Does Blameworthiness Require Wrongdoing?

Posted on February 11, 2013 by


A commonly held presupposition is that a person can be blameworthy only for acts that are considered morally wrong. I’ll refer to this as the ‘blameworthiness requires wrongness’ (BW) principle. Recently, a few philosophers began denying this principle citing cases where it is morally permissible to act in a certain way even though such acts are suboptimal. These suboptimal acts, so the argument goes, are morally permissible yet blameworthy. If this is true then BW is false since the act is not wrong. I will briefly describe a case (recently discussed at length here by Dana Nelkin) that motivates this particular denial of BW before suggesting that this way of denying BW doesn’t work for me. Michael Mckenna and Ish Haji have also discussed this at length in recent papers.

Suppose you and I are taking an exam next to one another, and I have brought 20 pencils while you only brought 1. Your pencil breaks, and I see you’re upset as the test is timed and you do not have an extra pencil.  I look at you and see that you’re upset, but, rather than offer one of my 19 extra pencils I think to myself “she should have been smart and prepared like me” and continue on with my test.**

Did I do anything wrong? Am I blameworthy in this case?

For some, this example generates a ‘no’ to the first question but a ‘yes’ to the second. The pull to say yes for the second question seems to suggest that something is “morally amiss” but not wrong, hence morally permissible. If this is your inclination then you might support a denial of BW. I’m inclined to think that I did so something wrong, and because of this wrongness I am blameworthy (a yes to both questions). If something seems wrong about the act but the axiological ethical system we’re appealing to deems the act permissible, then it seems that the ethical theory that fails to deem these acts as wrong (if in fact we think they are) is simply incomplete and not that those agents are to blame for a permissible act and that BW is false. Those acts are morally amiss because there is something amiss about them (again, assuming one finds something wrong in these cases—I do). Such “amissness” makes the acts impermissible, at least to me. So, failing to give a pencil when you have far more than you need while the other person has none, as in the pencil sharing case, is wrong and those agents are blameworthy because of that “wrongness”. Once we spell out the details for why we think there is something wrong in either case I think we will notice that we are blaming the agent for what we find amiss.Blame

I guess I’m not convinced in the existence of suberogatory acts (more on these sorts of acts in future posts). I more inclined to think that most ethical systems are flawed and need to be fine tuned in light of such examples. If my inclination is right then it seems, at least in cases similar to the pencil sharing case, that none of these agents are being blamed for “right” or permissible actions. The action or omission in the given case seem wrong. The wrongness seems to lie in the lack of virtue exhibited by the agents in question (does this suggest that VE is more inclusive as an ethical theory?). I can’t think of a case where one is to blame yet what they did was permissible. When we dig into any of the examples we will find something wrong. If that’s right then where this is blame there is wrongness and BW seems to stand its ground.

Now, there might be other ways to deny BW, however, cases such as the one described above do not seem to give us the resources to do so.

So to tentatively answer the question “does blameworthiness require wrongness?”, I am inclined to say yes.

What do you think?

** This case is a slightly modified version of the case Dana Nelkin and David Shoemaker discussed on the Flickers of Freedom blog I linked above.