Early-Career Research Spotlight: Brandon Warmke

Early-Career Research Spotlight: Brandon Warmke

The purpose of the early-career research spotlight is two-fold. First, the aim is to bring attention to an early-career APA member who is doing some interesting research. Second, the hope is to generate discussion about the spotlighted work. Feel free to ask our spotlighted researcher questions pertaining to the work discussed in the post. Comments must conform to our community guidelines and comment policy.


This installment of the early-career research spotlight series looks at the work of Brandon Warmke, who has written a number of fascinating papers on moral responsibility, focusing particularly on questions related to the virtue of forgiveness. Warmke is currently a Religious Experience Residential Fellow at the University of Notre Dame. He received his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Arizona in 2014, and spent the 2014–15 academic year as a Postdoctoral Fellow with the Character Project at Wake Forest University. In addition to his papers on moral responsibility—which have been published in Philosophical StudiesPacific Philosophical Quarterly, The Journal of Moral PhilosophyEthical Theory and Moral Practice, and Philosophia—he is currently editing (with Michael McKenna and Dana Nelkin) a collection of new essays on forgiveness for Oxford University Press. Good examples of his work can be found in his papers “Is Forgiveness the Deliberate Refusal to Punish?” and “Situationism versus Situationism.”

Brandon Warmke

Nathan: Thanks for agreeing to talk, Brandon. A theme that seems to run through your work is the importance of salvaging certain virtues (such as forgiveness) from only having localized relevance in certain situations. I am thinking of your claims that forgiveness is separate from a refusal to punish, and that a coherent account of situationism requires a “broad-based” and “overarching” trait you call a virtue. What leads you to pursue this project? That is, what value comes from this “salvaging of more global virtues”?

Brandon: Thanks for asking me to chat, Nathan. You ask about my attempt to salvage certain virtues. That’s an interesting way to think about my work. My work on forgiveness largely grew out of my interest in the moral responsibility literature. I found that many very talented people working in moral responsibility, free will, and action theory had made important advances in our understanding of the nature and norms of moral blame. When I came across the forgiveness literature, I noticed that much of the pioneering work (say, by Jeffrie Murphy, Jean Hampton, Eve Garrard and David McNaughton, Margaret Holmgren, and Paul Hughes), had been done by really excellent moral and political philosophers. It seemed to me, though, that recent developments in the literature on free will and moral responsibility could fruitfully be brought to bear on questions about the nature and norms of forgiveness. I saw a niche and tried to fill it. I think a lot of good, interesting philosophy can happen this way. Carolina Sartorio’s work on the metaphysics of causation, just to name one example, has really been helpful in advancing the free will debate.

But to your point about salvaging virtues, I do wish more philosophers thought about certain crucial aspects of our moral and social lives. It struck me as strange, for example, when I discovered that forgiveness was a fairly late-developing topic in contemporary ethics, and that it was construed by many as primarily a matter of religious interest. Alternatively, consider topics like generosity and kindness. Virtually everyone I know wants both to be kind and to be treated with kindness. Yet how many philosophical accounts of kindness are on offer?

With respect to the philosophical situationist’s challenge to so-called global virtues, my friend Travis Rogers and I have posed a challenge to prescriptive situationism (the view that we could effect better moral outcomes if we became more adept at choosing morally conducive situations instead of simply relying on our characters to get us through the situations we face). Our thought was just that a consistently good situation-chooser will have to possess something very much like a global moral character trait. The tension, we think, is this: the kind of trait required by prescriptive situationism is the very kind of trait that has apparently been found to be empirically lacking. This puts some situationists in an uncomfortable position. Their moral advice relies on exploiting traits that they themselves treat with skepticism.

Nathan: I am intrigued by the point you make about religion having been a more conventional home for discussions of forgiveness than philosophy. This seems to be true, as—with certain notable exceptions—ethics has focused more on ideas like duty, happiness, and justice (I’m being a little schematic here). Given this, what do you consider your relationship to be with religious discussions on forgiveness? Are you trying to secularize religious concepts of forgiveness, do you take those discussions as a starting point for your own, do you draw similar conclusions despite a different starting point, or something else?

Brandon: I think you are right that it has appeared to many that theological or religious studies are more natural homes for discussions of forgiveness than is philosophy. But I think this is just an appearance. There is nothing about the phenomenon of forgiveness, as far as I can tell, that is essentially “religious” (whatever that means). We all have to deal with an inevitable and unfortunate fact of life: others will do us wrong. One kind of ethical question is, “What are the more or less morally appropriate ways to respond to those who wrong us?” The buffet of options includes responses ranging from blame of various sorts, to revenge, punishment, indifference, servility, and forgiveness. I cannot see why there would be anything essentially “religious” about some of these options but not others. It strikes me as something approaching mere prejudice to insist that forgiveness just is a religious topic.

I’m not the first to say similar kinds of things, of course. In his famous 1962 paper “Freedom and Resentment,” P.F. Strawson (no friend of religion himself, as far as I can tell) listed forgiveness as one of the practices that we could not extricate from our life even if we so desired. He lamented that the topic had become “rather unfashionable” among moral philosophers. I think there are a couple of related reasons for its having been unfashionable. First, a number of philosophers did indeed think there was an extremely cozy connection between forgiveness and Christianity. Nietzsche, for example, didn’t have much good to say about forgiveness, for he saw it as a crucial aspect of a Christian ethos that was to be rejected. Hannah Arendt even famously claimed that Jesus “discovered” forgiveness. The second reason is that, to the extent that philosophy in the Anglo-American world was at the time still pretty hostile to religion, that forgiveness even had the whiff of being a “religious” topic was probably thought sufficient reason to ignore it. Strawson deserves credit for having seen through such faddishness to notice the philosophical importance of forgiveness.

So I don’t think of myself as trying to secularize forgiveness, for I don’t think it needs secularizing. This is not to say, of course, that much thinking about forgiveness did not develop historically within religious communities, or that it is not absolutely crucial to certain theological traditions. My point is just: so what?

Nathan: What are the key attributes you ascribe to forgiveness? And what is the social value of explaining forgiveness in these terms (as opposed to, for example, the forbearance of punishment)?

Brandon: Most discussions of moral forgiveness focus on emotional change: to forgive someone who has wronged you is to do something with certain kinds of emotions that arise when one is wronged. To forgive on these views is to overcome, moderate, or forswear attitudes like resentment and indignation. While I think forgiveness often involves these kinds of changes, I don’t think such views capture the whole of the story, or perhaps even the most important part of it. I think that any account of forgiveness should have the resources to explain why the operative norms bearing on the relationship between victim and wrongdoer are altered when forgiveness occurs. When we forgive wrongdoers, we typically relinquish a right or license to blame the wrongdoer in certain ways. This is why it is typically thought that upon forgiving, it would be inappropriate for a victim to keep on privately and overtly blaming the wrongdoer, to “keep holding it against her,” as it were. And further, borrowing a point from Dana Nelkin, when we forgive, we typically release the wrongdoer from certain kinds of personal obligations, such as the obligation to keep on apologizing, show remorse, or give restitution. Taking these two points together, I think that forgiveness alters the normative standards for both the wrongdoer and victim. I just can’t see how any emotional change could explain this. So I have defended the view in a few places that the paradigmatic forms of forgiveness should be thought of as an exercise of a normative power. Forgiveness, in that respect, is like promising. Forgiveness is the practice that allows victims to return the operative norms governing the relationship to something resembling their ex-ante state.

The primary reason to distinguish forgiveness from forbearing punishment is just that they are different practices with different aims. In a few places, I have defended the view that one can forgive and yet still appropriately punish or seek punishment. I won’t go into the details, but the general idea is that forgiveness is best thought of as a practice of interpersonal morality, whereas punishment is best thought of (at least outside the state of nature) as a matter of justice that requires certain kinds of authority and institutional structures. The analogy would then run like this: moral forgiveness is to moral blame as pardon is to punishment.

Nathan: You connect the concept of forgiveness to the idea of re-establishing operative norms in a relationship. How do you define operative norms in this context? Are they universal norms that apply to every relationship, social norms established within certain cultural contexts, or do they differ from relationship to relationship? Do you have any response to the claim that there are no norms in relationships, but that the point of relationships is to see them as open to change?

Brandon: Nice question. What I have in mind is something like the following. It seems to me fairly obvious that we should not go around blaming people who have not done us wrong. Upon being wronged, however, we typically inherit certain kinds of rights, such as a right to censure, denounce, make a moral complaint, or what have you. Call these blaming rights. Being wronged itself effects a change in the operative norms governing the relationship: while it was previously wrong to blame, that is no longer the case. My thought is just that forgiveness can function as a way of relinquishing or giving up these rights. Doing so alters the operative norms again. While it was once (previously) permissible to blame, it is now no longer permissible. This is why, for instance, it is wrong for someone who has forgiven to keep bringing up the wrongdoing in conversation or to continue holding the wrong against the wrongdoer. “I thought you forgave me,” we might say, “why are you still blaming me?” (We might also say that this continued blaming behavior shows that the person didn’t forgive in the first place. That might be true, but that wouldn’t change the fact that forgiving still typically makes such interactions impermissible.) As to the exact changes in the normative landscape, I don’t think there is any one-size-fits-all recipe. A lot depends on the nature of the relationship, the seriousness of the wrong done, and the moral commitments and expectations of those involved. So I think I can be fairly liberal with allowing for different kinds of normative changes across contexts.

Nathan: It seems to me that there are a number of different ways these theories can be applied. How do you envision your project developing in the future?

Brandon: I am interested in certain kinds of moral issues that arise in contexts of public discourse. For example, how should we speak to and treat one another when we disagree about controversial matters in the public square? Additionally, I’m interested in phenomena like complaining. What is it to complain about something, and when is complaining appropriate? I had been thinking about this topic for some time when I heard Kate Norlock give a nice talk on it at a recent APA meeting. A longer-term project I have been working on with my friend Justin Tosi involves trying to sort these matters out, eventually in a book on public discourse ethics.

Nathan: As a young scholar, you must keep yourself busy with all the obligations asked of you. Do you have any advice in this regard?

Brandon: I don’t think I’m qualified to give much advice, but I can say what has worked for me when it comes to writing. When I started work on my dissertation, I read a bit of psychological research on how to be a productive writer. Not all the advice worked for me, but one practice did. Settle on a number of words and just write that many words, say, five days a week. So my practice, then and since, has been to write roughly 500 words a day. The number should be low enough to be attainable on a consistent basis (to maintain a positive feedback loop) and high enough that it adds up quickly (500 words a day, five days a week, for a month, amounts to an entire draft of a paper or chapter). Once I get that writing done, I am free to do other things: reading, emails, administrative work, watching the Pacers play, whatever. I can sleep at night knowing both that I did substantial writing that day and that I can do something attainable the next. For those like myself who aren’t paper-writing machines, this sort of practice really helps.

Please feel free to ask Brandon questions about his work in the comment thread.


If you know of an early-career researcher doing interesting work, nominate them for our research spotlight series through the the submission form here. Our goal is to cover early-career research from a broad array of philosophical areas and perspectives, reflecting the variety of work being done by APA members.


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