Thursday, April 23, 2009

To Blame or Not to Blame

Tibor R. Machan

Most people will readily find fault in others and blame them for it. But doing so assumes these others could have done otherwise, acted properly, ethically.

Blaming and praising presuppose that people are largely in control of their own actions and when these actions go astray, they are responsible for it. Bernie Madoff, for instance, didn't have to bilk his clients but chose to do so. Nor did congress have to promote home ownership for all those who couldn't afford the mortgage. Nor did all those who took out easy loans have to do this--they chose to get what appeared to them a free ride. Misconduct by human beings isn't some affliction but a matter of choice, albeit a bad one.

If all this is wrong then what we have is lamentable, never blameworthy, conduct, sort of how most of us deal with the rain that ruined our picnic. Or with the dog that bit the postman. We blame no one in such cases but merely lament what happened. Even if there are some, very few, higher animals that engage in moral reflection--is this right, is that wrong, etc.--it is only people whose lives are enmeshed in an ocean of moral choices.

The data concerning this issue is always mixed because neither a deterministic nor self-responsible account of how people should be understood is obviously true or false. No one is observed as a free agent, nor as one being pushed around by impersonal forces. The issue can only be resolved by using the method of comparative analysis--is the free will hypothesis or the determinist one more consistent with observable facts?

Resolving this conflict requires comprehensive investigation by specialists in a great variety of disciplines. Ordinarily most of us rely on evidence from our own case but this evidence tends to be tainted by our preconceptions. It doesn't have to be but it often is, probably because people like to come off smelling like roses! Self blame doesn't come easy to anyone since it suggests that one's credentials as a good guy would be undermined. This despite the fact that one swallow does not make a springtime, Aristotle's way of reminding us that rare cases don't capture what is generally true.

Nonetheless, few will fess up to being negligent or sloppy or otherwise at fault as their conduct is placed under scrutiny. If I am late for a meeting it is very tempting to blame it on the weather or traffic or something else I have no control over. But should I receive praise for, say, my work, most of the time I am very happy to take the credit. Yet this implies that I could have failed instead. Helpless in one case, in charge in another.

Even public policy is influenced by the schizophrenia. Many influential people explain away criminal conduct by completely abandoning free will as something spooky, something that just does not fit with how the world works. Accordingly, many such folks are at work trying to influence the legal system and purge it of notions that suggest that defendants could help it when they did something wrong. (A huge amount of money was recently donated to a team of neuroscientists at UC Santa Barbara whose project is to help revise the criminal law, to purge it of the idea that people can be culpable.)

However, when these people are criticized, critics are generally regarded as guilty of something, some oversight or stubbornness or narrow mindedness. And the critics mostly assume that those who don't agree with them are wrong and should change their minds. Throughout the political arena and the academy criticism of this kind abounds. What many forget is that it also implies, among other things, that those being criticized could have done otherwise, that they are free agents and not robots being pushed around by their genes or environment! Someone who criticizes is committed, at least implicitly, to the view that those being criticized might have acted differently from how they did. Yet, a good many commentators see most people as unfree, thus not deserving of any kind of criticism. This is the issue addressed so artfully in West Side Story: "Gee, Officer Krupke, we're very upset; We never had the love that ev'ry child oughta get. We ain't no delinquents, We're misunderstood. Deep down inside us there is good!"

The dissident, who insists on assigning blame for misconduct is, oddly, deemed to be fully blameworthy for failing to see the light! Of course one cannot have it both ways--with the poor being blameless while the well off are free and thus blameworthy for disagreeing about whether the poor might need to shape up on their own. The well of and the not so well off are both in the same boat concerning whether they are free to choose or determined by forces over which they lack control.

Such a contradictory outlook very likely stems from wishing to gain political support, including votes, rather than from wanting to face the facts of the matter helpfully.

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