Miranda Fricker is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Sheffield, and will move this September to take up a position at CUNY Graduate Center in New York. Her research is mainly in Moral Philosophy, and Social Epistemology with a special interest in virtue and feminist perspectives. Currently a Leverhulme Major Research Fellow she is working on a book on blame and forgiveness. She is the author of Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing (2007); and co-editor of a number of edited collections. She was Director of the Mind Association 2010-2015; and now serves as Moral Philosopher on the Spoliation Advisory Panel, a UK government body of expert advisers that considers claims concerning loss of cultural property during the Nazi era. She is an Associate Editor of the Journal of the American Philosophical Association.
Blaming and Forgiving
Thanks for inviting me to contribute—I’ve really enjoyed reading other entries too.
I’m working on blame and forgiveness at the moment, trying to give them a unified treatment, as I believe that together they do the lion’s share of constructing shared moral understandings, and hence a shared moral world. (Moral realists can reserve the right to conceive of such shared moral understandings as matching up to moral reality, or not; others may think that the question of morality’s reality or otherwise becomes otiose once we have achieved a sufficiently vivid picture of the mechanisms through which a shared moral outlook is socially constructed and, shall we say, made real on the basis of what people are capable of experiencing as wrongful.)
How does blame work to generate shared moral understandings? Through communicating blame to a wrongdoer, a hurt party can ‘remind’ the culprit of reasons she recognises but which she failed to act on. In such a situation the relevant shared moral understanding pre-exists the communication of the blame, but it is re-affirmed and underlined. Alternatively, and more intriguingly, however, blame can do more than affirm a pre-existing shared understanding, for if the wrongdoer does not currently recognise the reason that the wronged party is insisting on, then still she may be brought to recognise it through the communication of the blame. Bernard Williams has identified this ‘proleptic’ mechanism of blaming (Williams 1995), and I have tried to develop it a bit (Fricker 2014). But what I want to emphasise is that when blame is communicated to someone who does not yet recognise the relevant reasons, but is caused in some measure to come to recognise the reason by being on the receiving end of the blame, then shared moral understanding is actively generated—the proleptic mechanism is a mechanism of causal social construction. Treating someone as if she recognised a given moral reason can bring it about that she really does.
What about forgiveness? How does forgiveness work to generate shared moral understandings? I will confine myself to the kind of forgiveness that is sometimes called ‘unconditional’, or ‘elective’. I shall label it Gifted Forgiveness. Like blame, it can only serve to generate shared moral understanding if it is actually communicated to the relevant party; though unlike blame the creation of shared moral understanding is not its most basic aim or purpose (I won’t trouble readers here with my view of what its most basic purpose is). Instead Gifted Forgiveness brings shared moral understanding through a special sort of presupposition. Let me explain. In Gifted Forgiveness, the hurt party eschews any stance of moral demand (‘you must say you’re truly sorry first!’) and instead simply forgives even the completely remorseless culprit regardless. But what’s intriguing about this kind of forgiveness is that its very lack of demandingness (its unconditionality) can itself inspire remorse in the culprit, sometimes more effectively than the demand for it—explicit demands do have a tendency to inspire a hardening of hearts and further entrenchment, whereas conversational presuppositions tend to inspire accommodation (see Langton 2015). The moral genius of Gifted Forgiveness is that it tends to cause remorse in the culprit, precisely by not demanding it. And remorse for a wrong done is (or at least tends towards) shared moral understanding with the wronged party. That’s how forgiving generates shared moral understandings. Another process of causal social construction—you treat the culprit as if she’s remorseful, and this causes her to really become remorseful.
All this is very telescoped, but I hope it’s enough to give the general idea of how both Communicative Blaming and Gifted Forgiving can be plausibly represented as basic interpersonal moral mechanisms that literally socially construct shared moral understanding. In taking this general approach of looking to identify the basic moral role of these practices I am effectively going in for what Edward Craig called ‘practical explication’ (Craig 1990)—I ask what do blaming and forgiving do for us? What role do they play in our moral life? I like this perspective for many different reasons, but one of them is that I think it helps keep philosophy on the ground, involved in real, contingent human practices. It thereby helps bring into view certain possibilities of what we might call the social geography and history of blaming and forgiving. It does this because there can be social contexts—those of inequality—where the interpersonal mechanisms of communicated blaming and forgiving are socially stratified, in that they can only achieve their proper purpose between some groups, while others are excluded. For example, if a wrong you suffer is not collectively understood or conceptualised partly because people like you are hermeneutically marginalised (you don’t get to participate equally in the generation of shared social meanings) then not only do you suffer what in other work I’ve called a hermeneutical injustice, but the basic practice of Communicative Blame in which you are trying to take part cannot serve its proper point: no shared moral understandings can be generated in this instance owing to the hermeneutical injustice that is unfairly keeping the wrong obscured from shared understanding. This is just one way in which inequality can cause extended distortions in a shared moral outlook, and it is why the equal participation in the communicative aspects of shared moral production are so important.
So moral engagement is important—we need to communicate our experiences of being wronged, and we all need to facilitate others in their efforts to do so. But it is a matter of balance too. Moral engagement need not be our full-time job, for it must compete with other interests and values for our time, effort, and attention. Morality is always there whether we attend to it or not. The moral meanings of our actions may or may not elude us, or bother us, but they are what they are. Ignoring them certainly cannot make them go away. However the business of interpersonal communicative moral engagement is not quite like that. It permits a certain optionality. Moral engagement—the communication of moral demand either immediately in Communicative Blame or as merely presupposed in Gifted Forgiveness—takes energy and time. It often has interpersonal and emotional costs, so that sometimes it just isn’t worth it. Sometimes there are more important things to put our time and energies into. This is, I believe, a profoundly important fact of life, and one that philosophy often forgets. I hope that taking the approach of practical explication to our practices of blaming and forgiving can help us reserve a philosophical space for that optionality, and indeed a real-life space for it too, so that moral engagement can find a sensible weighting in our lives. Most of the time we engage each other morally in the face of wrongdoing (and sometimes we absolutely must, no matter how costly and difficult that may be); but there are occasions when it’s better, all things considered, to just let it go. I believe that bearing in mind this element of optionality in how we relate to the demands of moral engagement in the face of wrongdoing is an important aspect of our freedom.
Craig, Edward (1990) Knowledge and the State of Nature: An Essay in Conceptual Synthesis (Oxford: Clarendon Press)
Fricker, Miranda (2014) ‘What’s the Point of Blame? A Paradigm Based Explanation’, NOÛS, 50 (1) 165-183; 2014
Langton, Rae (2015) Accommodating Injustice, John Locke Lectures ms
Williams, Bernard (1995) ‘Internal Reasons and The Obscurity of Blame’, in Making Sense of Humanity and other philosophical papers 1982-1993 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)