The pointed finger of blame

November 19, 2018

The pointed finger of blame

Dan Anderson

No one needs an education in blame. My three year old daughter has already achieved a stunning level of mastery regarding her older brother without any formal instruction. In this she shows herself truly a daughter of Adam and Eve, our archetypal forebears, who respond to God’s questioning after the Fall with fingers poised to point in any direction other than at themselves. The fact that we all do it fairly naturally, coupled with the fact that we generally find blame unpleasant, whether as object or observer, probably explains why we don’t give much thought to the questions that circulate around blame. But the more you consider it, the more interesting blame becomes as a window onto our lived moral experience.

Think for a moment about how it appears possible for me to make the judgment that someone is blameworthy without actually blaming him or her. For example, let’s imagine I have a friend (call him Henry) who has a gambling addiction and has been caught stealing funds from his workplace. His behaviour has had very little impact on me, although it has been devastating for his family and church. Henry is a close friend and I am determined to stick with him whatever comes. I have no problem recognising that Henry is blameworthy, but I do not find myself blaming him, although I can see that it is perfectly right for members of his family and church to do so. When I say that I do not blame Henry, I mean that I do not have the common attitudes that function as markers of blame: feelings of anger, sadness, and disappointment (or at least, not to the degree that others do), and I don’t feel the need to modify my relationship with Henry, other than to offer support. Something seems to be going on in the relational dynamics of this situation that makes it possible for me to judge that Henry is blameworthy without then holding an attitude of blame toward him.

The philosopher Thomas M. Scanlon has drawn attention to the separability of the judgment of blameworthiness and the attitude of blame in a number of recent works.[i] For Scanlon, to claim that a person is blameworthy is to claim that his actions reveal something about him that impairs his relations with others. However, to blame that person is to go beyond this judgement to judge that your relationship is modified by this blameworthiness in some way. A judgement of blameworthiness may be made by anyone who knows the relevant standards of the relationship. To blame is to actually hold attitudes that reflect the impaired relationship. As such, blaming depends a great deal on the nature of the relationship between the parties and the significance of the impairment of this relationship.

There are a lot of interesting rabbits to chase here, but the thing I want to note is quite simple: blame is a window into the taking and holding of moral accountability. As we look at our lived experience of holding each other morally accountable through the window of blame, we should find our attention drawn to the importance of our relationships in structuring our moral experience.

I think this explains, in part, the structure of a good apology. A good apology is really a process that begins with agreeing upon the judgement of blameworthiness, but then moves to respond differently to differently impaired relationships: to apologise for the breach of trust in a friendship, the violation of the sense of security of a bystander, and the disappointment of expectations in a family.

Perhaps similar things can be said about good apologetics. In good apologetics we are seeking another’s agreement in a set of judgements about ‘what is’, while at the same time paying careful, relationally aware attention to the meaning of ‘what is’ for the business of living as this particular person.



[i] Thomas M. Scanlon, Moral Dimensions: Permissibility, Meaning, Blame (Harvard University Press, 2008); Thomas M. Scanlon, ‘Interpreting Blame’. Blame: Its Nature and Norms  eds D. Justin Coates and Neal A. Tognazzini (Oxford University Press, 2012); For a useful introduction, watch University of California Television, Ethics of Blame by Thomas Scanlon YouTube Video. UC Berkeley Graduate Council Lectures. Posted on October 30 2008. Running Time: 58:14. Accessed June 5 2018.  

Leave a comment

Comments will be approved before showing up.