Everybody blames everybody for everything. Lovers blame one another when they break up; insurance companies affix blame so as to determine how much they will have to lay out; tradesmen are blamed for not having fixed the air conditioner properly. Presidents get blamed if the economy tanks. When something goes wrong, someone gets blamed. Doing so goes back to the Old Testament, but the New Testament was particularly good at making blame incapacitating. We are all to be blamed for everything because we inherited Original Sin from the fact that Adam and Eve disobeyed God and ate from the Tree of Knowledge. Ever since, all we can do is atone for that, first by accepting Jesus as our savior and then by beating our chests to proclaim our shortcomings as people. So blame eats at us. Is there any way to be rid of it?
The best modern exponent of the blame doctrine is Immanuel Kant, the German philosopher whose lifetime project was to rationalize the Protestant point of view. He said that blame was a characteristic of people having free will. You can blame people for bad choices because they could have acted differently. Well, that might validate the idea that people have free will, should such a term mean anything, but it doesn’t make people feel any better about their shortcomings, and maybe the Protestant point of view is that you just have to bear up under the burden of your past wrongdoings. You always feel guilty about the way you botched a love affair fifty years ago or messed up at a job you lost forty years ago.
One way around that is favored by what we might call the Liberal mentality. Assign or shift the blame to the circumstances surrounding a person’s choice and that makes the person free of blame and the attendant guilt. It wasn’t driving a bit too fast but lousy tires that caused the accident. It was that the parties were too young or naive to understand their emotions that led to the failure of a love affair and so there was no reason for them not to go on to more mature loves. It wasn’t the gangbanger who used a knife that killed someone; it was his deprived and warping childhood. There is much to be said for this approach. It moves the discussion from matters that can’t be changed to matters that can be.The society introduces appropriate measures so that the lives of small children are less fraught by poverty and all its parts, which include the deprivation of affection, verbal interchanges and food. You put air bags and padded dashboards and sensors for detecting nearby vehicles into cars, or eliminate the driver entirely, and then insurance companies will not have to declare blame. As Marxists have long recognized, however, that is no solution for bad love affairs and, by extension, the ways friends betray one another. People are too complicated to get rid of all of the circumstances to which blame can be assigned, but that is no reason for not trying to do that as much as possible.
There is another way to get rid of that pernicious emotion and moral imperative to assign blame and that depends on noticing a sociological correlate of blame, which is that blame is associated with a group, blame assigned to an individual through the process of assigning that person to a group which, for some reason or other, is available to take the blame, or by seeing blame in the first place as a group property, so that the deaggregation of a group into subgroups or its individual members leads to a loss of blame. Let us look at the second first because it is more obvious and uses my often proclaimed principle that philosophical problems go away if you look at the social structures that give rise to the appearance of philosophical conundrums.
We might think, for example, that there is such a thing as a criminal class, which was a conceit followed in British jurisprudence and penology in the late Eighteenth Century when so many crimes were subject to the death penalty. The criminal is the subject of derision as someone who is innately so and irredeemable, even if their crime is stealing a handkerchief. That judgment gets tempered when we divide the criminal class into its components. There are professional criminals, which means people who engage in theft and even murder as a way of pursuing illegal livings, perhaps because they have not had the training or life experiences to choose a different line of work. There are people who commit crimes of passion, even up to murder, out of spurned love or never having formed an alliance with a member of the opposite sex. There are people who rob out of desperation, because they do not know how to get food any other way or are weak enough to give in to the temptation to cook the books. To separate out the various forms of miscreant is to provide a variety of explanations and a variety of responses to what is otherwise thought of as a single body of people. It is at least a step towards removing blame by finding an alternative cause and so move towards thinking about rehabilitation or otherwise altering lives rather than to think only about punishment.
The most general example of creating blame by bundling people together and therefore to mitigate blame by dis-bundling people is provided by Karl Marx. Blame is placed through swallowing up differences between many groups into the opposition between two groups. There were many social groups in early Nineteenth Century Europe: there were peasants and aristocrats, workers and tradesmen, capitalists and landholders, professionals and politicians and artists and social theorists. Marx said that when you got down to it, there were only two groups: the capitalists and the workers they exploited. All the other groups were a sideshow. Peasants and aristocrats were disappearing, and politicians and social theorists were part of the superstructure thrown up by a capitalist society as well as its predecessors. So the capitalists could be blamed for exploitation even if they did not do that out of meanness but simply because exploitation was entailed in their role. You had to get rid of the capitalists to make things better, and that presumably meant government control over the means of production, such as factories and finance. And so it follows that you get rid of blame by breaking away from thinking of society as a bipolar entity, all the subsidiary roles just as real as the purported two central ones. Artists change society and capitalists are controlled by government regulations and unions. It takes a lot of flowers to make a society bloom. It is only possible to blame one sector of the social structure when that is the one that is salient, as when we blame the financial section for the Great Recession, though there is enough blame to go around if we consider how government encouraged wild eyed investment for so long. Exploitation, then, is the moral onus associated with aggregating roles to the point that there is only a bipolar relation between the victim and the oppressor, and disaggregating roles so that there are not only bipolar roles lifts the moral onus of a role.
The main example of this process of liberating people from bipolar categories, however, is no longer that of the worker, whose standing as a central role in Western society seems to have passed even before the collapse of the Soviet Union. The main example in the generation before last was the condition of African Americans and in the generation just past that of women, even if those groups are also served by calling attention to what all of them have in common as their conditions of oppression. Racial prejudice goes down when there are African Americans distributed in the various social classes and occupations because then they cannot be reduced to a single common denominator of style of life or education or caste. Women are more rather than less liberated when they are disaggregated, even if they have the common condition of being the gender that carries babies to term and so have a common interest in the availability of abortion, because they are also people some of whom cry under stress while others don’t and some women are good at child rearing and others don’t care to do that sort of thing. Differences reduces blame by making people in a group not inevitably the creature of certain emotions and habits.
Now consider the alternative process, whereby blame is added onto an individual because of a bad action engaged in by that individual. A person becomes a bad person because the bad action is not just a fact about that person’s life. Rather, the person is categorized as a member of the group which partakes in such action. The person who abuses a child is recognized as a child abuser and therefore a bad person rather than a person with a quirk; a person who robs a bank is considered a bank robber until someone provides an excuse, that he was trying to feed his family or, as in “Dog Day Afternoon”, trying to fund his lover’s sex change operation. That restores his humanity by switching his category. But it is very difficult to look at a person straight on, without categorizing them, to see them naked of categories, as if that were even an admirable outcome, when, instead, we prefer to see badness as a label that can be stuck on people who do bad things rather than as a situation in which bad things happened, the druggie stabbing someone he robbed, just a person who stabbed someone independant of that being a bad thing. It is hard to strip people naked of their social categories.
It must be said that part of the genius of Christianity, that very complex and perhaps contradictory set of emotions, is that it tried to do just that, to strip people of moral categories, to place them beyond good and evil, when it asked people to look at the sinner with love while chastising the sinner for the sin. The great accomplishment of “Crime and Punishment” is that we come to see Raskolnikov before and after judging him as the murderer of an old lady. He is what he is and the crime is an event in his life rather than his essential character even though it determines the rest of his life. There may be no doing without categories, but there is an appreciation that people understood without categories are without blame, and sometimes that works to make life easier. Christianity asks us to temporarily, for a single, enchanted moment, to look at people whole, neither as sinners or virtuous people, and remember that when we pass judgment upon them. There is some essential way in which the world is to be rid of blame, however often people may be called on to confess their sins. The sins are passing while their souls or their humanity are not.