Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: An Account of Attitudinal Duties Towards Injustice

This essay received an honourable mention in the Graduate Category

Written by University of Oxford Student, Brian Wong

Injustices are ubiquitous around us. From authoritarian regimes’ crackdown on human rights, to exploitative trafficking of illegal migrants, to human-induced destruction of rainforests upon which indigenous groups depend – injustices are negative states of affairs violating moral commitments and duties caused by some level of human agency. Our ability to resist injustices are inevitably constrained, but I argue that even the least able amongst agents still possess attitudinal duties – duties to cultivate and possess particular attitudes towards injustice. Attitudes are mental states; here I focus specifically on explicit attitudes – attitudes that are accessible by introspection and non-automatically/reflexively generated.[1] I open with a pair of cases providing the intuitive preliminaries, prior to offering three interrelated arguments for attitudinal duties, namely from i) functional similarity, ii) relational justice, and iii) aptness. After outlining the plausible contents of such duties, I conclude by examining two objections – i) self-defeasibility, and ii) enforceability.

Citizen – Bob lives under a strong dictatorship, who violently suppresses dissidents through gunfire and imprisonment. It is infeasible for Bob to stall the oppression in any way. Unlike his peers, Bob is gleeful about the injustice, because one of its victims is his personal arch-nemesis. 

Activist – Sam the environmentalist campaigns effectively against corporate-backed policies that could lead to devastating rainforest fires undermining thousands of lives and the regional environment. Unlike his colleagues, he is motivated purely by self-promotional thoughts[2]; he could not care less about the environment.

Across both cases, neither Bob nor Sam seems to be at fault for their actions – it is not possible[3] for Bob to act otherwise, and Sam in fact does good with his activism. Yet we intuit that something is normatively undesirable[4] about them. I suggest that such intuitions do not merely, per character-centric ethics, reflect our general judgments of their dispositions – instead, both agents contravene particular expectations we hold regarding how they should think or react to the injustices featured; these expectations ground the attitudinal obligations they violate – but why?

There exists a potential objection that attitudes – as mental states – are best analogised to reflexive emotions and responses (e.g. disgust, fear) over which we have no control; by Ought Implies Can, it would be unreasonable to expect us to adopt or shun particular emotions[5].

In response, the first justification notes that the espousing or developing of attitudes is functionally sufficiently similar to the performing of actions and distinct from holding particular emotions, such that the talk of duties should extend from the sphere of action to attitudes too. The first similarity is the possibility of agency: there exist attitudes that individuals can i) directly opt into holding or withdrawing from, or ii) indirectly develop or avoid dispositions that reliably track. Example for i) may be prejudice against a particular ethnicity; for ii) may be the sympathy and care for unrelated strangers – individuals can and do alter their affinities with these attitudes, just as they can influence their actions. The second similarity is their world-affecting nature – how individuals react to their surroundings and experiences constitute particular interactions (albeit mentally self-contained) between them and the world at large. That an act does not affect other individuals does not render the act exempt from duties – cf. victimless crimes. Hence the case for extending duties to attitudes.

A further justification concerns relational considerations. I take it as granted that egalitarian considerations are sufficiently binding and strong to underpin duties[6], which enables me to cantilever attitudinal duties off such basis. The ideal society, per relational egalitarianism, is where individuals relate to one another as equals within communities[7]. Unpacking this yields several implications: i) actual interactions should be consensual and non-unjustifiably disadvantaging one individual’s status relative to another; but also all agents should be ii) recognise each other as ends in themselves and iii) commit to upholding relational equality. Note that i) without ii) reflects not just hypocrisy and inconsistency, but also a fundamental failure to act from the correct motivations under a Kantian perspective – where individuals’ equal degrees in humanity demand their taking others’ status as voluntary, autonomously willing agents seriously; i) without iii) lacks sustainability or practicality – without committing to avoiding future infringements or rectifying past deviations from equality, the state of equality under i) is at best a coincidentally incurred episode, with limited stability.

From ii) and iii), we derive attitudinal duties as a subset of relation-egalitarian duties. Commitment to rectification and recognition of others’ equal worth both a) necessitate and b) practically entail the possession or cultivation of certain attitudes. The former holds, because recognising others’ worth naturally requires one to treat them as if they were similar to oneself on some fundamental level, and thus to condemn or regret undeserved harms, or to wish for well-deserved benefits they incur. We intuit that Bob is behaving wrongly in taking solace in his enemy’s victimisation, because he fails to take the victim’s moral status seriously – and this is why he feels glee, as opposed to regret, about the victim’s violation. The latter stands, because the arriving at such conclusions (e.g. “others are equal”, “injustices are wrong”) likely requires agents to cultivate intermediary observations – such as, “others’ interests do matter”, or “I am saddened by their pain.”). This empirical claim mirrors core tenets of Greek virtue ethics – where individuals become virtuous through cultivating a virtuous outlook that serves as the background and intermediary to specific dispositions.[8] By centering the wrongness-feature around how duty-holders relate to the victims, the relational account circumvents existing debates in wellbeing literature, concerning whether individuals can be harmed by others’ attitudes – some X can distort relations between A and B, without causing counterfactually sensitive, concrete harm to either party.

A further argument helps amplify the relational view. In her 2018 article, Srinavasan argues that anger can be apt – a victim of racism should feel and even act out of anger, even when it is instrumentally counterproductive towards their future welfare gains, because as agents, we are motivated by both backward-facing and forward-looking prerogatives. Just as we appreciate aesthetically pleasing art not because of consequences of appreciation, we should also exercise judgments in a way that captures the human experience. To suppress attitudes that are apt or appropriate in particular contexts, in name of consequences, is to block-off a core aspect of human psychology. In general, attitudes can be apt independent of any forward-looking consequentialist value. It is apt that we react to images of fellow human beings drowning at sea with a rebuking of their suffering; that we find ourselves angry over young female children’s genitalia being mutilated in name of religion. This suggests that even if no external outcome is altered by individuals’ attitudes (see Bob), the mere aptness of the attitudes – given prerogatives towards relational equality – suffices in warranting the duties.

What specific attitudes, then, should we possess towards injustice? There exist at least three dimensions.

Firstly, condemnation of the injustice[9]. Individuals should find injustice deeply undesirable, and find it of a morally problematic nature; they should reject feeble attempts at legitimising injustice, and recognise that the victim has been wronged unduly; this does not necessarily manifest in regret[10], but also anger towards the act or perpetrator.

Secondly, sympathy for the victim. We should feel sorry or somewhat remorseful about the victim’s experience – both because this follows from taking the victim’s entitlements to fair and just treatment seriously, and perhaps because in recognising their moral worth, one indirectly develops vicarious emotions that mirror the victim’s subjective experiences. Note this ought not imply that we must pity the victims in ways that erase or deny their agency.

Thirdly, commitment to aversion of future injustice. Much existing literature on reparative apology suggests that an apology is only complete if the apologiser commits to avoiding, if not preventing, recurrences of the event being apologised-for.[11] Appropriate attitudes should include some forward-looking elements that stems from the rebuking of past wrongs.[12]

Consider the following objections. The first is that the account is self-defeating – if we develop the above attitudes because we are motivated by our desire to fulfil moral obligations, we will effectively be treating our attitudes of care merely as means to attaining our moral ends. We may opt to self-deceive that we care for others, but such self-deception does not amount to fulfilling the actual obligations, because such care is not genuine.[13]

In response, note that fulfilling attitudinal duties requires more than “thinking differently” or superficial self-deceit – by stipulation, these duties call for fundamental recognition of others’ worth, which translates into a holistic appreciation and valuation of the moral perverseness of what victims experience. Mere hard-wiring of one’s brain does not transform one’s fundamental beliefs and values, and thus only radical transformation of one’s views – if one is a cynic – would meet the bar. Furthermore, attitudinal duties guide what is normatively right; they do not track our cognitive heuristics – a utilitarian may find thinking as a pure utilitarian cognitively fatiguing and practically self-defeating, thus the case for the “rules of thumb” Mill advocates. Even if such duties have action-guiding effects, so long as such effects do not displace or crowd out second-order, foundational prerogatives towards injustice and become the sole motivating factor, these duties are not self-defeating.

A reply may be that the issue lies with genesis: deliberately cultivating/instilling attitudes to meet moral demands seems to erase what we find valuable in these attitudes in the first place – the sense of compassion for humanity that is built into agents without deliberate effort. Yet this is untenable – we regularly impart values of justice, morality, and ethics to children through incentive structures more blatantly self-serving than discourses of duty; the value in the attitudes they espouse lies with how they end up becoming, and is largely unaffected by the causal mechanisms from which they come. Inculcating the right attitudes – so long as without coercion – is no ground for rejecting the attitudes.[14]

The second enforceability objection argues that if X has a duty to P, then some Z has the correlative right to enforce X’s P-ing – elsewise, such a duty becomes seemingly vacuous. If this is indeed true, attitudinal duties seem to imply that a third party has the right to enforce my internal attitudes. This sits incongruously with broad-liberal intuitions, that no long as my actions/thoughts do not harm others, they should not be interfered-with.

In response, recognise pluralism: attitudinal duties exist and matter, but so do duties to not contravene individual bodily or mental autonomy. Therefore, pro tanto attitudinal duties can be outweighed by countervailing considerations – there may even be prudential reasons[15] in some instances of uncertainty for the non-interventionist option to be preferred as the default, given that modifying individuals’ minds could cause unforeseeable negative personality and psychological changes. I am also happy to bite the bullet for particular cases – we regularly “enforce” appropriate attitudes through social norms, education apparatus, or parenting; so long as enforcement does not entail disproportionate harm, such enforcement is both productive and deontologically justified. Parents should and do teach their children to care for the homeless or victims of climate change – the above duties fall well within the remit of transmission. Above all, that there exist enforceable duties does not entail that anyone possesses the correlative enforcement right – the right to enforce duties through affecting others’ autonomous choices is not always naturally enshrined; if an individual lacks the ability to avert inducing unnecessary setbacks to autonomy and interests in their enforcing, they may not have earned the right to enforce duties against their recipients’ will.

Summarily, the above account not only sheds insight into how we ought to react to injustices, but also justifies implementing effective transmission programmes (e.g. education, civic forums) that develop appropriate public attitudes. These attitudes should be cultivated by even residents residing under highly oppressive states: this is how they, too, could resist injustice.



[1] See Machery, Edouard, “De-Freuding Implicit Attitudes”, in Michael Brownstein and Jennifer Saul’s “Implicit Bias and Philosophy, Vol. 1: Metaphysics and Epistemology” (2016), available at: https://www.oxfordscholarship.com/view/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198713241.001.0001/acprof-9780198713241-chapter-5

[2] Assume here that these self-promotional, careerist motivations do not feature at all any concern for climate or environmental justice.

[3] I am aware that there exists some dispute over whether what is feasible is equivalent to what is possible – I take infeasibility here to denote a point that is somewhat between what Lawford-Smith (2013) terms “hard (in)feasibility” or metaphysical impossibility, and “soft infeasibility” (Lawford-Smith 2013); i.e. there is some degree of metaphysical possibility in what I term infeasible, but to avoid both unnecessary complication and over-specificity, I shall not delve into what this precisely looks like.

[4] Or, colloquially, “not right”

[5] Indeed, many find this objection persuasive against any potential account of emotion-centric duties, despite the robust disagreements from the likes of Nussbaum (see Monarchy of Fear (2018)).

[6] See Anderson (1999), Wolff (2010), who employ the language of duty (and correlative rights) in describing the normative implications of their conceptions of egalitarianism. Rather than building an account of duties from ground-up, I hope that the leveraging-off of relational egalitarianism could convince even the most skeptical cynic that my account supports more than just the view that certain attitudes are supererogatory – but in fact obligatory.

[7] Anderson (1999)

[8] See MacIntyre (1981)

[9] See Butt (2009; 2014) on his argument that the Beneficiary Pays Principle (BPP) stems from the need for an individual to condemn injustice; my account takes his argument a step further, in establishing that there exists a duty to do so.

[10] The trouble/worry with regret as an appraisive attitude is that it comes with complex counterfactual-associated evaluations – cf. Parfit’s (1984) problematicisation of regret in Non-Identity Problem cases, where it makes little to no reasonable sense for purported “victims” to regret the violation of their rights by events which, had they not occurred, would have caused them to not have been born.

[11] See Gill (2000)’s outlining of the moral functions of apology.

[12] With that said, the extent to which this component is as binding as the previous two is open to debate; after all, reacting to another’s facing injustice is not quite the same as apologising for an injustice that one or one’s associates may have committed.

[13] See Stocker’s (1976) example concerning a utilitarian visiting one’s friend at the hospital bed – his particular integrity-oriented objection is that utilitarianism violates integrity considerations, by encouraging the visit not out of the genuine, authentic human relationship and emotions governing the friend and the visitor, but because of generalised consequentialist considerations.

[14] The Ancient Greeks did it, too…

[15] See Moller (2011) on a detailed discussion of application of moral risk considerations to context of abortion.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Reddit

Comments are closed.