William H. Miller III Department of Philosophy, Krieger School of Arts and Sciences
Berman Institute of Bioethics
Hanna Pickard’s research centers on how society responds to maladaptive behaviors like crime or drug use. Now a leading applied philosopher in the fields of moral psychology and the philosophy of psychiatry, joins Johns Hopkins as a Bloomberg Distinguished Professor. She holds joint appointments in the Department of Philosophy in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences and in the Berman Institute of Bioethics.
Pickard remembers participating in lively dinner-table discussions as a kid. She’d listen closely as her parents, both law professors, debated abstract ideas of equality and justice as well as current issues like the finer points of nuclear disarmament, the ethics of trade embargos with South Africa, and the viability of civil disobedience as a legitimate form of protest.
She was still a child when her mother engaged in civil disobedience to protest against nuclear disarmament in their hometown of Kingston, Ontario. The protest was picked up by the press and became a small local sensation. Pickard remembers the complicated emotions she felt as a result of her mother’s actions.
“On the one hand I was incredibly proud of my mother,” she says, “but on the other hand it was in the newspaper and people were very critical. It was a moment when a conflict between doing the right thing and feeling comfortable and untroubled in one’s life was very present to me, and I began thinking about that sort of ethical dilemma.”
Pickard comes to Johns Hopkins from the University of Birmingham in the U.K., where she is Chair in Philosophy of Psychology, and from Princeton University, where she has served as a visiting research scholar in cognitive science for the past two years. Previously, she’s been a research fellow at the University of Oxford and served for 10 years as an assistant team therapist at the Oxfordshire Complex Needs Service, where she worked clinically in an outpatient therapeutic community for patients with personality disorders and other complex mental health needs.
Through her applied approach to research, Pickard explores a range of areas, including mental health, addiction, clinical ethics, the self, and criminal law and policy. Currently, she leads a research project titled Responsibility Without Blame, which explores the counterproductive ways society responds to maladaptive behaviors such as crime or addiction.
In Pickard’s view, typical social responses to behavior that’s perceived as wrong or as causing harm fall into two categories: “rescue” or “blame.” A “rescue” response casts people as victims of influences outside of their control—such as mental disorder or addiction—and casts others in the role of saviors. Although often well-meaning, this kind of response removes the active role people can and often need to play in their own recovery or rehabilitation. A “blame” response, on the other hand, attributes agency to the person but withholds compassion, and often includes some form of social stigma or even punishment. It tends to be marked by overt hostility, Pickard says.
Although she developed the Responsibility Without Blame framework while working clinically at the Oxfordshire Complex Needs Service, she says she first became interested in mental health partly because of her family history.
“My uncle had paranoid schizophrenia,” she says. “When he did things that were scary or difficult for me as a child or us as a family, it was all too easy to go one way or another and get trapped between extremes: either to fall into the ‘rescue’ response and put it all down to the illness, or to become quite blaming and rejecting.
“As a result of this trap, genuine relationships too easily get lost,” she adds. “If you go to either of those extremes, you lose the capacity to relate to another as a person, and to support them.”
The “rescue-blame trap” is especially evident in discussions of addiction, Pickard says. In recent years, a disease model of addiction has emerged with the goal of decoupling the condition from moral judgments and instead understanding addiction as a brain disease. But this model, Pickard says, negates scientific studies that suggest addicts retain the capacity to choose alternative goods or abstinence in a variety of scenarios. A degree of behavioral flexibility and goal-directedness endures, meaning addicts are not always acting simply because “they can’t help it” or are “compelled” by their addiction.
She is using her Responsibility Without Blame framework to advocate for a radical new approach to criminal justice. With Nicola Lacey, a professor of law at the London School of Economics, Pickard has authored a series of papers calling for the criminal justice system to establish two routes for delivering justice—one centered on justice for victims and one centered on responsibility and rehabilitation for offenders. She argues that a punitive justice system centered on the idea of offenders getting their ‘just deserts’ betrays the goals of offender rehabilitation and reintegration.
Pickard is working on a book about her Responsibility Without Blame framework and has introduced an e-learning platform for those interested in adopting the concept in mental health and affiliated fields. She publishes across philosophy, psychiatry, bioethics, and law journals, and is the co-editor of The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy and Science of Addiction. She received a Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy from Queen’s University in Canada, and her Master’s and Doctor of Philosophy degrees from the University of Oxford.