An Analysis of the Nature of Blame: Reactive Attitude vs. Assessment
In current philosophical literature on moral responsibility, there have been recent developments on the increased focus on the nature of blame. A theory of the nature of blame claims to understand what it means for one to morally blame another for an act previously performed. An account of the nature of blame is an account of the conditions necessary for the holding of the blame relation to be deemed appropriate. There are three main accounts of the nature of blame currently in play in philosophical literature on moral responsibility: sanction, assessment, and reactive attitude. In this essay, I will provide a thorough explanation of both the reactive attitude and the assessment accounts and will show how the reactive attitude account outperforms the assessment account. Then I will introduce a common objection to the reactive attitude account and sketch how an advocate of the reactive attitude account might respond to the objection.
The assessment account of blame suggests that when we blame a person for an act they performed, we reveal something negative about the person’s character. One way to explain the assessment account is to imagine a moral balance sheet. This moral balance sheet can also be thought as a demerit system. When a person acts out of a norm and is blamed, then something negative is revealed in their character. When something negative is revealed in a person’s character, their moral record is considered negative, suggesting they have lowered their moral worth. This works in the other way as well. When a moral act is performed, something positive is revealed in one’s character. When this happens, a person’s moral record is considered positive, suggesting they have increased their moral worth. In other words, when an act is praised the person has increased their moral worth, while when an act is negative the person has lowered their moral worth. One of the key points to recognize from the assessment account of blame is humans care about what people think of them, meaning they care about their moral evaluations because these moral evaluations are how people judge our moral worth. An advantage to the assessment account of blame is it allows for private blame. Private blame is where one can make an assessment without ever expressing it to the person. In blaming a person, we are not only judging blameworthiness, but also judging the negative bring up of someone’s character.
The reactive attitude account of blame relates to a set of attitudes that hold people responsible for their actions. This account of blame derives from the notable philosopher, P.F. Strawson. These “reactive attitudes” are emotional reactions to the good and bad actions that people perform towards themselves and others. The emotional reactions in reactive attitudes tend to relate to negative emotions such as resentment and guilt. An important note of the reactive attitude account of blame refers to the interpretation of blame. Blame is more than just emotions resulting in a reaction from certain behavior; blame is an emotional response to the ill will that people exhibit towards themselves and others. When we are blaming someone, we are emotionally exercising on what they have done. This emotional exercise carries a negative reaction towards the person whom we are blaming. Therefore, we are holding the blamed person accountable for their actions through exercised emotion. An advantage of the reactive attitude account of blame is it also allows for private blame (see previous paragraph for private blame definition). Not only can the reactive attitude account allow for private blame, but it can also give us a way to communicate our reactive emotions with others. This communication leads to the “basic moral demand,” which consists of our expectation of moral behavior. In other words, we demand a displayed absence of ill will behavior. If moral behavior is