The Nature of Blame

Posted on September 26, 2012 by


What is the nature of blame? Recently, I took my prelim exam in the Philosophy of Mind and one of the questions I answered was on the reactive attitudes and their effect on how we perceive what the nature of blame is. I found the question quite intriguing, and, the purpose of this post will be to pose some questions as to what role the reactive attitudes have in our understanding of blame and if they alone constitute blame, or, if blame is something different. I was introduced to blame (academically) when I sat down to read George Sher’s book ‘In Praise of Blame’ (2006-OUP) a few years back. Since then, there has not been much literature on the subject (only 2 pieces come to mind here, Scanlon 2008 and Wallace 2011), hopefully, in the near future, I’ll be able to add to it. But, for the time being, I’ll sketch some of my ideas in this brief post. I won’t be offering a robust position at the moment, however, I will suggest how we ought to think about blame given our social nature.

We blame all the time. We blame at work, we blame at home, we blame ourselves, all we do is blame! When something goes wrong, we work endlessly to find someone to blame  for our misfortunes or our bad experience. But what is blame?

Is it  an attempt uncover the truth about actions we find harmful to ourselves or others? Is it connected with some innate search for justice? Also, if someone is blameworthy by meeting some metaphysical underlying conditions of moral responsibility does that warrant the blame we ascribe?

These questions are quite intriguing but I’d like to focus on a different one; can we blame without having emotions? Though they often seem to be accompanying our active blame directed at others I do not think emotions are necessary for blame to be present. For example, if I am wronged by a friend must I feel resentment or any other emotion to say “I don’t think it was appropriate to do X”? Why think that we should? Many philosophers (Angela Smith and RJ Wallace) claim that blame is primarily connected to these emotions. I guess I’m not convinced. I blame lots of people without feeling many emotions. I have blamed my dog for knocking over the bowl. I have blamed historical figures for what they have done. I also blame myself for lots of failed undertakings and miscues. I blame editors for not doing their job properly, but I don’t seem to be angry in most of these cases. Maybe these cases are not of the moral variety and these authors are suggesting a connection between emotions and blame in only those sorts of cases? But there seems to be counter-examples there as well. For instance, a friend has not called me in a while, I blame him for that yet I do not feel any ill-will because of it. I’d like to think that friends have a moral obligation to stay in touch, when they fail to meet this moral obligation I could be justified in blaming them. If I do, according to Smith and Wallace, then by definition I will have an accompanying emotion with it. But, I don’t. There are times when I do, in the most egregious of cases, but, for many, I don’t feel any negative emotions. I can recognize a miscue or wrong-doing without having a negative emotion accompanying my analysis. If this is right then emotions are not directly connected to blame and we might have reason to argue against the necessary connection that seems to be central to both and Angela Smith and R. Jay Wallace (another that has a similar view is Susan Wolf ). I’d like to hear what others think about blame.


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