Cross-posted from my personal blog.
Here are two premises I firmly believe:
Premise 1: Normatively, psychological harms matter.
Premise 2: Descriptively, an individual's ideology will change her affective response to events.
From these, there arises a dilemma: who is to blame when psychological harm to an individual arises as a result of the victim's ideology? In this post, I explore the this dilemma by:
First, sketching the relationship between emotion and ideology.
Second, proposing two extreme approaches to it and rejecting each.
Finally, proposing and exploring a middle-ground framework to addressing harms resulting from affective ideologies.
The history of humanity is littered with conflicts driven by ideology, with emotion acting as a bridge from belief to action. The Catholics and Lutherans believed the Anabaptists to be a threat to their religious-political order and so tortured and executed them, doubtlessly experiencing a variety of emotions in the process. Bigotry-derived disgust drove homophobia and anti-miscegenation laws. Belief in a threat to the American way of life drives anti-immigrant hate-crimes. And so on . . .
The path from belief to emotion to action is not necessarily a conscious or a unidirectional one. Nor are the above examples intended to diminish participants' moral responsibility or downplay the role that (flawed) reasoning played in them. It is simply to note an obvious truth: for most of these atrocities, a certain set of underlying beliefs ("ideology") created an emotional response that (further?) motivated harmful action.
Of course, affective ideologies can be a positive force as well: ideologically derived hope, optimism, love, and so on can motivate the best human actions. And in a Humean sense, the path from ideology to affect appears to be more of a result of human psycho-biology rather than one of logical necessity. The psycho-biological nature of affective ideologies also means the mapping from belief to affect is messy and often inscrutable.
But the simple fact is this: adopting an ideology changes the way you react to events in the world, including emotional reactions. Observers with different ideologies will often have very different reactions to the same set of facts.
Furthermore, it is clear that many affective states are morally relevant. All else equal, most people disprefer states like sorrow, disgust, anger, annoyance, and so forth. These states are usually inherently unpleasant to experience. They might be instrumentally useful (e.g., in motivating good action), and some philosophers would argue that a minimum mix of all is necessary to living a fulfilled human life, but on the margin and all else equal reducing these unpleasant affective states is morally valuable.
Two Extreme Approaches
Extreme Approach One: Reject Premise 1
One seemingly easy way out of this dilemma is to simply reject the idea that psychological harms matter. However, this obviously will not do for a number of reasons.
The first is that it simply contradicts important first moral principles, like the inherent badness of pain. Anyone who has suffered from a serious mental illness can tell you that it is no less real or bad than physical pain, though it may be qualitatively different. Pain is bad, whether physical or mental.
Furthermore, the boundary between psychological and physical pain may be hard to define given that all pain signals ultimately manifest in the brain via physical interactions of nervous cells, neurotransmitters, and so on.
Finally, many moral judgments can make sense only if we accept the relevance of psychological pain. In the abstract, most would condemn actions that had no physical harm but caused needless mental harm. Moral judgments of things like bullying and verbal abuse also make sense only to the extent we allow psychological harms to "count."
It may be tempting to limit the set of morally relevant psychological harms to mental illnesses. But this is unworkable too. First, this gets the direction of causality wrong: surely what constitutes a mental illness is determined by normatively relevant mental harm, not the reverse. Second, categorizing such phenomena as "mental illness" has more to do with the correct approach to remedying a psychological harm rather than whether such harm is real or relevant: a "mental illness" categorization means the tools of psychology and psychiatry might help remedy the harm. Third, we make no such distinction with physical pain: a punch is bad if it causes pain, not iff it creates a medical condition. I see no reason for a similar distinction with mental pain.
So even though the more callous among us may wish to write off all affective harms, I do not see a way they can plausibly do so.
Extreme Approach Two: Naïve Accounting of Psychological Harms
The second extreme approach, and one that I see embraced a lot, is to naïvely count all affective outcomes of an action as the morally relevant consequences of that action. Thus, if Penny takes action A that causes an emotional harm H to Desmond, all of H is included in the set of morally relevant consequences of A. Thus, Penny is morally responsible for all of H.
I see several problems with this, but the biggest is this: while it's true that H is a consequence of A, it is also the result of Desmond's psychology. If H is the result of some aspect of Desmond's psychology over which he has control, then **there is a prima facie case that Desmond is also (at least partially) responsible for H. Generally: if an affective harm H is the result of both non-psychological and psychological factors, **it is not immediately obvious that only the non-psychological factors are morally relevant causes of H. This is especially true when the affected party has some control over their own psychology.
We apply a similar standard to physical harms. Suppose Jack cuts Kate. Suppose that Kate then neglects to bandage the wound, neglects to keep it clean, and develops an infection. Suppose Kate further refuses medical treatment and then dies. Jack clearly has some responsibility in this situation, but so does Kate. Kate was reckless in her refusal to respond appropriately to the situation, and the harm was worse as a result.
So too with many psychological harms: external actions can cause such harms, but the underlying psychology of the victim also plays a role. Insofar as the victim can preventatively or remedially alter their own psychology such that the harm is reduced, they may be under an obligation to do so, and failure to do so may absolve the offender of some or all of their responsibility.
As I will argue in the next section, the choice of our ideology may be one such controllable aspect of our psychology.
To be very clear, I think many people of all political orientations are guilty of this. Many on the right fear terrorism much more than the objective threat of physical harm therefrom suggests they should. Many marginal anti-terrorism measures would therefore have to be measured on ameliorating the fears of terrorism, rational or not. On the left, psychic harms from many supposedly offensive actions are a good example of this: for some offended reactions, it's not clear to me whether such reactions are in fact justified or reasonable and therefore ought to be considered in toto.
I think all of this has a more pernicious effect than just bad blame assignment in individual cases. Naïve accounting of psychological harms (including unwillingness to ask individuals to change their psychology) causes affectively expensive ideologies  to propagate, which leads to supraoptimal restrictions on physical actions. This works thus ("Naïve Assignment Framework"):
- Psychological harm H is the result of an external act A and the victim's psychology Ψ
- By supposition, Ψ cannot be blameworthy cause of H
- Therefore, A is the sole morally blameworthy cause of H
As compared to a framework where we allowed Ψ to be a morally blameworthy cause of harms in at least some cases (as I argued above must be allowed), this framework for assigning moral blame will shift more blame onto people taking external actions. It is therefore supraoptimally restrictive of external actions, and suboptimally restrictive of affectively expensive ideologies. This causes those expensive ideologies to propagate more than they would under a better blame-assignment framework.
More perversely, it incentivizes moral actors to adopt affectively expensive ideologies, since those ideologies are in effect subsidized by the Naïve Assignment Framework.
I think that most people would agree that the Naïve Assignment Framework makes little sense in apolitical contexts. For example, if I have an intense irrational negative reaction to some arbitrary, normally benign word, I can hardly un-forewarned blame strangers for harming me by using it in my presence. In more intimate settings, and depending on the word, it may be reasonable for me to expect others to avoid using that word, especially if it is the result of a mental illness. Even so, they may also be justified in using it if, for example, after several years I have made no attempt to cure my phobia despite my ability to cheaply do so.
A Better Framework
If naïve accounting of psychological harms as described above is inappropriate, what's a better approach? The unglamorous answer is to carefully analyze the costs to changing both A and Ψ to minimize harm.
We can borrow some lessons from the economics of tort law here. Tort plaintiffs have a duty to take reasonable efforts to mitigate harms that befall them. Similarly, individuals who find themselves psychologically malaffected may be reasonably expected to take reasonable efforts to mitigate the psychic harms. In tort, a plaintiff may also be comparatively negligent in causing her own injury, thus reducing the defendant's liability. So too for psychic harms, the victim may be comparatively responsible by, say, knowingly holding an unreasonable and fixable ideology that causes her to be excessively susceptible to psychic harms.
None of this deductively proves that in most—or even any—cases the victim of a psychic harm should bear most of the blame. Nor does it imply that the current assignment of blame in popular discourse is too biased in any particular direction. Instead, in any particular case of psychic harm, the proper assignment of blame will depend on the particular nature of the harm and the act that caused it.
Here, another tort concept is useful: the least-cost avoider. Developed by judge and legal scholar Guido Calabresi, the idea is that, under certain assumptions, the person who should bear liability for an injury in tort is the person who could have avoided the injury at the least cost. Applying the same principle to the psychic harms dilemma, we would say that the person who ought to bear the moral "liability" for a psychic harm (and thus be blamed for it) is the person who could have avoided the harm at the least cost. In some cases, this will be the external actor, but in some cases it will be the victim, who may have been able to avoid the harm by adjusting her psychology.
In estimating the costliness of psychological changes, one should account for the instrumental values of emotions. Negative emotions can warn us about possible unavoidable dangers and motivate us to combat injustices. Reshaping one's psychology to diminish these instrumental uses could be very costly—to both the individual and society—indeed. Yet, we must also be careful to avoid circularity here: if a psychic reaction at t1 is justified due its instrumental relationship to a further psychic state at t2, the cost of avoiding the psychic state at t2 must also be accounted for.
Furthermore, it is also quite possible that many psychic harms are practically unavoidable from the victim's perspective. It is difficult to imagine a well-functioning human who was indifferent to intense verbal degradation, for example. We should assume that the cost to the victim of avoiding nearly universal traits of human psychology is quite high, if it's even possible.
At this point, one might object that reshaping one's psychology is impossible. However, I see no reason to think that. We know that this sort of reshaping—learning to have appropriate emotional reactions and so on—is a normal part of growing up. And we know that psychiatric techniques like cognitive-behavioral therapy can be quite effective at helping patients develop healthier emotional responses.
Better Affective Ideologies
By now I hope I have convinced you that:
- Psychic harms matter, and
- The victim of a psychic harm is sometimes (at least in theory) morally responsible for (at least some of) mitigating or at least bearing the cost of that harm.
So how does this cash out in terms of constructing an ideology?
Ideally, one's ideology (and broader psychology), including its affective components, should allocate the burden of avoiding psychic harms to the person who can avoid them at the least cost.
So, I encourage readers to try to identify psychic harms that they can avoid at low total cost, both in themselves and in others. A trivial example might be negative reactions to a neighbor winning the lottery and becoming rich. Being a bit more polite and kind to others might be another. Even better would be increasing positive reactions to others' happiness, even when doing so is not intuitive.
In general, a zen-like reaction may be perfectly achievable and instrumentally acceptable for many circumstances.
To the extent your ideology demands instrumental affective reactions, try to do the following:
- Maintain proportion between the intensity of the negative affective reaction and the harm it is supposed to protect against.
- Consider the costs—to others and to society as a whole—of avoiding triggering those reactions.
If you are accused of causing psychological harm, you should take such accusation seriously (as you would with physical harms). You should acknowledge that there are costs of improving one's own psychology, including real monetary costs for things like therapy and the psychological cost of doing the difficult work of changing one's emotional instincts. But you should also feel morally licensed to ask whether the victim can bear the moral burden of dealing with those costs better than you.
In this post I’ll talk mostly about psychological harms, rather than psychological pleasures, even though I think both are morally relevant. I do this because I see psychological harms brought up in public discourse more often than psychological pleasures. However, the framework here is relevant to both. ↩︎
This may generalize to those aspects of an individual’s psychology over which the individual has some control. I sometimes use the concepts interchangeably, but focus on ideology because I think that it’s most relevant as a matter of public reason. ↩︎
To be clear, none of this is to deny that it is theoretically possible (and may in fact have been the case that) for some, these actions were motivated purely by argument and not emotion. However, intuitively that was probably only a tiny minority of cases, if any. For most people, emotion mediates many actions. ↩︎
Some people will be worried I am “blaming the victim” here. A couple responses: First, some victims are in fact blameworthy. When I fell off my electric scooter because I was not being careful, I became a blameworthy victim. Second, blame is properly assigned when such assignment incentivizes harm-minimizing behavior. In this example, we ought to blame Jack some (and maybe even most) because unprovokedly cutting people is generally not justified, and blaming him discourages that bad behavior. But we also ought to incentivize people to remedy and minimize harms that befall them, and so after the harm has befallen Kate, we can blame her for unreasonably failing to do so. Third, blaming a victim for failing to take reasonable remedial steps does not necessarily absolve the original perpetrator of their portion of blame, as in the Jack and Kate example. ↩︎
Similarly, victims are not responsible for inevitable physical harms. ↩︎
By which I mean, ideologies which cause their adherents to suffer more affective harms than they might otherwise. ↩︎
Memetically, those ideologies also often benefit from the fact that they are both ideologically expensive and tend to endorse and propagate the Naïve Assignment Framework. They thereby shape the memetic ecosystem to be more accommodating to them, the way a human erects walls and roofs to make her ecosystem more accommodating. ↩︎