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On blame: You always fault the one you love

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There’s an old adage that goes: “When you point one finger, there are three fingers pointing back to you.”

When things go wrong the natural tendency for humans is to look for someone to blame. They point their index fingers as gestures of physical blame. They launch verbal assaults. How destructive has it gotten? The slew of negative ads flooding the airways during the 2012 presidential election – each blaming the other for some perceived national shortcoming or personal transgression – forced many Americans to question the civility of the democratic process.

William & Mary scholar Neal Tognazzini has co-edited the book Blame: Its Nature and Norms with the aim of helping people understand what blame is and how it affects our moral community. The book, published by Oxford University Press, is a collection of essays written by scholars from across the English-speaking world. It explores answers to basic questions concerning the nature of blame, including what is blame.   

“One of the main questions the essays in the book attempt to answer is what blame is – and the jury is still out,” said Tognazzini. He’s an assistant professor of philosophy and specializes in moral responsibility and free will. 

“Some scholars think blame is a judgment that you make about ill will that someone has shown you,” he explained. “Others think it’s a matter of actually feeling some sort of emotion, like resentment or feeling indignant toward an individual. And others think it’s a matter of taking some sort of overt action such as rebuking somebody or reprimanding them. 

book of the month feature“Or, in the case of institutional blame, we put people in jail or punish them.”

Some theorists think that blame can take a number of forms, as long as it’s conceived as protest, he added.

“So, as long as I’m protesting some way that you’ve treated me, or somebody that I care about, then even if I’m just feeling it in my heart or even if I’m just thinking about it to myself I still count as blaming you,” he said.

Within academia, the contemporary philosophical research being conducted by scholars such as Tognazzini takes the emotions seriously. This recent shift in thinking represents a departure from traditional philosophers who believed that in order to be rational one must hold the emotions at bay. How we come to terms with understanding blame is connected to emotions such as resentment, indignation and guilt, said Tognazzini.

“We resent people for wronging us, we are indignant to people who wrong others and we are guilty about the wrongs that we commit,” he said. “These are taken to be our natural, emotional responses to people who show us ill will.”

So this naturally raises the question: if our emotions are natural, are our habits of blame somehow hard-wired within us? “I suspect it is,” said Tognazzini.

“For some reason, we care a lot about what other people think about us, and we care about how they treat us, he said.

“When they treat us badly that reveals to us that they disrespect us, or think badly of us. When they don’t treat us in the way that we think our humanity gives us a right to be treated, then it’s only natural that you’re going to be emotionally exercised in response to that.”

Tognazzini asserts that blame marks our interpersonal relationships. If you care enough about someone, you will blame them as opposed to merely dismissing them as someone not even worth your time. To blame someone means that you’re embracing him or her as your moral peer, which Tognazzini called a “double-edged sword.”

“Blame is both a dangerous thing that can harm us, and harm our relationships, but it’s also a good thing that can really help our relationships,” he said. “Blame often manifests itself in anger and harsh words, which can alienate people and sever relationships. So, in a very natural way, blame is a harmful thing; it’s meant to be harmful in some sense. 

“But it’s also our way of standing up for what we think is right,” he added. “Even though blame can be harmful, without it we wouldn’t be taking morality as seriously as it deserves to be taken.”

Before you blame someone or something, Tognazzini suggests taking a step back and examining the moral function of blame.

For example, Tognazzini cites his relationship with Geneva, his 2-year-old daughter.

“I may get frustrated and annoyed, but I don’t blame her, yet,” he said. “That’s because I don’t think my daughter yet has all the capacities that make her fully morally responsible.”

As she grows older and becomes able to participate wholly in interpersonal relationships Tognazzini said, she’ll be held accountable for her actions and decisions.  

“Then it will be more like genuine blame and less like fatherly frustration.”