, Volume 41, Issue 1, pp 179-193
Date: 07 Aug 2012

Situationism, Moral Responsibility and Blame

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Abstract

In Moral philosophy meets social psychology, Gilbert Harman argues that social psychology can educate folk morality to prevent us from committing the ‘fundamental attribution error,’ i.e. ‘the error of ignoring situational factors and overconfidently assuming that distinctive behaviour or patterns of behaviour are due to an agent’s distinctive character traits’ (Harman, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 99, 315–331, 1999). An overview of the literature shows that while situationists unanimously agree with Harman on this point, they disagree on whether we also tend to commit a kind of fundamental attribution error with respect to moral responsibility and blame. Do we also tend to ignore situational factors and overconfidently assume that people are morally responsible and blameworthy for their distinctive patterns of wrongful behaviour? Very few scholars have addressed this issue, and none has ever given a comprehensive account of moral responsibility and blame from a situationist perspective. In this paper, I argue that situationist social psychology impugns subjective theories of responsibility and blame which focus on the agent’s inner states and supports an objective theory—namely, the standard of the reasonable person. I defend this standard as a tool for moral appraisal, and then I refute the common misperception that this approach lets most perpetrators off the hook and poses a threat to society.