Blame and Protest


In recent years, philosophers have developed a novel conception of blame as a kind of moral protest. This Protest View of Blame faces doubts about its intelligibility: can we make sense of inner ‘protest’ in cases of unexpressed blame? It also faces doubts about its descriptive adequacy: does ‘protest’ capture what is distinctive in reactions of blame? I argue that the Protest View can successfully answer the first kind of doubt, but not the second. Cases of contemptful blame and unexpressed blame offer initial counterexamples to the view. The Protest View can accommodate these examples by appealing to a broader notion of protest, but, I argue, at the cost of retreating to a broader category that no longer captures what is distinctive about blame. Moreover, nonviolent resistance, in the tradition of Gandhi and Dr. King, characteristically protests without blame, presenting another powerful challenge to the Protest View. These challenges, I argue, undermine the view, while helping to illuminate and defend the appeal of nonviolent resistance. They also offer an alternative conception of the relation between protest and blame, characteristic of nonviolent resistance and obscured by the Protest View. On that alternative, the relation is not descriptive but practical; rather than understanding blame as a kind of protest, we should aim, in many cases, to replace blame with protest.

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  1. 1.

    Gandhi (1993, 2001) and King (2003, 2010a, b) are good starting points among these writings. Helpful secondary sources include (Iyer 1973; Nanda 1985; Moses 1997; Shelby and Terry 2018), and, among writings on blame, the concluding paragraphs of Watson (1987). I assume in the text that forgiveness renounces blame.

  2. 2.

    I will use “blame” to refer to specifically moral blame, as opposed to the more minimal or causal blame we exhibit in blaming bad brakes for a car crash.

  3. 3.

    Hieronymi (2001) offers a conception of resentment, though she does not explicitly identify resentment with blame. For her, “resentment…should be understood as protest…. Resentment protests a past action that persists as a present threat” (530: 546). Pereboom endorses a “leaner” variant of Smith’s view, which he calls “Moral Protest Account of Blame: For B to blame A is for B to issue a moral protest against A for what B represents (either truly or falsely) as A’s immoral conduct” (2017: 129). Pereboom (2017: 129) also writes that “McKenna’s (2012) conversational account of blame might also be recast as a moral protest account.” Talbert suggests a qualified Protest View, which I discuss briefly in Sect. 1. Several other writers describe blame in terms of the related notion of a ‘demand’; for discussion, see Macnamara (2013b).

  4. 4.

    Smith’s characterization of judgments of blameworthiness in terms of impaired relationships is borrowed from Scanlon, and not essential to a Protest View. It is dropped by Pereboom (2017: 129) in his modified version of Smith’s view.

  5. 5.

    For the view that blame is at least implicitly communicative, see Darwall (2006, esp. Ch.4), Macnamara (2013a, 2015a, b), McKenna (2012, 2013), Shoemaker (2007), Walker (2006), Wallace (1994), and Watson (1987). For an influential dissenting view, see Scanlon (2008: 233n54), for whom “blame…is not, even incipiently, a form of communication”.

  6. 6.

    Smith sees this as an advantage especially in comparison with Sher (2006), for whom, she writes, such sadness would count as blame; see Smith (2013: 35).

  7. 7.

    Conceptions of blame that emphasize emotion are influenced especially by Strawson (1962); for recent examples, see Wallace (1994, 2011), Wolf (2011), Bell (2013), and Tognazzini (2013). Scanlon and Smith include both emotions and other attitudes as blaming reactions. Some views, typically utilitarian and no longer popular, have thought of blame as an action after all; but these views are often thought to confuse blame with the expression of blame. For discussion, see Sher (2006: 71–74).

  8. 8.

    For a critical discussion of Smith’s invocation of a wider moral community as protest’s secondary target, see Macnamara (2015b: 223–8).

  9. 9.

    Talbert (2012: 106) briefly mentions outward defiance in his discussion of Duboisian protest: “to the extent that it communicates with the oppressor, it is not an invitation to dialogue so much as a defiant declaration.” But he does not consider the unexpressed attitude of ‘inner’ defiance to which I want to draw an analogy.

  10. 10.

    In Murphy and Hampton (1988: 57), Jean Hampton writes that an “act of defiance is the heart of the emotion of resentment.” This is a somewhat different thought from the thought that protest is the heart of resentment. I doubt it captures the more brooding and victimized forms of resentment; but I do not argue this in detail here, since my topic is protest. For discussion of cases in which outward protest seems to lose its point, see Hill (1979) and Bommarito (2016).

  11. 11.

    One might still communicate only with oneself in cases of self-blame. And one might wonder how the Protest View accommodates self-blame. I leave this other kind of counterexample aside, to focus on the difficulties that arise even in cases of blaming others. One might also ask: in unexpressed protest, what is the message that is not expressed? A Protest View can be developed in part by answering this question. For Smith, the message may be anything that challenges a moral claim, either explicitly or implicitly. A different Protest View may have a narrower conception of the message blame aims to communicate. Though added detail would be helpful here, I leave this issue aside, since it does not threaten the basic coherence of the notion of protest, and answering it does not remove the doubts I go on to raise about descriptive adequacy.

  12. 12.

    Smith (2013: 32) briefly mentions “dispassionately ‘unfriending’ someone on one’s Facebook page” as a difficult case for emotion-centered views of blame, and suggests that it “should qualify as…blame.” I have added emotion to the example, to make it an even less controversial example of blame.

  13. 13.

    Although I go on to focus on the breadth of Smith’s notion of protest, her exclusion of protesting a person also makes her notion of protest in one way narrower than the ordinary one. In this respect her view parallels Hieronymi’s, but not Pereboom’s; see note 3 above, and note 15 below.

  14. 14.

    She might even say: “Honey, I don’t blame you, but you have to stop.” The Moorean oddity of such statements presents an additional puzzle for the Protest View, which I will leave aside here.

  15. 15.

    The dilemma can also be raised for views like that in Pereboom (2017), which endorses a Protest View on which the primary target of protest is behavior rather than a claim (see note 3 above). If this view is understood as including both protests against behavior and protests against a claim, it is a fairly broad view, perhaps broader than Smith’s. If it is understood in a narrower way, as protesting only behavior or dispositions to act in certain ways, it faces counterexamples such as my landlord and offended friend, neither of which seem to be protesting behavior. In the case of Hieronymi’s view that “resentment…should be understood as protest” (2001: 530), a variant of the dilemma arises. For Hieronymi, “resentment protests a past action that persists as a present threat” (546). This “resentment is grounded…on a…judgment…that the [resented] event makes a threatening claim” (552). In what way does resentment go beyond making the judgment on which it is grounded? In the narrower, ordinary sense or ‘protest’, a contemptful landlord or offended unfriender seem able to resent without protesting. A ‘protest’ in a broader sense might do little, if anything, beyond affirming the judgment that an event makes a threatening claim. This makes it more believable that all resentment does protest, but less believable that Hieronymi has described the distinctive reaction of resentment. We can recognize and actively protest a threatening claim without resenting it, and some nonviolent resisters do just that.

  16. 16.

    For a defense of sadness as an alternative to blame, see Menges (2014).

  17. 17.

    On the importance of emotions such as anger in blame, see, for example, Wallace (1994, 2011), Wolf (2011), and Nussbaum (2016).


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I am grateful to Lee-Ann Chae, Colin Chamberlain, Charles Goldhaber, August Gorman, Tyler Haddow, Samuel Reis-Dennis, audiences at the Central States Philosophical Association and Temple University, and my anonymous reviewers for very helpful feedback on earlier drafts, and to a Temple University Summer Research Award for support in revising the manuscript.

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Chislenko, E. Blame and Protest. J Ethics 23, 163–181 (2019).

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  • Blame
  • Protest
  • Responsibility
  • Nonviolence