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Situationism, capacities and culpability

Abstract

The situationist experiments demonstrate that most people’s behaviour is influenced by environmental factors much more than we expect, and that ordinary people can be led to behave very immorally. A number of philosophers have investigated whether these experiments demonstrate that subjects’ responsibility-relevant capacities are impeded. This paper considers how, in practice, we can assess when agents have a reduced capacity to avoid wrongdoing. It critiques some previously offered strategies including appeals to the reasonable person standard, appeals to counterfactuals and understandability of behaviour, and appeals to base rates of wrongdoing. It then proposes we should think a certain factor impeded capacities when this is the best explanation of a change in patterns of responses. With this approach in hand, I then argue that subjects in many of the situationist experiments are (mostly) excused for their actions.

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Notes

  1. See Jaster (2020) for objections to attempts to understand capacities in terms of conditional analysis or appeals to nearby possible worlds. This paper’s question and argument is still relevant to proponents of such views, as in practice we can’t directly look into nearby possible worlds, nor do we often know what conditionals are true of an agent.

  2. See Hieronymi (2007) and McGeer and Pettit (2015) on how explanations for why agents act in one way rather than another run out at some point, and how this can pose problems for some conceptions of capacity.

  3. I will consider worries about unwitting wrongdoing and volitionist arguments below.

  4. See Quine (1951) for the locus classicus on the underdetermination of theory by data.

  5. Since quality of opportunity tracks fairness of demands, it can include factors beyond capacity and situational features that might impede their execution. Nelkin (2016) points out that one might have a poor quality of opportunity to Φ because Φ-ing will impose high costs or require sacrifice. Even if one is very willing and able to Φ (in that it will be easy to Φ should they choose to), they can still have a poor quality of opportunity to Φ due to said costs, such that they will not be blameworthy for failing to Φ.

  6. As we will see later, my account is compatible with what Rudy-Hiller is getting at. But we first need to establish some foundation from which to identify when agents have a lack of capacity rather than just an unexercised capacity, and this is what I will provide in Sect. 5.

  7. While Rudy-Hiller (2017) himself does not think ignorance is always excusing, he seems to think it isn’t reasonable to expect subjects to correct for the effects of pluralistic ignorance given they don’t know about it, and this is the most reliable way of overcoming it (fn. 38). But it seems that subjects who provide help don’t do so by knowing about the bystander effect and correcting for it; rather, they just have a more accurate perception of their reasons to help, or they just avoid succumbing to the effect in the first place. And this is the kind of thing which the non-helping subjects may still have sufficient capacity to do.

  8. In response to the worry that pluralistic ignorance might only somewhat degrade quality of opportunity, Rudy-Hiller appeals “to the nature of the social interpretative process that leads to this kind of ignorance—its automaticity and its proceeding undetected by those who are subject to it—and how this process undermines agential control” (p. 2964). But this is just appealing back to the force of the original explanation, and someone like Brink might not take this to yet demonstrate a lack of control or capacity. Similarly, to the extent that base rates “confirm” (p. 2957) the difficulty, we may need to already think the task is difficult, which takes us back to considering evidence for the explanation.

  9. To emphasise, it is not in fact circular, nor is Guerrero’s characterisation. However, we first need to do some more work in Sect. 5 to understand why.

  10. ‘Difficulty in trying’, which Rudy-Hiller (2020) takes to apply to overcoming pluralistic ignorance, is cashed out by Guerrero (2017, p. 204) simply in terms of it being unlikely that an agent will try.

  11. Relative to some contextually-defined reference class of agents.

  12. It is worth noting that Fischer (with Tognazzini, 2011) takes blameworthiness to not be decided by reasons-responsiveness alone. Instead, once we have established that an agent is sufficiently reasons-responsive (understood as an all-or-nothing property), it is a further question whether the agent is blameworthy or excused due to things like ignorance. In contrast, Herdova and Kearns take reasons-responsiveness to determine blameworthiness directly, though they are also open to reasons-responsive agents being excused because they lack the opportunity to exercise their capacities. This seems to leave it unclear how they would excuse the kinds of agents that Fischer takes to be morally responsible, but not blameworthy e.g. a mother who wrongly saves her own child over multiple strangers, or wrongdoers from poor formative circumstances.

  13. Herdova and Kearns take agents to have a specific capacity when they have a general capacity and opportunity to exercise said capacity. They take themselves to be assessing whether the situationist subjects have the general capacity to do the right thing (fn. 27), presumably because there are no visible external factors which could impede their general capacities. But as noted earlier, opportunities can be lacking due to factors internal to agents, so we need some prior way of identifying what things reduce an agent’s opportunity to exercise their general capacities.

  14. ‘Effort’ is understood in terms of energy expenditure. See Herdova and Kearns (2019).

  15. Additionally, once we have an explanation of why some subjects do manage to do the right thing, we will see that this doesn’t seem to be attributable to them simply exerting more effort.

  16. Herdova and Kearns express some sympathy for thinking that agents who inexplicably fail to respond to reasons in some circumstances are excused precisely because their regular success in responding to reasons in other situations is evidence that something has gone amiss in their functioning (fn. 22). But this seems to be how we ought to describe the subjects in the situationist experiments. The inexplicableness is what makes these studies so interesting the first time one hears about them.

  17. We have to be careful to watch out for interaction effects. Injuring my left hand won’t greatly affect my capacity to open a door, injuring my right hand won’t either, but it would be incorrect to infer from this that injuring both hands wouldn’t greatly affect me.

  18. Stipulating that the agent can’t pull over to rest, and is not culpable for being sleep deprived in the first place.

  19. Note too that while a very high proportion of agents who experience weakness of will or akrasia fail to act according to the balance of reasons, treating these as relevant factors for investigation risks gerrymandering the set of relevant cases. These terms pick out cases where the agent/s already failed to act according to their better judgement (which often is the correct moral judgment, Huck Finn cases being an exception), and exclude cases where the agent/s succeeded. Instead, when asking whether such agents had the capacity to avoid wrongdoing, we need to treat the relevant factor as something like ‘experiencing a contrary desire of a particular strength’ and then look at success rates. This is compatible with thinking that some instances of weakness of will are excused, perhaps those involved in severe depression, because depressive episodes regularly decrease agents’ performance at various tasks to a large degree.

  20. Settling this debate requires engaging with the further question here about what justifies blame, which I will have to set aside. Levy (2011) appeals to desert considerations, and argues that agents who did not knowingly choose to do wrong do not deserve blame. Capacitarians are generally more inclined to argue that blame is justified on account of our occupying certain roles (Rudy-Hiller, 2017), or having a zone of competence (Amaya & Doris, 2015), or that certain patterns of responses to reasons are the result of cognitive architecture which constitutes our agential control (Murray & Vargas, 2020).

  21. Most readers are probably also familiar with the closely related studies on selective attention, where people watching an object being passed around fail to notice the addition of a person in a gorilla suit (Chabris & Simons, 2010).

  22. Note such drivers are blameworthy precisely because a lot of effort is made to warn drivers of the dangers of driving while using their phones. The same cannot be said for the subjects in Samaritan.

  23. It is still possible that their capacity to switch tasks or form an intention to go back was impeded, but our evidence doesn’t yet show this.

  24. Hysteresis has been shown affect perceptions and judgements of motion (Nichols et al., 2005), other people’s emotions (Sacharin et al., 2012), speech (Tuller et al., 1994), hearing (Chambers & Pressnitzer, 2014), ambiguous sentences (Rączaszek et al., 1999), and dating behaviour (Tesser & Achee, 1994).

  25. The option to keep shocking may also have been much more salient than the option to disobey because of the effects of perceptual affordances (Gibson, 1979). Subjects are immediately in front of the electrocution box, and have only the experimenter to talk to, who keeps directing their attention back to the task with prompts to continue. See Ye et al., (2009) on how affordances can make us aware of the possibility of performing certain actions.

  26. “The thought of quitting never occurred to me … just to say: ‘You know what? I’m walking out of here’—which I could have done. It was like being in a situation that you never thought you would be in, not really being able to think clearly.”—Participant Bill Menold, quoted in Perry (2013b).

  27. The ‘capacity to maintain one’s resolve’ falls into this category, but the broader capacity to cease deliberation is needed to avoid e.g. Buridan’s Ass-type situations. Though such situations appear able to be avoided with the capacity to form an intention alone, ceasing deliberation is necessary to exercise this capacity.

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Acknowledgements

Thanks to Luke Russell, Caroline West, Dana Nelkin, David Brink, Isabelle Wentworth, and audiences at the AAP’s annual conference for helpful discussions and comments. Thanks also to the Latam Free Will, Agency, and Responsibility Project for support. This publication was made possible through the support of the grant #61255 from the John Templeton Foundation. The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the John Templeton Foundation.

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Piovarchy, A. Situationism, capacities and culpability. Philos Stud 179, 1997–2027 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11098-021-01744-8

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Keywords

  • Blame
  • Situationism
  • Moral responsibility
  • Capacities
  • Milgram