This section discusses cases of agents who are unresponsive to the normative moral reasons de re of their situation because their epistemic circumstances make it very difficult for them to be appropriately responsive. These cases present a problem for De Re Significance accounts of moral appraisal. On the one hand they seem committed to saying that these agents are blameworthy because they fail to be appropriately responsive to normative moral reasons de re. On the other hand, the agent’s epistemic circumstances make it doubtful whether these cases should be interpreted as cases of deficient quality of will.
To illustrate the shape of the examples, here is a non-moral example. My capacity for culinary excellence is, sadly, limited. One explanation for this is that I am not sufficiently responsive to what is gastronomically important – normative gastronomical reasons de re. This makes me bad at cooking. Suppose, as many people think, that one should add salt when cooking pasta. If this is true, there will be reasons for this. Perhaps, “that it improves the texture of the pasta”, or “that it improves the taste of the pasta”. Whatever these reasons are, I am not sufficiently responsive to them. I have never been able to discern the difference between pasta cooked with added salt and pasta cooked without it. I also know that I am no expert – I assume there is some reason to add salt to pasta, and I know I fail to appreciate it. Nevertheless, it is possible for me to cook well, or well enough, without ever properly appreciating the reasons there are in favour of adding salt. When the gastronomical stakes are high – for example, when I am cooking for others – I know not to rely on my own culinary abilities. I use recipe books, or ask for advice. Given what I know about my own limitations, it seems that this is exactly what I should do – defer to culinary testimony, and not risk relying on my own flawed understanding of what is gastronomically important. Nevertheless, recipe books sometimes contains misprints. If my recipe contains a misprint, and I fail to add salt because of this, I do the wrong thing but – perhaps – do not deserve blame. The cases I discuss are structurally similar, but the relevant reasons are moral rather than culinary.
This section focuses on fleshing out possible examples of agents whose position with respect to moral reasons is similar to mine with respect to culinary reasons and shows how De Re Significance accounts will find these difficult to deal with. I focus on cases involving autism and psychopathy. These are the most widely discussed by philosophers, and the neuroatypicalities most obviously relevant to the capacity to appreciate moral reasons. However, the arguments I make here are applicable beyond these cases, to any robust psychological features that ground limitations in appreciating moral reasons. Section 3 pre-empts some strategies that De Re Significance accounts might use to deal with these cases, arguing that these will not be successful. Section 4 goes on to argue that these accounts face further problems when appraising agents like this who defer to moral testimony but do the wrong thing because that testimony turns out to be misleading.
Autism seems to present epistemic limitations in responding to normative moral reasons de re.
Truthfulness. Mike is autistic, and this makes it difficult for him to imagine the internal mental lives of other people, including the more complex aspects of how others will feel in response to his actions. Since he finds other people’s emotions difficult to imagine, he also finds it difficult to see them as reasons for and against actions. Mike desires the well-being of others, and he believes that others’ well-being is always served by their knowing the truth. Sometimes people’s feelings are hurt when he is too truthful, but he finds it difficult to predict such occurrences. He usually only notices that he has ‘put his foot in it’ when his friends and family explain to him why that person was upset, and tell him that he must try to be more sensitive. Moreover, explanations of why these people are upset strike him as confusing and a little far-fetched. While he tries to be charitable, he struggles to believe that it could really be so morally important to avoid hurtful assertions, particularly when this comes at the expense of saying things that are relevant and true.
Autism is characterised by impaired social interaction, deficits in empathy, and impaired understanding of other people.Footnote 6 These all contribute to difficulties in understanding the social world, including aspects of the social world that are morally significant. Mike’s autism thus makes him prone to failing to be appropriately responsive to some normative moral reasons de re, as in Truthfulness. Assuming that, ceteris paribus, ‘that someone’s feelings would be hurt’ is a normative moral reason de re to avoid doing that which would cause hurt feelings, Mike systematically fails to be appropriately responsive to this. Not only is Mike unable to reliably recognize hurt feelings, he is sceptical of the importance of avoiding hurting feelings in some cases.
Of course, just as I can use a recipe book when cooking, Mike has strategies available to him that can help him understand other people well enough to avoid hurting them. For example, he can ask people he trusts, or spend time learning different facial cues. However, while these strategies will help to some extent, they are unlikely to be as effective as the resources for social understanding available to neurotypical people. When he inevitably slips up, this does not indicate deficient quality of will. The problem for De Re Significance accounts is that they cannot accommodate this. In so far as he fails to be appropriately responsive to the normative moral reasons de re against asserting hurtful truths, De Re Significance accounts are forced to say that Mike is blameworthy.
There are two ways De Re Significance accounts might attempt to avoid this implication. First, they might respond that the features of the situation that Mike’s autism causes him to miss are mere details, and not among what is morally important (de re). Provided he cares about more general morally important things, such as the well-being in others in general, then De Re Significance accounts need not say think that he has deficient quality of will, and can avoid saying he is blameworthy. This is what Arpaly and Schroeder (2013) suggest. They see no conflict between their account of moral appraisal and neuroatypical psychology, saying, “there are times when the virtuous person fails to feel the right emotions, think the right thoughts, or attend to the right things. […] autism, absent-mindedness, and the like are all morally neutral. Even a perfectly virtuous person can be mentally retarded, manic, depressed, autistic, or absent-minded.” (2013, 201). Their view is that quality of will is determined entirely by the agent’s desires – whether they intrinsically desire the good, correctly conceptualized. Provided Mike has the right desires, he need not be blameworthy.
This approach is plausible in some cases. For example, compare the following case, in which the agent fails to appreciate the normative moral reasons de re because he is distracted.
Distraction. Stefano is trying to decide how to allocate office space. The available space is such that not everyone can have an ideal office. Various considerations contribute to determining the fair allocation of the available office space (how much each researcher uses the office, their accessibility needs, etc.). Working out the fairest allocation is complicated, and to help him, Stefano has taken detailed notes of these various considerations. Part way through the allocation process, Stefano is distracted by a seagull crashing into his window. This causes him to miss a line in his notes, meaning that some of the researchers’ needs are not factored into the allocation fairly, and those researchers end up worse off than the others.
De Re Significance accounts should not want to say that Stefano is blameworthy. Assuming he has taken appropriate precautions against becoming distracted, it seems incorrect to attribute deficient quality of will to him. So, De Re Significance accounts must find some way of denying that Stefano is unresponsive to the normative reasons of the situation. To this end, they might argue that the details he misses are not, in fact, among the normative moral reasons de re. Perhaps the normative moral reasons de re include only more abstract things such as fairness in general. Stefano then need not be blameworthy so long as he is appropriately responsive to these. Alternatively, perhaps the details are among what is morally important (de re), and Stefano is appropriately responsive to them in virtue of, for example, writing them down, and aiming to take them into consideration. Perhaps it is also relevant that he would have responded appropriately to these considerations had he not become distracted.Footnote 7
Assuming that De Re Significance accounts have the resources to accommodate cases like this, we might think that agents like Mike can be accommodated similarly. However, it is not clear that they can. Unlike Stefano, Mike does not quite have the right desires. For example, he does not desire that he avoid asserting hurtful truths – he is sceptical of the importance of this. Furthermore, some aspects of the situation that he is not sufficiently responsive to are not mere details – they are morally significant. Being appropriately responsive to the consideration ‘that it would hurt someone’s feelings’, requires direct responsiveness to the moral badness of hurting other peoples’ feelings. Proponents of De Re Significance accounts emphasise the importance of this intrinsic concern for normative moral reasons de re. However, in some situations Mike is oblivious to the moral badness of hurting other people’s feelings. Mike is not responding to the right reasons if he only avoids saying the hurtful thing in response to some other, more general consideration. If indirect responses to more general reasons could also count as appropriate responses to normative moral reasons de re, this would put pressure on the significance of normative reasons de re, and thus on the central project of De Re Significance accounts.
Another way that De Re Significance accounts might attempt to deal with agents like Mike is by denying that they are appropriate targets of moral appraisal. Some have thought that full moral agency requires a degree of emotional empathy, and the ability to enter into another’s perspective-- something that autistic people characteristicaly lack (Blair 1995; Hobson 2007; Shoemaker 2015, 168).Footnote 8 Others have seen moral agency as requiring the ability to participate in a moral conversations involving the exchange of moral reasonsFootnote 9 – which according to De Re Significance accounts would have to be de re and not de dicto. De Re Significance accounts might on these grounds argue that autism precludes full moral agency. However, autistic people often seem very able to participate in moral life by making choices, deliberating, and adopting moral rules. Temple Grandin, well-known both for her autism and her work on humane cattle slaughterhouses, is clearly guided by a deep moral commitment to improving animal welfare,Footnote 10 and so seems to possess the necessary abilities to participate in moral life. In support of this, Krahn and Fenton (2009) argue that high-functioning autistic people have the capacity for cognitive (but not emotional) empathy, and this is sufficient for moral agency, and Shoemaker (2007) argues that autistic lack of empathy need not imply a lack of caring about other people, and it is this (rather than emotional empathy) that is needed for full participation in moral practices.Footnote 11
Taking a slightly different approach, Kennett (2002) argues that empathy (cognitive or emotional) is not a necessary condition of moral agency, but merely one method to discover information about the moral landscape. It is primarily an epistemic tool. This implies that autistic people need not be thought to have their moral agency compromised, so long as they can find alternative methods to discover the relevant information – for example, relying on testimony, or studying moral rules and theories.Footnote 12 While autistic people may lack the emotional resources to understand other people as well or as quickly as neurotypical people, they face no particular barriers to using these other methods.
If this this is right, then we should not think of the limitations involved in autism as putting agents beyond moral evaluation. However, the alternative methods that autistic people are able to make use of will not always be as effective epistemic routes to the relevant moral information as ordinary neurotypical empathy. It is implausible that relying on these routes will never cause autistic agents to fail to appreciate moral reasons – Mike’s case is one example of this.Footnote 13 So long as it is possible that some of the information that these alternative routes miss is more than mere details, autistic agents will sometimes face an impaired ability to be appropriately responsive to the normative moral reasons de re. Lack of responsiveness to normative moral reasons de re in these circumstances does not seem to be a manifestation of deficient quality of will, but rather a different – neuroatypical – way of approaching the world.
In other words, and as Kennett puts it, “there is more than one way to be a moral agent” (2002: 357). It would be a problem for De Re Significance accounts if they could not accommodate this, and it turned out that they were forced to treat behaviour that is merely neuroatypical as if it were blameworthy. De Re Significance accounts risk doing this because they insist that to avoid blame, the agent must be responsive to a particular set of considerations (the normative moral reasons de re). So long as there are possible neuroatypicalities that prevent proper appreciation of this set of considerations, these neuroatypicalities will be difficult for De Re Significance accounts to accommodate. They will be forced to say that agents who fail to respond appropriately to these considerations are either blameworthy or less-than-full moral agents.
Psychopathy presents another kind of neuroatypicality that De Re Significance accounts find it difficult to deal with.
Distinction. Bonnie consistently fails to appreciate the distinction between moral and conventional wrongs. She has managed to learn by heart most of the actions typically considered wrong, either morally or conventionally, and has found that avoiding these actions is usually a good idea (for example, it avoids unpleasant confrontations with the law). She knows that some of these actions are considered ‘morally’ wrong, and therefore more important to avoid than the others, but she is unable to feel the force of the distinction herself. One day, she is waiting for a taxi in the rain when a pregnant woman arrives at the taxi rank, urgently needing a taxi to take her to the hospital. While most neurotypical people would feel morally compelled to offer the first taxi to the pregnant woman, this does not occur to Bonnie. The situation does not fall under the description of any of the actions that she has learned are wrong, either morally or conventionally. Bonnie takes the first taxi when it arrives, and does not allow the pregnant woman to go first.Footnote 14
Psychopaths characteristically fail to appreciate the distinction between ‘moral’ and ‘conventional’ norms.Footnote 15 Some have taken this to imply that psychopaths lack crucial competencies relevant to morality. They are unable to “grasp moral concepts”, and they lack “sensitivity” to moral harms and wrongings (Levy 2008: 166).Footnote 16 These limitations would seem to preclude psychopaths from being appropriately responsive to normative moral reasons de re. Bonnie is unable to appreciate the moral reasons to let the pregnant woman have the taxi, because she is unable to appreciate the moral significance of considerations such as the woman’s suffering, or the value of alleviating it.
How should De Re Significance accounts deal with this case? On the one hand, since Bonnie is unresponsive to normative moral reasons de re, De Re Significance accounts seem committed to evaluating her as blameworthy. Indeed, many proponents of De Re Significance accounts have thought that psychopathic indifference towards moral considerations is paradigmatic of what it is to exhibit a negative quality of will, and is a manifestation of deficient quality of will no matter the circumstances (Scanlon (1998: 284); Arpaly (2002); Watson (2004: 266); Harman (2015); Mason (2015); Weatherson (2019)). The problem, they hold, is that Bonnie does not care enough about what is important. Bonnie manifests deficient quality of will because failing to respond appropriately to normative moral reasons de re always constitutes deficient quality of will.
However, an important feature of this case is that the moral transgression Bonnie commits is relatively subtle. Unlike other, more egregious moral transgressions, failing to offer taxis to pregnant women is not prohibited by law, and there is no one else around offering their judgments on Bonnie’s actions. She lacks information about the normative features of the case – she is unable to appreciate the salient moral reasons for herself, and she has very little other input. Compare the following case:
Murder. Bonnie is waiting in the rain, under an umbrella, for a taxi at a currently empty taxi rank. She is in no particular hurry. Soon she is joined by pregnant woman who needs to get to the hospital as soon as possible. To lessen the boredom of the wait, she decides to murder the pregnant woman and hide her body before the first taxi arrives.
Murder is a striking and obvious example of something thought to be morally wrong. Most legal systems prohibit it, and even the most basic knowledge of society’s conventions indicate that it is thought to be wrong. One does not need to appreciate the distinctions between moral and conventional prohibitions to work out that murder is thought by most to be wrong, and if they are right, then it is very wrong. Just as I can use a recipe book when cooking, Bonnie can use information about legal or conventional prohibitions to avoid actions that might be wrong.Footnote 17 It would be more plausible that she was blameworthy in a case like this.
Having presented the cases under discussion, the following section pre-empts some strategies that De Re Significance accounts might use to deal with these cases.