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August 30, 2005

When Offering Explanations Is a Bad Thing...

Hilzoy of Obsidian Wings thinks about explanations vs. justifications and unwillingly draws the bright line between "explaining" and "justifying":

Obsidian Wings: Explanation, Justification, Blah Blah Blah: I was so hoping not to write anything about Brad DeLong's post on explanation v. justification -- it is, after all, my day job. But.... To start with the basics: explanation and justification are two quite different things. When you explain something, you try to say why it happened. You do not need to take a position on whether it was good or bad that it happened; you just try to figure out what caused it. When you justify something, you try to say why it was right that something happened. You may be interested in its causes, but only insofar as these affect the moral question involved.... We can try to explain anything that happens.... When rational agents are involved, however, sometimes the right explanation of their conduct refers to their reasons -- why they thought that they were justified in acting as they did. This is not, obviously, a form of explanation that's available to us when we try to understand the motions of the planets....

When we explain the behavior of people using reasons, we normally think not just that they're set up to be able to get the right answer, as my calculator is, but also that they're capable of understanding those reasons and acting on them, as my calculator is not. So explaining via reasons isn't just a heuristic shortcut, as in the case of a calculator.... [And] what matters is not whether the reasons are good ones, but just that they believed them....

If this is right, then there is a clear and obvious difference between explanation and justification. So why do people tend to confuse the two? One easy reason is that both, when applied to people, can cite the reasons why those people did what they did. They will, of course, cite them in different ways.... Both the role of reasons and the form of necessity appealed to in explanation and justification are different, but people aren't always completely clear about this....

The basic view of moral responsibility underlying this is: if you do something which you have every reason to believe could lead to some bad outcome, and if, given what you know at the time, you should not do this thing, and if it does lead to the bad outcome, then you are responsible for that outcome.... This general view explains why responsibility is not zero-sum. The fact that some bad decision of mine helped to produce some state of affairs does not imply that no bad decision of anyone else's helped to produce it as well.... [W]hen someone says... that our decision to go into Iraq with too few troops contributed to the breakdown of order and the murder of innocent Iraqis, what she says does not imply, in any way, that anyone else is less responsible... that Iraqi insurgents are not fully responsible for what they do....

She then goes on to point out that there are circumstances under which it is definitely not OK to offer certain kinds of explanations:

Just because something is true doesn't mean that it's OK to say it in a given situation. For instance: suppose you decide to play blind man's buff on a fifth-floor balcony, and end up falling over the railing onto the sidewalk below, and, as luck would have it, I am standing nearby. And suppose that instead of calling an ambulance, or yelling for a doctor, or tending to your wounds myself, I say: that was really stupid of you, or: I just finished cleaning this sidewalk, and now you've gotten blood all over it.... Just because they're true, however, doesn't mean that there are not other grounds for criticizing me for saying them. I am heartless, more concerned with pointing out your failings than with saving your life, etc.... If my first response to the sight of you bleeding on the sidewalk should be to tend to your wounds, not to tell you how dumb you were, then by the same token my first response to 9/11 should have been to tend to, or (if I wasn't in a position to help directly) at least to mourn with, the dead and injured and those who loved them. It should not have been to point out America's role (if any) in the genesis of terrorist movements; and anyone whose first response to 9/11 was not horror but blaming America would, I think, have shown real moral ugliness....

Posted by DeLong at August 30, 2005 03:37 PM