The fact that a firing would occur in a mass social media outrage context is relevant for two critical reasons: (1) it alters the nature of the act from being a mere employment decision to also being an act of blame (“The Firing Claim”) and (2) it contributes to the firing qua blame being inappropriate (“The Dependence Principle”). The claims discussed in this section constitute the crux of the argument.
The Firing Claim
Many acts of firing are not acts of blame. Firing an employee because one can no longer afford to pay his/her salary or because he or she has become redundant, and so on, are not acts of blame. But in some circumstances, firing is an act of blame. Specifically, in my view, when a business fires an employee in response to his/her conduct that gives rise to mass social media outrage, this constitutes an act of blame.Footnote 11 The act of firing is always the act of terminating employment, but sometimes it also is an act of blame.
Supporting the contention that firing in response to mass social media outrage constitutes an act of blame is the purpose of this section. To be clear, I will not offer a positive argument for this claim, but will instead defend it against one significant worry and motivate the plausibility of the claim. Lastly, my aim in this section is merely to defend the claim that it is an act of blame; the argument for why mass outrage contexts contributes to it being an inappropriate act of blame will follow.
Let’s briefly discuss the concept of blame. I am concerned with the ethics of blame expressed through an act that is under our voluntary control; typically, this involves overt blame (McKenna 2013).Footnote 12 As for what precisely constitutes blame, there are many conceptions discussed in the literature. Unfortunately, as Michael McKenna aptly states, “Despite the pervasiveness of the phenomenon in ordinary life, blame is an elusive notion. It is maddeningly hard to nail down a theory that gets the extension even close to right. This is shown by the diversity of strikingly different views about its nature” (2013, p. 119). The difficulties associated with theorizing about blame have even brought some philosophers to abandon the project of providing a conceptual analysis of blame (Fricker 2016).
With that said, I am sympathetic to the thought that “Blame would not be blame…absent the core emotions of anger, indignation, and resentment…” (McGeer 2013, p. 167). So, my sympathies lie in an understanding of blame that resembles a broadly Strawsonian reactive attitudes account in which blame is understood to involve a negative emotional response to another’s wrongdoing (Strawson 1962). Two important features of such an understanding of blame are the following: (1) it involves the negative reactive attitudes (e.g., resentment or indignation) that typically bring about in the recipient some form of unpleasantness (“the normative force of blame—the sting it putatively ought to have when directed at one who is blameworthy” (McKenna 2013, p. 121)), and (2) there is a directedness to these attitudes (“…blame includes an attitudinal aspect, where the attitudes in question have a distinctive content and focus” (Wallace 1994, p. 75)).
Some readers might worry that because blame within the reactive attitudes framework involves certain emotions, if the person doing the firing is not experiencing these emotions, we might not properly call it “blame.” However, it is a mistake to think that expressing emotions requires experiencing the emotion. A novelist can express emotion through his/her words, without having to experience the emotion (Anderson and Pildes 2000, p. 1508). So, the agent/medium channeling the expression of the emotion need not have the phenomenological experience associated with the emotion.
In any case, it seems plausible that we can have a productive discussion of the ethics of blame, even if we do not have a fully worked-out account of the concept of blame.Footnote 13 Importantly, I am claiming that when a business fires an employee who is subjected to mass social media outrage, it is an expression of indignation directed at the employee in a way that counts as an act of blame.
Some might think that this claim is mistaken, that the business is not really trying to blame the employee; it is merely seeking to disassociate. For example, in the Vancouver Riots case, the president of the company stated, “I just didn’t feel like what was said was appropriate, and I didn’t want any affiliation towards my company with the things he said on Facebook” (“Man fired for applauding Vancouver riot on Facebook” 2011). While the president here does deem the employee’s remarks inappropriate, the intention to disassociate is also plain. It seems plausible that in many cases the intention to disassociate plays a prominent role in the reasoning of employers who fire an employee who is at the center of mass social media outrage.
I note two points in response. First, one important feature of blame is that it is not wholly determined by a person’s intentions. Acts in certain social contexts are acts of blame, regardless of one’s intentions (Anderson and Pildes 2000).Footnote 14 For example, when a judge hands down a prison sentence, it is a form of condemnation that expresses blame, regardless of whether the judge’s intentions were entirely unrelated to blame (e.g., if the judge’s intention in sentencing the defendant was to help the ailing defendant in abject poverty secure access to the health care provided in prisons). Similarly, when a business fires an employee immediately after conduct that has generated mass outrage, the act of firing is a form of blame, regardless of whether the business intended only to disassociate.
In the kinds of cases we are considering, thousands condemn the employee and many call upon the employer to terminate the employee. Here are a few of the tweets involving the woman in the AIDS-tweet case:
“[the employer] needs to fire this racist, stupid bitch!”
“We are about to watch [her] get fired. In REAL time. Before she even KNOWS she’s getting fired.”
“I cannot stop laughing at the sheer stupidity of [her], enjoy your time in the unemployment line…”
“No words for that horribly disgusting, racist as fuck tweet from [her]. I am beyond horrified”
Thousands of such tweets create a context in which the act of firing is no longer merely employment termination, it also is an act of blame.Footnote 15
Second, businesses in mass outrage contexts often couple the firings with condemnatory press releases. For instance, in the AIDS-tweet case, the employer publicly announced: “We take this issue very seriously, and we have parted ways with the employee in question. There is no excuse for the hateful statements that have been made and we condemn them unequivocally.”Footnote 16 Her firing was not only an expression of blame, it was also explicitly communicated as such. If a business wants to claim it has fired an employee for non-moral reasons related to disassociating, coupling the firing with a condemnatory press release would be dishonest and disingenuous.
When a business fires an employee in mass social media outrage contexts, especially if a business pairs the firing with a condemnatory press release, it is engaging in blame. But this alone does not license the conclusion I am arguing for: that mass outrage contexts can contribute to the firing being an inappropriate act of blame. Indeed, there are many instances of blame that most think are well justified and appropriate in response to wrongdoing. As such, the next section concerns why the business blaming through firing in mass social media outrage contexts is of particular ethical significance.
The Dependence Principle
While it is widely accepted in the philosophical literature that blame is a fitting response to wrongdoingFootnote 17, some scholars have recently articulated certain conditions that one must satisfy in order to appropriately blame another (Fricker 2016; Friedman 2013; Radzik 2011; Watson 2013). Since blaming is an action, moreover an action with corrosive effects, one can perform it more or less appropriately, and in better or worse ways. Marilyn Friedman notes:
[I]n addition to asking what conditions a person should meet to be a legitimate recipient of blame, we should also ask what conditions a person should meet to engage responsibly in the act of morally blaming others.… If the recipient of blame must meet certain criteria to be blameworthy, does not the blamer have to meet certain criteria to be blamer-worthy? (2013, p. 272).
The point is that blame can have certain unseemly and harsh dimensions, so one ought to wield it with care. The ethics of blame emerges as a significant area of inquiry once one recognizes that a person being morally responsible or blameworthy does not settle the question of whether one ought to blame that person—there are certain conditions one must meet.Footnote 18
The ethics of blame is still a nascent area of inquiry with many unsettled questions, including, for example, why, if at all, hypocritical blaming is inappropriate (Cohen 2006; Fritz and Miller 2018; Todd 2017; Wallace 2010), how “moral standing” is a sensible notion if morality is universal (Smilansky 2006), and so on. Despite the lively ongoing debate, one aspect of the debate remains uncontroversial: it is wrong to blame a person who does not deserve blame or blame a person beyond what he or she deserves. Consider the following example:
Cubicle: When Gyu-min arrives at work, he realizes his Montblanc pen is missing. He frantically searches his office and becomes convinced that the custodian stole it. Contrary to what Gyu-min thinks, the pen is in the conference room—he had used it to take notes during a client meeting and had left it on an adjacent seat.
If Gyu-min were to blame the custodian, he would wrong the custodian. This would be so even if the custodian would not in any way be materially harmed. An apology would be in order. If one blames someone who does not deserve blame or blames someone beyond what he or she deserves, the blame recipient is wronged. This fact has implications for our investigation.
Returning to the employment context, let us consider two possibilities. First, suppose the employee’s conduct is not unethical, and he/she does not deserve blame. In such cases, if the business blames the employee through firing, then the business acts wrongly (and so, too, do those blaming the employee on social media), because it is wrong to blame someone who does not deserve blame. For example, a college student appeared to have posted racial slurs to her Facebook aimed at the participants of the 2014 Ferguson protests. The AMC theater at which this college student worked began receiving phone calls with demands that she be terminated (Scheff and Schorr 2017, pp. 72–73). As it turns out, the student’s ex-boyfriend had hacked into her Facebook page and it was he who had posted the slurs. In this case, if AMC had blamed her through firing, the fact that one should not blame someone who does not deserve blame, would have contributed to it being an inappropriate act of blame.
The second possibility is more interesting: Suppose the employee’s off-duty conduct is wrong and he/she does deserve blame—perhaps the employee even admits to the wrongdoing. At first blush, it might seem that the employee can clearly be blamed without the blame being inappropriate. Nevertheless, the fact that a person deserves blame does not settle whether one ought to blame him/her. Here is the critical point:
The Dependence Principle The appropriateness of an act of blame depends in part on how much others blame.Footnote 19
Respecting this principle is important because one’s act of blaming might subject the recipient to blame beyond what he/she deserves. So, one must consider how much blame others have subjected the employee to as well.
Suppose that, while seated on a commuter train, Camila angrily berates an adjacent passenger in a way that is clearly wrong. We might think that the other passengers in the vicinity ought to blame Camila. Still, if these neighboring passengers have blamed her, there is the further question of to what extent it would be appropriate for the other passengers to blame: should passengers in adjacent train cars now cross over into the car with Camila and proceed to blame her? When she exits onto the platform, should commuters waiting, the turnstile attendant, and custodial staff blame her as well? Once she leaves the station, she passes the honey-roasted peanut vendor, the halal food truck vendor, and several cab drivers waiting for passengers: Should they all blame her too? Answering these questions affirmatively is implausible.Footnote 20
Similarly, even when the employee has acted wrongly—suppose even that there is strong evidence of this wrongdoing and the employee is extended due process, or perhaps the employee even admits to the wrongdoing—it does not settle whether the employer ought to blame the employee through firing. This is because, in mass social media outrage contexts, given that the employee has already been blamed by thousands, an employer’s added blame is likely to subject the employee to blame beyond what he/she deserves. If one fails to acknowledge the significance of the dependence principle, this would suggest that one wrongdoing, however major or minor, justifies subjecting a person to blame from a limitless number of people for an indefinite amount of time. This would be an implausible result. It would erode our ability to treat certain acts of wrongdoing as deserving more blame than others. Critically, it would plausibly render violence to the fundamental principle that it is wrong to subject a person to undeserved blame.
At this point, one might raise what we might call “the epistemic demandingness objection,” the worry that the view I have advanced is too epistemically demanding for prospective blamers. That is, if deciding whether to blame requires comparing how much blame happens with how much blame is deserved, this imposes too onerous of an investigatory burden on prospective blamers and may require the prospective blamer to make potentially unjustified empirical assumptions.Footnote 21
There are a few points to note in response. First, the importance of considering how our actions interact with the behavior of others is not an unfamiliar one in ethics: the general point I make resembles one that Derek Parfit makes in his influential discussion of the moral importance of considering the joint effects of our actions:
It is not enough to ask, ‘Will my act harm other people?’ Even if the answer is No, my act may still be wrong, because of its effects. The effects that it would have when it is considered on its own may not be its only relevant effects. I should ask, ‘Will my act be one of a set of acts that will together harm other people?’ The answer may be Yes” (1984, p. 86).
Similarly, when deciding whether to blame, it is not enough to ask, “Does the person deserve blame?” Even if the answer is “Yes,” my blaming that person may still be wrong when considered in view of whether and how much others are blaming. In deciding to blame, it is not enough to ask whether the person deserves blame; one must also consider whether and to what extent others are blaming.Footnote 22
Still, the epistemic demandingness objection does seem to have force, especially from the perspective of someone who is considering blaming: “How could I possibly know how many people are going to also blame this person, how strongly, and for how long?” Insofar as I am making claims about an agent’s character, moral responsibility, or blameworthiness, for subjecting another to undeserved blame, the thrust of this objection is troubling and may seem to undermine the plausibility of my position.
This is not, however, what I am claiming. I am instead concerned with whether the fact that the blaming through firing occurs in a mass outrage context figures into the deontic status, or permissibility, of the act itself. I am not making a judgment about the character, blameworthiness, or responsibility of the agent performing the act. While the epistemic worries raised by this objection may affect claims about a manager’s moral responsibility or character for the firing, it has less of an effect on the moral status of the act itself; that is, whether the act of blaming through firing in a mass social media outrage context contributes to the act being wrong in the first place.
Moreover, even with respect to judgments pertaining to an agent’s moral responsibility or character, the epistemic demandingness objection has greater force in the context of ordinary interpersonal blaming than it does in the context of the business blaming through firing in mass social media outrage contexts. This is because when an employee is at the center of mass social media outrage, the business is already aware that the employee has been harshly blamed by thousands of people.Footnote 23 Knowing this fact should provide strong reason for the business to come to see that its added blame will be undeserved and thus can contribute to the firing being an inappropriate act of blame.Footnote 24
It is now worth flagging two limitations to the scope of my argument. First, for my argument to generate a reason against firing, the act of firing must be an act of blame. This is why the fact that the firing happens in mass outrage contexts is especially significant (“The Firing Claim”).Footnote 25 So, the argument is not an argument against firing as such, but rather against blaming inappropriately, which can be done through firing. Second, I am not suggesting that the mass social media outrage cases that we are examining are ones where nobody should have blamed the wrongdoer. Nor am I claiming that any chance of undeserved blame is unacceptable; this would render nearly all acts of blaming too risky to take on and may result in an implausible account. But considering the extent to which a person has already been blamed, does seem to be a reasonable exercise of moral caution.Footnote 26
To conclude, there must be a limit to how much blame a person can justifiably be subjected to in response to the sorts of conduct we have been considering. However, social media allows thousands of individuals to participate in the blaming of any other individual, with few limits in terms of intensity or duration. If a person’s perpetration of some wrongdoing provides sufficient justification for a limitless number of parties to express blame, this would undermine a fundamental aspect of desert in blame, namely, that one should not subject a person to undeserved blame. The dependence principle thus urges the manager to recognize that the extent to which others have already blamed a wrongdoer can affect the appropriateness of his or her decision to blame the employee through firing. The fact that a firing would occur in a mass social media outrage context generates an important ethical reason weighing against the act: it contributes to the firing constituting an inappropriate act of blame.