The next two sub-sections look at what this account of the nature of blame explains when it comes to cognitive, emotive and conative phenomena associated with blaming. Importantly, the ambition of this section is not critical: I am, at least for the most part, not going to aim to significantly advance the state of the art concerned with difficulties for extant accounts of blame. Rather, I will survey the relevant literature to the aim of arguing that Blame as Performance is in a good position to explain both the advantages and the weaknesses of the competition.
Blame traditionalism and directions of fit
I would like to go back to the history of the analysis of blame project. Several people think blaming is roughly tantamount to judging blameworthy (e.g. Haji 1998; Hieronymi 2004; Scanlon 1986; Smart 1961; Watson 1996; Zimmerman 1988). According to Zimmerman, for instance, when we blame someone, we judge that there is a “discredit” or “debit” in his ledger, that his “moral standing” has been “diminished” (Zimmerman 1988: p. 38). In a similar vein, on Gary Watson’s account, to blame someone is to judge that they have failed with respect to some standard of excellence.
There are, though, two notable worries for cognitive accounts, concerning the necessity and, respectively, the sufficiency direction of analyzing blame in terms of judging blameworthy. If successful, these objections seem to suggest that blaming and judging blameworthy, while they may often go hand in hand, survive perfectly fine without one another. Consider, against the sufficiency direction: I can judge you blameworthy for being late for lunch and still not blame you—after all, I’ve done it myself in the past, and it’s not that big a deal anyway; nobody’s perfect (Kenner 1967; Coates and Tognazzini 2012). Conversely, against the necessity direction, consider irrational blame; classical cases involve benighted moral agents: I see how you could not help but do what you did, you’re blameless in virtue of your social determinations, but I cannot help but blame you for it (Pickard 2013).
The account of Blame as Performance has the theoretical resources to explain this phenomenon: judgments of blameworthiness, while often associated with blame, are metaphysically distinct entities. It is easy to see what went wrong if we go back to the judgment/assertion parallel: the speech-act correspondent for a judgment that you are blameworthy is not the speech act of blaming, but the speech act of asserting: ‘You are blameworthy.’ The latter is distinct from the speech act of blaming: it is not a performative, but an assertive. It merely describes the world, it does not affect it. It only has a word-to-world direction of fit.
Since blame is a second-person retributive performance, though, it will be often associated with judgments of blameworthiness: retribution constitutively aims to match desert. Normally, when I do something negative to you in response to your being a (perceived) wrong-doer, I aim to get it right: I aim to do it in virtue of your actually being a wrong-do-er. This model, however, suffers exceptions, and the classical counterexamples to cognitivism track these exceptions: in particular, cases where I blame irrationally, i.e. in spite of the fact that I don’t judge you blameworthy, will be explained on BaP as garden variety cases of irrational action against one’s best judgement. Also, the classical cases put forth against sufficiency have straightforward explanations on BaP: first, if blame is an action, in line with other actions, it is hardly surprising that I can judge that you are worthy of phi-ing and yet not do phi to you. In particular, this will easily be the case when I lack the authority to do phi: I can judge that you are worth punishment, for instance, but since I lack the authority to punish you, not act on my judgment. In line with this general model, counterexamples to the cognitivist’s sufficiency claim, unsurprisingly, ride on lack of standing to blame.
Let us move on to emotions and desires: The disconnect between blaming and judging blameworthy led some people to believe blame was not a cognitive affair, but rather an emotion or set of emotions.Footnote 20 When we blame, they argue, we feel resentment, indignation, anger and the like for some wrongdoing (Bell 2013; Strawson 1962; Wallace 1994; Wolf 2011).
Worries have been put forth for the necessity direction of emotivist analyses. The problem is that all these emotions, while characteristic to instances of blame for fairly serious breaches of moral norms (i.e. murder), are not plausibly necessarily present in other, less highbrow types of blame. Take, for instance, moral blame for minor wrongdoings: I’m 5 minutes late for lunch. Yes, I did break my promise, so if I did it out of sloppiness, and you care about punctuality, you may end up blaming me. Still, anger, resentment and indignation (no matter how ‘light’) seem like a disproportionate reaction. Consider, also, the case of epistemic blameFootnote 21: if you’re looking straight at the vase but believe there is no vase in the room, all else equal, you are epistemically blameworthy and subject to proper criticism: ‘Can’t you see the vase? You’re looking straight at it!’. However, it seems rather peculiar for me to resent you or feel indignation in relation to your epistemic failure, absent other normative considerations. To the contrary, your epistemic unresponsiveness is rather hilarious. Similarly, take prudential blame: I can surely blame you for wasting your money on your sixth pair of green shoes, while not feeling particularly emotional about it.
Several people in the traditionalist literature have proposed conative analyses of blame. The most influential account of this sort is George Sher’s (2006) conative account. Sher (2006) endorses a “two-tiered” account of moral blame “which takes it to consist of a characteristic set of affective and behavioural dispositions that are organised around a characteristic type of desire-judgment pair” (2006: pp. 14–15). What Sher ads to judgments of wrongness is a backwards-looking desire “that the person in question not have performed his past bad act” (2006: p. 112). On top of this, it should be the case that this judgment-desire pair triggers dispositions to behave in characteristically emotional ways, such as feeling badly about not getting what one wants, publicly expressing the unsatisfied desire etc. Thus, Sher suggests that the negative emotions typical of blame are an example of how one feels badly when one’s desires are frustrated.
Unsurprisingly, this type of view is also bound to inherit the objections to the necessity of judging blameworthy for blaming (nested in the possibility of irrational blame). Furthermore, worries have been expressed that there are cases when the relevant desire that you have not done what you did is absent while blame is present. After all, it may well be that you lie to me, I judge you are blameworthy and blame you for it, but I don’t desire you hadn’t done it because, by mere accident, I end up better off because of your lie. Furthermore, it looks as though in cases of non-moral blame, the relevant desire is usually not present, if not even outright inappropriate: I don’t have any desire concerning your epistemic or your shoe shopping blunders (why would I care?), but it still seems perfectly appropriate to blame you for your irresponsible behavior.
Against the sufficiency direction involved in Sher’s view, Angela Smith argues that in some cases, say in “the reactions of a mother whose son is blameworthy for [a] crime” (Smith 2013: p. 35), the relevant judgment-desire pair might be present without blame. Furthermore, note that, compatibly, Smith’s mother may also display some of the dispositions to behave in characteristically emotional ways, such as feeling miserable about what happened, publicly expressing the fact that she wished the son did not do it etc.
I want to argue that BaP explains what went wrong with both the emotivist and the conativist analyses: the problem here is that there is a mis-match of direction of fit. Emotions, like cognitions, tell us something about how the world is (pleasant, unpleasant—mind-to-world fit) and, like desires, they motivate us to act in various ways to change the world (world-to-mind). First, if blame is an action, it misses the characteristically cognitive mind to world direction of fit, in that it does not describe the world, it only affects it. Further on, when it comes to changing the world, the important difference between emotions and desires on one hand, and blaming on the other concerns the success condition: emotions and desires motivate us to change the world, while blaming successfully does so. In this, the account of blame as performance explains why emotions (anger, resentment) and desires (that the wrong-doer had not done the deed) can come apart from blaming, but often go hand in hand: first, blame does not require valuations of state of the world: this is what the case of irrational blame teaches us. That being said, in line with other retributive actions, it is often associated with—indeed, often triggered by—bad feelings about what happened. Second, while desires and emotions merely motivate one to respond to wrongdoing, blame successfully does so: in many cases, the motivation and the success will come together: I will be motivated to respond to your wrong-doing, and I will also successfully do so. This, of course, though, need not be the case: motivation and successful action can come apart.
Blame functionalism and the mental/spoken blame parallel
In view of the history of unsuccessful dismantling analyses of blame, more recently, several people (e.g. Bennett 2013; Duff 1986; Fricker 2016; McKenna 2012; Sliwa 2021; Smith 2013; Vargas 2013), propose to shed light on the nature of this phenomenon by looking into the function the practice of blame serves for us. Instead of identifying blame with any particular attitude or combination of attitudes, functional accounts of blame identify blame by its functional role.
What unites all functional accounts of blame in the literature is their focus on the practice of communicating blame. The thought is that identifying the function of our practice of blaming is going to shed light on the nature of blame. How is this supposed to happen? Blame is internally very diverse. So maybe it is a practice essentially defined by its function, which, in turn, is multiply realizable. Take a paradigmatic case of functional item: for instance, keys. They come in many shapes and colors, and it’s hard to find a common denominator that is also in any way informative. What unifies the tokens of the type is rather their function: opening/closing locks. As opposed to keys, bachelors, for instance, have an informative common metaphysical denominator: they are unmarried men. The thought, then must be that blame is more like keys than like bachelors. What is defining of the practice is its function, and the latter can be fulfilled in many ways—blame is internally diverse.
According to Fricker (2016), the function of communicative blame is epistemic: it resides in its power to increase the alignment of the blamer and the wrongdoer’s moral understandings. It aims to bring the wrongdoer to see or fully acknowledge the moral significance of what they have done or failed to do. By communicatively blaming you for leaving the kitchen door open, I aim to make you see that what you did was wrong—you were not very considerate, and now my cat ran out!—and feel remorse for having done it. This aim need not, of course, always be present as an intention in the psychology of the communicative blamer; rather, according to Fricker, the aim is a function of the type of speech act blame is, the nature of its illocutionary point.
This alignment of moral understanding, in turn, has a social function: it is aimed at correcting the future behavior of the wrongdoer. I blame you for leaving the kitchen door open in the hope that you will recognize how this was not very considerate, and be more careful in the future. Finally, Fricker thinks that all other types of blame can be understood as derivative of communicative blame.
Antony Duff has proposed a similar understanding of the aim of blame, according to which it is “an attempt to communicate to the wrong-doer a moral understanding of his wrong-doing; to bring him to recognize his guilt and repent what he has done (Duff 1986: p. 70).
More recently, Sliwa (2021) also proposes a function-based account of blame. On her account, the latter consists in creating common knowledge of reparative duties and claim-rights for wrongdoing.
In sum, then, according to these philosophers, the function of our practice of blaming is mainly epistemic: it aims at effecting changes in the epistemic status of the participants—be it their moral understanding or their knowledge of post-wrongdoing duties and rights.
Other alternative popular functionalist views on blame take the relevant function to be one of expressing protest or disapproval in the face of wrongdoing. According to Michael McKenna, for instance, blame is conversational, and thus functions to continue a conversation started by the blamee’s wrongful action. McKenna claims that all reactive attitudes and their expressions serve this function. According Smith (2013), blaming functions as a form of protest. For Smith, when we modify our attitudes and intentions towards the blame, and this serves a particular function, namely that of protest, it counts as an instance of blame.
There are two main worries for blame functionalism: one is methodological, the other one concerns the details of the accounts under discussion.
I will start with the latter: Criticism and blame are two distinct normative categories; furthermore, the corresponding speech acts can also come apart. I can criticize you (‘What you did was wrong’) but fail to blame you (…although I must say I’ve done it myself in the past, I can sympathise!). Interestingly enough, note that criticizing in speech is weaker than blaming: When I utter ‘I blame you for phi-ing!’ I both blame and criticize you. The converse need not be the case: I can criticize you for phi-ing without blaming you (after all, nobody’s perfect).
Now, note that the functions proposed in the literature for the practice of blaming—epistemic functions, protest functions, communicating disapproval functions—are perfectly well served by the weaker speech act—the speech act of criticizing. That is because, just like blaming, criticizing communicates to you my normative take on things. In a nutshell, by merely criticizing you for having phi-ed, I can: increase the alignment of our moral understandings and your moral knowledge, protest your actions, express my disapproval, without necessarily also blaming you for what you did. If that is the case, though, blaming you—on top of mere criticism—seems like a normative overkill. If the function is perfectly well served by mere criticism, why have a stronger practice to the same effect? Consider, for a visual analogy, asserting in normal tone and shouting. The function of asserting that p is to inform you that p. Furthermore, in normal conditions, assertion is perfectly capable to fulfill its function. It seems, then, unnecessary (not to mention outrageously impolite) to shout that p at you, if what I’m up to is merely informing you that p. More needs to be the case for the stronger speech act to be warranted: maybe I also want to signal an emergency (‘Your train is leaving!!!!’), for instance. Whatever it is, shouting for mere informing is overkilling. Similarly, blaming rather than merely criticizing for generating normative knowledge or understanding, or for communicating disapproval or protesting is normative overkilling.
Criticism and blame can come apart. Furthermore, there are instances in which criticism is appropriate while blame isn’t; i.e., instances in which not only they do come apart, but they should come apart (Kelp and Simion 2017). Actions are often performed in the public sphere and, as such, are observable by others, who may pick up the forms of behaviour exhibited. When you fail to call Uno when playing your penultimate card in a game of Uno, and so violate a rule of the game, this may be observed by someone else who will pick up your behaviour and, as a result, may violate the rule in the future, too. By allowing for criticisms of actions that violate specific norms we can work against the spread of norm-violating forms of behaviour. Since this is a good thing, it makes sense for us to allow for such criticisms. At the same time, we may also want to grant that a norm has been broken blamelessly by the agent. We do not want to hold the norm violation against her: she was blamelessly ignorant, things were blamelessly out of control and so on. If so, there is excellent reason for us to allow criticisability relative to a specific norm and blamelessness relative to the very same norm to coexist.
In sum: criticism and blame can come apart and there are instances in which they should come apart; also, the communicative function at stake is fulfilled by mere criticism, which is the weaker speech act. If this is so, looking at the communicative function will shed little light on the nature of blame: after all, similarly, we are not going to understand the nature of shouting by looking at the function of informing.
But couldn’t someone like Fricker reply that mere criticism, while reaching the aim of bringing about alignment in moral understanding, it does so via the wrong means?Footnote 22 After all, according to Fricker’s view, the communicative function of blame is to bring about alignment in moral understandings via inspriring remorse in the blamed party. The thought then would be that what makes blame so effective in particular contexts is precisely this way of bringing about alignment in moral understanding. While criticism (of someone's conduct) may well serve the function of bringing about alignment in moral understandings, maybe it cannot reliably serve the function of bringing about said alignment via inspiring remorse.
I don’t think this reply will work well, for three main reasons: first, building the means to alignment in moral understanding in the content of the function leaves the account poorly motivated: recall that, according to Fricker herself, the final point of all this is to correct the future behavior of the wrongdoer. To this end, an alignment in moral understanding seems sufficient, no matter how it may be brought about—be it via remorse or via, say, brainwashing. Second, considerations pertaining to the effectiveness of one means over the other are inconsequential, insofar as the function is fulfilled often enough (this, indeed, is the case with functions in general); in turn, whether criticism fulfills the function often enough is an empirical question. One thing that seems plausible, though,—which brings me to my third point—is that the difference between the effectiveness of the two—blame and criticism—cannot be very large, since the two speech acts are most often indistinguishable—with only one notable but infrequently encountered exception: explicit blaming.
Maybe, then, we can keep the functionalist analysis proposed in its broad shape, but abandon the details—i.e. the particular communicative functions identified? One initially promising way to do this, for instance, might be to identify a second-personal function of communicative blame: rather than targeting the normative properties of the target action (wrongness etc., which, if I am right, is the proper function of criticism), on this view blame targets the normative properties of the blamee (fault, responsibility for wrong action). In this, blame’s function will be distinct from that of criticism, and therefore better identify the phenomenon we are interested in.Footnote 23
This brings us to the methodological worry: focusing on the communicative nature of an important part of the practice may easily be misleading. Undeniably, we sometimes (often!) only blame people in our heads. Furthermore, we sometimes blame them in speech while mental blame is absent. If that is the case, by looking at the function of our practice of blaming at large, we risk identifying a function that is only associated with communicating blame, rather than blaming. To see the worry further, consider the parallel case of judgment and assertion. Just like mental and spoken blame, the one is the inner counterpart of the other. Now, plausibly, the (main) function of assertion is communicative: generating a particular epistemic standing in the hearer (knowledge, true belief etc.). This, however, will not yet tell us anything interesting about the nature of judgment, in virtue of the fact that judgment does not share this communicative function. To the contrary, this particular communicative characteristic is what sets judgment and assertion apart.
What can do the trick, however, in shedding light on the nature of judgment, is an account of the nature of assertion: if assertion stands to judgment like outer to inner, judgment is sub-vocalised assertion. Take a X view of the nature of assertion, then, and you have a view on the nature of judgment: subvocalized X. That is precisely the framework that BaP relies on for blame: Bap stats with the nature, not the function, of vocalized blaming, and derives the nature of mental blame accordingly.
Furthermore, BaP can also easily make sense of the intuitions behind the several functionalist views we have been looking at: after all, if I am right and blaming is a second-personal retributive performance, it is hardly surprising that it will, in line with other retributive performances like punishment and downgrading, often serve several communicative functions: to communicate that the wrong-doer is being held responsible, that the normative landscape is changed in the light of the wrongdoer’s wrongdoing, etc. Also, in virtue of being a second-person performance, like punishing and downgrading, it will be an efficient tool in the service of protest and expressing disapproval against the wrong-doer. Importantly, though, all the relevant functions will be targeting the wrong-doers rather than the wrongdoing: blame, as opposed to criticism, is always about the doer not the doing. In this, BaP accounts for the fact that criticism can be appropriate when blame is not: cases of blameless norm-violation are cases in point.