Blame

Even the moral sceptic is not immune from his own form of the wish to over-intellectualize such notions as those of moral responsibility, guilt, and blame. He sees that the optimist’s account is inadequate and the pessimist’s libertarian alternative inane; and finds no resource except to declare that the notions in question are inherently confused, that ‘blame is metaphysical’.

PF Strawson, Freedom and Resentment
Quote from Freedom and Resentment and Other Essays by PF Strawson

Part of my central thesis of non-agency is centred on the notion of blame, and it seems PF Strawson has a lot to contribute in this arena. In short, given my lack of belief of material human agency, I wish to investigate the connection between seemingly innate impulses to project blame and the absence of a blameworthy object.

In order to devote more time to researching and writing my thesis and less time editorialising elsewhere, I may post some shorter content such as these gems that I stumble upon along the way. This facilitates my desire to create and share content without the burden of devoting hours to render it. It also gives me places to come back to.

I only hope that you don’t blame me for doing so.


Meantime, indulge my recording my thoughts here in the public space.

What is blame?

We don’t have very precise definitions of blame, we have an intuitive sense of what it means. There is a subject (or object, as the case might be) that creates (or has been attributed to have created) an action that results in an interaction on an object (or process) with a subsequent effect and a notion of intentionality. But we have to parse casual effect, responsibility, and blame as they are not strictly equivalent. Let’s begin with a causal event.

I believe that on balance the causal event process and object interaction is uncontroversial. A billiard ball (Object A), through directed (or undirected) motion, collides (action) with a second billiard ball (Object B) with the subsequent effect of displacing the second ball.

What we can claim in this scenario is that A → B, A causes B to move. Except in the loosest of idiomatic speech, we can’t really extend this causal relationship to claim that A is responsible for B’s movement. Even further removed, one can’t claim that A is to blame for B’s movement.

Responsibility and blame are different moral claims attributed to an agent. I feel I am safe to claim that a billiard ball has no agency. Whilst human agency is defined as an individual’s capacity to determine and make meaning from their environment through purposive consciousness and reflective and creative action (Houston, 2010), an agent in a more general sense is a being with the capacity to act, and ‘agency’ denotes the exercise or manifestation of this capacity.

The word blame is infused with negative connotations. Praise is a loose antonym with positive connotations, but I won’t focus on it because it is not nearly as heavy and operates semantically differently. In any case, I feel justified to cross blame from the list of possible qualifiers for the billiard ball scenario.

Is A responsible for B? Again, I believe that most people do not assign responsibility to inanimate objects—notwithstanding animism, pantheism, and possibly panpsychism.

Here are some diagrammes.

Above, there is only cause and effect. We can intuit that the movement of Object A is not uncaused. Even so, it careens into Object B, causing it to move. And while one could say A is responsible for moving B, this would be non-standard English language use.

If one pulls back to catch a wider glimpse, one can see that the cause of Object A striking Object B, was a person striking Object A (possibly with a cue stick). Here, the casual event chain is the person causing A to strike B. Two cause-effect relationships at a macro level. However, in this case, we can also say that the person is responsible for the event to set A into motion. We can also say that the person caused B to move (by the way of Object A). Even here, blame would be inappropriate to assert.

We may be able to reframe the scenario slightly differently to get blame into the picture, but let’s take a short detour and create a praise situation. If Object B is hit into a pocket, we can praise the person. Perhaps this shot wins the game. The person is responsible for making the shot.

In scenario B, the person misses the shot. Moreover, Object A does collide with Object B, but perhaps Object B is the 8 ball, and it was not supposed to be pocketed yet. Or perhaps the cue ball deflects off of Object B causing A to scratch because it falls into a pocket. Either of these situations might cause the person to lose the match. A mate may blame this person for being responsible for the loss.

Before moving on, I’ll point out that one distinction that affords blame more weight than praise is the ongoing psychology. Whilst with praise, a person may reflect fondly on a positive event, there is not really a counter to a grudge in the case of blame. And while praise can be misattributed with benefits to social capital, misdirected blame can result in a loss of social capital with longer-term implications.

Perhaps someone unseen pushes you into another person causing them to be injured. You may have been the cause of this person being injured, but like the billiard ball, Object B, you are not morally responsible. Moreover, you may be the target of blame.

These are rather low-stakes scenarios. Imaging these as legal negligence or in a criminal setting. Innocent people are routinely convicted for crimes they never committed. Perhaps, they had been previously unaware of any of the actors or events, yet they are blamed and fined or incarcerated.

This isn’t my interest to discuss at the moment. This is a different scope, so let’s return to the main theme.

In the low-stakes billiards example we can say that the person seems to have agency. For trivial events, we can ignore whether this is more than seeming. In essence, we can ignore the antecedent event arrow that caused the person to be in a situation to have the opportunity to strike the ball in the first place. We’ll return to this later.