Am I Morally Responsible for My Attitudes?

Angela Smith ’92 and the Ethics of Accountability

For all its complexity, philosophy often asks the most basic questions. When is it morally permissible to kill? What does it mean to say you know something? Or even: How can I tell that the fibers that make up this magazine’s paper actually exist?

Angela Smith ’92 adds another question to the jumble, though it’s one that doesn’t get asked all that often: Am I morally responsible for the attitudes I hold?

“The basic concern,” she says, is “whether, and in what way, we can say we’re responsible for our desires, emotions and beliefs. Philosophers in ethics think a lot about responsibility for actions — for killing a person, let’s say — but not necessarily about responsibility for attitudes or mind-states.”

“I find these old discussions unsatisfying. They’re missing what seems to be an important truth — that our attitudes are essential parts of who we are. I argue for a very direct account for responsibility for attitudes, tracing it to the idea that our attitudes, even when spontaneous, involve judgments or evaluations that we can be expected to justify.”

Put it another way: Instead of being responsible solely for the act that follows a conviction, maybe we’re morally responsible for having that conviction in the first place — and, potentially, for failing in our self-examination if our convictions are contradictory or otherwise untenable.

Smith’s convictions were shaped by a robust philosophical upbringing. At Willamette, she studied under Lou Goble and Sally Markowitz, two veterans of the philosophy department, as well as Sue Leeson, who taught legal theory and political philosophy in the political science department. “The thing about Angie,” Goble remembers, “is that she’s prepared to take a controversial opinion and argue well for it. She’s not taken in by common opinion.”

Markowitz, too, understood Smith’s promise right away.

“Angie was so modest — she didn’t have a big ego, so I doubt she had any idea of how brilliant she was when she was a student. She still might not know she’s brilliant [laughs]. But these great ideas just come out of her.”

“Willamette really was the perfect place for me,” Smith says. “It was exactly what I was looking for in terms of faculty interaction, small classes and all that. Coming in I didn’t know what I’d major in, but I’d had the good fortune to have a philosophy class in high school — which is unusual — so I knew a little.”

She knew enough by the time she was finished to attend Harvard for graduate school, where she wrote a master’s thesis in ancient philosophy (something she had explored under Goble). But the allure of ethics took hold, and by the time she wrote her PhD dissertation she had started asking the same questions she asks today.

Last fall, Smith was appointed as the inaugural director of Washington and Lee University’s interdisciplinary Roger Mudd Center for Ethics, a prestigious and promising position. Since arriving at Washington and Lee, she has been praised for her work on a team-taught course on the ethics of globalization, as well as what Provost Robert Strong calls “clarity, sophistication and originality” in her work. She’s planning a book that will distill much of her thought and, with any luck, find its way into college classrooms around the country.

She’s been around the block enough to articulate why today’s students need philosophy. “The field is valuable in itself for basic skills: reasoning, thinking clearly, analyzing arguments, writing. Because of the focus on dialectical inquiry, it helps to create skills of oral communication as well. In all those small discussion classes you have to bring your A-game. I would argue that this is the best major for developing those transferable skills.

“But practically, what we’ve seen with philosophy majors is that they consistently score among the very highest on GMAT, LSAT, GRE and medical school entrance tests. They don’t have the highest starting salaries, but studies have shown that their median mid-career salaries are higher than those of most other college majors (and considerably higher than those of business management majors). You’re not doing yourself any disservice professionally.”

She warns, however, about the limits of thinking only vocationally when it comes to questions of value.

“The task at liberal arts colleges is to create citizens. Look at our politics these days. Teaching people to think critically and humanely about complex questions is a fundamental job of ours. It’s really shortsighted to put so much emphasis on vocation if it clouds this much broader social good. We all need an educated, capable citizenry that can make the hard decisions.”

And after those hard decisions get made? Despite politicians’ claims to the contrary, it could well be that our moral responsibility for our views obligates us to invite critique — and even to change positions over time as new ideas become available.

“We can hope.”

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“Philosophers in ethics think a lot about responsibility for actions — for killing a person, let’s say — but not necessarily about responsibility for attitudes or mind-states.”

— Angela Smith ’92