, by drawing upon my own conversational theory of moral responsibility, I will develop the view that blame is to be justified in terms of basic desert. (3) I have three interrelated aims. One is to account for the fittingness of blame on analogy with the fittingness of a move in an actual conversation between competent linguistic practitioners of the same language. Another is to solve the problem of explicating the desert relation regarding what is deserved by the blameworthy in a way that helps avoid traditional worries about retributive theories of punishment. The third is to defend the controversial thesis that the harm involved in blaming can be good in a way that is not merely instrumental.

In developing this view, I mean to articulate an account of basic desert-entailing moral responsibility that is neutral between freewill realists and freewill skeptics. This should prove useful in helping adjudicate the debate between those realists and skeptics who agree that what is in dispute between them is the freedom required to deserve blame in a basic sense. I will restrict myself just to blameworthiness and blame, leaving aside praiseworthiness and praise, as well as moral responsibility for conduct that is neither praiseworthy nor blameworthy.

I begin with two preliminary qualifications. First, the instances of blame I take to be of interest, and the role basic desert plays in justifying them, have to do with directed blame, wherein those blaming direct their blame toward the blamed person by overt means. (4) In such cases, the blamed person is positioned to recognize the blame and register that those blaming her intend that she receive their blame. Second, I assume that, at least in paradigmatic cases, directed blame harms the person blamed. For this reason, I will assume that one cannot justify the goodness in blaming a person unless one can also justify the harms that attend blame. (5)


    With the preceding clarifications in place, consider basic desert. What is it? Given what has already been stated, we know that it is basic at least in the following negative way: the normative warrant it provides is not supported by any more fundamental normative principles or values. (6) But that is not saying much. What more can be said to give some positive content to our understanding of it? I will restrict my attention to deserved moral blame. I will not concern myself with basic desert in other domains, like the desert for winning a prize or being treated with respect as a person.

    To begin, desert offers a distinctive way of specifying the sense of aptness in a judgment that blame is appropriate. (7) Mere aptness on its own simply reports that some normative warrant exists; it gives no content to the kind of warrant on offer. Desert does so, not by appealing to considerations of utility or principles of fairness, or the elements of a reasonable contract, but by appealing exclusively to a "desert-base" that makes fitting that which is deserved. (8) So understood, desert is a distinctive species of fittingness. As regards deserved blame, the desert-base for a blameworthy act involves only salient features of the agent and her act, features that make the agent blameworthy for it. Suppose, to make things simple, this consists just in an agent knowingly and freely doing morally wrong. Here we have three ingredients contributing to the desert-base: one concerns the agent's state of knowledge, another concerns the agent's relation to the act as a free one, and the third concerns the moral status of the act itself as one that is morally impermissible. These features provide the desert-base for a response that is fitted for the agent's act--in particular, a blaming response.

    The blaming response is meant to fit the act in relation to the features of the desert base in some unique, case-specific manner, one that is especially difficult to specify. (I offer a proposal below.) There is, furthermore, as noted above, a widely shared presumption that blaming is negative in a way that involves exposing the one blamed to the liability of certain harms; it has a characteristic sting or force. Crucially, the blame's being basically deserved exhausts the requisite positive normative warrant for exposing the blameworthy agent to such harms.

    Why write in terms of basic desert exhausting the positive normative warrant for blaming? On a credible version of a basic-desert thesis, the complete normative warrant for actually blaming an agent, one yielding an all-out judgment, also requires the negative condition that there are no competing and overriding normative considerations, like those of overall utility or simple prudence, speaking against blaming. Hence, basic desert only provides pro tanto reasons. So it does not immediately follow that if it is true that a person deserves blame, in the all-out sense the right thing for someone (or other) to do is blame that person.

    To help give further content to judgments of deserved blame, it is useful to consider whether they involve only the right or instead also the good. (9) There is no consensus on this point. Some have in mind an exclusively deontic rendering. For example, as Joel Feinberg put it:

    That a subject deserves X entails that he ought to get X in the pro tanto sense of "ought." (10) On such a view, there is no entailment from its being deserved to its being good that a blameworthy wrongdoer is blamed and thereby harmed. Indeed, in developing his own "desert-based view," Scanlon explicitly denies this:

    The fact that someone has behaved wrongly can make it appropriate to withhold certain attitudes and relationships, and withholding these things may make the person's life worse. But withholding them is justified, in my view, by the fact that they have become inappropriate, not by the fact that withholding them makes the person worse off. Ceasing to hope that things go well for a person can be one element of blame, but as I have emphasized, this does not involve thinking it to be good that things not go well for him. (11) On a strong version of an exclusively deontic desert thesis, blaming one who deserves blame would be construed as a duty or an obligation. On a weak rendering, it would be cast simply as something that is permissible. (12)

    Others favor an axiological thesis that supplies the basis for a deontic judgment. On such a view, the goodness of the harm in blaming provides a justification for, at a minimum, the permissibility of doing so. (13) In advancing such a view, Christopher Bennett writes:

    I shall show the extent to which our participation in the reactive attitudes [ones expressive of blaming] betrays a commitment to retribution, to the thought that it is a non-contingently good thing that those who have done wrong should undergo some form of suffering. (14) Without defending the view, R. Jay Wallace characterizes the thesis of retributivism similarly as

    the view that it is intrinsically good that wrongdoers should suffer harm, and that therefore we have a positive duty to inflict such harms on them. (15) Here, I take Wallace's formulation of retributivism, like Bennett s, to be an instance of an axiological basic-desert thesis.

    In what follows, I will advance a variation on an axiological thesis. A weak version would treat the goodness of blaming as a justification for the mere permissibility of blaming, whereas a strong version would have it as a moral requirement, as for example it is expressed in the preceding quotation from Wallace. (16) A middle ground, which I now endorse, is that the goodness of the harm in blaming provides a practical reason favoring blaming. (17) Favoring practical reasons are of an intermediate strength as between reasons issuing from requirements and the merely weak reason of permissibility. As I understand them, all that is provided by considerations of permissibility is simply that nothing prohibits a certain course of action. Favoring reasons for blaming seem best suited for a thesis about desert. How so? Contending that those positioned to blame have a moral duty to blame is overly demanding to account for our sense of the option of blame in a wide range of cases. But mere permissibility does not capture the force of our reasons to blame. Favoring does. It is plausible, granting the axiological assumption, that if it is in some way good to harm a person by blaming her, the goodness counts as a reason favoring such a course of action, while at the same time not requiring it.

    But why adopt any axiological...

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