Wednesday 12 June 2024

Responsible Agency and the Importance of Moral Audience

Today's post is by Anneli Jefferson and Katrina Sifferd. Anneli is a lecturer at Cardiff University who works in the philosophy of psychology, moral philosophy, and the intersection of the two. Katrina is Professor and Chair of Philosophy at Elmhurst College. In this post they discuss their recent paper in Ethical Theory and Moral Practice.


Anneli Jefferson


Accounts of responsibility often underestimate the importance of the social environment. Other people are vital to the development and maintenance of moral agency: As social beings, we calibrate our moral compass to our moral audience. When deciding whether it is acceptable to eat the last piece of cake, not to disclose extra earnings on a tax return or spank our children as a form of punishment, we do this with an eye to what’s considered acceptable by our social environment. The reactions of others highlight the existence and importance of moral norms by providing us with feedback, directly and indirectly.


Katrina Sifferd


One account that does take an ecological approach is Victoria McGeer’s scaffolded reasons-responsive view; she argues that what makes us morally responsible agents is precisely that we are susceptible to being held to account and to adjust our moral judgment and actions in the light of moral feedback. However, this view faces certain challenges. First, some agents (e.g. autistic people) seem less attuned to the reaction of their (neurotypical) social environments but are generally no less moral and law abiding. Second, in some cases moral audiences can give morally bad feedback: for example, they can encourage misogynistic or racist behaviour. In a recent article we advocate for an ecological approach to responsibility that recognises the importance of moral audiences and attempt to answer these two concerns.

We argue that audience feedback in the form of blame and praise, reward and punishment plays both an informational and a motivational role in moral agency. The informational role – where we are given information about what is right and wrong – is more central in moral development and when facing new moral challenges. The motivational role remains relevant throughout our lives and keeps us in alignment with our social environment. 

Autistic persons form social attachments and are motivated to align themselves with moral expectations. They also make use of the informational role in development, although sometimes moral feedback will have to be more explicit than it might otherwise be. Autistic individuals may however be less reliant on social feedback for ongoing calibration of behavior and rely more on moral rules and principles. As we have discussed elsewhere, this may not be a weakness, and can in some cases be a strength, especially when it comes to avoiding the human tendency for moral slippage and making exceptions to moral rules (e.g., “Half the people I know lied on their tax forms, why shouldn’t I?”).

The human tendency for moral slippage is well illustrated in scenarios where societal sub-groups justify behavior that is in tension with their professed values, or when new problematic values are acquired from one’s social environment. This is the second challenge to ecological accounts: moral audiences can shape us in problematic ways. Think about the way people’s moral views can shift to accommodate current interests. One prominent example is the disconnect between climate commitments and actual behaviour. 

Flying is socially acceptable despite our keen awareness of climate change. More extreme examples are those where societies or subgroups of society adopt norms that justify oppression. A historical example was the widespread acceptance of slavery; current day examples include the views of Incels, who create a self-reinforcing social environment that justifies misogyny and violence towards women. Being a social creature that calibrates their moral compass to what is being reinforced in one’s immediate social environment is a risky business.

This doesn’t mean that ecological views of responsibility are psychologically incorrect. Our moral agency is dependent on societal audiences, for better or worse and to varying degrees. Given this, it is important to be aware that moral audiences are limited in their outlook, and that one good place to look for possible sources of those limitations is self-interest. We also ought to evaluate our moral norms for consistency, and to seek out new moral audiences, especially audiences comprising of those who may be negatively impacted by our behaviour.