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Wednesday, October 18, 2023

Responsible Agency and the Importance of Moral Audience

Jefferson, A., & Sifferd, K. 
Ethic Theory Moral Prac 26, 361–375 (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.

Here is my take:

Responsible agency is the ability to act on the right moral reasons, even when it is difficult or costly. Moral audience is the group of people whose moral opinions we care about and respect.

According to the authors, moral audience plays a crucial role in responsible agency in two ways:
  1. It helps us to identify and internalize the right moral reasons. We learn about morality from our moral audience, and we are more likely to act on moral reasons if we know that our audience would approve of our actions.
  2. It provides us with motivation to act on moral reasons. We are more likely to do the right thing if we know that our moral audience will be disappointed in us if we don't.
The authors argue that moral audience is particularly important for responsible agency in novel contexts, where we may not have clear guidance from existing moral rules or norms. In these situations, we need to rely on our moral audience to help us to identify and act on the right moral reasons.

The authors also discuss some of the challenges that can arise when we are trying to identify and act on the right moral reasons. For example, our moral audience may have different moral views than we do, or they may be biased in some way. In these cases, we need to be able to critically evaluate our moral audience's views and make our own judgments about what is right and wrong.

Overall, the article makes a strong case for the importance of moral audience in developing and maintaining responsible agency. It is important to have a group of people whose moral opinions we care about and respect, and to be open to their feedback. This can help us to become more morally responsible agents.