No-blame approaches, it seems, have much to recommend them, and—costs notwithstanding—there appears to be a good case for extending their application more widely than to the high-risk organizations where they have received most attention. However, we wish to argue here that such a conclusion would rest on infirm ground without an understanding of the nature of blame and its place in human life. Whether we should, or indeed can, dispense with blame—or constrain it—surely depends on what we think blame is. One of the curious features of the literature concerned with no-blame cultures and approaches is that it very rarely considers—at least explicitly—the ontology of its central concept. Philosophers have devoted considerable attention to unpacking blame and blaming practices, reaching profoundly diverse conclusions which have important implications for our understanding of blame in organizations. Our aim in this section is to provide a firmer foundation for an exploration of the no-blame concept by exploring the philosophy of blame.
We start by considering a position which has a long tradition in utilitarian philosophy, and which concords with many popular intuitions about blame. Under this conception, blame is regarded as a sanction, and one that is socially useful. According to this view, ‘to blame someone is simply to express disapproval of his bad behaviour or character in a way that is calculated to mitigate or improve it’ (Sher 2006, p. 72). It forms part of ‘an economy of threats’ (Wallace 1994, p. 54). Implicit here is the idea that the sanction works because blame is unpleasant to the recipient and recognition of this fact will cause him to avoid incurring it in future. Blame, in this account, is ‘punishment light’ (Sher 2006, p. 73). Also implicit in this approach is the view that blame is appropriate in respect of things people choose to do—there would be very little point in using blame as a sanction, if people could not choose to do differently next time. Thus, the utilitarian approach to blame links closely to a violitionist account of blame (Levy 2005), where blame is seen as being limited in its applicability to what people do voluntarily. A variation of this approach would be what Owens (2000) calls a juridical account of blame, where the scope of blame is extended a little more widely to encompass what people can control. The scope still remains narrow, not extending to, for example, aspects of people’s character, for example their orientation towards others.
Despite its intuitive appeal, the utilitarian view of blame has come under sustained critique in the philosophical literature. One concern is around whether blame can sensibly be seen as a sanction, when it is not always expressed, or not expressed to the ‘guilty’ party—we often blame privately, or in confidence. Further, as Williams (1995) points out, justifying blame on the grounds of its efficacy rests on infirm ground, for blame’s efficacy in modifying its target’s behaviour depends on the latter accepting that the blame is justified—otherwise it will be simply ignored or resented. Moreover, we sometimes blame people who are not in a position to alter their future behaviour, such as historical figures or, in an organizational context, people who have retired or left. A second critique is that the sanction account of blame does not capture the character of blame. If it is true that we blame in order to influence future events, maximum impact might involve serious blame for a minor misdemeanour, while it might be more efficient for very serious moral transgressions to be ignored (i.e. not made subject to blame, Sher 2006)—however, people’s intuition seems to be to dispense blame in relation to how badly they feel about the act that triggers the blame. This leads to a further point, that when we blame someone for something we tend to feel something (Tilly 2008). It appears that we do not apply blame dispassionately and purposefully in the same way as, for example a medical treatment. As Bennett argues, if the purpose of blame were to change behaviour, it would have a therapeutic character; however, when we blame, ‘we are not usually engaged in any kind of therapy’ (Bennett 1980, p. 20). Blame often involves an element of ill-feeling or even hostility, which is hardly calculating or therapeutic. It is open to the utilitarian to argue that we ‘add’ anger in order to give the blame more deterrent force, but again this seems to be rather an odd description of what we do when we blame someone. We do not appear to ‘conjure up’ (Bennett 1980, p. 22) emotions to accompany our blame, those emotions already accompany it, or may even be constitutive of it.
There are two main alternatives to the utilitarian view of blame. The first is associated primarily with Scanlon (2008), who argues that blame is a recognition and response to the impairment of a relationship that results from another’s bad act or attitude. To blame a person is to ‘… take your relationship with him or her to be modified in a way that this judgment of impaired relations holds to be appropriate’ (2008, p. 128). This idea of judging oneself to have been let down or having had, for example, a friendship damaged, would account for the force of blame in a way that the utilitarian account does not. Scanlon’s account also offers an explanation for why blame is a necessary feature of human life. Scanlon views people as having obligations to one another—standing intentions to relate to others, while being responsive to reason in respect of these relations. Consequently, we have cause to think that other people have reasons to behave/be orientated in particular ways towards us (and others), and to call them to account when they do not respond to these reasons. Blame arises from these rational obligations, and indeed not to blame is to treat people as not rational, not responsive to reason in this sense. Following Scanlon’s analysis, we can achieve an understanding not only of why people blame each other, but also an understanding of why they ought to (in appropriate circumstances).
There are a number of objections to Scanlon’s position. The first is to suggest that blame is not necessarily relationship-based—we blame people with whom we have no prior relationship to impair, or for reasons that are not related to the impairment of a relationship. Addressing this point, Smith (2013) argues that it is better to see blame as a form of protest, a way of registering that a standard has been traduced, rather than a relationship impaired. Others question whether rationality, and the obligations that arise from that, are the basis of such relationships: ‘We do not think of ourselves as having “ties” to other people solely in virtue of sharing with them the property of rationality’ (Wallace 2008, p. 23). We can blame someone without regarding them as generally irrational and as not possible to engage with. The second objection is that Scanlon’s account, like the utilitarian one, leaves the emotional component out of blame. Blame, in Scanlon’s view, would be to judge someone to have transgressed, whereas it is alternatively argued that to blame is to care about that transgression. If one were to judge someone to be blameworthy, but not blame them (and one might), there would be something missing (Owens 2012), and this something is its emotional content. Blame, according to this view, has an element of opprobrium at the heart of it, something which is not central to Scanlon’s account.
The second alternative view, then, is the ‘affective’ account of blame offered by Wallace and others. On this account, blame just is a negative feeling that we have when we feel that someone has acted badly, ‘to blame someone … is to be subject to a reactive emotion toward them’ (Wallace 2008, p. 1), involving a ‘withdrawal of [the] good will’ (Sher 2006, p. 80) that we would otherwise have for people. These feelings—the reactive emotions of guilt, resentment, indignation (Strawson 1974)—are to us both primitive ‘expressions of our emotional make-up’ (Bennett 1980, p. 24) and natural, ‘in so far as they reflect our internalization of moral norms, as standards that govern our interactions with each other’ (Wallace 2008, p. 12), our ‘moral sentiments’, as Wallace has it. Scholars argue that the existence of these feelings is what characterizes human interaction, in contrast to an ‘objective attitude’ (Strawson 1974, p. 10) with which we might relate to a piece of machinery. Owens (2012) is more precise about the reactive emotion involved in blame—for him, it is a form of anger.
The affective account of blame, then, holds that blame is a natural human emotional response to being wronged or let down, and that human relations would be unintelligible without this class of emotional responses, of which blame is one. Indeed, it is possible to go further and argue that these reactive emotions are constitutive of meaningful human relations (Owens 2012; Franklin 2013). However, this account has its own difficulties, firstly those arising from the observation that we have already encountered, that we do not always feel or express anger when we blame someone. There have been different approaches to negotiating this difficulty. For example, Sher (2006) identifies a disposition to feel anger (or other emotions) which is present and characteristic of blame, but which may not always be expressed. Owens (2012) draws a distinction between appropriateness of blame as an angry reaction, and considerations of the aptness and desirability of feeling or expressing it. Blame can be defined as an appropriate emotional reaction without committing to the emotion being visible or appropriate in every case.
A similar argument is offered by Goldman (2014). Goldman broadly accepts the Strawsonian position that has underpinned the affective position on blame—that reactive attitudes are central to meaningful interpersonal relationships—but argues that antagonistic attitudes such as anger need not be part of that suite of emotions. He suggests that a ‘disappointed sadness’ (2014, p. 15) would serve as an alternative reactive emotion to being wronged, and one that might be conducive to more constructive human relations.
Finally, we consider approaches to blame that are either sceptical of it per se, or questioning of the features of human society that underpin and sustain it as a social practice. The first is found in the work of philosophers (e.g. Pereboom 2001) who see determinism as incompatible with free-will, thus calling into question the notion of moral responsibility that underpins blame. Blame of any sort seems unjustified on that account. This line of reasoning sits uneasily with the sanction view of blame (above)—sanctions would be pointless if people are not free to do differently in the future. Emotions of resentment which underpin blame under some accounts would also seem inappropriate if one starts from that premise.
On the second point, Williams (1995) observed that our attachment to blame as a practice rests on the idea that we assume that the person we blame shares with us the reasons for not acting in a certain way—thus, their action resulted from not paying heed to these reasons (thus justifying the blame). Williams suggests that we are entitled to neither assumption, and regards blame as a fiction. To blame is thus to impose one’s framework of reasons and values on another’s behaviour or character and judge them in relation to it. Viewed in this way, judgments of blameworthiness, and the resulting blame, are forms of uninvited imposition upon us, and when viewed broadly, ‘A continuing attempt… to recruit people into a deliberative community that shares ethical reasons’ (Williams 1995, p. 16). A similarly ‘critical’ view of blame is contained in Nieztsche’s idea (1997, 2003) that our moral judgments and our systems of morality grow out of feelings of ‘ressentiment’—broadly speaking the fear and envy felt by the weak in relation to the strong. On this view our feelings of frustration at wrongdoing are motivated by feelings of envy and powerlessness in relation to others and our systems of morality—including blame—are inventions which allow us, however weak otherwise, to exert power over others through the judgments that they entitle us (on an equal footing) to make.
In this section, we have reviewed four different philosophical perspectives on blame—blame viewed as a sanction to shape future behaviour, blame viewed as a judgement on relationship impairment, blame viewed as an emotional reaction to someone having being wronged, and blame viewed as part of a social system of power relations. In the next section, we explore some of the implications of these approaches for the no-blame idea in organizations.