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  • Writer's pictureCrone

Blame and forgiveness

An article about how the blame game is already in full swing during the coronavirus got me thinking more about this issue of blaming - but perhaps from a different angle, thanks to two other influences.

They are Martha Nussbaum's Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity and Justice, which I listened to on Audible, and an interview with Miranda Fricker on a podcast series called Why? Philosophical Discussions about Everyday Life.

To start with, let me give a basic account of Nussbaum's position. She says that anger in all domains is an unhelpful response and that retributive anger is morally unjustifiable as well as irrational. Retributive anger is the feeling that the punishment of the wrongdoer is called for. But this does not at all redeem the harm done. Say a person is murdered. The punishment of the wrongdoer does not bring back the murdered person. To believe it will in some sense 'equal the scores' is just magical thinking. Anger does not add moral weight to the claim that the wrongdoer has acted badly, and retribution, as a backward looking action, in the belief that the wrongdoer 'deserves' to suffer, does not change the outcome of the event. Punishment, or some action against the wrongdoer, is only morally justifiable if it prevents future harm, or lessens the chances of others following the wrongdoer's example. She claims that another emotion, 'transition anger', can be helpful if it inspires others to seek to prevent future harm - but the focus of the anger needs to be on the harm done to the victim or possible future victims, rather than on the wrongdoer. She further claims that anger is not required at all - and that compassion for victims or future victims is all that is required to inspire the prevention of further bad acts.

Nussbaum is also somewhat wary of forgiveness as when it is transactional, demanding remorse, repentance and the abasement of the wrongdoer, it is another form of punishment, based on lowering the status of the wrongdoer. But the lowered status of the wrongdoer, again, does not change the outcome of the crime. Her belief seems to be that a non-transactional forgiveness should be the default, combined with increased strategies to prevent further wrongful acts. That may be the incarceration of an individual, but it could more usefully be dramatic changes to social justice and education, for example.

Fricker's focus is more specifically on blame and then, as blame's leveling force, forgiveness. She says that a basic concept of blame is the judgment that an actor is responsible for a bad act. This does not necessarily involve anger or resentment - purely an awareness of moral culpability. And we are all at liberty to make such judgments in our own minds. However, if we are to communicate that blame - to third parties or to the person involved - then different levels of responsibility apply. Firstly, we must be absolutely sure of the facts. We must have 'epistemic humility'. Refer to Massimo Pigliucci's piece on not sharing lies and misinformation, which you can find here. Secondly, if we wish to express these views to the wrongdoer, we have to have 'the right' to intervene. That may be a more complex and morally nuanced decision.

The moral effectiveness of blame, in Fricker's view, is the internal feeling it generates in the wrongdoer. If I lie to you, and realise I have done wrong, the feeling is uncomfortable and unpleasant - it is in itself a punishment for my bad action, showing that I can see clearly my moral culpability. The pain of this understanding will strongly deter me from repeating this action. As a moral agent, one would hope I would not need you to blame me. But perhaps that would be useful if I have been ignorant of my misdeed. Once I have felt blame, I have paid a penalty - and if you had blamed me, the ideal would then be that you could forgive me, knowing that I had seen my wrong. I would have learned my lesson and neither of us have to continue to carry the blame feelings around.

This aligns nicely with a sophisticated model of the conscience that was developed by hunter-gatherers through their blaming/shaming practices, as outlined in my earlier posts on egalitarianism and shame and condemnation. However many thousands of generations down the line, we no longer have to rely on the blunt tools of gossip and punishment: the force of the internalised system can do the work.

Fricker goes deeply into varieties of forgiveness. One level is transactional, the sort that Nussbaum is sceptical of: the wrongdoer says they are sorry and the wronged party offers the gift of forgiveness. The problem with this for Nussbaum is that it can be, as I said, an indirect form of punishment, utilising blame and status lowering. Fricker is less concerned with that. She says that a person can be morally wrong for being unforgiving, but that forgiveness remains a gift rather than an obligation. A second form of forgiveness she sees is an 'open forgiveness' which forgives before the wrongdoer has apologised, but which is still in a sense transactional as, in her view, it is preparing the territory, easing the way, for the wrongdoer to see her fault and feel remorse.

In both these cases, forgiveness is the other side of blame (as in the judgment that a wrongful act has been done and the bad actor's responsibility for it has been acknowledged by both parties). The two are in conversation, in a dyadic relationship.

Fricker is sceptical of Nussbaum's concept of transcendent forgiveness - not that Nussbaum labels hers as such. And indeed, perhaps Nussbaum sees a stage of forgiveness in between the dyadic and Fricker's transcendent version. I should state what Fricker is talking about - she is speaking of something almost spiritual and abstract, an absolute refusal to concern oneself with blame (in the strict and limited sense of judgment that a wrong has been done and that a wrongdoer is responsible for it). This forgiveness, says Fricker, can be good for one's own peace of mind*, but confers no benefit on society as it offers no incentive for moral improvement. Nussbaum's concept is somewhat different. I think she is saying there remains a cognitive awareness that an agent may be responsible, but that even Fricker's limited definition of blame isn't really the point. The point is the amelioration of the future society. The focus is all on the future, not on the past. Nussbaum doesn't want victims to forgive entirely for their peace of mind, but so that they can focus on future beneficial projects, rather on past insults - and that the status of the wrongdoer is, in effect, irrelevant, so long as that wrongdoer does do further harm.

I mentioned in a previous post that I find it hard to make judgments on others much of the time as I find it possible that their interests, knowledge and perspective might well lead them to feel validated and vindicated in a specific course of action. I might disagree with that course of action, from my point of view, but I do not have all the information they had when they made the decision. Or perhaps I now have more information than they had when they made the decision, and cannot blame them in hindsight. I think that my assumption is that most people wish to act well as they do not wish to experience the internal pain of blame. Of course, self-serving biases and unconscious ego-protecting arguments may well be shielding them from the wrongfulness of their actions. But in that they are just behaving like any other human. On the whole, I tend to think we are all pretty flawed but want to see ourselves and be seen as decent and honourable; and that on the whole, we are. It is for that reason, this pretty optimistic view of human nature, that I am dubious about punishments and restrictions, blaming and shaming. However, if one has a pessimistic view of human nature, that we are inherently entirely selfish (I admit we are egoistic, nepotistic and then only finally altruistic, but that the altruism is not insignificant), then a more aggressive social justice policy would appear more appropriate.

It's essentially just the ongoing debate between Hobbes and Rousseau. Not that I like Rousseau much.

Anyway, that's probably enough for today. I'm hungry again. What is it with this lockdown? I think I could eat all day and start on the wine with lunch and still not be satisfied.


*It seems that Fricker sees the same problem with this universal forgiveness that Martin Hägglund (whom I mentioned in the post The gift of finitude) sees in the agape of the Christian God. A love for all beings (felt as equally for his son as for those who killed him, for example) is entirely spontaneous and unmotivated, in Hägglund's words - an emptiness is at the centre of it as there is no real care for the individual, whose fate is essentially inconsequential. From the God's eye view, the perspective of eternity, it makes no difference when or how his son lived or died. Interestingly, it is precisely this view from eternity (sub specie aeternitatis) that Midgley criticises Spinoza for - see my previous post Wonder - and nature.

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