«INTRODUCTION Norms govern actions in all walks of life. For better or worse, we are capable of violating these norms and do so frequently. When we do ...»
Criticism and Blame in Action and Assertion
Institute of Philosophy, KU Leuven
Institute of Philosophy, KU Leuven
Arché Research Group, University of St. Andrews
Norms govern actions in all walks of life. For better or worse, we are capable of violating
these norms and do so frequently. When we do break the rules, we are criticisable for breaking them. Sometimes, we are even deserving of blame. However, the latter is not always the case. Often enough we violate rules and still walk free of blame. The compulsive and small children are paradigm cases of blameless violators of norms.
While it is widely accepted that norms can be violated blamelessly, and while there is a pretty reasonable understanding of when this happens implicit in the literature, there are few if any explicit accounts.1 This paper supplies this lack. Its first main ambition is to develop a normative framework for action in general including detailed accounts of criticisability, blamelessness and blameworthiness (section 1).
A specific type of action that has received a considerable amount of attention in recent epistemology is the speech act of assertion. Assertion is an action. And since actions in general are governed by norms, it will come as no big surprise that assertion makes no exception on this front. However, it is widely agreed that there is a norm associated with assertion in particular. More specifically, it is thought that there is an epistemic norm governing assertion. This means that there is such a thing as epistemic permissibility and impermissibility for assertion. In particular, it is often thought that
assertion is governed by a rule of the following form:
The C Rule of Assertion One must: assert that p only if p has C.2 While many contributors to the debate on norms of assertion subscribe to The C Rule of Assertion, there is no consensus on the identity of the crucial property C. According to the perhaps most prominent account, C is the property of being known by the speaker. In other words, The Knowledge Rule of Assertion (KRA) One must: assert that p only if one knows that p.3 We accept KRA. Our second aim in this paper is to apply the normative framework to the case of assertion. We will argue that this allows its champions to defuse a prominent line of objection against KRA, which ventures to show that KRA’s knowledge requirement on permissible assertion is too strong (section 2).
Finally, we will go even one step further and provide reason to believe that the argument against KRA can be turned on its head. With the normative framework from section 1 in play (and given a couple of further plausible assumptions), the cases that are supposed to show that KRA is too strong can be shown to confirm KRA and to disconfirm rival views.
I. CRITICISMS AND BLAME: A BASIC NORMATIVE FRAMEWORKI.1. Criticisability and Norm- Specific Blamelessness. It is widely acknowledged in the literature that a permissible action is a blameless action. This applies at the level of specific norms such as the rule of Uno requiring players to call Uno when playing their penultimate card. If you do call Uno when playing your penultimate card, your action is permissible by this norm and so blameless relative to this norm.
Consider next a situation in which a particular norm is violated. Say, you played your penultimate card without calling Uno. You violated a rule of Uno. If so, you can, of course, be prima facie legitimately criticised for violating this norm. In the Uno case, we may do this for instance by saying: “You didn’t call Uno!” Even so, it may be that you violate a norm and yet you are blameless for so doing.
If so, you are also, of course, blameless relative to this norm. More specifically, there are three ways in which this may happen.
One way of blamelessly violating a particular norm is through overriding.4 This happens when the requirements of the norm you are violating are in conflict with the requirements of another norm that takes precedence in the situation. For instance, suppose you are playing a game of Uno and are required by the rules of Uno to call Uno when playing your next card. Suppose, at the same time, someone will kill your neighbour if you do so. What the rules of Uno require of you is in conflict with the requirements of moral norms, which take precedence here. In other words, moral norms override the rules of Uno. When, because of this, you go on to violate the rules of Uno, you do so blamelessly.
The second way of blamelessly violating a norm is by violating it because5 your action is not under your control. Suppose, for instance, that you have been brainwashed by your guru not to call Uno when playing your penultimate card. Here you violate the rule but are clearly blameless for doing so.
Finally, the third way manifests itself in situations in which you violate a norm because you are unaware that this is what you are doing.6 Suppose, for instance, that you are unaware that the rules of Uno require you to call Uno when playing your penultimate card. As a result, you do not do so. In this case you violate a rule of Uno. Again, you are blameless for doing so. Ignorance excuses also.
With regard to the second and the third way of blamelessly violating a norm, some qualifications are needed. To see why, suppose that you knew that you would undergo brainwashing were you to go back to your guru. You had also promised not to go back. However, you went anyway. The impermissible act you are made to perform may be out of your control. Even so, you are blameworthy (see below) for another act, going back to your guru, of which the impermissible act is a consequence. As a result, you are not blameless for violating the rule of Uno. Strictly speaking, then, lack of control excuses only when it is itself blameless.
Similarly, suppose that, in our toy case, you had promised to read up on the rules of Uno before playing but did not do so. In this case, you are unaware of the relevant rule of Uno. Even so, you are blameworthy for another act (in this case an omission), your failure to read up on the rules of Uno, of which your failure to call Uno is a consequence.
As a result you are not blameless for not calling Uno. Strictly speaking, then, ignorance excuses only when it is itself blameless.7 In sum, then, we want to propose the following account of blamelessness with
respect to specific norms:
Norm-Specific Criticisability An agent is prima facie legitimately criticisable relative to a specific norm N for
(2.c) because the agent is blamelessly ignorant that ϕ-ing violates N.
On this account, an action can be criticisable relative to a specific norm and, at the same time, blameless relative to that very same norm. While this may look odd at first sight, on reflection, it is entirely as it should be. Actions are often performed in the public sphere and, as such, are observable by others, who may pick up the forms of behaviour exhibited. When you fail to call Uno when playing your penultimate card and so violate a rule of the game, this may be observed by someone else who will pick up your behaviour and, as a result, may violate the rule in the future, too. By allowing for criticisms of actions that violate specific norms we can work against the spread of norm-violating forms of behaviour. Since this is a good thing, it makes sense for us to allow for such criticisms. At the same time, we may also want to grant that a norm has been broken blamelessly by the agent. We do not want to hold the norm violation against her: she was blamelessly ignorant, things were blamelessly out of control and so on. If so, there is excellent reason for us to allow criticisability relative to a specific norm and blamelessness relative to the very same norm to coexist.8 I.2. All-Things Considered Blamelessness and Blameworthiness. Thus far we have looked at the blamelessness of an action with respect to specific norms. However, it is common to distinguish between assessments of actions with respect to specific norms and all-things-considered assessments of actions. All-things-considered assessments take into account the entire normative profile of an action and assesses whether the action was permissible, required, or forbidden in view of its entire normative profile. Unsurprisingly, then, just as an action can be blameless relative to a specific norm, it can also be allthings-considered blameless. For that reason we now want to extend the above account to all-things-considered blamelessness.
An action is all-things-considered blameless if it is all-things-considered permissible. There are, in turn, two ways in which this can happen.
First, an action is all-things-considered permissible if it is permissible by all the specific norms that apply to it (henceforth also fully permissible for short). Suppose you call Uno when playing your penultimate card and thus comply with the rules of Uno.
Suppose, in addition, you do not thereby violate any practical and moral norms and that no other norms apply to your act. Then your calling Uno is all-things-considered permissible.
Second, an action is all-things considered permissible if it is permissible by all (non-overridden) overriding norms that apply to it. Suppose you do not call Uno when playing your penultimate card and thus violate a rule of Uno. Suppose, in addition, you violate a practical norm in so doing: you will be punished and are less likely to win. At the same time, your neighbour will die if you call Uno and so calling Uno is prohibited by moral norms. Suppose there are no further norms applying to your action. In order to save your neighbour’s life, you do not call Uno. In this case, your action is all-thingsconsidered permissible. The moral norms override the norms of Uno and the practical norms (without being themselves overridden by further norms) and your not calling Uno is permissible by the moral norms.
To repeat, what we have seen now are two ways in which an action can be allthings-considered blameless in virtue of being all-things-considered permissible. That said, even an action that is all-things-considered impermissible can be all-thingsconsidered blameless. What we want to suggest is that an all-things-considered impermissible action is all-things-considered blameless if the action is blameless relative to all specific norms that apply to it. Suppose that you play your penultimate card without calling Uno. However, this is because you are blamelessly unaware that there is a rule requiring to you call Uno when playing your penultimate card. Suppose that your action is permissible by moral and practical norms and that there are no further norms applying to your action. In this case, you are all-things-considered blameless for not calling Uno.
Since your act is permissible by moral and practical norms, it is blameless relative to these norms. Since you do not call Uno because you are blamelessly unaware that there is a rule requiring you to do so, you are blameless relative to this rule. Since these are all the rules that apply to your action in this case, your action is blameless relative to all specific norms that apply to it. So, it is all-thing-considered blameless.
Finally, an agent is blameworthy if and only if she is not all-things-considered blameless.
In sum, we want to propose the following:
All-Things-Considered Blamelessness An agent is all-things-considered blameless for ϕ-ing iff (1) ϕ-ing is all-things-considered permissible (that is, either fully permissible or permissible by all (non-overridden) overriding norms that apply to it) or (2) ϕ-ing is all-things-considered impermissible but the agent’s ϕ-ing is
All-Things-Considered Criticisability/Blameworthiness An agent is blameworthy for ϕ-ing iff she is not all-things considered blameless
It may be worth noting that, according to this account, criticisability occurs at the level of assessments by specific norms. In this way, it is fine-grained, as it were. In contrast, blameworthiness occurs at the level of all-things-considered assessments and so is coarse-grained. Blamelessness can occur at both levels.
This completes our normative framework for criticisability, blamelessness, and blameworthiness. We would like to emphasise once more that this is a perfectly general framework, in the sense that it applies to action in general. That said, in what follows, we would like to apply the framework to a particular type of act, to wit the speech act of assertion. More specifically, we will first look at a famous problem for KRA and then show that the above framework serves to offer an appealing solution to it.
II. AN APPLICATION: ASSERTIONII.1. The Case Against KRA. There is a prominent line of argument aiming to show that KRA is mistaken. More specifically, it ventures to show that KRA’s knowledge requirement on assertion is too strong. In order to achieve this, foes of KRA adduce cases in which a speaker is said to make a permissible assertion, whilst not knowing what they assert. Crucially, evidence that the assertion is permissible is supposed to reside in the fact that the relevant speakers are not deserving of criticism or alternatively that they are blameless. Here are some characteristic statements of the
I shall show that there are cases in which a speaker asserts that p in the absence of knowing that p without being subject to criticism in any relevant sense, thereby showing that knowledge cannot be what is required for proper assertion.9 [I]f breaching a rule makes one blameworthy, which typically it does, then, [in the relevant cases], on the knowledge account, the asserter comes out as being blameworthy, contrary to intuition.10 The classical cases that foes of KRA have adduced against KRA are cases in which speakers assert (i) justified false beliefs and (ii) gettiered beliefs as well as (iii) cases of
selfless assertion. By way of illustration, consider the following examples: