the normative relevance of accountability

In his paper “Favoring,” Antti Kauppenin seeks to explain normative “reasons” (it being the case that one has reason to do something, an item being a reason for one to do that something) in terms of normative “oughts” (it being the case that one ought to do something). Part of his view, or at least his argument for it, is the idea that normativity comes to accountability. This view, though probably a minority view among meta-normative theorists, has some significant currency in the field. He expresses the view, with respect to the normative ought, as follows:

Think about what it is for something to be normative… there is good reason to think that it comes down to the fittingness or appropriateness of certain reactive attitudes and other forms of crediting or discrediting agents. One way to put this is that normative facts are action-guiding because they are reaction-guiding. When we fail to do something we are supposed to do, we are liable to blame or criticism, by ourselves as well as others. That is what the ‘normative pressure’ (Kolodny 2005) of reasons consists in. Normative reasons have authority for us, and this derives, at least in large part, from our being a fitting target of recrimination by our better selves and those we respect if we fail to take them into account… So, let’s say that for what it is for something to be normative is for it to provide an authoritative standard that we are accountable for living up to, that is, acting in accordance with. There are, to be sure, excuses and exemptions. But roughly, for you to be accountable for something, it must be something you should have done and could have done but didn’t do. If it is the case that you ought to φ, it is clear that what you are accountable for is φ-ing. It is fitting to respond negatively to you for not φ-ing, unless you have an excuse.

I’m not inclined to agree with this view, but I want to understand (i) the intuitive pull behind it, (ii) just what it comes to and (iii) what the good arguments are for and against it (or the different versions of it) are. I’ll mainly address the second thing here, but also touch on the third thing and suggest that the real action concerns a related, narrower thesis (with a home in a different literature). 

Here is a precisification of the core view in the above quote.

ought (accountability) X ought to A iff (and because) it is fitting (for anyone) to blame or criticize X for failing to A.

Fittingness seems to be an agent-neutral normative feature. This is of note for at least two reasons. First, the more standard order of explanation is from agent-relative normative features to agent-neutral normative features (e.g. from each agent having reason to A and there being something necessary about this being the case to all agents having reason to A). Second, on the more general view of normativity as accountability, fittingness itself will have to be explained in a similar fashion, raising the prospect of an invalid, circular pattern of explanation. Third, the broad pattern of constitutive explanation here goes like this: the overall ordering of X’s target set of options that includes her A-ing is determined by the ordering of some distinct set of options for all agents. Granted, the distinct orderings of options are internally or content-wise related, but we still need an explanation of this striking pattern of constitutive explanation. Especially since the competing view of normativity takes it to concern a set of options (or a type of such) getting ordered in an action-guiding-relevant way.

(It is worth noting as well that fittingness, taken as normative, might itself be an ought — making the circular-explanation problem directly relevant to ought (accountability). If the core fittingness reaction concerns the attitude of blame, it would seem that the situation is something like this: the relevant options are simply blaming X for failing to A versus not doing so and the options are ordered — in the normative way, perhaps by some single factor, this one being the only one that is relevant — such that exhibiting the blaming attitude is better than not (and hence the best option). And so, it being fitting to respond to X failing to A by exhibiting a blaming attitude comes to a way of it being the case that one ought to respond to X failing to A by exhibiting a blaming attitude. The fittingness of blaming behaviors would then be a distinct, derivative issue — and probably would not be equivalent to it being the case that one ought to exhibit the blaming behavior, all sorts of far-flung pragmatic factors generally being relevant to, and sometimes controlling, factors in determining whether exhibiting blaming behavior is the best of one’s options.)

In the unpacking of ought (accountability), I’ve bumped up against two problems for the view: (i) it (or at least the larger view of normativity that it partially specifies) seems to be committed to a circular pattern of explanation and (ii) the explanatory structure provided is too thin (we need more and the right kind of meat in the explanation). The circular-explanation problem and the underspecified-explanation problem. The first problem seems quite serious to me. And I suspect the upshot of it is that, even if there is something else — perhaps some more specific kind of normative feature — that is accountability-constituted, normative features themselves are not (and the normative ought itself is not). However, this is consistent with there being an interesting and important accountability-involving constitutive-explanatory story for certain normative features. And, if so, addressing the second problem — that of specifying some additional, plausible explanatory detail — will be helpful (as, of course, would be a specification of what the more-specific sort of normative feature is that is given by accountability). So now I’ll provide both of these things.

Here’s the direction I would go in beefing up ought (accountability) constitutive-explanation-wise. We can make the second-order type of option-ordering relevant to the first-order (or target) option-ordering via X knowing that it is fitting (appropriate, correct) for anyone to blame her (in the sense of exhibiting a blaming attitude) for failing to A. From this knowledge, X would come to know that (a) it is likely that she will be blamed for failing to A (if only by herself) and that (b) if she is blamed, she will not be justified in rejecting the blame. If the option-ordering power of all of this (with regard to the target A-ing-relevant options X faces) is sufficient, the effect will be decisively ordering these options such that X’s A-ing comes out as the decisively best choice for A (even if it was antecedently best, it is now decisively best). That is a rough, just-so story that hopefully indicates a plausible way for the necessary explanatory work to get done.

One way to make this sort of explanation fit as an explanation for the normative ought would be if, apart from X knowing that it would be fitting to blame her for failing to A, the option of A-ing was not the best choice for X — or at least not clearly or decisively the best choice. But why suppose this is the case? Also, even if this were the case, it would be natural to say that the fact that it would be appropriate to blame any given person for failing to A (say) is just one factor, however powerful or decisive, among many in making A-ing be X’s best option. That there are other factors means that the explanatory role here is not confined to first-order-option-ordering factors that reference a distinct option-ordering. And normativity, in this broad sense, simply concerns how the target set of options gets orders, whether or not this turns on the fact of some distinct but related ordering. But this is much more in-line with the dominant, competitor view of normativity per se (and hence the normative ought per se and having-reason in the normative sense per se).

Okay, all done trying to patch up ought (accountability) – whew! The consolation prize here is that it is still plausible that there is a special and significant sort of normative feature that is constituted — perhaps in something like the “beefed up” way indicated — by accountability. The feature I have in mind is the narrowly deontic normative feature of moral (or more broadly normative) requirement. Normative requirements are generally taken to be distinct from normative oughts and to entail them (but not be entailed by them). Roughly: normative requirements are parts of requirement/permission systems of norms and normative features, while oughts are a function of something like “summing up” all of the factors that favor or disfavor the options of a set of options.

So consider this:

requirement (accountability) X is required to A iff (and because) (i) X ought or has most reason to A and (ii) it is fitting (for anyone) to blame X for failing to A.

The general family of views like this — which includes a version of something like requirement (accountability), due to Matt Bedke, that drops the first element, making for something quite structurally similar to ought (accountability) — is laid out and evaluated nicely in a recent paper by Justin Snedegar. I’m sympathetic to the idea that something in this family of views is correct, providing a prominent place for accountability in the important, specifically deontic portion of our normative world. However, as Snedegar points out, we need a story that (a) explains why these two elements (and two different option-sets and their orderings) are related in this way and (b) why their being in this relationship has the right kind of necessity such that it constitutes a not-merely-stipulated or “natural” normative property or kind (viz., the narrowly deontic property of being required). My rough, just-so story, in addition to providing something that the probably-false ought (accountability) needs to work, also provides something that the more-likely-true requirement (accountability) needs to work. It provides [a], but not [b]. We need [b] as well.

Though the idea of normativity being provided by accountability is not-so-promising, facts about accountability might be an important normative option-orderer. And the idea that this kind of option-ordering plays a distinctive and key role in constituting the narrowly-deontic features (such as normative requirement) is a pretty promising idea that deserves additional thought and attention.

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