Workshop 1: Who are we to blame?

Edinburgh. Spring 2018.

Theme. This workshop aims to examine key theoretical questions regarding the nature of blame, and who is entitled to blame. A first set of questions concerns the nature of blame. Blame is often associated with punishment and harsh words. But blame doesn’t always seem to involve punishment (e.g. privately blaming someone) and doesn’t seem appropriate in some cases of blame (e.g. blame for belief). In addition, if suffering is essential to blame it may make blame seem morally problematic. A second set of questions concerns who is entitled to blame? It’s typically thought inappropriate to blame somebody for doing something if one encouraged them to do it, or did something similar oneself. But, if having done something similar oneself makes one ineligible to blame, this might implausibly restrict our ability to blame others. What, then, is blame and when is one entitled to blame another?

Outcome. The workshop focused on the nature of blame and the propriety of blaming. As is well known, even if someone is blameworthy, it might be inappropriate for one to blame them if, say, one has done just the same thing oneself, encouraged them to do it, or perhaps has never had one’s moral fibre tested in the same way. A first set of questions we investigated concerned the relation between these various conditions: is there a single unifying explanation of these different ways in which blame can be inappropriate? If there is, what is it? These issues were explored by a number of papers including those by O’Brien, Todd and Rabern, and Rickless.

A second set of questions about the propriety of blame is raised by the role the blamer has, whether as perpetrator of the wrongdoing, victim, or third-party observer. Nelkin explored the idea that it can be appropriate for a person to blame himself more than a third party for some wrongdoing even when they both judge it is blameworthy to the same degree. She suggested that the explanation of this datum is that blaming always runs the risk of harming someone inappropriately (if it turns out they weren’t blameworthy after all) and in general, one needs more justification to risk harming someone else than oneself. Coates looked at the way in which the propriety of blame is affected by forgiveness which seems especially the prerogative of the victim. Once a victim has forgiven the wrongdoer, it is no longer appropriate for him to blame the wrongdoer. Coates argued that this gives us reason to prefer emotional or interpersonal accounts of blame as these accounts seem best placed to explain why there is a tension between forgiveness and blame.

A third set of questions about the propriety of blame arise when someone does something wrong in circumstances in which his evidence supports that he is not doing wrong. Mason argued that at least in the case of certain sexual crimes, it may be appropriate to blame someone by punishing them even if his evidence supported that he wasn’t committing the relevant crime because he nonetheless morally ought to have known he was committing that crime. Talbert argued that in many such cases the agent has a problematic motivation, and so even if they don’t know that they are doing wrong, they can be blamed on the grounds that their motivation is flawed.