Get our latest essays, archival selections, reading lists, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.
I agree with Barbara Fried when she expresses outrage at retributive penal policy in contemporary America and at changes in public policy such as the dismantling of the social safety net. She attributes these in part to “our collective sense that if things go badly for you, you’ve got no one to blame but yourself.” The remedy she suggests is to give up the ideas of blame and responsibility altogether, in light of the fact that we are all caused to do what we do and to feel what we feel by factors outside of us, over which we have no control.
This is an overreaction. It would bar us, for example, from blaming politicians who vote for the policies Fried decries and from blaming George W. Bush and Dick Cheney for the deaths caused by the Iraq war. In the unlikely event that Cheney were to have a change of heart, and express guilt at his role in bringing these deaths about, should we tell him not to blame himself since his heredity and environment caused it all?
Whether we should abandon blame and responsibility because our actions have outside causes depends on what is involved in blaming a person or holding him or her responsible for some bad outcome. Consider blame first.
What would be involved in blaming the politicians for the acts I have mentioned? In my view this would include withdrawal of trust, judgments of disapproval, and refusal to honor them as distinguished, or even reputable, public servants. These responses are made appropriate by the attitudes expressed in these politicians’ actions, most notably their callous disregard for the welfare of those who are affected by them.
One can criticize bad choices while believing that a just society would help people deal with the consequences of those choices.
Because the appropriateness of blame depends on a person’s attitudes toward others, it is important to understand what a person’s attitudes actually are—what reasons the person is actually acting from. This requires seeing things from that person’s point of view, in the way that Erin Kelly recommends. In order to know whether a person can be blamed it is important to understand “the difficulty of the obstacles that led her to falter.” This understanding is not an alternative to blame but required by it.
Others of Fried’s examples concern responsibility in a different sense. Here what matters is not the significance of the attitudes reflected in a person’s action but rather the obligations that that person and others have. The claim that I am responsible for saving for my own retirement means that no one else has any obligation to provide for me in my old age. But this does not mean that I am blameworthy if I do not save. I may have had more important things to do, such as paying for my grandchildren’s education. So my failure to save may show no lack of concern for my future.
Conversely, the fact that an individual is blameworthy for acting in a certain way does not mean that others have no duty to prevent or alleviate the consequences of such choices. Poor young people often engage in risky behavior—such as taking drugs or having children they are not prepared to care for—because, unlike their wealthier peers, they see themselves as having little to lose. There is no contradiction in criticizing such behavior and at the same time holding that a just society would not allow people to grow up with such meager prospects and that it would help them to deal with the consequences of their bad choices.
It is important to distinguish substantive responsibility—that is to say, obligation—of the latter kind from the moral responsibility that is a precondition for blame. A common line of thought on the right begins with a moralized idea of what people are responsible for doing for themselves (i.e., blameworthy if they do not do) and uses this to limit the obligations of others. To claim that the state is obligated to help people in these ways is to deny individual responsibility, conservatives say. Fried is right to reject such arguments. But the way to defuse them is not to embrace skeptical incompatibilism and deny that anyone is ever responsible for anything. The problem with these arguments is rather that they run together substantive and moral responsibility and fallaciously try to limit the former on the basis of the latter.
To reach conclusions about what a person is substantively responsible for (cannot complain of) one needs to begin by establishing what others are, and are not, obligated to do. To put it in Rawlsian terms, what a person is substantively responsible for are the consequences of the choices he or she makes within a framework of just social institutions.
…we need your help. Confronting the many challenges of COVID-19—from the medical to the economic, the social to the political—demands all the moral and deliberative clarity we can muster. In Thinking in a Pandemic, we’ve organized the latest arguments from doctors and epidemiologists, philosophers and economists, legal scholars and historians, activists and citizens, as they think not just through this moment but beyond it. While much remains uncertain, Boston Review’s responsibility to public reason is sure. That’s why you’ll never see a paywall or ads. It also means that we rely on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, pledge your contribution to keep it free for everyone by making a tax-deductible donation.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
The vast hinterlands of the Global South’s cities are generating new solidarities and ideas of what counts as a life worth living.
Protests in China are shining a light not only on the country’s draconian population management but restrictions on workers everywhere.
Support us with a donation this giving season.
Austerity is not the only way to save our overextended planet. A simpler life might be both more pleasurable and more equal.
We must reject the legal liberalism that attempts to cordon off constitutional questions from democratic politics.
The United States ranked first on health security; then came COVID-19. In place of technocratic hubris, we need robust new forms of democratic humility.