Guilty: Regardless of Whether You Knew It Was Wrong

At the heart of morality lies the responsibility a person has to commit or omit a particular action, which is usually defined as either right or wrong, respectively. If the person elects the right action then the action tends to be morally praiseworthy. Conversely, if the person elects the wrong action then the action tends to be morally blameworthy, and the person responsible could be subject to some form of punishment. But is it possible for an individual to both commit a wrongful act and not also be responsible for the commission of the act, and if so, under what circumstances is this possible?  For example, if all actions are determined by causes and essentially denies the existence of free-will, is the person still morally culpable for her actions? Or if the moral parameters of a particular culture are such that an immoral act is not conceived as such, does that excuse a person of his moral responsibility? Michele M. Moody-Adams considers the complications of moral responsibility across both space and time and draws the conclusion that neither absolves moral culpability[1] I believe that in regard to particular events there can be extenuating circumstances, which may potentially absolve a person of moral responsibility. However, in the absence of these extenuating circumstances, there are some things that a person can and should be held morally responsible for, regardless of whether they knew it was right or wrong at the time.

There can be no responsibility, if there is no power of choice to choose an alternative action. In other words, if a person cannot choose to do otherwise, then they cannot be held responsible for the only thing that they could have done. Moral responsibility presupposes free-will, and free-will presupposes the capability of choice. Yet, free-will is more complicated than the actual act of choice, because although a woman may will something to be, that does not mean she is capable of making it come to be. For example, she may will that she not get into a car-accident, and may even make the active choice to drive cautiously so as not to get into an accident, but beyond her will and her choice she is still involved in a collision. This however, does not absolve her free-will, because she definitely willed there not to be a collision. What is important and at the heart of the existential question, is does she have the capability of choice or is her action constrained by causes? If the former is true, then she may be morally responsible the collision, but if the latter is true, then she cannot be morally responsible for the collision.

In the discussion of determinism and free-will, as P.F Strawson[2] accurately notes in the article Freedom and Resentment, lies a metaphysical problem, i.e., whether free-will does in fact exist. On the one hand, he conceives of “optimists” as being those who believe determinism is at least not false. On the other hand, he conceives of “skeptics” as being those who believe that if determinism is true, then people cannot be held morally responsible. Strawson suggests that an optimist will promote the “efficacy of the practices of punishment,” while a skeptic will argue; “just punishment and moral condemnation imply moral guilt and guilt implies moral responsibility and moral responsibility implies freedom and freedom implies the falsity of determinism.”[3] However, what we have here are a series of implications, and arguments, but nothing definitive about the existence of free-will. The distinction that Strawson will draw is that we as people feel differently depending both upon the relationship we share with other human beings and the intentions behind the actions that affect us; or what he calls “reactive attitudes”.[4] In other words, what Strawson argues is that people hold others morally responsible for their intentions, given that they are capable of forming intentions, not their actions specifically.

Thus far the discussion has been focused on the capability of choice, but it cannot go without note that there may be constraints upon that capability which supersede the metaphysical argument. As was just shown, there are definitely differences of opinion about the existence of determinism, and it is obvious that in a line of stacked dominoes that one domino does not have a choice to push the next after the process has begun, but it is not altogether clear whether people are bound by the same constraints because of the emotional capacities we possess. Thus, without a definitive resolution to the metaphysical problem, and for the sake of argument, it will be supposed that both determinism and free-will coexist. Furthermore, it is clear that if a person is pushed by a sufficiently strong force that the person will be physically moved, but it is not clear that the person’s response to being moved is determined. For example, if the force that moves a man is another man, it is fully reasonable to suppose that the man who is the object of the push may respond with either, contempt or approval depending upon the situation and the circumstances. A major component of how that situation and those circumstances are interpreted has much to do with the socialization that the man who is the object of the push receives, and this is heavily dependent upon the culture in which the man is part of.

Moral responsibility is not an easy question to answer because it either, may presuppose that there are moral facts that universally apply across both space and time, or it may presuppose some form of moral relativism. Regarding the former assertion, not only does this present a conflict within one culture between the different moral theories of right and wrong, but it also encounters the further complication of potentially praising or blaming people for what they may not been capable of distinguishing the moral value of. In regard to the latter assertion, the issue with moral relativism is that it then becomes nearly impossible to hold any person accountable for their actions because morality becomes relative to the individual and either, all actions can be conceived of as wrong, or no actions can be conceived of as wrong. It all depends upon the individual and their own personal conception of right and wrong, which all but drains morality of its objective and non-personal components. Now it could be the case that the reason people believe there is entailed with morality and objective reality is because of the shared moral relativistic values, but that is not the general intuition regarding morality. There are some things, like murder, which is the unjustified killing of another person, that people intuitively feel to be wrong regardless of whether it happens to their person, someone their share a special relationship with, or a stranger with whom no special bonds exists. Therefore, for the sake of this argument, moral relativism can be rejected, which leaves us with moral facts.

This however, does not absolve us of problems, because we now have to determine whether moral facts can be applied across both space and time, and for this we will return to Moody-Adams’ argument in Culture, Responsibility, and Affected Ignorance. In the beginning of her argument, it is suggested that there is “a crucial connection between culture and agency,”[5] which means that the capability of choice is dependent on culture. The argument tracks what Moody-Adams calls “moral ignorance” and she argues that cultural limitations can be the cause of this ignorance.[6] This moral ignorance may either take place within one’s own culture, which may have an inability to critically analyze its own practices, or between cultures there may be a bar to understanding each other’s practices. Moody-Adams rejects that either of these conditions absolves a person of responsibility, regardless of space and time.

The first major point that Moody-Adams makes to support the claim that moral responsibility applies across both space and time is the rejection of what she termed the “inability thesis”.[7] The thesis suggests that a person’s culture can potentially render them “unable to know that certain actions are wrong” because it inhibits the ability of the person to critically analyze their culture and practices.[8] In rejecting the inability thesis, Moody-Adams asserts that it is not so much that their culture has imposed upon them a “blindness” of sorts, but rather, that the actor is unwilling to consider the wrongfulness of their practices.[9] In other words, regardless of the person’s culture, they are capable of the choice to consider the rightness or wrongness of an action. Now, this would seem to be a leap in logic, or at least a presumption, except that the assertion is based on the concept of the transmission of culture. The relevant characteristics of culture to this argument are the “normative expectations about emotion, thought, and action,” that become social and legal rules, and are supported by the “nonlegal sources” of the group or society.[10] This support tends to come from those who desire to “protect the life of the group” and who internalize these rules, but also who accept the demands of the culture and are capable of criticizing their own conformity with the rules. So therefore, they are not unable, but rather, choose “not to know what one can and should know,” which is what Moody-Adams calls “affected ignorance.”[11]

The second major point Moody-Adams makes concerns “affected ignorance and the banality of wrongdoing,” i.e., the common occurrence of actively choosing not to know what one could and should know and continuing to do wrong. Moody-Adams argues that affected ignorance takes several forms, but highlights four forms that are particularly relevant: (1) “linguistic deceptions,” or codes used to conceal the truth of the wrongfulness of an action from even ourselves; (2) “the wish to ‘know nothing,'” of how wrong the means were to achieve a particular end so as to avoid responsibility; (3) “ask no questions,”  to avoid the responsibility of either stopping or preventing a wrong from occurring; and (4) “to avoid knowledge of our human fallibility,” the failure to acknowledge that our “deeply held convictions may be wrong.”[12] These four forms of affected ignorance are methods in which people use to express and display an unwillingness to take responsibility for their actions, or to consider alternatives. Moody-Adams further argues that these four forms are outgrowths of the “banality of wrongdoing,” that is denied for two principle reasons, an unwillingness to conceive of our “cultural predecessors” as having “perpetuated a practice embodying culpable moral ignorance,” and the common and philosophical perception that there are “only two responses to behavior we may want to condemn.”[13] The first perception is what she calls “a rigorously moralistic model” that blames without forgiveness and the second perception, is the “therapeutic model” that forgives without attributing blame.[14] Moody-Adams is not satisfied with these two perceptions though, and offers a third, the “forgiving moralist’s model,” that connects the banality of wrongdoing with affected ignorance (in its many forms), that acknowledges; “the serious effort required to adopt an appropriately critical stance toward potentially problematic cultural assumptions,” the first perception lacks.[15] This third model permits us to hold people morally responsible across space and time because while it acknowledges the cultural constraints upon an individual, it also acknowledges the agency or capability of an individual to analyze critically the practices of their culture for his or herself.

So far, the argument has been mostly about asserting the capability of a person to choose to analyze critically their cultural practices, thus attributing moral responsibility to people across both space and time, none of which I believe Strawson would disagree with. However, Moody-Adams’ next point focuses on insanity and how it relates to moral responsibility, which I think Strawson might find contentious. The reason that insanity becomes a point of contention in these arguments about moral responsibility is because it directly conflicts with the assertion that all people have the capability to know what they can and should know, and to think critically about their cultural practices. As mentioned above, Strawson asserts that “reactive attitudes,” or the responses that people have to the actions of others are dependent upon the intentions of the initiators of the action. If for instance, the person is either, insane, or incapable of critical analysis or being aware of the normative cultural expectations of emotion, thought, and action then they cannot, or should not, be held morally responsible. Furthermore, that most people would generally not hold them responsible. An example that should flesh this concept out is that a child who is not traditionally considered to be morally culpable yet, say under four years of age, hits their parent in the eye irreversibly damaging it. The reactive attitude, and thus the attribution of moral responsibility would be much different if the child of the parent was twenty years of age when this happened, given that they were not insane at the time of the incident. Whereas the four year old would most likely not have his intentions scrutinized, the twenty year old most likely would. This is the distinction that Strawson draws in his argument about insanity and attributes to those who are considered insane the same level of excusableness as a young child.

Moody-Adams on the other hand, while admitting that it is possible for a person to be insane, this attribution should not be applied to a person simply because they are a member of a subculture that appears to posses different normative expectations. In fact, she argues that to do this either, to a subculture, or to another culture all-together, whether across space or time, or both, is to deny that the person has their humanity and their agency; and is a “misguided cultural relativism,” of sorts.[16] Furthermore, it is to deny that all persons are capable of critical analysis, which has already been shown to be inaccurate. Thus, to bring the argument full circle, it is possible for an individual to both commit a wrongful act and to also not be responsible for the commission of the act, if an only if, the individual is either insane or incapable of critical analysis; and his is true regardless of space or time. However, this principle holds only insofar as the supposition that determinism and free-will coexist together holds, because this entire argument is founded on the individual being capable to choose, given that some things that exist are determined.

[1] Moody-Adams, Michaele M. “Culture, Responsibility, and Affected Ignorance.” Ethics, Vol. 104. No. 2 (January 1994) pp. 291-309.

[2] Strawson, P.F. Freedom and Resentment (1962)

[3] Strawson, p. 72

[4] Strawson, p. 80

[5] Moody-Adams, p. 291

[6] Moody-Adams, p. 292

[7] Moody-Adams, p. 293

[8] Moody-Adams, p. 293-294

[9] Moody-Adams, p. 294

[10] Moody-Adams, p. 295

[11] Moody-Adams, p. 296

[12] Moody-Adams, p. 301

[13] Moody-Adams, p. 302

[14] Moody-Adams, p. 303

[15] Moody-Adams, p. 303

[16] Moody-Adams, p. 308

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