Manipulation arguments and the moral standing to blame.

Author:King, Matt

IN A PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT (PSA) that regularly ran on television when I was growing up, a father confronts his teenage son about a box of drugs recently found in the boy's room. He grows increasingly angry in response to his son's denials and presses him on where he learned to do drugs. As the tension escalates, the boy finally shouts, "You, alright? I learned it by watching you." The lesson, as the narrator explained, was that parents who use drugs have children who use drugs.

While the main purpose of the ad was no doubt to dissuade drug use, it is also an illustration of what looks like problematic blaming. The father is clearly blaming the son for the latter's drug use, despite his own similar behavior, and the son is exasperated at being called out over behavior the father routinely engages in.

A number of philosophers have recently written on the moral standing to blame. (1) Specifically, the thought is that there are cases in which A is unable to legitimately blame B despite B being blameworthy. Assuming that the child's drug use is itself blameworthy, the PSA illustrates such a case. The father's own drug use may undermine his standing to blame his son, and yet this need not affect the son's underlying blameworthiness.

There are different ways to interpret the phenomena regarding the standing to blame. Some seem to treat the moral standing to blame quite strongly, in a way that mirrors the legal standing to bring suit. In the civil law, not everyone may bring suit against another. Even if it is clear that the defendant has acted wrongfully, typically only the one wronged can actually bring suit. Other challenges will not be recognized. Thus, having legal standing is an enabling condition on the ability to bring suit; without it, one simply fails to engage in that legal action.

If the moral standing to blame were like legal standing in this way, then the father would be unable to blame the son. Though he might be angry or shout at the boy (as indeed he is and does), none of this could count as proper blame. I am inclined to think this it too strong an interpretation. Surely, the father is blaming the son here.

This observation, however, does not doom the discussion. For on a weaker interpretation, the standing to blame refers only to being able to blame another legitimately. Standing, in this case, is not an enabling condition on the very possibility of blame, but rather it enables one to blame with license or justification. In the case of the father's hypocritical blame, his hypocrisy does not prevent his successful blaming; rather, it renders his blame morally problematic.

Most discussions of the standing to blame tend to focus on blamers who themselves are blameworthy. This is unfortunate, for there is much to learn about the standing to blame once we consider a broader range of cases in which the blamers either are not blameworthy at all, or where their blameworthiness is not central to what is problematic about their blame. If I am correct, then challenged standing is more expansive than perhaps previously surmised, and accounts that purport to explain the standing to blame will have to consider these cases as well. Since many of the extant accounts have privileged the fact that the blamers are themselves morally culpable, it is likely such accounts will require revision.

One such account has put the standing to blame to novel purposes. Patrick Todd has advanced an argument for incompatibilism that ostensibly depends on considerations involving the standing to blame. I believe this argument fails. But its failure is instructive, for it allows us to appreciate the numerous ways in which one's blame can be morally problematic, and thus in which one's standing to blame can be challenged. Thus, while one objective of this paper is to show why Todd's argument fails, the larger aim is to use that argument to frame my discussion of some important ways in which the standing to blame can be compromised.

  1. Manipulation and Moral Standing

    In "Manipulation and Moral Standing," Patrick Todd purports to give us a new argument for incompatibilism (18). (2) His argument draws upon a popular recent strategy for showing responsibility to be incompatible with determinism. One gives an initial case in which some agent determines that another agent acts in a particular way. But the manipulation here is indirect: The manipulator manipulates the background conditions and circumstances, or the agent's constitution from birth, or some other set of features, to ensure that the action is performed, usually some considerable time after the initial manipulation. Todd approvingly cites such a case from Al Mele:

    Diana creates a zygote Z in Mary. She combines Z's atoms as she does because she wants a certain event E to occur thirty years later. From her knowledge of the state of the universe just prior to her creating Z and the laws of nature of her deterministic universe, she deduces that a zygote with precisely Z's constitution located in Mary will develop into an ideally self-controlled agent [call him Ernie] who, in thirty years, will judge, on the basis of rational deliberation, that it is best to A and will A on the basis of that judgment, thereby bringing about E (Mele 2006: 188).

    If moral responsibility is compatible with causal determinism, then it should also be compatible with "the thesis that a given agent designed the world at some past time precisely so as to make it causally inevitable that one performs the particular bad actions one performs" (2). In short, the truth of compatibilism should imply that responsibility is compatible with "the thesis that all of our actions, down to the finest details, are the inevitable outcomes of the designs of some further agent 'behind the scenes'" (2). (3) But, so the thought goes, Ernie is not responsible for acting if his action is just part of some complicated machinations set into motion by another agent. Since compatibilism implies a false claim, compatibilism is false. In response, compatibilists have, on the whole, mounted defenses against these so-called manipulation arguments. (4)

    For the most part, debate over these kinds of cases has centered on whether or not Ernie (i.e., the manipulated agent) is in fact blameworthy for so acting. (5) One common way to suggest that he is not is by way of arguing that it would be inappropriate of us to blame Ernie. But Todd's approach is different. He asks us to consider a new case of manipulation by design and ask whether the manipulator would be able to legitimately blame the manipulated. In Todd's version of the case, he imagines a world governed by theological determinism, where "God ... designs the stage, writes the script, and puts the play into motion--and it is causally impossible that the play depart in the slightest detail from the script [God] wrote for it" (4). Every event in the universe follows the plan, including human actions. One of these actions is Ernie's wrongdoing (e.g., the murdering of someone for selfish ends). According to Todd, "it is . deeply counterintuitive to suppose that God may blame the characters in his deterministic play," for "[h]ow could it be appropriate for God to blame us for (so to speak) perfectly performing the roles he assigned to us" (5)?

    The question here is naturally interpreted as one of standing. God's standing to blame Ernie is compromised in some way. Todd thinks that this fact, if it is a fact, is best explained by the truth of incompatibilism. It is because Ernie lacks free will under theological determinism that explains why God cannot blame him. He represents his argument thusly (5):

    (1) On theological determinism, God cannot blame us for the wrong actions we perform, even if we meet all compatibilist conditions for being morally responsible with respect to performing them.

    (2) The best explanation for the truth of (1) is incompatibilism.


    (3) Incompatibilism is true. (6)

    Todd thinks compatibilists will be inclined to agree with (1). But they cannot accept (3). Thus, the burden falls to the compatibilist to deny (2).

    I do not think the argument succeeds. While I think it an open question whether (1) is true, I do think (2) is false. The best explanation of whatever is true about (1) is not that Ernie lacks free will, but rather has to do with God's role as the designer/manipulator. Indeed, we should expect this to be the case. After all, were Todd correct, whatever is odd about God's blaming Ernie would apply to everyone. If B is not blameworthy, then not only would A's blame be problematic, but so would blame from C, D and F. But this is not so. God's blame of Ernie seems peculiar and problematic in a special way, and this plausibly should be explained by features specific to God. A natural starting place for such an explanation is God's role as scripter of the universe.

    In the next two sections, I argue that there are significant moral reasons against God blaming Ernie, resulting from God's role as designer/manipulator. I think these reasons provide a better explanation of why God cannot fairly blame Ernie for his wrongdoing. And as they draw on quite general observations about the standing to blame, none of them requires incompatibilism being true.

  2. The Strains of Involvement

    My plan going forward is to suggest ways in which God's involvement in the design of the universe makes God's blame of Ernie morally problematic. To preview, my suggestion in this section will be that, in the described scenario, under theological determinism, God is implicated in Ernie's wrongdoing. Thus, there are moral reasons of a particular kind that make God's blame of Ernie unfair. So long as such moral reasons are consistent with the truth of compatibilism, this would offer an alternative explanation of the truth of (1).

    Todd thinks no such alternative explanation can be given. In his view, no appeal to diminished standing will adequately apply to God. He considers it a plausible line of thought that...

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