Careful philosophical thinking can have significant implications for public policy and for leadership. With this in mind, I’ve spent much of my time thinking about the nature of moral standing or authority, and what it takes to have the moral right to hold others accountable. While this is an interesting question in its own right, it has practical upshots in leadership and public policy. After all, leaders need this sort of moral standing to be effective ethical leaders.
Perhaps one of the most important themes I have found for moral standing is that of consistency. To have the moral standing to blame, for instance, one must not be hypocritical in blaming others. The explanation for this, I argue, lies in the fact that in one’s dispositions to blame inconsistently, one rejects the equality of persons–the very grounding of one’s right to blame in the first place.
Notably, this idea of consistency has implications for public policy. Drawing on my work on moral standing, I argue that the state’s moral authority to punish is seriously undermined by the state’s inconsistency in the way it punishes individuals for the same crimes. People of color and impoverished offenders are punished more often and more severely than white or wealthy offenders who commit the same crimes. Consistency is important for our policies regarding conscientious objection as well. Although many states in the US allow health care professionals to refuse to provide an abortion on grounds of conscience, the same privileges are not included in recent heartbeat laws that have been passed in the South outlawing abortion after a heartbeat can be detected. I argue that if we protect a professional’s right to refuse to provide an abortion for reasons of conscience, consistency demands that we also protect a professional’s right to provide an abortion for reasons of conscience where it is otherwise illegal. The alternative would be unjustified hypocrisy.
Of course, being inconsistent isn’t always necessarily a bad thing, nor is it always hypocritical. Sometimes leaders will grow and morally progress, and their past positions will be inconsistent with their current ones. It may take courage for leaders to evolve on an issue, and it’s important to give them the space to change their minds without reflexively labelling them hypocrites.
While that is a brief overview of some of my work, I include below a full list of publications with abstracts, followed by work in progress. Please cite published versions of papers, and feel free to contact me if you have trouble accessing a paper.
“Understanding the Dangers of Mind Changes in Political Leadership (and How to Avoid Them),” (forthcoming). Social Theory and Practice.
Political leaders may change their mind about a policy, or even a significant moral issue. While genuinely changing one’s mind is not hypocritical, there are reasons to think that leaders who claim such a change are merely hypocritically pandering for political advantage. Indeed, some social science studies allegedly confirm that constituents will judge political leaders who change positions as hypocritical. Yet these studies are missing crucial details that we normally use to distinguish genuine mind changers from hollow hypocrites. These details suggest ways in which political leaders can communicate that their mind change is genuine without necessarily being judged hypocritical.
“A Standing Asymmetry Between Blame and Forgiveness,” (with Daniel Miller) (2022) Ethics 132(4): 759-786.
Sometimes it is not one’s place to blame or forgive. This phenomenon is captured under the philosophical notion of standing. However, there is an asymmetry to be explained here. One can successfully blame, even if one lacks the standing to do so. Yet, one cannot successfully forgive if one lacks the standing to do so. In this article we explain this asymmetry. We argue that a complete explanation depends on not only a difference in the natures of the standing to blame and forgive but also a difference in the natures of blame and forgiveness themselves.
“Two Problems of Self-Blame for Accounts of Moral Standing,” (with Daniel Miller) (forthcoming). Ergo.
Traditionally, those writing on blame have been concerned with blaming others, including when one has the standing to blame others. Yet some alleged problems for such accounts of standing arise when we focus on self-blame. First, if hypocrites lack the standing to blame others, it might seem that they also lack the standing to blame themselves. But this would lead to a bootstrapping problem, wherein hypocrites can only regain standing by doing that which they lack the standing to do. Second, in addition to hypocrites, there may be hypercrites, who blame themselves more severely than others. Leading accounts for why hypocrites lack standing to blame others would also seem to imply that hypercrites lack the standing to blame others, but some may find this counterintuitive. We argue that neither of these problems from self-blame poses a unique threat to leading accounts of standing.
“Unjustified Asymmetry: Positive Claims of Conscience and Heartbeat Bills,” (2021). American Journal of Bioethics 21(8): 46-59.
In 2019, several US states passed “heartbeat” bills. Should such bills go into effect, they would outlaw abortion once an embryonic heartbeat can be detected, thereby severely limiting an individual’s access to abortion. Many states allow health care professionals to refuse to provide an abortion for reasons of conscience. Yet heartbeat bills do not include a positive conscience clause that would allow health care professionals to provide an abortion for reasons of conscience. I argue that this asymmetry is unjustified. The same criteria that justify protecting conscientious refusals to provide abortion also justify protecting positive conscientious appeals regarding abortion. Thus, if the law provides legal exemptions for health care professionals who, as a matter of conscience, refuse to provide abortions where it is legal, it should also provide exemptions for health care professionals who, as a matter of conscience, feel obligated to provide abortions where it is illegal.
Substantive discussion in the following Open Peer Commentaries:
- McLeod, Carolyn. (2021). “Justified Asymmetries: Positive and Negative Claims to Conscience in Reproductive Health Care.” The American Journal of Bioethics 21(8): 60-62.
- Eberl, Jason. (2021). “What Makes Conscientious Refusals Concerning Abortion Different.” The American Journal of Bioethics 21(8): 62-64.
- Wicclair, Mark. (2021). “Conscience Clauses and Ideological Bias.” The American Journal of Bioethics 21(8): 65-67.
- Brummett, Abram. (2021.) “Putting the Asymmetry Debate in Its Place.” The American Journal of Bioethics 21(8): 68-69.
- Vaughan, David Michael and Lisa Campo-Engelstein. (2021). “Conscience Claims and Cost: Tribunals and the Asymmetry Debate.” The American Journal of Bioethics 21(8): 70-72.
- Kim, Eric and Kyle Ferguson. (2021). “Does Medicine Need to Accommodate Positive Conscientious Objections to Morally Self-Correct?” The American Journal of Bioethics 21(8): 74-76.
- Mathison, Eric. (2021). “The Wrong Argument for a Bad Law.” The American Journal of Bioethics 21(8): 77-79.
- Miller, Daniel. (2021). “Justifying Positive Appeals to Conscience: The Debate We Can’t Avoid.” The American Journal of Bioethics 21(8): 79-81.
“When Hypocrisy Undermines the Standing to Blame: A Reply to Rossi,” (with Daniel Miller) (2019). Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 22(2): 379-384.
In Fritz and Miller 2018, we offer an argument for the Nonhypocrisy Condition on the moral standing to blame. Benjamin Rossi 2018 raises several criticisms of our view. He argues that our account of hypocrisy fails, and thus that we cannot explain why certain hypocrites lack the standing to blame. Here we defend our account from Rossi’s criticisms and emphasize the account’s unique advantage, namely, explaining why hypocritical blamers lack the standing to blame.
“The Unique Badness of Hypocritical Blame,” (with Daniel Miller) (2019). Ergo 6(19): 545-569.
It is widely agreed that hypocrisy can undermine one’s moral standing to blame. According to the Nonhypocrisy Condition on standing, R has the standing to blame some other agent S for a violation of some norm N only if R is not hypocritical with respect to blame for violations of N. Yet this condition is seldom argued for. Macalester Bell points out that the fact that hypocrisy is a moral fault does not yet explain why hypocritical blame is standingless blame. She raises a challenge: one must explain what is distinct about hypocritical blame such that the hypocritical blamer lacks the standing to blame, even if the arrogant or petty blamer does not. Of those writing on hypocrisy, only we offer a direct response to Bell’s challenge. Recently, however, our account has come under criticism. We argue here that (1) our account can handle these criticisms and that (2) no other rival account adequately addresses Bell’s challenge of explaining what is uniquely objectionable about hypocritical blame. Because answering Bell’s challenge is a necessary component of any plausible account of the relationship between hypocrisy and standing, our account remains the best on offer.
“Hypocrisy, Inconsistency, and the Moral Standing of the State,” (2019). Criminal Law and Philosophy 13(2): 309-327.
Several writers have argued that the state lacks the moral standing to hold socially deprived offenders responsible for their crimes because the state would be hypocritical in doing so. Yet the state is not disposed to make an unfair exception of itself for committing the same sorts of crimes as socially deprived offenders, so it is unclear that the state is truly hypocritical. Nevertheless, the state is disposed to inconsistently hold its citizens responsible, blaming or punishing socially deprived offenders more often or more harshly than other offenders, even when the crimes are the same. The state’s stable disposition to inconsistently hold offenders responsible undermines its standing to hold offenders responsible for the same reasons that hypocrisy undermines standing; instead of making an unfair exception of itself, the state makes an unfair exception of others. Strikingly, this means that the state lacks the standing to hold anyone responsible for a crime for which it is unfairly disposed to hold citizens responsible inconsistently, not just socially deprived offenders. Thus, it is even more urgent that the state regain its moral standing by working toward a justice system that holds offenders responsible consistently.
“Moral Responsibility, Voluntary Control, and Intentional Action,” (2018). Philosophia 46(4): 831-855.
Many theorists writing about moral responsibility accept that voluntary control is necessary for responsibility. Call such theorists volitionists. Recently, volitionism has been called into question by theorists I call nonvolitionists. Yet neither volitionists nor nonvolitionists have carefully articulated a clear volitionist thesis, nor have they sufficiently explained the concept of voluntary control that somehow seems connected to volitionism. I argue that attempts to explain the volitionist thesis, voluntary control, and their relation are more problematic than have previously been recognized. Instead, I recommend understanding volitionism in terms of intentional actions and omissions. This understanding has several benefits. It clarifies the debate and its parameters, it avoids the problematic notion of voluntary control while relying on the clearer notion of intentional action, and it highlights that the debate between volitionists and nonvolitionists essentially concerns the nature and scope of obligations. As a result, understanding volitionism in terms of intentional actions and omissions can help breathe new life into the volitionist debate.
“Hypocrisy and the Standing to Blame,” (with Daniel Miller) (2018). Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 99(1): 118-139. (online 2015)
Hypocrites are often thought to lack the standing to blame others for faults similar to their own. Although this claim is widely accepted, it is seldom argued for. We offer an argument for the claim that nonhypocrisy is a necessary condition on the standing to blame. We first offer a novel, dispositional account of hypocrisy. Our account captures the commonsense view that hypocrisy involves making an unjustified exception of oneself. This exception‐making involves a rejection of the impartiality of morality and thereby a rejection of the equality of persons, which we argue grounds the standing to blame others.
Substantive discussion in:
- Lipper-Rasmussen, Kasper. (forthcoming). “Praising Without Standing.” The Journal of Ethics.
- Todd, Patrick, and Brian Rabern. (forthcoming). “The Paradox of Self-Blame.” American Philosophical Quarterly.
- Rossi, Benjamin. (2021). “Hypocrisy is Vicious, Value-Expressing Inconsistency.” The Journal of Ethics 25(1): 57-80.
- Lippert-Rasmussen, Kasper. (2020). “Why the Moral Equality Account of the Hypocrite’s Lack of Standing to Blame Fails.” Analysis 80(4): 666-674.
- Piovarchy, Adam. (2020). “Hypocrisy, Standing to Blame, and Second-Personal Authority.” Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 101(4): 603-627.
- King, Matt. (2020). “Attending to Blame.” Philosophical Studies 177(5): 1423-1439.
- Rossi, Benjamin. (2020). “Feeling Badly Is Not Good Enough.” Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 23(1): 101-105.
- Todd, Patrick. (2019). “A Unified Account of the Moral Standing to Blame.” Nous 53(2): 347-374.
- Riedener, Stefan. (2019). “The Standing to Blame, or Why Moral Disapproval Is What It Is.” Dialectica 73: 183-210.
- Rossi, Benjamin. (2018). “The Commitment Account of Hypocrisy.” Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 21: 553-567.
- Roadevin, Cristina. (2018). “Hypocritical Blame, Fairness, and Standing.” Metaphilosophy 49: 137-152.
“Responsibility for Wrongdoing Without Blameworthiness: How it Makes Sense and How it Doesn’t,” (2014). Philosophical Quarterly 64(257): 569-589.
Some writers, such as John Fischer and Michael McKenna, have recently claimed that an agent can be morally responsible for a wrong action and yet not be blameworthy for that action. A careful examination of the claim, however, suggests two readings. On one reading, there are further conditions on blameworthiness beyond freely and wittingly doing wrong. On another innocuous reading, there are no such further conditions. Despite Fischer and McKenna’s attempts to offer further conditions on blameworthiness in addition to responsibility for wrongdoing, I argue that only the innocuous reading is plausible. Once we distinguish between blame being deserved and blame being all-things-considered appropriate, we need not appeal to further conditions on blameworthiness. This discussion has important upshots regarding how compatibilists respond to certain manipulation arguments and how proponents of derived responsibility respond to criticism that agents are responsible even for outcomes that are not reasonably foreseeable.
Commentaries and Responses
“Finding Our Balance in the Asymmetry Debate,” (2021). The American Journal of Bioethics 21(8): W4-W7.
In “Unjustified Asymmetry: Positive Claims of Conscience and Heartbeat Bills,” I argue that positive claims of conscience, or conscientious commitments, should be respected in the case of abortion if negative claims of conscience, or conscientious refusals, are. Writers have raised a variety of challenges to my argument. I offer preliminary responses to those challenges and highlight key themes for future discussion.
“The Importance of Rights to the Argument for the Decriminalization of Drugs,” (2021). The American Journal of Bioethics 21(4): 46-48.
In “Racial Justice Requires Ending the War on Drugs,” Brian Earp and colleagues argue that personal use or possession of all currently illicit psychoactive substances should be immediately decriminalized, because criminalization of drugs harms drug users and communities, and it feeds systemic racism. While I agree that we should end the war on drugs, I argue that the disproportionate harm to people and communities of color shows only that current drug policy must change, not necessarily that drugs must be decriminalized. Prohibiting drugs is a massive rights violation, and this reason justifies ending the war on drugs rather than adopting weaker policy reforms. Even so, the disproportionate harm to people and communities of color does justify reparations for the drug war.
Below are brief descriptions of projects I’m currently working on. If you’d like to read any drafts of work in progress, please contact me.
“The Weight of Integrity: Conscience, Complicity, and Moral Standing”
Some have argued that if conscientious objections are not honored, individuals may be forced to be complicit in wrongdoing. This complicity, like hypocrisy, would undermine the individual’s moral standing. I argue that this reasoning rests on a mistake regarding the nature of hypocrisy and how it undermines moral standing.
“Retributivism and the Black Box of Prisons”
Retributivists believe that punishment must be deserved and proportional to the offense. While many have focused on whether punishment is deserved, I argue that the proportionality constraint creates a significant problem for retributivists when it comes to prisons.
“The Problem of Nonvoluntary Blame” (with Daniel Miller)
It can be impermissible to blame some agent, even if they are blameworthy. This view leads to a dilemma regarding the nature of obligation, since blame can be voluntary or nonvoluntary. Ultimately, we argue that neither solution to the dilemma is without its costs.