Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Excuse Me?

“I never knew!” That was my go-to excuse when I was a kid. Whenever I was caught doing something I wasn’t supposed to be doing, I would try to absolve myself from blame by suggesting that I didn’t know that I was doing something wrong. I thought that I shouldn’t be blamed if I didn’t know any better. But excuses come in many shapes and sizes. And in this blog post, I’m interested in a different kind of purported excuse: “I was manipulated!” Is manipulation a legitimate excuse?

A number of philosophers have suggested that being manipulated can excuse one from blame or responsibility. But many of these focus on bizarre thought experiments—involving evil neurosurgeons that can implant desires (Pereboom 2001) or omniscient demigods that can create an evil person by creating a particular zygote under deterministic conditions (Mele 2006). I tend to agree with the sentiment recently expressed by Prof. Merriam that we should be somewhat skeptical about what we can learn through such fanciful thought experiments, but the idea that manipulation diminishes or eliminates blameworthiness can be found is more realistic thought experiments.[1] One of Derk Pereboom’s cases (case 3 in his famous four-case argument against compatibilism) is not so outlandish:

       “[Plum] was determined by the rigorous training practices of his home and community so that he      is often but not exclusively rationally egoistic… His training took place at too early an age for him to have had the ability to prevent or alter the practices that determined his character… He has the general ability to grasp, apply, and regulate his behavior by moral reasons, but in these circumstances, the egoistic reasons are very powerful, and hence the rigorous training practices of his upbringing… result in his act of murder. Nevertheless, he does not act because of an irresistible desire.”

Plum ends up committing murder; he kills White for selfish reasons. To make the case even more forceful, let’s stipulate that Plum’s manipulators’ intentions were nefarious. They purposefully raised and trained him this way because they wanted him to end up killing White.

Many seem to think that Plum is not fully blameworthy, or at least less blameworthy than he would have been had he not been intentionally manipulated by some other agents. For some reason, if an agent was influenced by an intentional manipulator then she seems less blameworthy than she would be sans manipulator.

Note that the difference in blameworthiness cannot be accounted for by a difference in the actual psychologies of the agent in question. Empirical tests suggest that people tend to judge X as less blameworthy than Y when X and Y have identical psychologies and perform identical action types, but differ only in their personal histories where X’s psychology was partially due to intentional manipulation and Y’s psychology was not (Phillips and Shaw 2015).

This raises an important question. How can two people with identical psychologies performing identical action types in identical contexts not be identically blameworthy? This is difficult question for those who claim that being manipulated is a legitimate excuse. If two people have identical psychologies and perform identical action types, then it seems they should both be blameworthy to the same degree. However, if we accept this, then we must deny that manipulation is a legitimate excuse. And if we deny that manipulation is a legitimate excuse, then we have some explaining to do: if manipulated agents are blameworthy, why are we inclined to blame them less when we find out that they’ve been manipulated?

I think that manipulation is not a legitimate excuse. Plum is just as blameworthy for killing White as he would have been sans manipulation. And to meet the explanatory burden of why we’re tempted to think that manipulation diminishes responsibility, I have some suggestions.

First, I think that we downplay the blame of some agents in our search for ultimate blame. When someone is manipulated we take note that the manipulated agent becomes something like a pawn in the manipulator’s game. Suppose X manipulates Y into doing Z. When I ask whether Y is responsible for doing Z, I am tempted along this line of thinking: “It’s not really Y’s fault. X is the one to blame!” I think this line of thinking is misguided since it is possible for there to be plenty of blame and responsibility to go around—both X and Y can be blameworthy. But, when assigning blame, I am inclined to be most angry with the person that is ultimately responsible for whatever happened and I think that this clouds my judgment about the blameworthiness of the pawns.

Second, it’s important to note that the practice of blaming involves the moral emotions; it involves negative attitudes like resentment or indignation—what P. F. Strawson called reactive attitudes. To blame someone is not merely to have a belief about them; it is to take a negative affective stance toward them and regard them as deserving of some form of punishment. But there are other moral emotions, too. If someone is wronged, we feel sadness or compassion for them. And the manipulated agent occupies a strange place for our moral emotions. He is deserving of indignation and resentment, but he is also deserving of sadness or compassion; he is both victim (of manipulation) and victimizer (by committing the wrong that he was manipulated into doing). These moral emotions are in tension and I suspect that the compassionate attitude is inappropriately diminishing the indignation.

So if you don’t like what I’ve said here, you can blame me—even if I was manipulated into writing this.

Timothy Houk
Department of Philosophy
University of California, Davis

[1] Also, in criminal law a defendant’s adverse past is sometimes used as a kind of excuse to suggest that the defendant is less blameworthy or should get a more lenient sentence (Vuoso 1987). Although an adverse past is not exactly the same as being manipulated, I think these excuses share similar features.


  1. Thanks for this, Tim. I wonder if you have a similar or symmetrical view when the manipulation in question is not towards doing something potentially blame-worthy, but towards doing something potentially praise-worthy...and the question is how to (as we say) "give credit where credit is due."

    An example may help. Beauchamp and Childress, in their book Principles of Biomedical Ethics, say this:

    “we define “paternalism” as the intentional overriding of one person’s preferences or actions by another person, where the person who overrides justifies this action by appeal to the goal of benefitting or of preventing or mitigating harm to the person whose preferences or actions are overridden.” (208)

    Now, then. Imagine a nurse named who wants to manipulate a patient for her own good. While she is asleep, he hides her cigarettes, her chewing tobacco, and her alt-right newspaper; and puts in their place a fresh banana, a breath mint, and a crisp copy of The Wall Street Journal. When she awakes, she enjoys the banana, the mint, and the journal, and has a much better stay in the hospital than she otherwise would have. Manipulation, right? Should we credit the nurse, or the patient, or both for the outcome?

    1. Great question! I'm inclined to hold the symmetrical view about praise. We're praiseworthy even if we're manipulated into doing the praiseworthy thing. Your described case about the nurse might complicate the matters, because part of the nurse's manipulation involved hiding things, which might have rendered smoking a non-option. And if smoking was not a real option for the patient, then she is not praiseworthy for avoiding something that she had no option of doing.

  2. Thanks for your contribution, Timothy. I am inclined to agree with you here on blameworthiness, but a few questions come to mind.

    1) You stipulate that he has been shaped by his community in such a way that (it seems) does not include murder as an amoral activity. If he has the ability to decide on morally charged basis, and does not share our same moral view, is it then only blameworthy to us that hold different moral truths?

    2) Children (particularly boys) in parts of Africa are kidnapped and indoctrinated at very early ages and given automatic weapons, with which, they are taught to be lethal. Are these children, who have now been manipulated into atrocities and essentially know no different, equally as blameworthy as Plum?

    These questions do seem to carry with them a sort of emotional pull towards compassion for the manipulated. Is there, then, a grey area in which blameworthiness *can* be rationally decided by our compassion, or, does our emotion make it irrational, to not blame the actor, under every circumstance?

    1. Really interesting points, Kris. To your first point, I happen to that people can be blameworthy even if they don't hold the relevant moral beliefs about what they did. But I don't think that position is required for my view. In the case of White, it's stipulated that he can appreciate and understand moral reasons. And (I didn't make this explicit in the post) we can stipulate that he believes it's wrong to murder, but he gives that judgment very little weight in his deliberation.

      To you second point, I'm not really sure what to think there. I think you might have offered a nice real-world counterexample to my view. But there is an important thing to note. Some people might be manipulated so badly that their capacity to even understand right/wrong and their ability to respond to moral reasons is broken. In that case, they might not be blameworthy, but it's not merely because they were manipulated. It's because they were manipulated to the point of lacking the relevant capacities required for blame. But notice that if that's the explanation, then the excuse is not "He was manipulated." The excuse is "He couldn't have done/known better given is broken capacities.

  3. I agree, but I'm worried that your second explanation is incomplete. If the manipulee is properly deserving of sadness/compassion in a way that an unmanipulated someone with the same psychology who did the same action isn't, then why *shouldn't* that mitigate or diminish the anger/resentment emotions we feel towards the former?

    Also, I thought you might be interested in this new Netflix show: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=doFpACkiZ2Q

    1. Kyle, I just watched that trailer. Amazing. I think it's a horrible thing to do to a person, but I plan to watch the show as soon as possible.

      To your first point, that's a fair point, but I'm curious to hear what you think about the following. Suppose, as you suggest, that someone's deserving of sadness/compassion *should* change whether they are deserving of resentment/anger. Consider a case where someone is manipulated and they do something wrong, but they're not manipulated into doing something wrong. That is, they are deserving of compassion and deserving of resentment, but for two totally unrelated reasons. For example, suppose that (without manipulation) I attack a person. I'm blameworthy and deserving of resentment. Later that night, I get manipulated into giving way hundreds of dollars by some internet scammer. In this scenario, I'm deserving of both indignation/resentment and sadness/compassion. And it would be a poor excuse for me to say, "Don't be mad at me for attacking that guy. I ended up getting scammed later." I think that this suggests that merely being deserving of sadness/compassion is not sufficient to mitigate being deserving of blame. Now, perhaps in some cases it should mitigate it. But it's not clear why it should do so.

  4. Hi Tim,

    A lot of good stuff here, but I want to focus on one minor bit:

    "Note that the difference in blameworthiness cannot be accounted for by a difference in the actual psychologies of the agent in question. Empirical tests suggest that people tend to judge X as less blameworthy than Y when X and Y have identical psychologies and perform identical action types, but differ only in their personal histories..."

    I think it's a leap to say that because these tests show that people TEND to judge X as less blameworthy than Y, that therefore we CANNOT account for the difference in the actual psychologies of the agent. Maybe 'the folk' are wrong here and the best accounting of this difference is simply not intuitive to many people.

    1. Great point. I have some reservations about what X-phi work like this should mean for philosophers because, like you said, the folk could be wrong here. What I meant to be suggesting here is the following: one might think that our tendency to judge manipulated agents as less blameworthy is due to our thinking that there must be some difference in their actual psychologies (from non-manipulated agents). But this experimental data shows that the intuition persists even when people are offered cases where the only relevant difference between two cases is manipulator's intention.