Wednesday, 1 February 2012


In a lot of ethical discussions I've been having recently, the issue of responsibility has come up, in the sense of being morally responsible for a particular action.  Is there a philosophical school of ethics that deals with responsibility and blame - a kind of 'blameology'?  If there is, I'd love someone to point me towards it.

Utilitarianism, of course, has a coherent theory of blaming: someone should be publicly blamed when doing so increases utility (by socially deprecating the actions of the person in question, for example) and privately blamed when doing so increases utility (by shaping one's own preferences not to act like the person in question.)  I imagine that Kant had clear ideas about when to blame people as well: putting it simply, whenever people run afoul of his deontology they become bad people, and ought to be blamed by all good people.

Where I run into trouble is in thinking about the way blame relates to responsibility.  Here are a few ethical questions that I think are non-trivial:

Is responsibility a zero-sum game?  For instance, if somebody else assumes some amount of responsibility for an action A that I have taken, does my responsibility for A lessen by that amount?

Does responsibility require knowledge?  For instance, if my action A has an effect that I am unaware of, whether positive or negative, am I responsible for that effect?

Are blame and responsibility directly related?  Should people be blamed for all morally negative actions that they're responsible for - and if so, should they be blamed only to the extent that they're responsible?


  1. Great questions, Philboyd. I have one thought to offer. I have a post scheduled where I brush up against the issue of blame with regard to those of my students who’ve grown up in really rough environments, and become criminals largely or wholly because of it. In what sense, and to what extent, can they be personally blamed? Along the same lines, one can look more broadly, and perhaps more philosophically, at responsibility, nature, nurture, determinism, whatever—and ask in what sense, and to what extent, anyone can really be blamed for anything. And I have no earthly idea how to answer those questions. The only thought I have to offer is that external trappings of blame, such as disapproval and punishment, still seem to be practical necessities, no matter what one’s underlying philosophy. For example, when someone grows up in a terrible home in a terrible neighborhood, has crushing odds against them, suffers through failing schools and personal and structural racism, etc., and ends up shooting someone—it may be misguided or untruthful to blame them. But I’m strongly inclined to think that we should still punish them.

  2. The more I look, the less philosophical justification I can see for any kind of punishment. But I wouldn't dream of telling you - a teacher - that there is no justification for punishment at all. I suppose some punishment is necessary from a utilitarian standpoint - but as an anarchist, I'd add that that necessity might be a function of a system (the schooling system and, more broadly, the State with its slums and so on) that is founded on principles of authority and punishment. If you create little oases within that system (or, speaking fantastically, smash the system,) then you might not need to punish anybody. Of course, this is mostly pie-in-the-sky stuff.

    Wrapping up, I think what you're identifying is a disconnect between deontology and utilitarianism: people in no way merit any kind of punishment, but it nevertheless is necessary to punish them for the happiness of others. (Unless you're speaking from deontological intuitions, in which case I've misunderstood.)

  3. No, I think you nailed it, and that's really helpful! It might not be "just" or "right" or "dutiful" to punish. But it might still result in greater happiness to do so.