Nuance in the Noise: Cultural Embeddedness Can Excuse People from Blameworthiness


Since the dawn of the modern era, cross-cultural awareness has caused the advent of moral principles deemed to be universally applicable and unimpeachable. These principles, distilled from the common essence of the human condition, human needs and nature, hold great promise for human peace, prosperity, and justice. However, the application of these moral principles is easier said than done, and is dogged by a host of philosophical problems concerning how – or even whether – to hold cultures not our own answerable to these principles. This would include not only far-flung non-Western cultures, which may seem to us to be lagging in their embrace of individual human rights, but also cultures in the distant past and subcultures within our own immediate communities. Is it appropriate to impose our moral principles, no matter how universal we believe them to be, to alien culture that reject them? Should the embeddedness of agents in a culture which embraces moral principles that we find abhorrent not exempt them from blameworthiness? The commonplace intuition is that agents in cultures not our own ought enjoy a certain degree of exculpation because they lack the rich moral knowledge that we suppose ourselves to possess, to the extent that they are simply unable to do otherwise. The commonplace intuition also leans on the fact that agents base their actions on the internal perspective of moral rules, wherein they find meaning, and that to judge them by our privileged external perspective is to forsake meaning for meaninglessness.

In her 1994 essay appearing in Ethics, “Culture, Responsibility, and Affected Ignorance”, political, legal, and moral philosopher Michele Moody-Adams sets out to reject the commonplace intuition that culture exempts blame on the grounds that a) it relies on the unconfirmed empirical assumption that agents in alien cultures violate universal moral principles due to exculpating culturally-induced moral ignorance, b) that it fosters dangerous misconceptions about a supposed human incapacity for rising above the quagmire of moral darkness in which she is embedded, and that c) to exempt agents embedded in alien cultures from blame is ultimately to “deny the humanity of the person in question” in a way that prevents them from modifying their culture for the better (Moody-Adams 306). Instead of exempting otherwise culpable agents due to their embeddedness in morally ignorant culture, Moody-Adams contends, we would do better to forge a middle path – that of the “forgiving moralist” – in which agents are held morally responsible for their actions whilst at the same time acknowledging the various mitigating and obfuscating factors that pertain. As I shall contend, however, Moody-Adams’ formulation of the problem at hand fails to appreciate the diversity of categories of alien cultures. For example slavery in the antebellum South is not synonymous with the persistence of Confederate hero-venerating statues of the present.

Her view also fails to recognize that different varieties of affected ignorance can lead the whole discussion in radically different moral directions, some which epitomize the strong points of the Kantian argument for categorical imperatives and, consequently, warrant consideration for praise rather than blame. In the end, however, I feel that there really is no right way to balance moral absolutism with “potentially problematic cultural assumptions” (Mood-Adams 303). Culture can excuse moral ignorance and related wrongdoing because it is oft prudent, with a view to the bigger moral picture, to refrain from using the language of culpability and blameworthiness. Even though Moody-Adams is correct in identifying the inability thesis as wrong, it is wrong not due to coercion or exculpatory ignorance. Rather, consequentialist reasons antithetical to the ones presented by Moody-Adams indicate that such agents should not be held morally responsible even if their culture indeed warrants criticism and condemnation.

An Introductory Sketch of Moody-Adams’ Point of View

Moody-Adams does not so much reject the notion that cultural embeddness exculpates agents as much as it attempts to strike a balance between the pragmatic need to refrain from passing moral judgment with the equally pragmatic, she insists, need to hold agents morally responsible for their actions when those actions are repugnant to the moral knowledge we suppose ourselves to possess. Although culture is a serious impediment to responsible individual agency, responsibility nevertheless remains due to the fact that individual agency is itself the a basic element of culture – without individual agency, culture itself falls apart. At the same time, we as external observers and adjudicators do not have access to the internal perspective of the culture’s morality, and so do not partake in the meaning created between agents within the culture. Of course, to do this, she carefully balances the seemingly the primacy of the Hartian internal perspective with the objective reality, and consequent moral universals, that we cannot for the lives of us relinquish.

As she puts it:

There is a model of human behavior that can acknowledge the banality of wrongdoing and its connection with affected ignorance, and yet also acknowledge the serious effort required to adopt an appropriately critical stance toward potentially problematic cultural assumptions. This “forgiving moralist’s” model of behavior is both consistent with respect for the worth of persons as agents and compatible with facts about how hard it is to merit moral esteem. Equally important, the most estimable of human qualities will sometimes be revealed in the effort to forgive the wrongdoing of our cultural predecessors, rather than simply to ignore the ways in which their practice amounted to wrongdoing.


The crux of her refutation of the commonplace intuition – that an agent who conforms to the moral principles of an alien culture cannot be held responsible from the lens of our culture, judged instead according to the “standards of their own day [or place]” – lies most concretely in her accurate objection to the thesis that, quite often, agents are unable to do what objective morality demands of them because they are unable to resist the demands of the power structure. Else, they are unable to access the insights necessary to realize that they are engaged in immoral practices (298).

Moody-Adams observes that the inability thesis’s arguments presuppose that just because agents in immoral cultures generally do not do what is right, they must necessarily have been unable to do so. We might feel tempted to apply this to, for example, a brutal regime like the Nazis in which agents feeling swept up in a culture of de-humanizing enmity toward some outgroup – even absent coercion – and so are complicit with heinous atrocities. While a proponent of the inability thesis might feel inclined to excuse an agent for acting objectively wrongly in such a context, because the agent presumably was compelled to follow orders and conform to the prevailing ideology, Moody-Adams observes that this does not logically entail that the agent could not conceivably have opted to alter her behavior. After all, it is not unthinkable for agents to have chosen freely to commit murder, knowing it was inherently wrong, just because they thought there was nothing to lose and modest career points to gain.

In reference to the Milgram experiment, in which subjects were instructed to administer what they believed to be excruciating, potentially lethal shocks to actors, Moody-Adams notes clear evidence that the subjects were by no means under any sort of hypnosis or syndrome – they were by no means, as Milgram interpreted himself, “unab[le] to resist the experimenter’s demands” (300). In fact, they had been explicitly permitted to quit the experiment at any moment without fear of repercussion. Truth be told, they merely did not want to disappoint the authority figure – the experimenter. If anything, they were more concerned about being dealt tangible punishment, outside the lab, that the experimenter might not foresee.

Beyond the mere adherence to the rules of their culture they inhabited, agents in Milgram’s experiments would also avert their eyes and sought to “not see the consequences of what [they] had done” (300). Moody-Adams also references ample historical evidence of executioners employing linguistic self-deception in order to disassociate themselves from the immorality of their acts (300). This opens up the possibility that agents complicit in the evil of an evil culture are not unable to do otherwise, and instead are willfully affecting ignorance upon themselves – “choosing not to know what one can and should know” in order to maintain their self-concepts as morally deserving individuals whilst garnering the rewards that come with being a valued member of a culture regardless of its embrace of objective evil (296). In the most forgiving sense, their conformity to the internal moral principles of a culture that is objectively evil is the product of some evolved imperative to fit in at all costs – to not be banished from the village during winter, as it were. Thus, what we may be tempted to regard as “culturally-induced blindness” may – and indeed often is – a patent unwillingness to consider the wrongness of certain acts (294) if it is beneficial not to consider.

Kantian Consequentialism

Moody-Adams enumerates four varieties of affected ignorance, but she does not explore the implications each brings to her discussion. In addition to the canonical example of average citizens ‘just following orders’, and that of the linguistic self-deception kind mentioned above, the third type is that of “the head of an investment banking firm who demands that her employees increase the firm’s profits but insists on knowing nothing about the means used to accomplish this” (301), thereby reaping enormous benefit as part of a scheme that he conceived of by his own vicious greed and in a state of clear-eyed akrasia. The everyman ‘just following orders’ and the head of the investment banking firm are engaging in radically different self-deception, and consequently square the question of exemption from responsibility in starkly different ways.

In the case of the unscrupulous investment banker, his self-deception is carefully honed, at his behest and to his benefit, so as to have utterly no awareness of wrongs committed. Though he may be unsure whether such wrongs will indeed take place, he simply does not care if the do so long he is not implicated in his own conscience and in those of others. By affecting ignorance, he is able to simply embrace a subjective probability that wrongs will not take place. He is enabled by uncertainty and ignorance to maintain for himself a clean conscience. As far as legal culpability is concerned, he is even more guiltless. In such a case as this, it is unambiguous that his ignorance is not only affected, but malicious, and calculated. To make thing worse, not only is he allowing potentially grievous woes to ripple out onto his clients and the stakeholders of his company, but has set up his immediate employees to bear the full brunt of the unscrupulous business decision. This banker deserves our utmost scorn. He is morally responsible.

The motive underlying the unscrupulous banker could not be more different from the motive underlying the obedient everyman who happens to have been born into an immoral culture, for example in Nazi Germany or the Jim Crow South, or into slaveholding ancient Athens. Herein also lies the first foibles in Moody-Adams’ rejection of the inability thesis. Even though she welcomes a heaping serving of forgiveness to offset the bitterness of blame, she nevertheless misses a crucial distinction with regards to the following of orders for its own sake – conforming for the sake of conforming – rather than deliberately self-deceiving in order to cheat the system for self-serving ends. This conformist should not merely be exempt from responsibility – she should be praised for her steadfast commitment to the maintenance of the internal perspective that not only she, but her fellow citizens, rely on as their source of social meaning. Such conformity as a primary motivator of behavior is the foundation of any moral community.

What Moody-Adams’ moral universe fails to take into account, moreover, is that even though “individual agents often choose to perpetuate morally problematic practices” (308), their sheepishness and deference to the power structure – their fear and their eagerness to please – is what makes possible great leaps and bounds in the levels of trust and cooperation within a culture. Though they may affect ignorance in situations where rule-following duties, imposed by their culture, contradict their own subjective moral intuitions, they do so because of the evolved imperative of functioning as a unitary social organ. It is to this extent that such agents are unable to do otherwise – they are enslaved by the drive to conform. Even if it figures into their own minds as an articulation of egoic self-interest, this affected ignorance is of a radically different form compared to the banker. To punish such affected ignorance is to punish a faculty of human social cognition that enables us to shirk not only our moral intuitions when they are right – such as when one is charged with the task of executing innocents – but also when they are wrong. After all, is the refusal to execute a falsely charged scapegoat so different from the refusal to execute a man convicted, on incontrovertible evidence, for some heinous crime? In both cases, the man assigned to the grim task of execution – perhaps by lottery – is reliant on testimony corroborated by all around him in his cultural community. Imagine further that he has reason to believe that, being wartime, the release of either prisoner will very probably bring about deadly repercussions for his cultural community (for example, nation). If you punish the faculty of obedience and agreeableness, then you are also punishing the very foundation upon which human cooperation stands, its ability to achieve consensus and work toward collective interests. By championing subjective moral intuitions, a whole host of other self-centered intuitions are also being championed.

Though Moody-Adams may speak of “forgiving moralism” and claim that “to deny that an unimpaired person has engaged in wrongdoing – even if there are compelling reasons to mitigate our response to the behavior – is to deny the humanity of the person in question” (306), there is nevertheless no hard line separating the holding of an agent nominally morally responsible yet forgiving them, and holding them morally responsible and only nominally forgiving them. That is to say, the “forgiving moralist” might only nominally forgive agents embedded in immoral cultures, and merely use the claim of nominal “forgiveness” itself as a linguistic self-deception in order to “avoid acknowledging our human fallibility”, and in order to uphold “our most deeply held convictions”, in this case regarding our supposed knowledge of moral universals (301).

Another problematic aspect of Moody-Adams’ apparent willingness to lump together the self-serving unscrupulous banker with the salt-of-the-earth obedient everyman is that, in essence, it opens up the possibility of nothings short of genocide. If, as Mood-Adams herself concedes, conformity to immoral rules, by dint of the internal perspective, is ubiquitous, then more or less every member of an immoral culture may be guilty for their complicity with an evil that those of us with the luxury of the external perspective can see as clear as day. Thus, there stands a slippery slope argument against Moody-Adams’ willingness to ascribe moral responsibility to members of a culture stricken by a dearth of objective moral knowledge – to hold every member of an alien culture responsible for some bad moral ideas that have befallen their culture is plainly unjust. A better alternative would be to blame the culture – the ideas – rather than the individuals subjected to and complicit with it. Meanwhile, whatever genes or memes that augment a people’s ability to conform should be fostered and rewarded even if they have been expressed through an immoral culture. In attributionist terms, it’s not the deep self of the archetypal conformist who is responsible – the deep self is just doing what its community expects it to do.

Moody-Adams, meanwhile, lavishes a great deal of attention on her idea that “what is wrong with blaming culture is that such blame ignores the ways in which cultural conventions are modified, reshaped, and sometimes radically revised in individual action” (306). At a core level, individuals who undertake bold gambles in the realm of moral innovation are breaking from the internal perspective of moral rules, and may be prone to doing so regardless of whether those moral rules are of a profoundly moral culture or of a profoundly immoral culture. Imagine a psychopathic agent choosing to break the high holy rule against murder for his own personal gain. Is he any different, functionally speaking, from a psychopathic agent in another culture who chooses to break another high hole rule, for example some rule against aiding and abetting his nation’s scapegoat? In this latter case, the hypothetical agent was taught from the cradle that this scapegoat is the source of great misery for the psychopathic agent’s people. In this latter case, moreover, it stands to reason that a deeply immoral social order is also a deeply unstable social order. In the canonical example of Jews scapegoated in Nazi Germany, a rule-breaker who aids and abets them to safety very likely would be rewarded in some manner after the Nazis’ arguably inevitable defeat. While it is doubtless necessary for individuals to exist in a culture who are ready, willing, and able to break its most cherished rules, they may be doing so, deep down, for all the wrong reasons. While it may be true that everybody is motivated deep down by self-interest, this nevertheless merits consideration when we consider leveling blame, even of the “forgiving” kind that Moody-Adams proposes. After all, even though “culture is perpetuated by lack of criticism”, a corollary of this may be that there is no culture at all if it is overwhelmed by criticism (306).

Temporally Alien Cultures are not Spatially Alien Cultures

Throughout her paper, Moody-Adams refers historical examples of immoral cultures perpetuated by agents acting on their immoral principles due to affected ignorance. However, by judging in the affirmative that agents in immoral cultures ought be held responsible, she appeals to to the idea that individual agents must be compelled, through being held morally responsible, to upend an immoral culture. In this sense, it seems, it is necessary for us to blame individual agents in order to alter the culture itself – crack a few eggs to make an omelet. However, if you blame agents too much, such as agents in past cultures rather than contemporary alien cultures, and channel those reactive attitudes toward scapegoats in the here-and-now, then we will only perpetuate cycles of resentment and hatred between the alien culture and one’s own culture. For example, if we hold historic people morally responsible for having held slaves, even whilst forgiving them both de jure and de facto, focus on the legacies of slavery might motivate us to scapegoat those perceived to be the descendants, or spiritual heirs, of the original slaveholders. This can cause resentment to fester to an extent that it negates whatever consequentialist outcomes Moody-Adams aspires toward. In general, if reactive attitudes found to be justified under the notion of ‘forgiving moralism’ to hold regarding some injustice, past or present, it stands to reason that those reactive attitudes will invariably be channeled toward effigies of some kind, be it by the othering of foreigners or the scapegoating of loose descendants.

At the end of the day, effective cultural critique need not imply literally holding blame or responsibility. Applying Moody-Adams’ standard of forgiving moralism to these different settings in which agents are motivated to affect ignorance due to their cultural embeddedness will, in general, present radically different outcomes, many of which contravene her consequentialist objectives. To be sure, the prescriptions of her ‘forgiving moralist’ will not answer questions of whether or not to bomb Syria. Just the same, it says nothing of whether Confederate statues should be torn down because of their tenuous connections to a nation of people who once owned slaves. If she is going to champion the reach of a universal morality, then she cannot afford to be so vague.

Notions of Infallibility, and Conclusion

Alongside the other three types of affected ignorance she addresses is that of which moral universalism itself, which Moody-Adams is ultimately defending, is most vulnerable. Curiously, despite acknowledging “our own fallibility” (302), she has only bad things to say about cultural relativism, and refrains from applying this criterion of affected ignorance to the unnamed moral principles she supposes to be objective, universal and unimpeachable. Is it not possible that her own ‘forgiving’ moralism might be invoked toward dubious ends? Perhaps this is the history of human conflict. With our ever-expanding horizons of cross-cultural awareness, we are left only with the task of determining how the universal moral principles we dream of can be reconciled with the ones we do not.

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