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Dissertation Project

Fitting Blame without Blameworthiness

Suppose you passed up an exciting opportunity to pursue your dream, playing it safe by remaining in a secure but unfulfilling job. Looking back, you know that you meant well and were doing the best you could for your future self. You couldn’t have known that your decision would end up being a terrible mistake. Still, you blame yourself.

Or suppose your mother discouraged you from a path that you knew was right for you (e.g., pursuing a Ph.D. in philosophy). You know that she meant well. Your mother is a good person, who genuinely loves you and wants what is best for you. She just did not understand what philosophy meant to you. Given a conventional understanding of justified blame, you know that she is not blameworthy. Still, you find yourself blaming your mother, and your relationship with her is strained.

Fitting blame is commonly thought to require a blameworthy agent, who is in some sense “at fault” for their problematic behavior. Warranted blame requires a warranted judgment that the behavior in question manifests some kind of fault or defect within an agent (e.g., their problematic motives, faulty moral character, or the deficient quality of their will). However, in life, we do often blame an agent both (i) when we cannot reasonably judge whether they are blameworthy and (ii) when we can reasonably judge that they are not blameworthy. In a conventional framework, our phenomenology of blaming and sometimes forgiving an agent in these types of situations is rendered incoherent or unwarranted. My dissertation argues that our phenomenology of blaming and forgiving conventionally unblameworthy agents should not be dismissed. By introducing a revisionary model of blame without fault, which does not require a judgment of fault within an agent, my dissertation provides the resources to support these experiences, which play a vital role in our individual, interpersonal, and social lives.

Two Senses of Blameworthiness

I argue that we engage in two distinct types of evaluations in our assessment of an agent’s blameworthiness. In the first type, we evaluate whether an agent possesses a particular set of properties, which renders the agent “at fault.” In the second type, we evaluate whether an agent is a proper target of a range of normatively significant responses that we identify as blame. These evaluations track two conceptually distinct qualities. The conventional view that these two qualities always coincide is a substantive claim, not analytically guaranteed. Using microaggressions as a central case study, I challenge the truth of this substantive claim. The result is a model of appropriately targeted blame, which does not presuppose fault in the agent’s character or will.

Blame without Fault

I introduce one account of blame without fault, in which (i) blame is understand as a moral protest, and yet (ii) such protest is not triggered by our judgment of fault within an agent. Following T.M. Scanlon, I propose to understand blame as a response to the “meaning” of our action but deny that the “meaning” of our action is determined by facts comprising an agent’s internal states (e.g., motives, character, or the quality of their will). I argue that our action can carry blame-warranting meaning to its recipients that is determined in part by facts external to the agent (e.g., facts about the sociocultural and historical background in which the action takes place). This account can provide the resources to support and vindicate our experiences of blaming an agent in the absence of the judgment that they are blameworthy (in the conventional sense of that term).

Forgiving the Unblameworthy

I argue that including a model of blame without fault in our conceptual apparatus not only broadens the scope of warranted blame but also allows us to accommodate our phenomenology of genuinely forgiving the agent whom we regard as unblameworthy (in the conventional sense). A conventional framework cannot make room for forgiving these agents; at best, it can make sense of how we may excuse these agents or let go of what happened. However, our experience of forgiving these agents (e.g., ourselves or our parents) should not be reduced to or confused with other similar phenomena. Blame without fault can support our experience of forgiving these agents and preserving the distinctively valuable role that it plays in our moral lives.

Current Projects in Feminist Philosophy

Sulking as Performance

I examine the nature and distinctive performative force of sulking, with a focus on sulking as a gendered practice. While past studies in psychological literature have proposed to understand sulking as a manifestation of distinctive emotional states (e.g., hurt feelings, anger), I call attention to the aspect of sulking as a performative and communicative act. In a paradigmatic case, the sulker occupies a position of vulnerability and hands over the position of power to the recipient of their sulking, who has discretion over whether to notice and attend to the sulker’s needs. However, this dynamic is no longer preserved when sulking is deployed in an antecedently uneven playing field (e.g., in the context of pre-established status hierarchies). I argue that in such a context, sulking functions as a deceptive form of powerplay that reinforces the unjustly uneven power relations between the sulker and their target audience.

Microaggressions and Modern Discrimination

Clinical and social psychology commonly treats microaggression as a sub-set of modern discrimination, a covert form of discriminatory behavior motivated by an individual actor’s subconsciously held discriminatory beliefs and attitudes. Against this view, I argue that we should understand microaggression as an umbrella concept that includes both modern discrimination and other subtler types of injustice not motivated by an individual actor’s objectionable beliefs and attitudes, subconsciously held or otherwise. This claim follows from my defense of a functional account of microaggression, which defines microaggression based on its distinctive function in sustaining oppressive structures. In particular, I argue that microaggression should be defined by its role of normalizing discriminatory treatments of socially marginalized groups while effectively policing any non-conforming responses.

Blame and Discursive Injustice

Quill Kukla (2014) describes discursive injustice as a systematic inability of socially disempowered groups to produce certain kinds of speech acts. I argue that blaming as a performative act of protesting is subject to discursive injustice. Blaming issued by structurally marginalized groups, especially in response to subtly oppressive practices (e.g., microaggressions) is likely to suffer from uptake failures in both of its core contents: (i) asserting of an offense being committed and (ii) protesting against the identified offense. A popular solution to this problem of uptake failure is to deny or reduce the role of uptake in generating the performative force of a speech act. I argue that while uptake still plays an essential role, some important kinds of illocutionary acts (e.g., refusing or blaming) can gain their performative force via securing self-generated uptake, a speaker’s own recognition of what they are doing and what their speech can achieve. I end by discussing why it is still challenging to secure self-generated uptake in the cases of blaming.

Current Projects in Applied Epistemology

Answerability, Attributability, and Responsibility for Believing

I respond to Pamela Hieronymi (2008)’s claim that responsibility for believing is grounded in our answerability, understood as our ability to provide what we take to be evidential reasons for beliefs. I argue that cases of genuine doxastic partiality require that we form partial beliefs toward our loved ones based on what we take to be non-evidential reasons for these beliefs. These cases call for an expanded sense of answerability, understood as our ability to provide both what we take to be evidential and what we take to be non- evidential reasons for beliefs. I further examine the possibility of moral responsibility for our beliefs that are attributable to us and yet for which we are not answerable even in this expanded sense.

Believing for the Reasons of Love

I use David Auburn (2000)’s play Proof as a central case study to expand on the idea that properly carving up room for love and friendship in our epistemic lives may require more than having the right kinds of beliefs about our loved ones; it may require that we form such beliefs for the right kinds of reasons. Otherwise, our beliefs, like our actions, could be subject to what Michael Stocker (1976) described as moral schizophrenia, a disharmony between what we do/believe and why. I further argue that such reasons—which I tentatively call reasons of love—do not neatly fit into the existing dichotomy between evidential and pragmatic reasons for beliefs. If so, embracing the possibility of genuine doxastic partiality will demand that we expand this taxonomy.

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