This is the second part in a brief series on addiction and responsibility. The series is working off the article “Lowering the Bar for Addicts” by Gideon Yaffe. Yaffe defends two central theses in his article. They are:
Unreasonable Compliance Thesis: An addict is not responsible for violating a norm if in order to comply with that norm they must cede control of their behaviour to something that is independent of their decision-making capacities.
Substitution Thesis: In cases where standard norm-compliance would be unreasonable for the addict, there is usually a lesser norm that the addict can be held responsible for violating.
As part of his defence of these theses, Yaffe discusses alternative views on the relationship between addiction and responsibility. One of those views claims that the situation faced by the addict is akin to that faced by the person who is under duress. Both face an unreasonable burden if they comply with a norm and so both should be excused if they fail to comply. In part one, we identified some flaws in this analogy. In brief, there appear to be a number of significant structural differences between the situation faced by the addict and that faced by the person under duress.
However, Yaffe is keen not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. There is something about addiction that involves unreasonable burdens, and those burdens are relevant to responsibility. It’s just that the duress-analogy fails to specify exactly how this works. Yaffe has an alternative theory that does. In the remainder of this post, I’ll try to explain what it is.
The post is divided into three sections. The first introduces Yaffe’s concept of burdens of compensation and contrasts them with burdens of duress. The second part introduces some thought experiments that suggest that certain burdens of compensation are unreasonable and tries to specify a condition which, if met by such burdens, is sufficient to undermine responsibility. And the third part outlines Yaffe’s argument for this sufficient condition. This constitutes the theoretical core of Yaffe’s paper, all that remains to be done in the final part to this series is to explain how the sufficient condition might apply to addicts.
1. Burdens of Compensation
We all have certain innate foibles and defects that make it difficult for us to do certain things. Some of us have more of these defects than others. Usually, we accept that we have to undertake a burden to compensate or correct for these defects. Consider, for example, the man who finds it difficult to wake up and get out of bed in the morning. He has an important job and he has to make sure he is there on time. So, he finds it necessary to take steps to correct for his problem. This could consist of buying an alarm clock, getting his wife to pour cold water on his face, or something along these lines.
The man in this example faces what Yaffe calls a “burden of compensation”, which can be defined as follows:
Burden of Compensation (BoC): Is any step that an agent has to take in order to compensate for innate/intrinsic obstacles to norm-compliance.
A burden of compensation is importantly different from the kinds of burdens that arise in duress. Take the example once more of the person who is threatened with death or harm unless they agree to perform a burglary. The threat presents a burden that we would not expect the person to bear. But the burden in question would arise after the person complied with the norm, not before. This is distinct from a BoC, which arises before norm-compliance, not after. That is to say, in the case of a BoC, the agent must take on the burden in order to comply with the norm; whereas in the case of duress, the agent must breach the norm in order to avoid the burden. Whether this distinction is morally significant is questionable, but it is, at the very least, structurally different.
In addition to this, Yaffe argues that close analysis of BoCs reveal that there is sometimes a fuzzy boundary between saying that someone “Cannot do X” and saying that someone “Cannot be expected to do X”. The person who faced a BoC but did not undertake it could not have complied with the relevant norm because they then lack a certain capacity or ability. Thus, we might be tempted to say that they could not comply and so should be excused. But this is not quite right since they still had the opportunity to comply: if they had undertaken the BoC they could have complied. So what really seems to matter here is whether the burden in question was one they could reasonably be expected to bear.
2. What kinds of Burdens are Unreasonable?
Consequently, we need to figure out what kinds of burden are unreasonable. In the duress case, this might be straightforward enough: a burden is unreasonably high when the moral wrong (or harm) that would arise if one complied with the norm is greater than the moral wrong that arises if the norm is breached. So, for example, if someone is forced to commit a burglary in order to avoid their child being harmed or severely injured, we excuse them because having a child killed or injured is morally worse than allowing a burglary to be committed. There is a straightforward moral cost/benefit analysis taking place here.
A similar calculus might work in the case of BoCs, but Yaffe isn’t particularly optimistic about developing a general theory of unreasonable burdens. Instead, he is content to identify one condition which if satisfied is sufficient to undermine responsibility, without ruling out other possible conditions. The condition in question is a complex one, and so we need to take care in how we approach it.
Let's start with some intuition-pumping. Imagine there is a person with a severe mental impairment. This impairment reduces their ability to recognise and respond to reasons for complying with certain social, legal and moral norms. However, there is a way for them to overcome this obstacle to norm-compliance: they can cede all decision-making authority and control to another agent (e.g. by granting power of attorney, or something akin to this). But, as it happens, this person fails to cede decision-making authority and control to another person and thus ends up breaking some norm. Now imagine a second person, with normal mental faculties, who also breaches that norm. Which of the two deserves blame for failing to be norm-compliant?
The intuition is that the person with the severe mental impairment, even if they do not entirely escape blame, is much less blameworthy than the normal person. Why so? Well, the normal person presumably recognised the reasons for being norm-compliant but decided to ignore them, whereas the impaired person could not even recognise those reasons in the first place. There’s something intuitively worse about the former, which suggests there is something about the predicament faced by the latter that lessens the degree to which they are responsible.
But what is this? The answer, according to Yaffe, is that the impaired person is under an unreasonable BoC. They can only comply with the norm by ceding their autonomy to another agent or entity, and it is unreasonable, ceteris paribus to expect someone to renounce their autonomy in this manner. The ceteris paribus clause is significant here. On some occasions, ceding autonomy can itself be an exercise of autonomy. One thinks of Ulysses binding himself to the mast in order to avoid being lured away by the Sirens. In doing so, he compromised the autonomy of his future self, but he was still exercising autonomous control.
What’s more, it is sometimes reasonable to expect people to cede autonomy in this manner. Yaffe uses the example of the panicky soldier to make this point:
Panicky Soldier: D joined the army voluntarily and upon joining committed himself to following any orders given by his commanding officer. The problem is that D suffers from severe panic attacks. In the midst of a heated battle, he is apt to panic and flee (a breach of the military code). The only way D can overcome this is to focus on his commanding sergeant and copy whatever he is doing.
In this example, the soldier can only comply with the “Do not flee the battlefield”-norm by ceding his decision-making power to his commanding officer. However, since he voluntarily agreed to do this when he joined the army, it seems reasonable to expect him to do so via the specific mechanism (copying movements) identified here. In other words, the soldier seems to be under an independent normative obligation to cede his autonomy to his commanding officer — which was undertaken upon joining the army — and this independent normative obligation seems to make it reasonable to expect him to take steps to do just that when he’s on the battlefield.
Our feelings would probably be different if the soldier had been conscripted into the army, or had otherwise been forced to participate in the battle. For if this happened, there would be no independent normative obligation to cede autonomy to another, and hence nothing to justify the reasonable expectation.
3. Ceding Autonomy and the Argument from Blame
With the lessons from the preceding thought experiments under our belts, we can now proceed to outline the condition which, if met, is sufficient to undermine responsibility:
Ceding Autonomy Principle: If S, in order to do A in circumstances C, would have to give up his power to decide whether or not to do A in C on the basis of appreciation of the reasons for and against A-ing in C, and if S is not under independent normative pressure to give up his autonomy in this way, then S is not responsible for failing to A in violation of a norm requiring agents to A in C.
That’s quite a mouthful, but you can blame Yaffe for this since it’s his wording (the name is mine). I can live with the wording of it though, what I’m more interested in is the argument for this principle. Why is it that ceding autonomy is an unreasonable burden to bear?
Yaffe’s argument is based on the nature of blame and punishment. He argues that in blaming and punishing an agent for failing to comply with a norm we are, in effect, trying to give them an additional reason for not having acted as they did. (I think this is mildly controversial, but let’s run with it for now.) Next, he argues that in order for blame and punishment to make sense (or, maybe “to be justified”) the kind of reason-for-action that they supply must be one that would have worked at the time of the original norm-violation. But, of course, if someone has to cede their autonomy to another in order to comply with a norm, they would not be receptive or responsive to reasons-for-action at the time in question. After all, they have some deficit that prevents them from being receptive and responsive. Thus, blaming and punishing them for failing to comply with the norm is nonsensical/unjustifiable.
I have some doubts about this argument, but I’m going to try to formalise it as best I can before I say anymore:
- (1) It is only justifiable/sensible to blame and punish X for failing to comply with a norm if, at the time at which they failed to comply with the norm, they could have been receptive to the reason for compliance that is supplied by the blame and punishment.
- (2) If X had to cede autonomy to another in order to comply with a norm, then they could not have been receptive to the reason for compliance that is supplied by the blame and punishment.
- (3) Therefore, if X had to cede autonomy to another in order to comply with a norm, it is not justifiable/sensible to blame and punish X them for failing to comply.
As you can see, I’ve equivocated here between whether the blame and punishment is “sensible” or whether it is “justifiable”. I do this because Yaffe uses the phrase “makes sense” in his discussion, which suggests to me that he is making a conceptual argument, but I think it would be better to construe the argument as a normative one, so I've substituted in the term “justifiable”. That said, there may not be a huge difference between conceptual and normative arguments in this instance. If the upshot of the conceptual argument is that it is inappropriate to apply certain terms or concepts in the specified cases, and if those concepts describe inherently normative practices, then it may just amount to saying that it is unjustifiable to carry out those practices in the specified cases.
That’s a somewhat technical point. A more interesting, and ultimately more significant, point is this: there’s something suspicious about the account of blame and punishment that Yaffe is adopting here (premise (1)). In particular, it seems that in saying that blame and punishment must provide reasons for norm-compliance that would have been operative at the time of norm-violation, Yaffe is relying implicitly on a retributive conception of blame and punishment. This is controversial.
According to retributive theories, it is right and proper to blame/punish an individual if and only if they have engaged in culpable wrongdoing. Which is to say, what matters from the perspective of retributive punishment is how an agent actually violated a norm. Thus, this is a necessarily historically-oriented justification for punishment. This fits well with the account of blame and punishment offered by Yaffe. If blame and punishment are supposed to provide reasons for norm-compliance, and if punishment is justifiable only by reference to what happened in the past, then it makes sense to demand that the reason for compliance would have been effective in the past.
But a historical theory of blame and punishment like retributivism is not the only game in town. If those practices are justified on consequentialist or utilitarian grounds, then they become future-oriented. And if they become future-oriented, one wonders whether the demand that the reasons for action that they supply be operative in the past is needed.
To be clear, I’m not entirely sure about this line of criticism. It’s possible that Yaffe’s argument could be repaired or refined in some way that allows it to encompass the competing theories of blame and punishment. It’s also possible that the ceding autonomy principle could be defended in other ways. Who knows? From now until the end of this series we’ll assume it’s correct and turn our attention instead to whether it applies to drug addicts. That’s a topic we’ll take up in the next post.