How Can We Answer for Answerability?, by Hannah Tierney

Measles illustration from The Practical Guide to Health by Frederick M. Rossiter, 1908, public domain via Wikimedia CommonsJenny McCarthy is a celebrity in the United States and a prominent anti-vaccine activist. She is the president of Generation Rescue, a non-profit that advocates the view that autism is at least partially caused by vaccines, and has written several books promoting this view. Since 2007, she’s been featured on several media outlets where she’s been asked to defend her views on the relationship between the Measles, Mumps, and Rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism. In many of these interviews, it’s clear that those questioning McCarthy are trying to hold her morally responsible for her view by demanding that she justify her position—by holding her answerable. Despite these numerous calls for McCarthy to justify herself, she hasn’t changed her view on vaccines (Although in a 2010 interview with Frontline, McCarthy clarifies the position of her group). In fact, calling on McCarthy to defend herself in the public sphere arguably only serves to legitimize her views and expose them to larger audiences. Though the CDC determined that measles was eliminated in 2000, due in large part to an increase in the refusal to vaccinate, a record number of measles cases were reported in 2014. If we think that McCarthy’s position on vaccines is incorrect and her advocacy of the position is blameworthy, how can we hold her responsible for her behavior without reinforcing the very behavior we find blam

Cases like these pose a problem for philosophers who work on moral responsibility. Following the work of T. M. Scanlon, many philosophers argue that there is a relationship between moral responsibility and answerability—the demand for justification. Of course, philosophers have argued about how exactly responsibility and answerability relate to each other. But both those who argue that moral responsibility should be identified with answerability (Smith 2012) and those who argue that answerability only captures one facet of moral responsibility (Shoemaker 2011) face a problem.

In many cases, when we attempt to hold someone morally responsible for an action by demanding that they answer for their behavior, the person, rather than see the error in their ways, can become even more confident in their reasons for action and refuse to alter their behavior. This can have quite damaging effects when the behavior in question is dangerous, violent, or qualifies as a public health risk. Such cases place those who defend the relationship between moral responsibility and answerability in a precarious position. If the very means by which we hold people responsible for blameworthy behavior only serves to worsen that blameworthy behavior, then it’s hard to see why we should hold people morally responsible in the first place. And, if the answerability account of moral responsibility can’t easily be operationalized, then perhaps we should look for another theory of moral responsibility. Though those who defend the answerability account have remained relatively silent on how to successfully hold an agent answerable, the behavioral sciences can help address this question. By developing an account of answerability that is informed by this research, answerability theorists can shield themselves from the worry that their view can never be successfully operationalized.

The case of Jenny McCarthy is not an isolated incident. Objecting to people’s beliefs is notoriously ineffective in changing those beliefs. Confirmation bias (Lord et al. 1979)—the tendency to accept evidence that supports one’s previously held beliefs and discount evidence that doesn’t—is a robust phenomena that has been found in a wide variety of contexts. The backfire effect is perhaps even more pernicious, indicating that when given evidence against a belief, people will reject the evidence and hold the original belief even more strongly (Nyhan & Reifler 2010). Asking people to give their reasons for their beliefs is also unsuccessful when it comes to changing their beliefs (Fernbach 2013). But if neither objecting to people’s views nor asking them to provide their reasons causes them to see the error in their ways, how are we to successfully hold people answerable? Is answerability a misguided account of moral responsibility?

Those who defend an answerability account of moral responsibility, whether they think answerability just is moral responsibility or answerability captures only a facet of moral responsibility, remain vague about how we can successfully hold people answerable. Angela Smith argues: “In my view, to say that an agent is morally responsible for some thing is to say that the agent is open, in principle, to demands for justification regarding that thing” (Smith 2012, 578). But we can demand justification in many different ways, and we can do so more or less successfully.  Though asking an agent to respond to arguments against her view or asking her to list her reasons are demands for justification, they are largely ineffective when it comes to getting agents to jettison morally problematic beliefs and curbing morally blameworthy behavior. Are there more effective ways to demand justification from moral agents? This is a question that the behavioral sciences can help illuminate.

One recent study indicates that asking people to explain their beliefs and the policies they endorse is more effective at reigning in extreme beliefs than asking people to respond to objections to their views or listing their reasons for their beliefs (Fernbach 2013). In particular, getting participants to explain the causal mechanisms at play in the political policies they endorse undermines the illusion of deep understanding many participants felt, which makes it more likely for participants to adopt less extreme policy beliefs. Fernbach and his collaborators also found that the call for explanation made it less likely for participants to donate money to organizations that supported their previously held political positions. Not only did the demand for explanation reign in extreme beliefs, it also played a role in changing participants’ behavior.

Answerability theorists may be right that holding people morally responsible should involve a demand for justification. But how we demand justification matters when it comes to altering people’s morally blameworthy beliefs and behavior. Thus, answerability theorists should focus on developing operational views of answerability, which are informed by the behavioral sciences.

~ Hannah Tierney is a Ph.D candidate in the Philosophy program at the University of Arizona. She has broad philosophical interests, but writes mainly on issues of moral responsibility, personal identity, and the self, and is also interested in experimental philosophy and cognitive science

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Works Cited

Fernbach, P., T. Rogers, C. Fox, and S. Sloman. 2013. Political extremism is supported by an illusion of understanding. Psychological Science 24: 939-946.

Lord, C., L. Ross, and M. Lepper. 1979. Biased assimilation and attitude polarization: The

effects of prior theories on subsequently considered evidence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 37: 2098-2109.

Nyhan, B. & Reifler, J. 2010. When corrections fail: The persistence of political

misperception. Political Behavior 32: 303-330.

Scanlon, T. M.  2008. Moral Dimensions: Permissibility, Meaning, Blame. Cambridge, MA: Belknap

Press of Harvard University Press.

Shoemaker, D. 2011. Attributability, answerability, and accountability: Toward a wider

theory of moral responsibility. Ethics 121: 602-632.

Smith, A. 2012. Attributability, answerability, and accountability: In defense of a unified

account. Ethics 122: 575-589.