Thursday, February 07, 2008

blame, revised.

please excuse, if you happen to have read it, the horrible/interminable whining that was formerly in this very spot. i hope, if you did read it, it didn't cause you to adjust your (attitudes toward)/(expectations of) me too much, but i'm getting ahead of myself. the following is t.m. scanlon's theory of blame.

to blame someone for something is to revise our attitudes and intentions toward them, to revise our expectations in light of something they've done-- in light of who, as it turns out, they are.

to begin with, we're in all different sorts of relationships, and each sort of relationship has different ground rules. there's the most basic of all, which is the relationship that every human being has to every other, which comes with certain moral responsibilities-- to keep promises, avoid inflicting harm, to help out when it's easy enough. and then there are friendships and brotherhoods and marriages and businesspartnerships, and a bazillion others in which some person is a part of our lives in a particular way. from this person i expect loyalty, from this person i expect discression, from this person i expect affection. often the expectations are built into the very definition of our term for the relationship. if 'friendship' is a word with any real meaning, then there must be certain things that being a friend consists in, though each may have some unique features.

it may turn out that someone who we relate to as a friend proves to be unable or unwilling or unlikely to meet some shared or reasonable standard of what a friend is. or maybe they just fail to meet the that standard on some particular occasion for some particular reason. well then it may be appropriate that we should revise our expectation of them-- it may be understandable if we revise our attitudes toward them. we can change the relationship, or even terminate it.

the failure to live up to the reasonable expectations of others is blameworthiness, and the revisions of attitude, expectation and intention that they precipitate are blame. blame, defined this way, might come along with feelings like anger and resentment, but it needn't. and not only can blame of this sort come apart from the strong emotional experience that we generally associate it with, it can come apart from the punishment practices which we also sometimes think of as blame itself. you may hurt someone by changing your idea of who they are and how you will relate to them, but, unlike cases of retributive punishment, you don't blame them to harm them-- you "blame" them because it is the appropriate thing to do, in light of changing circumstance.

though this view doesn't (on the one hand) justify punishment practices or tie itself irrevocably to emotions, it presents our emotional responses to the actions of others (and their consequences for us) as an appropriate starting point for moral assessment-- something which cognitivist ethicists often reject (unfortunately, to my mind), and which accounts of 'moral luck' sometimes undermine. philosophers writing about moral luck often point to the fact that much of the actual behavior that we're blamed for is no different from the behavior that others engage in, but there is some unluckiness in the particular circumstance. in scanlon's example an inattentive driver kills a friend's child. the driver did no more than drive in the same distracted way that most drivers do on occasion, but he may blame himself, and others may blame him, in the harshest terms. but isn't this deeply unfair? personally, when i think hard on moral luck, i tend to get really skeptical of blame. but scanlon just says, look, luck or not, something has happened which causes great pain to others-- it is appropriate (understandable-- inevitable) that this should bring those others (and him) to examine his character and their relationship to him. blame here doesn't exist in a universe of cold logic. although one might hope that meditating on things like moral luck might, in time, calm our most violent angers and resentments.

the view has what i think is the best possible starting point for an ethical view: the given fact of human relationships, and what they mean to us. it needn't (i think) begin with some account of the autonomous will of the individual, which is where accounts of blame usually begin, and which is a non-starter for me. (this is probably a controversial statement as scanlon is, i believe, a neo-kantian, and probably does, in his more extended philosophical picture, want to say something about the autonomous will-- i'll be thinking about this a lot throughout the semester: how scanlon's view of blame and blameworthiness do or do not come apart from a kantian view of selfhood).

anyway, this is a funny idea, but i'm totally in love with it. so in love that i'm going to invent some more hours in my day for a reading group on it-- by which i mean spend fewer hours doing practical things like cutting my hair and paying my bills on time. no doubt some utility company somewhere is going to revise the living shit out of their expectations of me in the form of some increased interest rates.

No comments: