Barbara Fried’s provocative essay is a broadside against a loose array of practices of which she disapproves, and which she takes to be united by what she calls “blame mongering.” These practices range from the privatization of social security to the refusal to forgive overdue loans, and her opposition to them is broadly philosophical. She believes that determinism—roughly, the view that everything people do is caused by factors beyond their control—is likely to be true. Thus it is not legitimate to blame them, punish them, or hold them responsible for their actions.
As Fried acknowledges, these views are controversial. Many philosophers, myself included, are compatibilists: we believe that responsibility and causation can coexist. Although compatibilists agree that responsibility requires control, they take the relevant form of it to depend exclusively on facts that are easily detected and that lie near the surface of things—for example, facts about how well informed people are and how responsive they are to reason. That is, people can be said to be sufficiently in control of their own actions as long as they know what they are doing, would act differently if circumstances dictated, are not forced or acting under threat, and so on.
In Fried’s view, this is an evasion. She writes that the “indigestible core” of compatibilism is that “we are blameworthy for doing what we could not help but do.” She believes that the need to explain why we do not blame the very young, the mentally ill, and the severely retarded is “deeply problematic” for the compatibilist since “once compatibilism allows for the possibility that some forms of compromised agency excuse bad conduct, there is no logical stopping point short of incompatibilism.”
A commitment to morality requires blame.
But this last claim is surely mistaken, and by understanding why, we can tilt things in a more compatibilist direction. The reason we do not blame schizophrenics or two-year-olds or persons with severe cognitive limitations is not that we take their decisions, like ours, to be a function of their neural circuitry. It is, rather, precisely that their decisions are unlike ours in that they are not anchored in an accurate understanding of the world. Unlike normal adults, these individuals are not in (sufficiently) close contact with reality. This may not be Fried’s reason for withholding blame, but it is the standard one, and it lines up nicely with compatibilism. For by recognizing that blame is here rendered inappropriate by facts about the agents which are familiar and easy to recognize, we prepare the way for an account of what does justify blame and of the kind of control that it does presuppose, which turns on facts that are no less familiar and easily identified.
I am not denying that there are many puzzles here. Compulsion, negligence, and weakness of will are all notoriously tricky, and while cases like Fried’s Smith are less discussed by philosophers, they too are intellectually and practically challenging. My point is that none of this goes any distance toward reinstating incompatibilism. For when we wonder about whether we should hold responsible people who find it hard to resist their impulses, who fail to notice what they are doing, or who are channeled into lives of crime by limited horizons and a lack of alternatives, the things we wonder about have nothing to do with any underlying causal mechanisms.
Although Fried appears to be opposed to the full array of responsibility-related practices, her announced and central target is blame. She overstates her case by linking blame as closely as she does to policies such as privatizing social security and deregulating banks: putting people in charge of their own retirement accounts is hardly the same as blaming them for anything. But I think she is right to see a concern to “make the world safe for blame” as driving much of the debate about responsibility. In Fried’s view, that concern is misplaced because we are not compelled to accept the legitimacy of blame either to make sense of the phenomenology of agency or to control antisocial behavior or to display respect for wrongdoers. I have my doubts about much of this, but even if it is all correct, there is more that can be said.
Whatever else is true about blame, it is important that we retain our commitment to the moral principles to whose violation it is a reaction. Thus, a further way to secure blame’s legitimacy would be to show that our commitment to morality requires it. There is, moreover, an important fact about blame that suggests just this: the striking continuity between the energy and affect with which we prospectively seek conformity to moral requirements and with which we retrospectively condemn their violation. If the tormented internal monologue “No, don’t do it—oh well, never mind” is not sustainable, then we may have to accept blame as morality’s backward-looking face.