Blame as a Call for Repair of Moral Imbalance

To blame someone is to protest their implicit claim to moral superiority.

Posted Dec 31, 2018

 Turk_Stock_Photographer/iStock
Source: Turk_Stock_Photographer/iStock

The word “blame” is commonly used to mean the speech act of criticizing, whether carried out calmly or by yelling. But criticism is merely a vehicle for the expression of blame. When we criticize others, we verbally express a negative emotional reaction to another. But we need not express it, as can be seen from the coherence of saying things like “I still blame my wife for her betrayal, even though I never told her.”

Private, or unexpressed, blame can be targeted at people we are not in a position to criticize because they are dead or too far away for us to criticize them, such as when we blame Hitler. Blame can also be targeted at people we don’t interact with, such as when we blame parents for their children's behavior.

When you feel that someone is to blame, you take them to be guilty of a wrong-doing. But blame is not merely a perception of someone's guilt. You can perceive someone to be guilty yet feel you cannot blame them.

Feeling blame has often been compared to inner protest. But blame cannot simply be inner protest, as we can be angry about how things have turned out and protest this without blaming anyone.

Suppose you promised to pick your friend at the airport, but when the day arrives, you have just received a new project with a deadline that same day. As you head to the airport, you feel angry that you need to pick up your friend when you could have finished the project on time. Yet your anger is not directed at your friend or anyone else. It has a focus, namely the fact that you need to get your friend at the airport. But it doesn't have a target. In this respect, your anger is like sadness, which also has a focus but no target. It is frustrated anger.

Righteous anger, which can take the form of resentment and indignation, differs from frustrated anger by being directed at a person. If you (unjustly) felt angry at your friend because you had to get her at the airport, this would be righteous anger.

Since frustrated anger isn't directed at a person, it does not involve blame. Only righteous anger involves blame directed at its target.

But your anger involves protest in both cases. You are protesting how things have turned out. Frustrated anger, anger with a focus but no target, is also the kind of anger we can experience in grief. When we are angry about the loss of a loved one, we need not be angry with the loved one. Rather, by being angry you are protesting the unfair turn of events. 

What, then, makes blame different from mere protest? Philosopher Angela Smith has suggested that to blame someone is to protest their claim to moral superiority. If someone morally injures you as a result of ill will or disregard for your wellbeing or existence, she treats you in a way you don’t deserve to be treated. But when we treat others badly or disregard them or treat them well for that matter, we send them a message.

Ignoring someone, for example, sends the message that you are uninterested in them. Intentional or negligent moral injury sends a message about your moral status and rightful treatment. By being negligent or intentionally harming you, the wrongdoer makes the implicit claim that you are morally inferior to them and that it is therefore okay for her to treat you badly. 

The offender’s claim of superiority implicit to her offense calls for a response that can help restore moral justice. Even when the blame is not expressed, the inner feeling of protest can help restore this balance in your own mind.