Mckenna's Chapter 6: Sections 1 and 2 - Part 2 - Ethics Essay Example

The purpose of this essay is to identify Michael McKenna’s plans for the first half of chapter six (consisting of two sections) in Conversation and Responsibility are to guide us through a desert thesis for blame through his conversational theory of moral responsibility and to also identify the harmfulness in blame. I will explain different desert theses that McKenna portrays in the first section of the chapter and then I will talk about the harm in blaming in the second section.

In section one, McKenna attempts to find a desert thesis for blame. In the previous chapter, we learn there are two interpretation of deserved blame, the axiological claims and the deontological claims; the former is the study of value whereas the latter deals with duties. An axiological claim is to say it is good to blame someone and a deontological claim is to say it is right to blame someone. He also claims that the consequences of deserved blame are important considerations, but more importantly he questions how one can make the judgment of what is to be deserved of a wrongdoer.


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He presents an example about a man who is in solitary confinement for several years. He is restricted from social contact and closed off from the world, resulting in loneliness and alienation. A consequentalist interpretation would indicate that the loneliness and alienation supplies the man with a negative value or disvalue, and McKenna adds a numerical scale by suggesting the man has a negative value of one hundred units. McKenna then gives us a different case where a woman is raped, resulting in lifelong emotional scars. The negative value caused by the lifelong emotional scars can be said to be a thousand units. He then tells us that the man is in solitary confinement because he is the one who raped the woman. According to consequentalist though, there is only more negative value because causing harm to a wrongdoer only causes the numerical units of value to add up to 1100 units, eventually causing a higher negative value than it otherwise would have been. McKenna says one who believes a desert thesis is rooted from axiology would reject the consequetalist view. The man’s suffering does have a negative value but the world is better off with him in solitary confinement than if he did not suffer from raping the woman.

I argue for the axiological consideration that it is intrinsically good if the man is kept in solitary confinement due to his act of rape. The consequentalist’s view, that confining him and making him suffer will only aggregate the overall negative value of the world, could take into account the possibility of the man raping more women if he is not confined; however Scanlon and Wallace do not take that into account. In that case, the negative value of the victims increases at a drastic pace since the consequences of rape for the victims are a thousand negative units each. Keeping the man confined is only a hundred units and thus is a better option if the concern is to reduce the overall negative value.

I will now introduce the first and most basic desert thesis that McKenna proposes but does not quite defend: it is a noninstrumental good that, in return for a harm wrongly inflicted, a wrongdoer is harmed. He calls this the AD or axiological-desert thesis. Although this thesis claims that a wrongdoer is to be punished, there isn’t proportionality. The punishment for the wrongdoer is not the same as the action, as in the previous case of rape, he committed. The axiological desert thesis does not say the rapist should get raped. This would just cause more negative value and no good to society if the rapist is not confined; this would cause more negative value in the sense that he will have lifelong emotional scars but also that since the punishment was that he be raped and not confined, there is the possibility of him raping more people. Hence, there is the possibility of the overall negative value increasing once again and possibly even more so this time because one has to also take into account the thousand negative units the rapist received from being raped himself. This makes the ‘an eye for an eye’ statement very difficult to uphold if vengeance is only going to cause more harm than good, especially since vengeance is a highly personal and individualistic action taken upon the reactive attitude of anger.

McKenna then interprets the case of the rapist in solitary confinement deontologically. So he makes the case if it is one’s duty to punish the rapist. This brings forward the second thesis: one who wrongly harms another ought to be harmed. He calls this the DD thesis or the deontological-desert thesis. Like McKenna did with the axiological-desert thesis, he does not attempt to defend this thesis either. He provides a different version of the deontological-desert thesis which he claims is weak: it is permissible to harm one who wrongly harms another. He calls this the WDD thesis or the weak deontological-desert thesis. In the case of the rapist, this thesis just says it is possible and one is allowed to harm the rapist but it is not mandatory, contrary to the deontological-desert thesis. The weak deontological-desert thesis gives one the option of harming or not harming the rapist; thus it provides an opportunity for forgiveness, if the victim chooses to do so.

McKenna ultimately reaches to a conclusion in the first section of this chapter by identifying a proper desert thesis: because it is a noninstrumental good that, in return for a harm wrongly inflicted, a wrongdoer is harmed, it is permissible to harm one who wrongly harms another. He calls this the AWDD thesis which is a combination of the axiological-desert thesis and the weak deontological-desert thesis. Like the theses previously mentioned, there is no proportionality involved, unlike a retributivist thesis.

I will now introduce the second section of this chapter where McKenna is concerned about the harmfulness, if any present, in blaming. McKenna rejects the view of Feinberg, Scanlon, Wallace, and Zimmerman that implicates suffering in a desert thesis. McKenna says this is misleading and exaggerated as most of us view suffering as intense emotional or physical pain, whereas it could just be a small amount of pain on the large scale of suffering. He also makes note that the amount of blame deserved for an action is difficult to determine. McKenna claims harm is not as exaggerated as suffering is so there are two ends to the scale, giving us a more realistic view.

However, McKenna does not disregard suffering completely as he says one cannot suffer without them being aware of it, unlike harm. One can be harmed unknowingly. He then attempts to define harm as an action that goes against someone’s interests. Agreeing with Thomas Nagel, McKenna says harm should include deprivation and having possibilities taken away from you that you otherwise would have. Depriving the person of those possibilities is harmful to the person. McKenna also claims that it is too simplistic to identify someone’s interests by that individual’s desires as they might desire something that is not in their best interest and vice versa.

McKenna attempts to explain the harm in blaming by providing sufficient conditions to hold someone morally responsible for a blameworthy act. Alan holds Brenda morally responsible and blameworthy for stealing if (1) Alan believes Brenda is blameworthy for stealing, (2) Alan endorses the moral basis for judging that stealing is morally wrong, (3) Alan desires that Brenda not have stolen, (4) Alan’s reason for desiring that Brenda not have stolen is that conditions 1 and 2 are satisfied, and (5) because conditions 1 through 4 are satisfied, Alan is either disposed to regard and in some cases respond to Brenda negatively, or believes that it would be appropriate to do so. McKenna argues that blaming is more complicated than just holding someone responsible for a wrong action. One will have a negative action toward the wrongdoer, regardless of how the wrongdoer responds to the blame. He introduces overt blame and private blame. Overt blame is blaming someone and explicitly holding the wrongdoer responsible by having a negative reactive attitude. Private blame is blaming the wrongdoer but not explicitly holding them responsible by the lack of a negative reactive attitude. McKenna however also talks about the possibility of a wrongdoer being harmed by someone else’s private blame toward them. He claims it is possible because the wrongdoer might not be benefitted from positive opportunities given by the person who is privately blaming them due to the person’s hostility or resentment toward the wrongdoer.

McKenna claims that the reactive attitudes that are expressed in interpersonal relationships that we engage in each day are important because they are motivators in allowing one to express resentment and letting others know they are being resented or blamed. Like the conversational model, these reactive attitudes that are being expressed are a way of communication, just like two people (or more) having a conversation, where opinions and ideas are exchanged and shared. When one blames another person for an action, the person being blamed will express some emotion and either defend himself/herself or acknowledge his/her wrongdoing, while expressing regret and they may apologize. McKenna argues the harm in blaming is that once one is blamed, the blameworthy person’s values or judgments are being challenged, leading to a stronger or a weaker relationship between the blameworthy person and the person doing the blaming. If my best friend blamed me for stealing, I could either appreciate her blame towards me because she is trying to help me out, or I could become defensive which could lead to a strain in the friendship; blaming is risky, especially if there are relationships that need to be invested in. Emotions are bound to run high on both ends, the blameworthy person and the person being blamed are going to have strong emotions, especially if the blameworthy person becomes defensive and attacks the person blaming him or her. The defensive mechanism is to protect one’s ego from sadness, as it is disappointing and hurtful to learn someone is angry with you. My aim of this essay was to identify Michael McKenna’s plans for the first half of chapter six (consisting of two sections) are to guide us through a desert thesis for blame through his conversational theory of moral responsibility and to also identify the harmfulness in blame. I provided several different desert theses that McKenna portrays in the first section of the chapter and then I talked about the harm in blaming in the second section. A future goal would be to research and study what other contemporary moral philosophers think of a conversational model and the harm in blaming. Questions:

Which thesis of blame do you find most plausible and why?
After McKenna’s explanation of why private blame can still be harmful to whoever is being blamed, do you still agree private blame can illicit harm to whoever is being blamed?

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