Tuesday, February 20, 2018


Mere criticism is a statement that something—an action, a thought, an object, etc.—falls short of an applicable standard. But sometimes instead of merely criticizing a person, we do something more, which I’ll call “castigation”. When we castigate people to their face, we are not merely asserting that they have fallen short of a standard, but we blame them for it in a way that is intended to sting. Mere criticism may sting, but stinging isn’t part of its intent. Mill’s “disapprobation” is an example of castigation:

If we see that ... enforcement by law would be inexpedient, we lament the impossibility, we consider the impunity given to injustice as an evil, and strive to make amends for it by bringing a strong expression of our own and the public disapprobation to bear upon the offender.

But now notice something:

  1. Castigation is a form of punishment.

  2. It is unjust and inappropriate punish someone who is not morally culpable.

  3. So, it is unjust and inappropriate to castigate someone who is not morally culpable.

In an extended sense of the word, we also castigate people behind their backs—we can call this third-person castigation. In doing so, we express the appropriateness of castigating them to their face even when that castigation is impractical or inadvisable. Such castigation is also a form of punishment, directed at reputation rather than the feelings of the individual. Thus, such castigation is also unjust and inappropriate in the case of someone lacking morally culpability.

I exclude here certain speech acts done in training animals or small children which have an overt similarity to castigation. Because the subject of the acts is not deemed to be a morally responsible person, the speech acts have a different significance from when they are directed at a responsible person, and I do not count them as castigation.

Thus, whether castigation is narrow (directed at the castigated person) or extended, it is unjust and inappropriate where there is no moral culpability. Mere criticism, on the other hand, does not require any moral culpability. Telling the difference between the castigation and mere criticism is sometimes difficult, but there is nonetheless a difference, often conveyed through the emotional load in the vocabulary.

In our society (and I suspect in most others), there is often little care to observe the rule that castigation is unjust absent moral culpability, especially in the case of third-person castigation. There is, for instance, little compunction about castigating people with abhorrent (e.g., racist) or merely silly (e.g., flat earth) views without investigation whether they are morally culpable for forming their beliefs. Politicians with policies that people disagree with are pilloried without investigation whether they are merely misguided. The phrase “dishonest or ignorant” which should be quite useful for criticism that avoids the risk of unjust castigation gets loaded to the point where it effectively castigates a person for possibly being ignorant. This is not to deny, of course, that one can be morally blameworthy for abhorrent, silly or ignorant views. But rarely do we know an individual to be morally culpable for their views, and without knowledge, castigation puts us at risk of doing injustice.

I hope I am not castigating anyone, but merely criticizing. :-)

Here is another interesting corollary.

  1. Sometimes it permissible to castigate friends for their imprudence.

  2. Hence, sometimes people are morally culpable for imprudence.

In the above, I took it that punishment is appropriate only in cases of moral wrongdoing. Mill actually thinks something stronger is the case: punishment is appropriate only in cases of injustice. If Mill is right, and yet if we can rightly castigate friends for imprudence, it follows that imprudence can be unjust, and the old view that one cannot do injustice to oneself is false.


Tim said...
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Tim said...
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Tim said...
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Angra Mainyu said...


Regarding the corollary, imprudence may and often does place others at risk (e.g., "reckless imprudence"). Even if we stipulate no direct risks to others, the implicit belief driving the castigation may well be that it's immoral to do something like that because of the suffering it causes to their loved ones, whether psychological or otherwise (e.g., due to insufficient resources). On that note, doesn't that sort of castigation often involve something along the lines of "how can you do that to your mother/children/spouse/etc.? How would they feel if you died/couldn't walk anymore/some other bad thing?", etc.? (these would be examples of indirect risks to others).

Philip Rand said...
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Alexander R Pruss said...

I removed a bunch of off-topic comments, as well as one joke lacking in philosophical content but gratuitously offensive to agnostics.

Philip Rand said...
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Alexander R Pruss said...


That is a good point, though I am not sure friends are normally motivated by this consideration. But I suppose one need not be motivated by justice in order for a punishment to be just.

Heath White said...

Your criticism/castigation distinction is pretty close to "Two Faces of Responsibility" by Watson, attributatibility/accountability. (As one might expect, there is more follow-on lit.)

Your application of the distinction to give more people a break in these contexts is I think mostly original.