Connie Rosati on “The Lincoln Virtues”

I spent the weekend at the American Philosophical Association’s (APA) Central Division meeting in Denver, my first APA, believe it or not, since 2011. It was a good time, certainly a welcome relief from my day job in health care revenue cycle management.

The APA is always punctuated, if that’s the right word, by a “Presidential Address,” a lecture given by the distinguished philosopher who is president of that particular division. This meeting’s presidential address was given by Connie Rosati of the University of Texas at Austin, an ethicist whose work I only know in a superficial way. Rosati gave an interesting talk on what she called “The Lincoln Virtues,” meaning a set of virtues associated with, or nicely exemplified by, Abraham Lincoln. The virtues in question involve a certain kind of magnanimity, generosity, and humility–not quite Christian and not quite pagan, but maybe a synthesis of the two or a mean between them. Think of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, and you’ll get the basic idea: “with malice toward none, with charity for all,” asserted by a president approaching imminent victory in a bitter civil war. (The address was given about a month before the Union’s victory in the US Civil War.)

On Rosati’s account, an essential expression of these Lincoln Virtues is the willingness to assume responsibility for wrongdoing or harm when one is only secondarily or indirectly responsible for what went wrong.

Consider a simple example: Suppose that after a night of drinking at Jones’s party, Smith gets in his car and has a traffic accident. In this case, Smith is the one directly or primarily responsible for the accident. But we might ascribe secondary responsibility to Jones, who failed to notice that Smith had been drinking, and failed to stop him from getting in the car before he set off. Jones’s willingness to assume this responsibility in the wake of the accident is an instance of one of Rosati’s Lincolnesque virtues. Under the circumstances, it’s natural to let Smith’s culpability take center stage, and natural for others to evade whatever attenuated responsibility they might have had for the accident. In other words, it’s easier to let Smith’s primary responsibility swallow up or overshadow everyone else’s secondary or tertiary responsibility. Given this, it takes a special sort of virtue for Jones to come forward and shoulder her indirect portion of the blame for Smith’s accident, whatever it amounts to.

There’s something right about this (at least in some cases), but also something potentially problematic (in others), and my own intuition is that Rosati took the collective responsibility thesis in a problematic direction, which is to say, too far.

So consider a fraught but perhaps clarifying case. A woman, both estranged and physically separated from her husband, succumbs to despair over personal matters and commits suicide. The primary responsibility for that act is hers. But suppose that the husband had been neglectful or otherwise defective as a spouse when they were together, and in that respect, had contributed at least in part to the unhappiness that led the woman to take her life. Though not literally or directly responsible for her death, it’s arguable that the husband bears an attenuated, indirect responsibility for the tragic outcome. At the very least, the question can intelligibly be asked and can get an intelligible, truth-apt answer.

Now let’s suppose that the husband’s friends, disturbed at what they take to be the husband’s morbid preoccupation with his own guilt, decide that to blunt his sense of guilt, they will shoulder some of the responsibility for the wife’s suicide. Stipulate that they are somewhat agnostic as to the truth of this ascription; what matters to them is not so much its truth as its intended effect. True or false, the decision to share the burden will lighten the widower’s load (they think), and in that way have a salutary effect on him. “If you were a neglectful husband,” they say to him, “then we were neglectful friends. If your neglect culpably implicates you in her unhappiness and death, then our neglect culpably implicates us in failing to do what would have helped you become the kind of husband that would have paid better attention to her, and thereby (perhaps have) prevented her death. So if you are indirectly responsible for her suicide, so, in a similarly attenuated sense, are we.”

I don’t know how the friends’ proposal strikes the reader, but it strikes me as thoroughly wrongheaded. One problem, maybe the basic problem, is the indifference to truth involved, which seems to me an indictment all by itself. Related to that, and equally problematic, is the paternalism involved. Indeed, the two things go hand-in-hand. The husband, let’s stipulate, really cares whether or not he is responsible for his wife’s death, and if so, how and to what degree. The friends are only interested in diverting the husband from his morbid quest so as to put him in a better mood. In other words, the friends don’t mind the idea that the husband should achieve (or try to achieve) happiness at the price of self-deception. But that’s not what friends are for.

There’s also the problem that precisely because the friends’ assumption of collective responsibility is so attenuated, it trivializes what is otherwise a serious matter. The friends’ assumption of responsibility combines a cheap, verbal profession of responsibility with a de facto refusal to take substantive responsibility for anything in particular. Precisely for this reason, it treats the concept of responsibility with less seriousness than it deserves. In doing so, it cheapens the currency of responsibility, and in a subtle way, expresses a kind of contempt for the husband’s efforts.*

This is a somewhat idiosyncratic example, I realize, but the principle behind it should be clear enough: it’s not necessarily a virtue to take responsibility for an act simply because it takes the heat off of someone else, and/or because you can model your assumption of responsibility on some plausible form of indirect responsibility. It’s not always appropriate to take the heat off of someone. Beyond that, it’s one thing to model responsibility on indirect responsibility in just-so fashion; it’s another thing to be indirectly responsible in some demonstrable and morally relevant way. Used incautiously, Rosati’s account potentially blurs that distinction. And it wasn’t clear to me what resources she had to preserve the distinction.

Rosati used a very different sort of example to illustrate her point, but the example seems to me one that involves much the same sort of problem as the “suicidal wife” example I’ve just given. Rosati’s example was Attorney General Janet Reno’s “buck stopping” response to the tragic outcome of the conflict between the Branch Davidians and federal law enforcement in April 1993 near Waco, Texas.

Recall that the Branch Davidians were a religious sect that had taken up residence at “Mount Carmel,” a large complex on a farm outside of Waco, Texas. Alarmed at the group’s suspected stockpiling of weapons, the federal government initiated an investigation into their activities, which eventually led to a search warrant designed to seize the illegal weapons that were thought to be (and in fact, were) there.  The search warrant was executed by force, paramilitary style. The result was a shootout followed by a 51-day siege, at the end of which the government decided to breach and destroy Mount Carmel in an attempt to induce the Branch Davidians’ surrender. But the Branch Davidians didn’t surrender. Instead, the Branch Davidian leadership herded many of the group’s members, including women and children, into a room adjoining the kitchen, set the complex on fire, and shot one another to death. (A small handful survived.) Reno’s response was famously to take full responsibility for the incident, including the several dozen deaths involved, declaring that “the buck stopped” with her.**

Two facts are worth bearing in mind here. One is that the government’s decision to breach the compound was justified to Reno by the culpably false claim that children inside the compound were being abused. They were not, but Reno was apparently unaware of the deception involved. Second, the basic explanation for why the Branch Davidians died en masse is pretty straightforward: faced with the imminent prospect of an attack on what they regarded as their religious sanctuary, the Davidian leadership decided to kill their congregation, either by gunfire or by burning them alive, on the basically theological assumption that the group would be better off dead and with their Savior than alive and in the government’s prison system.***

If responsibility is at issue, it would make perfect sense for Branch Davidian leader David Koresh, raised from the dead, to take responsibility for the grisly outcome of the siege. It would also make sense for those law enforcement officers who had falsely invoked child abuse to justify the final attack to take responsibility for their deceptions.**** But not only does it make no sense for Reno to have taken responsibility for the incident, it’s her doing so that strikes me as culpable. There was no intelligible sense in which Reno was responsible for the outcome of the Waco siege, and no intelligible sense in which she actually took responsibility for anything, either.

Reno could not have been held responsible for the deception that led to the breach of the complex; she had no knowledge of that deception. She was the one deceived. Nor could she be held responsible for the Branch Davidian leadership’s killing its flock. She didn’t do any of that killing; they did. So it’s unclear what Reno could have meant in “taking responsibility” for the outcome of the raid. One party lied to her, the other committed mass homicide. There is no way in which one moral agent can take responsibility for another agent’s lies, or another agent’s criminal acts.

All we have in the way of responsibility is the bare fact that Reno was Attorney General at the time, hence legally responsible in some highly formal way for whatever happened, regardless of what it was. This is just to say that she “was responsible” in the trivial sense that the events in question “happened on her watch.” Presumably, she would have been equally responsible if all had ended well. But this conception of responsibility strikes me as normatively meaningless, the conflation of a legal fiction with a substantive moral fact. Unless you regard being the Attorney General of the United States, or presiding over culpable law enforcement officers in spectatorial fashion as sufficient to ground responsibility for wrongdoing, it’s hard to make sense of the idea that Reno was “responsible” for the outcome of the Waco siege.

The more salient fact, as I see it, is that Reno’s supposed “assumption of responsibility” muddied the waters and trivialized what it means to be responsible or take responsibility for a tragic event. Precisely because Reno wasn’t responsible for anything in particular, it was convenient for her to “take” responsibility: it’s convenient to take responsibility for anything when no one can hold you responsible for doing anything. The assumption of responsibility in that case is purely verbal, not substantive.

In “taking responsibility” for Waco, what Reno did was to dilute the concept of responsibility, divert attention from actual, truth-apt ascriptions of responsibility, and narcotize the public into thinking that responsibility could be handled by invoking verbal formulas and legalistic fictions. That doesn’t strike me as a virtue of any kind. It strikes me as a fundamental political vice of our age: assume pseudo-responsibility so as to pre-empt the task of ascribing genuine responsibility. Granted, Reno’s early 90s version of it was nearly benign and almost excusable, but it was a precursor of the all-out bullshit artistry that now besets American politics and threatens to drown us all in cant.

I’m not sure sure whether I part company with Rosati’s analysis of the Reno example in particular, or with her defense of the principle behind it, or both. So I’m not sure whether Reno is just a bad illustration of the Lincoln virtues, or there’s something wrong with the very idea of the Lincoln virtues. Either way, there’s a disagreement there: suffice it to say, Rosati’s “Lincoln Virtues” sometimes veer too close for my tastes to vice, and in those cases, elicit as much suspicion from me as admiration. In short, there’s a tension between Honest Abe and Magnanimous Abe. Honest Abe is a genuine exemplar of virtue. The jury is out on his Magnanimous counterpart.

*We might think of these friends as expressing the inverse of the vices expressed by Job’s friends in the Book of Job. Job’s friends are too harsh on Job; these friends are insufficiently tolerant of the husband’s desire to be strict with himself.

**Rosati gave a useful historical explication of the etymology of the “buck stopping” expression.

***Debates still rage about what happened at Waco, but I regard the findings of the so-called Danforth Report as conclusive. My most recent thoughts on Waco can be found in this 2018 post.

****The initial search warrant was also dishonestly put together, falsely alleging that the Branch Davidians had a methamphetamine lab on premises. The drug trafficking allegations are what justified the use of paramilitary forces in executing the search warrant, but the agents drawing up the warrant had to have known that it was based on confabulations.

I edited this post slightly on March 4, 2023.

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