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Being true to your true self

Huckleberry Finn, when faced with the opportunity to turn in the slave Jim, is tortured about what to do. At first he leans in favor of turning him in, because Jim is someone else’s property. And as he was taught in Sunday school, acting as he had been toward Jim was what got people sent to hell. But he can’t stop thinking about Jim’s companionship on the river, and how Jim had been nothing but kind to him all along, a real source of comfort and friendship. So Huck, with trembling hands, finally declares, “All right, then, I’ll GO to hell,” and decides not to turn Jim in. In doing so, Huck rejects his upbringing, societal norms, conscience, and eternal happiness (so he thinks). He clearly thinks he is doing the wrong thing. We, by contrast, know he is not.

Now consider JoJo, who is the son of a cruel dictator on an isolated island. JoJo adored his father, and because he was exposed only to his father’s values, when JoJo grew up he naturally adopted his father’s values as his own. When he came into power himself, he beat peasants on a whim, just like daddy. (This is drawn from a case by Susan Wolf.) JoJo clearly thinks he is doing the right thing. We, by contrast, know he is not.

Both Huck and JoJo do what they do out of moral ignorance. Because of their upbringing, they have each been deprived of some moral knowledge: in Huck’s case, the knowledge that slavery is wrong (and that slaves aren’t property); in JoJo’s case, that beating peasants on a whim is wrong. So what bearing might that moral deprivation and ignorance have on their moral responsibility for doing what they do?

Philosophers who work on the nature of responsibility very often insist that ignorance of the moral status of one’s action is sufficient to excuse — or at least mitigate — one from responsibility. If you didn’t know that what you were doing was wrong, after all, how could it be appropriate to hold you responsible for not refraining from doing it?  This view is thought to hold symmetrically across negative and positive cases: not only does ignorance excuse (or mitigate) one from blame for bad actions, it also excuses (or mitigates) one from praise for good actions to the same extent.

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Reflection on a droplet, by Takashi Hososhima. CC by SA 2.0 via Flickr.

This is not, however, how ordinary people view the matter. My colleague David Faraci and I have investigated the matter several times, and each time we get the same results. When asked about JoJo, people overwhelmingly think that his moral ignorance does mitigate his blameworthiness, albeit only a little bit (versus someone like him without that background). However, when people are asked about a case like Huck’s, they respond that his moral ignorance doesn’t mitigate his praiseworthiness at all; indeed, in some studies, we have found that people think his moral ignorance actually makes him more praiseworthy for what he did than a morally undeprived counterpart.

This is a very interesting asymmetry in people’s views of the role of moral deprivation in moral responsibility. It looks like it mitigates attributions of responsibility only in negative cases, when agents do something wrong. But why would that be?

Inspired by the excellent work of Joshua Knobe, George Newman, Paul Bloom, and Julian De Freitas, we have explored the issue further by asking whether people thought that the actions in question expressed the agent’s true self, the person he really is deep down inside. And did they ever! It turns out people’s beliefs about whether the action expresses the agent’s true self actually determine their answers about whether his responsibility was mitigated or not. In other words, the more people think the action expresses who the agent really is, the more they think he’s responsible for it.

Obviously, then, people tend to think that what JoJo did didn’t express who he was as much as what Huck did, despite their similar morally deprived upbringings. And a leading explanation for the different assessments is that we tend to think people’s true selves are fundamentally good. Consequently, when we do what’s bad, various factors (like a morally deprived upbringing) excuse or mitigate to the extent that they are thought to obscure the expression of our true (good) selves. But when we do something good, well, that’s just our good self shining through, regardless of our upbringing, and so our action is attributable to us for purposes of responsibility.

“If you didn’t know that what you were doing was wrong, after all, how could it be appropriate to hold you responsible for not refraining from doing it?”

The story about the good true self gains support from additional asymmetries. The most interesting ones involve people with conflicting beliefs and feelings. For example, when presented with the case of a Christian who believes homosexuality is wrong but who has homosexual feelings against which he struggles, most liberals think the feelings are more expressive of his true self, whereas conservatives tend to think not. When presented with a secular person who believes homosexuality is fine but who nevertheless struggles against feelings of disgust toward homosexuals, liberals tend to think his beliefs are more expressive of his true self, whereas conservatives tend to think it’s really his feelings that reveal who he is deep down inside. (This is from a study by Newman, Knobe, and Bloom.) So it looks as if one’s antecedent moral views determine one’s views of the true self as well as what actions reflect it.

This is really interesting and, for a cynic like me, downright puzzling. What makes it even more puzzling is that this result is found in only some asymmetries involving positive and negative agential appraisal, and it’s unclear why it’s not found across the board. Of course, it’s also unclear why moral deprivation and ignorance should be thought to block the good true self’s expression only in negative cases. And there may be other more general reasons for why we mitigate blame but not praise, having to do with the harsh treatment that typically follows verdicts of blame. And finally, what “ordinary people” think about responsibility might just be irrelevant to more considered theorizing about it. Nevertheless, these are results that need to be grappled with by theorists of responsibility in one way or another.

Recent Comments

  1. Joshua Mostafa

    The cases of JoJo and Huck aren’t symmetrical, though. There isn’t just one factor, kindness vs. cruelty. in which they differ. There’s also the extent to which each bucks convention. A symmetrical case would be one in which JoJo actually goes *against* his upbringing to be more cruel than his father, and which would indeed result in our judgement that this unconventional cruelty makes him more culpable than a merely conventional sadist.

  2. David Shoemaker

    You’re exactly right, Joshua, about the differences between JoJo and Huck. That’s why in the surveys we ran, we didn’t use those precise stories. Instead, we ran cases that were much more parallel. On the negative side, it was someone who’d been raised in a racist environment embracing racism as an adult and committing a racist act, paired with someone who’d been raised in a tolerant environment who nevertheless embraces racism and performs a racist act. On the positive side, we gave those same two backgrounds, but the actor in the first case (akin to Huck) helps a black man against what he believes he ought to do, and the actor in the second scenario knowingly embraces non-racism as an adult and helps the black man. You can see the actual scenarios here: https://www.academia.edu/9320129/Huck_vs._JoJo_The_A_symmetry_Between_Praise_and_Blame

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