Featured Philosop-her: Julia Driver

I am very happy to welcome Julia Driver as the next featured philosop-her.  Julia Driver is a Professor of Philosophy at Washington University in St. Louis.  She has published articles in normative ethics, meta-ethics, and social and political philosophy.  Her work in normative ethics has focused on consequentialist accounts of moral evaluation and virtue theory; in meta-ethics she has published in moral epistemology, particularly on the topic of moral expertise; and more recently she has begun working on the topic of moral complicity.

Her post follows.


I’d like to thank Meena for the opportunity to post on some of my more recent work.  Lately I’ve been thinking and writing about moral complicity. I became interested in the topic in thinking through how to handle morally fraught social interactions.  The typical case I have in mind is a situation in which one feels compelled to speak out against something on pain of losing at least a bit of one’s integrity.  This is an example of what I term tolerance complicity:  one is tolerating the wrong-doing by not speaking out.  Other cases of complicity involve active participation: conspiring to commit murder, or plotting a robbery.  In most cases of both tolerance complicity and participation complicity pro tanto wrong-making features in these cases are easily discerned:  for example, when one is complicit one is contributing, causally, to the production of a harm or to the likelihood that a harm will be produced, either directly or via a failure to intervene.

However, there are cases in which tolerating and even participating in wrong-doing will not contribute to any appreciable harm because resistance simply has no effect, and yet complicity in such cases still seems quite wrong.  For example, there may be situations in which one reasonably believes that speaking up and challenging the speaker will not change the speaker’s mind, or have any impact on the speaker’s behavior, or the attitudes and behavior of others, and it still seems (pro tanto) wrong not to speak up.  Someone who believes that moral considerations are not exhausted by considerations of whether or not a course of action is, or is likely to, produce some bad effects will point out that if one rejects consequentialism (the view, that roughly, the moral quality of an action is completely determined by its consequences), one will not have a problem with these sorts of cases.  This is because there are other wrong-making features of actions and inactions to consider:  one such feature might be the expression of a bad attitude, for example.  Failure to speak out might be expressive of an insufficient concern for the well-being of others.  However, this response from non-consequentialists only offers a partial solution because there are other cases in which participation in wrongdoing occurs in which a person cannot be said to be expressing or exhibiting a failure of concern for the well-being of others.  Such cases come off as disingenuous, but are certainly possible.  Imagine a person, Rebecca, who is strongly against sweatshop working conditions and the exploitation of workers – she believes that such systems are immoral.  They lead to suffering and misery.  One might think that, given such beliefs and attitudes Rebecca would be committed to, at the very least, not purchasing any clothing made in sweat shops.  However, Rebecca also believes that her purchase of a blouse from a very large organization that employs sweatshop labor will make no difference at all to the production practices of that organization.  It is simply not sensitive to the purchase of a single blouse.  Thus, she believes that were she to purchase the blouse she would not be making any difference at all to the suffering of workers.  She cares about them.  She just doesn’t think that anything she does on any single occasion makes any difference to them.  Most of us would still regard the purchase as morally problematic, even granted that she is not contributing to suffering, and the action does not express a failure of concern for the well being of others.  If she buys such a blouse, knowingly, she is complicit in the exploitation.  One strategy in such cases is to try to locate some other morally significant attitude: perhaps it isn’t enough to be concerned for the well being of others, but also to be concerned about things like the symbolic value or significance of one’s own actions; or be concerned about honoring the good (rather than simply promoting it).  What makes purchasing the blouse complicity in wrongdoing is that it dishonors those who have been exploited in the production of the blouse.  Someone was exploited:  not someone will be exploited.  Again, however, Rebecca notes that it is often the case that people will argue that once something bad has happened – if there is no chance that using the bad event will encourage further bad things to happen – then it is okay.  Some vegetarians, for example, think that it is perfectly morally permissible to eat the extra chicken airline dinner that will just be tossed if one doesn’t eat it.  They would never think it okay to eat if eating it has any chance of harming future chickens – but if it doesn’t, then no harm done.

The natural intuition that people have with such cases is to hold that we need to regard our actions not in isolation, but as part of collectives or groups.  How might we do this?  One suggestion is that we view complicity as a matter of how a person intends to act – does she intend that her action be ‘part of’ the production of a harm?  This would give us a standard for complicity that focuses on an internal psychological state of the agent – her intention.  What would be wrong is to intend to be part of the production of a harm.  However, this doesn’t seem to fit Rebecca either.  She does not in any way intend that her action of buying a blouse be part of the production of the harm of exploitation of workers.  Further, given the specification of actual production practices assumed in this discussion, she is right that she makes no difference.  So, a person can be part of a problem even if she doesn’t intend to be part of anything that produces a harm.  One line of thought I’ve been pursuing is to hold that there are two sides of ‘expression’ both of which are relevant:  the causal side:  the expression is caused by an attitude, for example, and then the take-up side: the expression is taken up, or characteristically taken up in a certain way by the audience.  What agents need to be sensitive to is not simply how their actions are intended, but how others could reasonably construe their actions.

4 responses

  1. Hi Julia,
    I want to ask for a clarification about the idea of a pro tanto wrong making feature. I understand your motivation for that qualifier; we need to leave open that in certain contexts complicity is not wrong. However I have two worries about the notion of a pro tanto wrong making feature of an act. First, this is how I understand the notion of a pro tanto reason. It is a reason for an action that can be outweighed by a reason, or reasons, to not perform the action. So, a pro tanto reason genuinely speaks in favor of the action, however, the balance of reasons favors not doing the action. I can understand how a reason can be outweighed, but I can’t understand how a property can be outweighed. The weighing metaphor doesn’t seem to work in that case. Second, and relatedly, it seems that if at the end of the day it turns out that a certain act of complicity is not wrong, then that the act does not have the wrong-making feature that it appeared to have. (This suggests, perhaps, that “prima facie” is the better term here, since that term suggests that something appears to be wrong which turns out not to be wrong.) I don’t see how an act can retain its wrong-making feature but also be right, but that’s what “pro tanto” seems to suggest. Thanks for a very interesting post.

  2. Hi Cindy,

    Thanks for the great questions. Yes, I need to stick to just talking about pro tanto reasons. I wanted to convey the idea that even though an act may be an act of complicity, it may not be a wrongful act of complicity if it turns out to be the best option open to the agent at the time of action. I actually think that complicity is somewhat like causation in that it is all over the place, but certain salient features of actions in a given context make us focus on some acts rather than others — . But an action can have certain features that are wrong-making and still be right (maybe I’m not using the words very well, however) — in that, the action can have terrible consequences, let’s say, just not as bad as the only alternative open to the agent. I guess ‘making’ shouldn’t be viewed as implying something decisive. But I may just change the wording if it is going to mislead people. Thanks again —

    • Thanks, Julia. I don’t know much about the metaphysics (for lack of a better term) of these issues–hence my question. I am reminded of the paper we heard recently about the multiplicity of wrong-making features. The author was clear that she thought that there are different wrong making features that an action might have, but she did not think that a particular action could have multiple wrong making features. Of course, this is different than an action having both wrong and right-making features, as you suggest. I was also reminded of the talk about collective harm; the author argued, as I recall, that standard ways of understanding the individual agent’s contribution to a collective harm were problematic; it would seem to follow that consequentialist ways of understanding what’s wrong with complicity might be vulnerable to the same worries.

      • Yes, the problem outlined here is often presented as a problem peculiar to consequentialist accounts. But I think it is a general problem, and I think the speaker you mention has the same opinion.

%d bloggers like this: