Barbara Fried begins by announcing a blame epidemic. She believes that the deregulation of banks, the dismantling of the social safety net, “the health care wars,” and mass incarceration have been “fueled by our collective sense that if things go badly for you, you’ve got no one to blame but yourself.”
This is a provocative claim, but she never defends it—after all, there are other, more plausible, explanations for why these policies have been put into place—and she gives no evidence for her more general claim that the last four decades have been “boom years for blame.” One could just as well argue the opposite. We are a lot more willing to explain behavior in the amoral language of evolution and neuroscience than we used to be. And consider the changes in American attitudes toward homosexuals, transsexuals, and women who have children outside of marriage. We are far less likely to blame these individuals than we were in the 1970s.
Still, epidemic or no epidemic, Fried is right that we often do blame others, and that this blame drives our desire for retribution. She argues that blame is bad morality, bad policy, and bad metaphysics.
It’s the metaphysics that she starts with, and her argument is straight out of Philosophy 101: to blame someone assumes that they could have done otherwise. But all of our actions are caused by our circumstances, including our genes and our upbringing. To claim that we can step away from these causal forces and choose to do something different is to appeal to magic. To put it more generally, everything we do is the product of the laws of physics and the state of the universe, and since we don’t choose either of these, we don’t choose anything. No choice, no blame.
The thought of being blamed by others can motivate good behavior.
This is a serious enough argument, but Fried never acknowledges its implications. The goal is humane; she wants us to conclude that an individual with an unfortunate background—the teenager growing up in gang territory who later shoots a drug dealer, say—should not be fully blamed for his actions. But if you take her argument seriously, nobody should blamed for anything—not the teenager, or the corrupt politician, or the cheating spouse, or anybody else. You also shouldn’t praise, admire, or respect anyone, as all of these attitudes presume some degree of choice.
If we abandon the notion of choice, we lose too much. Consider a man who thrashes in his sleep and hits his wife in the face, breaking her nose. They both wake up, and he is horrified at what has happened. Compare this to a man who hates his wife and wants to hurt her. One night, he waits for her to fall asleep and then, fully awake, hits her in the face. When she awakes, he pretends to be horrified at what had happened. Common sense tells us that only the second man is blameworthy because only he chose his action. It is impossible to imagine a legal or moral system that doesn’t take this difference between the two men seriously.
But doesn’t Fried’s argument show that choice cannot exist? Not really: one alternative is to see choice as a certain psychological process. Yes, the second man’s action was ultimately caused by his genes and environment (he couldn’t have done otherwise), but it was also the product of conscious deliberation, of mulling over alternatives and weighing options—this is what makes it a choice. And if the man was schizophrenic, or deeply depressed, or had been horrifically abused by his wife, such factors might erode his deliberative capacity, and make him less blameworthy.
Since choices are influenced, at least in part, by a person’s conception of right and wrong, it’s no accident that we respond to them with attitudes such as blame. The thought of being blamed by others, and the associated feelings of guilt and shame, can motivate good behavior. Indeed—though I won’t make the argument here—I think that this is why moral responses such as blame and praise have evolved in the first place.
Fried dismisses blame as a tool to control bad behavior, but this is because she focuses on its worst instantiations. Blame can be done well. As an example, consider a domain where Fried is right and there really has been a blame epidemic: sexual harassment of women in the workplace. Behaviors that were once thought to be natural, shrugged off with a boys-will-be-boys attitude, are now viewed as blameworthy and treated with contempt. Because of this, most people nowadays would be mortified at the thought of being exposed as a sexual harasser. There is a similar blame epidemic with regard to racist speech, child abuse, and drunk driving. All this blame motivates decent behavior, and the world is better off as a result.