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Tuesday, April 25, 2023

Responsible Agency and the Importance of Moral Audience

Jefferson, A., Sifferd, K. 
Ethic Theory Moral Prac (2023).


Ecological accounts of responsible agency claim that moral feedback is essential to the reasons-responsiveness of agents. In this paper, we discuss McGeer’s scaffolded reasons-responsiveness account in the light of two concerns. The first is that some agents may be less attuned to feedback from their social environment but are nevertheless morally responsible agents – for example, autistic people. The second is that moral audiences can actually work to undermine reasons-responsiveness if they espouse the wrong values. We argue that McGeer’s account can be modified to handle both problems. Once we understand the specific roles that moral feedback plays for recognizing and acting on moral reasons, we can see that autistics frequently do rely on such feedback, although it often needs to be more explicit. Furthermore, although McGeer is correct to highlight the importance of moral feedback, audience sensitivity is not all that matters to reasons-responsiveness; it needs to be tempered by a consistent application of moral rules. Agents also need to make sure that they choose their moral audiences carefully, paying special attention to receiving feedback from audiences which may be adversely affected by their actions.


In this paper we raised two challenges to McGeer’s scaffolded reasons-responsiveness account: agents who are less attuned to social feedback such as autistics, and corrupting moral audiences. We found that, once we parsed the two roles that feedback from a moral audience play, autistics provide reasons to revise the scaffolded reasons-responsiveness account. We argued that autistic persons, like neurotypicals, wish to justify their behaviour to a moral audience and rely on their moral audience for feedback. However, autistic persons may need more explicit feedback when it comes to effects their behaviour has on others. They also compensate for difficulties they have in receiving information from the moral audience by justifying action through appeal to moral rules. This shows that McGeer’s view of moral agency needs to include observance of moral rules as a way of reducing reliance on audience feedback. We suspect that McGeer would approve of this proposal, as she mentions that an instance of blame can lead to vocal protest by the target, and a possible renegotiation of norms and rules for what constitutes acceptable behaviour (2019). Consideration of corrupting audiences highlights a different problem from that of resisting blame and renegotiating norms. It draws attention to cases where individual agents must try to go beyond what is accepted in their moral environment, a significant challenge for social beings who rely strongly on moral audiences in developing and calibrating their moral reasons-responsiveness. Resistance to a moral audience requires the capacity to evaluate the action differently; often this will be with reference to a moral rule or principle.

For both neurotypical and autistic individuals, consistent application of moral rules or principles can reinforce and bring back to mind important moral commitments when we are led astray by our own desires or specific (im)moral audiences. But moral audiences still play a crucial role to developing and maintaining reasons-responsiveness. First, they are essential to the development and maintenance of all agents’ moral sensitivity. Second, they can provide an important moral corrective where people may have moral blindspots, especially when they provide insights into ways in which a person has fallen short morally by not taking on board reasons that are not obvious to them. Often, these can be reasons which pertain to the respectful treatment of others who are in some important way different from that person.

In sum: Be responsible and accountable in your actions, as your moral audience is always watching. Doing the right thing matters not just for your reputation, but for the greater good. #ResponsibleAgency #MoralAudience