Unwitting Wrongdoing: The Case of Moral Ignorance
Should we blame and praise people for actions which they are ignorant of performing or which they take to be morally neutral? There are two competing theories for the moral assessment of ignorant agents. Capacitarianism focuses on whether an agent could have to have done something to not be ignorant but instead acquire moral knowledge. Valuationism determines an ignorant agent’s blameworthiness by looking at their values. Someone is blameworthy if they act within their values and still commit the harmful act. My paper makes three points. First, I examine how thought experiments revolving around moral issues are either written in support of, or as counterexamples to, the two theories of moral responsibilities. The description of these thought experiments causes the reader to lean in favor of what the theorist is trying to argue. In other words, these thought experiments function as intuition pumps. Second, reflection on the thought experiments used in support of the two theories of moral responsibility reveals that these theories, rather than being rivals, are two sides of the same coin.
In this paper, I presuppose ignorance is a lack of knowledge. Knowledge I take to be a composite state that consists at the very least of three necessary conditions: truth, belief, and justification. This view, which can be traced back to Plato’s Theaetetus, claims that what distinguishes knowledge from mere true belief and lucky guessing is that it is based on some form of justification, evidence, or supporting reasons. The truth condition of the justified-true-belief analysis of knowledge states that if you know that p, the p is true. The truth condition need not be known; it merely must be obtained. The belief condition claims that knowing that p implies believing that p. Finally, the justification condition demands that a known proposition is evidentially supported. he justification condition prevents lucky guesses from counting as knowledge when the guesser is sufficiently confident to believe their own guess.
Given that ignorance is the lack of knowledge and given that knowledge has at least three necessary conditions, there are many different sources of ignorance: lack of belief, lack of truth, and lack of justification. There are numerous psychological factors that can give rise to each of these three conditions. Among these psychological factors are forgetting, cognitive biases, miseducation, or lack of exposure.
I presuppose this ignorance to be lacking knowledge. There is not only one type of ignorance, rather, there are two main classes of such: factual ignorance, and moral ignorance (Rosen, 64).
There are various sources of ignorance from where factual and moral ignorance arise. When someone does not know, forgets, is lacking exposure to, is miseducated, does not retain, or misunderstands a given fact that cannot be disputed under any circumstance, they can become either factually or morally ignorant. These sources can be relieved with conscious effort, or by external involvement (Rosen, 302). Ultimately it is up to the agent to recognize errors that result from their ignorance. A debate surrounding the exculpating factors of moral or factual ignorance is important to understand. It is generally thought that immoral actions can only be exculpated by factual ignorance, but not moral ignorance.
Factual ignorance hinges around objects of descriptive facts. I will be using an example of slavery in ancient slave-times to illustrate this concept. Let’s suppose someone lives next door to someone who has slaves but also does not know they are living next door to slaves. This would be a situation of factual ignorance because the neighbor does not know the fact that there are slaves living next door (Rosen, 72). It could be because they are unobservant, or because the slaveholder does a good job of keeping the slaves quiet; there is also the chance that the neighbor doesn’t care, is distracted by their own life, or denies their worry of believing that there are slaves. The slaveholder hiding slaves is an objective/descriptive fact that cannot be disputed. Even if they deny it, the slaveholder would still have slaves, and the descriptive fact would not change.
On the other hand, moral ignorance arises when someone is ignorant of a moral fact. Moral facts are normative, and they prescribe courses of actions that are true simpliciter (Rosen, 64). If the neighbor to the slaveholder knows that they are living next door to slaves, but does not know the slaveholder is harming them, this wouldbe moral ignorance. It is morally impermissible for the slaveholder to have and harm slaves. The neighbor should know the slaveholder is acting immorally by keeping and harming the slaves. Moral ignorance does not stop at the fact that the neighbor does not know it is morally wrong to harm people, but they may also not know they should do something about the harm. This ignorance of harm can be defined as, not knowing that an action may cause pain (harm) when one should know it does so. They also ought to know that, without good reason, harming people should be avoided at all costs because it is morally impermissible (Biebel, 302).
Should the neighbor be exculpated because of factual or moral ignorance? If the neighbor does not know that having and harming slaves is morally impermissible, this could not be factually exculpated. This is a case of moral ignorance. The neighbor would be morally exculpated for their ignorance in this scenario because they are unaware that having and harming slaves is impermissible by moral standards (Rosen, 66). There is no opportunity for the neighbor to be factually ignorant.
What prompts this type of ignorance? Perhaps the neighbor does not care that the slaves are being harmed, is distracted by other events, or is afraid of the repercussions that will incur because of speaking out against the moral injustice. The most important aspect of moral ignorance is to remember that it is prescriptive, and not descriptive. The argument of moral ignorance and blame revolves around what should or shouldn’t be done because of lacking knowledge. This is largely in part to the distinction between factual and moral ignorance. Factual ignorance may sometimes exculpate an immoral action, but it is ultimately moral ignorance that will exculpate an individual (Sliwa, 6).
I. Capacitarian and Valuationist Assessments of Moral Responsibility:
There are now several theories that concern moral ignorance: volitionist, attributivist, capacitarian, valuational, parity, and pragmatic. While all differ from one another in how they attribute blame to cases of moral ignorance, capacitarian, parity/pragmatic, and volitionism share a disposition of blame that focuses on someone’s capacity of knowledge (Biebel). Valuationalism and attributivism respond to blameworthy actions as being dependent on the personal volition of the agent. I’d like to classify these two categories as capacitarian and valuational. I will occasionally refer to specific points that individual theories make, but with the example of the slaveholder, I will continue the conversation with the two main theories.
The capacitarian theories revolve around the counterfactual capacity that an individual has when deciding which action to take in a morally relevant situation that could’ve been prevented. They look at situations where someone is blameworthy. They want to know if it was in the agent’s capacity to correct or avoid being ignorant, and if this would have prevented them from performing the immoral action. Capacitarians consider people responsible for their actions if they are responsible for their capacity of behavior. People who lack the capacity for knowing what is morally permissible, say children, or people who are mentally incapable of retaining information relevant to moral standards, are not culpable for their immoral actions. They can be corrected, and may learn afterwards, but they are not blameworthy. They lack the ability to retain vital moral considerations.
Capacitarians do not skip over the fact that people’s ignorance may be the reason they are acting immorally. If someone believes from their ignorance that what they did was the most rational and correct method of handling a situation of moral relevance, then they may be exculpated. However, this justification is only one part of the knowledge needed to have an accurate and knowledgeable conclusion. How a morally significant situation should be handled depends on someone’s capacity to know whether they had the opportunity to do something differently. This difference in choice may have changed someone’s ignorance into knowledge and prevented the immoral action. When someone is not aware why they are ignorant, they are also unaware of how they can resolve their lack of knowledge. This is the way capacitarian’s view moral ignorance to be exculpable, and encapsulates much of capacitarians’ concern. How can someone be blamed for not knowing a moral standard if they have never been socially conditioned or taught what the moral standard is? When I go over the varying vignettes that hone in on how the capacitarian theory can be utilized I will be able to further demonstrate the degrees of internal and external factors that influence moral ignorance, conveying how someone might come into the position to remedy their ignorance but lack the awareness or determination to do so.
Arguing against the capacitarian theory is the valuationist theory. Valuationism responds to capacitarianism with a specific criticism. Capacitariansim uses immoral ignoramus as a clear reason to excuse someone from an immoral action, but valuationists believe that the capacitarian theory is too easily applied to every case of immorality. They do not think it is wise to exculpate someone who has forgotten or is unknowledgeable about morality. Valuationism approaches the topic of blame and exculpation surrounding immoral actions by looking at omission and forgetfulness. The theory considers omission and forgetfulness to lead to potentially harmful instances of ignorance. Harmful ignorance is when someone consistently shows blameworthy immoral actions. Valuationists trace the value systems and the past actions of agents to see what led them astray towards immoral actions. They look at recidivism rates, as well as values and virtues.
Valuationalism investigates how people are held accountable for their actions and believe someone is only deserving of moral praise if they have reason to act morally. Moral responsibility is the condition of whether someone is praiseworthy, blameworthy, or excused from the former two because of their involvement in a moral act. Someone could also fail to act or omit an action. This is potentially why someone deserves a moral reward or punishment. Valuationists agree that psychological states may affect someone’s behavior to act accordingly during a moral situation. They see this as one component in the person’s link to act or neglect to act. Therefore, valuationists think it can only serve as a partial excuse for someone and is not a strong enough argument to exculpate them from a morally relevant situation. Psychological states in a valuationist framework does not make someone incapable of moral knowledge, nor does someone’s emotional attachment serve as a reason for someone to act immorally. Whether someone cares about an action does not render them more or less blameworthy. It may affect how much or little they will react, but it should not affect their moral assessment. Therefore, valuationalist’s believe that most people are, more often than not, blameworthy for their moral ignorance. If they have not responded in a morally kind manner to a situation, it’s because their values align with preconceived notions of their background. These preconceived notions are often the fundamental reasons for why someone acts immorally. Capacitarians avoid looking at an agent’s value system because they want to know if the immoral act could have been avoided, and if the agent could have prevented themselves from being ignorant in the first place.
When we look at somebody's capacity to act, we are tracing their past actions and whether or not they had the ability to change their moral knowledge. Capacitarians rely on a history of someone’s actions. The values that arise from somebody's capacity to act are decided through the person's past actions from the moment they are born. Capacitarians look at past actions carefully because the culmination of them sets up the targeted subject that a valuationist uses to counter their argument. Values are deeply seated through someone’s past actions. The more they are reinforced through choice of action and external influences, the more established they become. The deeply seated beliefs that someone has grown into values are important for evaluating the response a person has to a morally loaded situation. We saw examples of this in the altered versions of the vignettes. Without the added context, a reader wouldn’t have been able to tell what the characters valued, nor what their guiding principles were.
When we manifest actions as guiding principles, we are acting from a result of our values. These have been established by our capacities to act in the past. The values we are focusing on in this paper are intrinsic. For example, valuing education leads to being more productive in helping your children with their schoolwork and helping them improve when they need it. Valuing health means you likely eat a balanced diet and exercise regularly. These specific examples of intrinsic values provide a foundation for readers to rest on when making their own evaluative judgments. These intrinsic values lead to other good things, like, your children getting into a good school, and you living a life with bountiful opportunities because of your health. The Valuationist Theory focuses on such intrinsic values, and are meant for the valuationist to rationally conclude whether the characters in the vignettes are blameworthy or not. Values directly shape what people do and say. Their actions are subsets of behavior, and their behavior is a combination of capacities for potential action and values. Action is intentional behavior. Guiding principles of values will manifest as actions. The way we act is a subset of our values and that action is intentional. Each subset, whether planned or an unconscious reaction, is a value in disguise.Our actions are mostly intentional and based on our values, but sometimes they can be accidents due to forgetting. They may also be from a lack of capacity to change behaviors in the past and potentially due to a lack of values.
II. Perspectives on the Assessment of Moral Responsibility with Respect to Capacitarian and Valuationist Approaches:
In this next section, I will review various vignettes that scholars have introduced into the conversation of moral ignorance, discussing how our theory of moral responsibility will change depending on how the stories are described. I will be using a vignette from Alexander A. Guerrero’s 2007 article, “Don’t Know, Don’t Kill: Moral Ignorance, Culpability, and Caution”, which discusses the moral ramifications of poisoning someone with cyanide. I will also incorporate a recent, original vignette about the moral culpability of leaving a dog in a hot car. Both cases convey how the same set of events may be narrated in a way that supports the C or the V theory. . The support from these different theories is not derived from the event themselves but in how their contexts are described. Omitting and highlighting certain features will change which theory best explains whether someone should be blamed or praised. It is impossible to give a complete account of these theories in these vignettes, but we will be careful in fully describing each theory and embellishing. This will show which theory best explains each vignette. Both what could have happened and what is described will show whether one is morally blameworthy in the capacitarian sense. If a vignette lends itself to the capacitarian theory, it will focus on possible actions that could have changed depending on the capacity of the protagonist’s acknowledgement to do something differently. If the vignette falls towards the valuationist perspective, it is because of the protagonist’s present character traits and values.
A. Case One: Guerrero’s Poison
Let’s consider the case of Anne, who poisons Bill by spooning cyanide into his coffee. Anne believes she is spooning sugar, and she is blameless for her false belief. Is Anne blameless for poisoning Bill? Rosen concludes that an action done from ignorance is not a locus of original responsibility. This means Anne is only responsible for poisoning Bill if she is responsible for her ignorance about the fact that she is poisoning Bill.
Guerrero has constructed a vignette that partially supports a theory where ignorance can be morally exculpated. What happens when details of the character’s capacities and values are introduced? I’m going to reintroduce Guerrero’s story with these details added to demonstrate the effectiveness of manipulating the story so the capacitarian or the valuationist theory provides a better explanation and justification of our natural inclination to blame the protagonist.
B. Case Two: Guerrero’s Poison (modified)
Let’s consider again the case of Anne, a single mother who is Bill’s girlfriend. Bill regularly comes over in the morning to share a cup of coffee because he has been dating Anne for a few months. After a long night of helping her children prepare for an important exam, Anne believes she is spooning sugar into Bill’s morning coffee and is unaware that she is poisoning him with cyanide. Anne does not know that last night after she went to bed exhausted from tutoring her children, she had a sleepwalking incident where she mistakenly poured out the sugar in the sugar dish and replaced it with cyanide. Afterwards, Anne went back to bed and did not remember what she did in the middle of the night. That morning while Anne was spooning poison into Bill’s coffee, he innocently read the morning news on his phone and did not give the sugar a second thought.
Was it in Anne’s capacity to make sure she was spooning sugar and not cyanide into Bill’s coffee? If Anne does not regularly sleepwalk then we cannot expect it to be within her capacity to know that she ought to check the sugar dish just in case she had tampered with it the previous night. What about Anne’s values? We know that Anne values relationships and caring for others, as well as education. This is why she stayed up to help her children prepare for an exam, and also why she regularly invites her boyfriend over for coffee. Here Anne is not blameworthy for her ignorance, nor has she acted within a set of immoral values that would prompt her to poison Bill. This has never happened before to Anne. Anne has never sleepwalked a day in her life and has a consistent record of showing Bill hospitality and care. Under a valuationist’s account of moral blame, Anne would not be considered blameworthy because her actions do not align with her values, and after the incident, she continued to grieve and disapprove of her ignorance. She did not intend to cause suffering, nor does she value suffering. Anne unfortunately is the cause of Bill's death because she had a momentary lapse in her sleep routine which caused her to act involuntarily on account of ignorance.
In this case, Anne would not be blameworthy by capacitarian standards, nor by valuationist standards. Anne is not originally responsible for poisoning Bill, and she would be considered morally exculpated. Based on what the story tells us about Anne’s character traits and values, one can see that she did not act with malicious intent. It was an honest mistake, and a serious accident. Even though Anne has never sleepwalked before, would it be reasonable to expect her to check her sugar before she gives it to Bill? I think it would be considered unreasonable for anyone to expect Anne to check her sugar because Anne does not have a past history of swapping out her sugar with other substances. If it were the case that Anne has sleepwalked before, and she has a past history of replacing her sugar with other substances, like salt, powder bleach, or baby powder, then it would be reasonable to expect her to check. If Anne had a history of swapping substances, then her negligence to check on the sugar dish would be an involuntary act in ignorance. In this vignette, how a capacitarian and a valuationist consider someone to be morally blameworthy or exculpated is revealed through the protagonist’s capacity and character traits. This example shows us that the capacity of memory to prevent a potentially harmfully ignorant situation is a mitigating factor in someone’s judgment of immoral behavior. Anne did not willfully act immorally and is not blameworthy for her involuntary action done out of ignorance (Alvarez & Littlejohn, 8). Both theories attribute a small degree of responsibility to the harm Anne has done, but not enough to judge her as being willfully ignorant nor morally culpable. Capacitarian and valuationist theories agree with each other in how they assess this vignette due to Anne’s isolated incident.
Let us take another vignette to compare capacitarian and valuationist theories. In this next scenario we have the unfortunate event of a dog dying after being left in a hot car unattended for some time.
C. Case Three: Hot Dog
Imagine Mrs. Crawford is out running errands with her medium sized cocker-spaniel in the back seat. The dog is in good health, well-groomed and fed, and Mrs. Crawford sees to it that he is well taken care of. Today of all days Mrs. Crawford pulls into a parking lot with no shade to block out the sun from her car. There is no breeze, and it is ridiculously hot outside. Instead of bringing her dog into the store with her, Mrs. Crawford decides to leave her dog in the car with the windows rolled up. She reasons that the air-conditioner was on during the drive to the store, so the car is not muggy or hot. She also reasons that she will not be in the store for a long time because she has a list of things she wants to purchase. At this point in her decision, Mrs. Crawford locks the car and leaves for the store.
Suppose Mrs. Crawford is making good time in the store. She is almost done picking out everything on her list and is careful not to get sidetracked. However, Mrs. Bailey sees Mrs. Crawford in the aisle over and makes her way to talk to her about some important matters. Mrs. Crawford is delighted to see and talk to Mrs. Bailey, and easily becomes swept up in her conversation. She remembers her dog is in the car but does not remember how hot it is outside because the store is well air-conditioned, aiding to Mrs. Crawford’s choice to talk to Mrs. Bailey for longer than expected.
Now the dog is still outside in the hot car, and because it is not properly ventilated or shaded, the car quickly becomes extremely hot inside. The dog is soon unable to withstand the heat and becomes sick and passes out in the back seat before Mrs. Crawford returns from the store. Mrs. Crawford is mortified. She had no idea that leaving her dog unattended for as long as she did would result in its sickness. She quickly takes her dog to the vet.
Here we have a vignette that sets up Mrs. Crawford to be morally exculpated by her ignorance if we are not considering her values or capacity to have made changes in favor of the dog’s life. We are now going to see another representation of this vignette with both capacity and values of Mrs. Crawford included. Within this next vignette, I will provide more background information that will show how someone's capacity can prevent ignorance from occurring or may cause someone's ignorance to flourish. I will also be including Mrs. Crawford's values, which will show whether-or-not by the valuation as to perspective that Mrs. Crawford is in fact acting in line with her values.
D. Case Four: Hot Dog (modified)
Imagine Mrs. Crawford is a steady workaholic. Mrs. Crawford decides to skip her dog’s walk and bring them to the store with her. She is alert, and well aware that bringing her dog with her might be a hinderance, but she does it anyway. Today of all days Mrs. Crawford pulls into a parking lot with no shade to block out the sun from her car. There is no breeze, and it is ridiculously hot outside.
Instead of bringing her dog into the store with her, Mrs. Crawford decides to leave her dog in the car with the windows rolled up. She thinks she is doing the right thing by leaving her dog behind in the car and reasons that the air-conditioner was on during the drive to the store, so the car is not muggy or hot. At this point in her decision Mrs. Crawford locks the car and leaves for the store, confident that her decision was the right one.
Suppose Mrs. Crawford is making good time in the store. She is almost done picking out everything on her list and is careful not to get sidetracked. However, Mrs. Bailey sees Mrs. Crawford in the aisle over and makes her way to talk to her about some important matters. Mrs. Crawford suddenly forgets about her need to complete her shopping trip in a timely manner. She forgets her dog is in the car, nor does she remember how hot it is outside because the store is well air-conditioned.
Now Mrs. Crawford’s dog is still outside in the hot car, and because it is not properly ventilated or shaded the car quickly becomes extremely hot inside. The dog is soon unable to withstand the heat and becomes sick and passes out in the back seat before Mrs. Crawford returns from the store. When she returns, Mrs. Crawford is mortified. She had no idea that she had been talking to Mrs. Bailey for so long. She did not even think about her dog, or the possibility that leaving her dog unattended for as long as she did would result in its death. She quickly takes her dog to the vet.
What can we understand about this scenario that is different from the original? With this new perspective, we can see that Mrs. Crawford was completely forgetful in the care of her dog. While she is a workaholic with a one-track mindset, her decision to bring her dog along seems out of the ordinary and not in line with her normal character traits. We can tell by this story that Mrs. Crawford values social relationships, which is why she stopped to talk to Mrs. Bailey, independence, which is why she went out to the store in the first place, and the well-being of others, hence her decision to leave her dog in the car. Did Mrs. Crawford have the capacity to change her course and make sure she took measures that would secure the safety of her dog? I believe so. She was not tired; she was not overcome with thoughts of work that would normally cause her to forget other obligations. She was distracted, but by something that she had the capacity to say no to.
Here I would like to point out that Mrs. Crawford was in her right mind and within the right capacity to know that talking to Mrs. Bailey would disrupt her schedule of running errands. This change of schedule had the potential to possibly upset or cause extreme distress to her dog that she left in her car. Mrs. Crawford ought to have known that the dog in the car was the most precedent of her concerns. She knows that by moral standards her dog has moral worth and is a moral responsibility that she has tasked herself with. Mrs. Crawford is someone that knows the difference between morality and immorality, and she is fully aware that her dog has a right to life.
By placing her own dog within harm's way, Mrs. Crawford showed not only ignorance of fact but moral ignorance as well. Since she did not know that she was possibly harming her dog by talking to Mrs. Bailey and staying within the store for an extra length of time. Mrs. Crawford would be considered morally blameworthy. She knew that her dog was in the car. Even though she may not have known that by leaving them in the car she was potentially endangering her animal, this shows moral ignorance because she did not consider her dog’s life to be worthy enough to take extended measures that would have ensured survival. From the capacitarian theory she is considered blameworthy, but considered innocent from the valuationist perspective.
III. Capacitarianism and Valuationism are Two-Sides of the Same Coin:
Before we start to cut deeper into each of the theories independently, I would like to point out that these vignettes show us how different theories about moral ignorance are more accurate attributions of blame, depending on how the story is told. The way an author prescribes a vignette will directly affect the way a reader chooses to apply a theory. The author’s choice to write objectively or subjectively will also affect whether a reader will approach the ignorant action with a mind of blame or exculpation. This mode of thinking is something we see in moral realism. There are two positions in moral realism that we might be able to categorize the capacitarian and valuationsist theories under. First, normative realism posits that ethical sentences describe positions that are grounded in objective features. Some of the objective features may only be true in that they report the descriptions accurately, such as “killing someone is bad”. These descriptions do not contain subjective opinions, which aids in their accuracy and helps to establish moral truths. Second, the version of metaethical realism that can be used to look at these theories states that, in principle, it is possible to know about the facts of actions that are right and wrong, and about which things are good and bad (Copp, 2007). This position depends on the subjective opinions of others to determine these aforementioned facts. Metaethical realism takes a more common-sense approach to ask questions like “should we reasonably expect someone to check the sugar dish before serving sugar?”
The reason why we need to keep moral realism in mind while assessing capacitarianism and valuationism is because it directly affects our assessment of them. We can see that assessments about moral responsibility are sensitive to additions and omissions of information regarding capacities and values of the agents. With the incorporation of certain details about an agent’s past actions and value systems, a reader can be swayed to agree or disagree with certain theories of moral assessment. Certain details require someone to be objective or subjective in their interpretation of the events (Baumann, 2019). This can greatly affect how a story is understood by various readers. However the story is told, whether narrow or elaborate, the rationale behind omitting and adding detail will always have a direct effect on the reader’s intuition of the story. Depending on how the vignette is written, the reader can be manipulated to believe that certain events will result in one theory being more conclusive than another. What this shows us is that the philosophers who wrote the vignettes wrote them in a way to prove the point of their own theories. These vignettes function as intuition pumps. Anything the philosopher wants to say activates a reader’s intuitive approach to assessing a situation.
While the capacitarian and valuationist theorists may focus on different characteristics of someone’s motivation, their approaches to assessments of moral responsibility are similar. Both look at the contexts in which the act was performed; however, they differ in which part of the context they think to be relevant in their assessments. Capacitarians consider the most relevant point of context of behavior and compare it to be the behavior leading up to the harmful act. The capacity of the agent is also dependent on their knowledge of their wrongdoing. Capacitarians ask whether or not agents could’ve done something differently in the past to prevent their immoral act from taking place. If they engage in a harmful immoral act, then it is a result of their ignorance. Whether to attribute blame to the agent who acted out of ignorance would depend on their capacity to know that there was some way they could have prevented themselves from doing so. If they did not have the capacity to know they were acting immorally, or that they could’ve prevented themselves from acting as such, then they would not be considered blameworthy. Thus, an agent acting out of ignorance without the capacity to know they are doing so would be morally exculpated.
Valuationists choose not to look at the behaviors preceding the events and instead examine the value system of the agent. They do this because they think the value system of a person should be considered the relevant context of the moral assessment of an act (Arpaly, 2004). The community of moral theorists has situated these two theories in contexts of past actions or value systems. Up until this point, we have discussed these two theories independently, however, I would like to show how they are closely related.
If a vignette focuses on the capacity or the value system of a person, then readers will be persuaded to agree with the theory that provides a better explanation of moral judgements concerning actions. For instance, the more detailed the information regarding the context of the agent, the easier it will be for us to apply a theory that best suits the framework. The information needs to highlight either the agent’s value system or the agent’s past actions. If the information in the vignette does not include any context for the reader, then it is natural for them to assume and fill it in themselves.
The various assumptions that arise from different readers’ perspectives have the ability to lead to a deep disagreement about the moral assessments of actions. An under-described thought experiment gives you inconclusive information to fill in gaps that a narrow story leaves out. Without enough information, a reader must add their own information. When a reader substitutes the information missing in the vignette, it can pull people into a deep disagreement about the moral assessment of the agent. This makes it easy for a reader to feed into their own thoughts. A reader is then foolish for reading into the story what they hope to get out of it. This creates circular reasoning on the reader’s part. In all cases, different people will have different assumptions while reading the under-described thought experiment, which will inevitably lead to problems applying certain theories to each one. Unfortunately, there is no way to halt varying interpretations because it is unreasonable to expect anyone to be able to provide every possible angle that a situation can have. In other words, there is no way for the author to close the room for interpretation entirely.
If a deep disagreement arises, then this must be a result of an author’s manipulation of the vignette. For a deep disagreement to form, the vignettes would need to have an unclear description of an agent’s past actions and capacity or an unclear description of their value system because this would pin the capacitarian and the valuationist standpoints against each other. When the contexts of the past actions and value systems are clear and detailed in a vignette, it is unlikely that a deep disagreement will occur. Rather than finding a clash of theories, the verdicts would be expected to converge due to their connection.
Throughout this paper I have been providing a route to view the literature of moral assessment to show how the valuationist and the capacitarian approaches are in competition with each other. However, I think this view wrongly pins the two theories against each other. The values that a person has will manifest itself in their actions, likewise, their actions are guided by their values, whether consciously or unconsciously. When we lay out this connection, we can see how someone’s past actions and value system are actually connected. With that said, I think it would be in our best interest not to play the two against each other, and instead show they are dependent on one another. This holistic/detached perspective demonstrates how these two theories are two sides of the same coin.
The more a vignette spells out a history, the more we get a sense of the value system of the person involved. Any value system shapes how people perceive information and influences their decisions. This means it also influences their intuitions and builds peoples’ overall foundations for actions. How a person has acted up to the point of the scenario usually tells us the story of the person's value system. Here we get a better sense of how they would act in future situations based on how they have acted prior. If a vignette is written in detail, spelling out a person’s capacities, values, or both, then the competing theories proposed by valuationists and capacitarians will likely converge. However, if it's sparse with little to no information, then the two rival theories may clash. They will seemingly work against each other because the readers are left to fill in the details. Without an established history or value system described, readers do not have anything prescribing their thoughts. Clashing is due to the under-description of the vignette and not used to interpret theories. I think this is where a lot of the deep disagreement stems. In this conversation about the moral assessment of blame, we have two theories that are seemingly different but work in tandem. They have a great opportunity to change the way that we, as philosophers, attribute blame, especially since wishful thinking does not give moral valence. If readers can speculate the history and the potential for a person based on their capacity to potentially act out their value systems, then they will not need to speculate on what the author meant. After all, it is not the job of a reader to fill in the blanks, it is up to the author/philosopher to explain a thought experiment in full to establish their theory (Baumann, 2019).
Any description that influences a perspective is an important factor, but we need to decide whether someone is or is not morally culpable in a particular situation. To do this, it is necessary to know all the past relevant information. Swapping things around, omitting necessary information, and changing the context to fit someone else’s narrative of events is not an effective way to correctively assess the morality of an agent, nor is it conducive to figuring out whether they are morally exculpable. Withholding information is one way to prevent knowledge, and if we are concerned with knowing whether someone has performed an immoral action, then the truth is of utmost importance (Baumann, 2019). This is the way things become known.
When looking back at the argument between the valuationist and capacitarian, knowledge of the subject’s past is necessary for determining if someone should be considered morally blameworthy. For determining both a person’s capacities and values in the present, it is vital to investigate their past. A person’s past determines their values just as much as it determines their capacities. A person’s past values can be written off due to their present capacities; likewise, a person’s past capacities can be written off because of their present values. The present moment is a culmination of all the previous values an agent has upheld. Valuationists point out how a person’s values are a result of what they did or didn’t do in the past. These values are determined on the agent’s capacity to understand and act on those values. Similarly, capacitarians see capacities as manifestations of value systems. The key to finding out someone’s capacities and values is buried in their past.
What is the difference between these two theories if they both require knowledge of the person’s past behavior? Are they distinct theories that have similar foundations, or are they two sides to the same theoretical coin? Since both theories require the past to determine their present conditions, it’s possible that proposing these two ideas as distinctly different theories does not hold up to scrutiny. This is because values are conditions that people think should be upheld and reinforced, while capacities are behaviors of what people are capable of doing. Values are conditions that people strive for, give people numerous filters for actions, and are considered valuable in the social world. Once someone has a set of values, their subsequent actions are determined. When capacitarians look at capacities of individuals, they are looking at what actions would have been expected to perform given their capabilities. These actions are expected to be performed because of individual values.
This is where we see the two theories speaking a similar language. If we need to know as much information about an individual’s past to form a coherent judgment of blame, then it’s possible these two theories are derived from the same theoretical foundation grounded in the past. The past is important to these two theories as a person’s past actions are suggestive of their values, and the person’s past values are suggestive of what actions someone can do based on their capacities. At this point, to look further into this topic I think it is indispensable to ask, how do we know what someone’s past values or capacities are, and how can we tell if they have led to present conditions?
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