How should we attribute blame?

There are two ways to assign blame: blame individuals, or blame the system they act within. People seem to choose one or the other on the basis of their ideology, not on the basis of facts. Those who support capitalism will blame abuses on the individuals, while those who oppose it will blame abuses on the system. The same is true of democracy, religion, parenting, and all other hierarchies. In all cases, one can argue that the individuals are solely to blame, or that the system and its structures are to blame.

So how do we make the difference? Instead of using your bias to arrive at some knee-jerk conclusion, confront the facts about the system itself. What are its explicit rules? What are its guiding principles? Are there power relations within it? What incentives does it offer, that is to say, what is its impact on human behaviour?

Answering all these questions, and looking at the act, gives us the answer. If the unethical act is something that is perpetuated by the system, then blame the system (while not, of course, excluding the responsibility for the decision to the person). If it is not, then blame the person.

For example, if we look at the act of a CEO who fired thousands of people and gets a hefty multi-million dollar bonus for it at the end of the year, we’d rightly say that it is a heinous act. But that’s how capitalism works: the role of a corporation is to generate profits by all means necessary, and thus the CEO’s act, and the shareholders’ reaction, was perfectly in line with that. We can therefore absolutely blame the system in this case.

The act of a sweatshop overseer in Taiwan who sexually harasses his female wage slaves, on the other hand, does not prove anything about capitalism specifically (although it proves something about heteronormativity, or hierarchies as a whole), because his actions have nothing to do with any of the principles or incentives of capitalism.

Or another way of saying this: capitalism can exist without sexual harassment, but not without firing people or without profits. Or to think about it in a slightly different way: even if every single person in the system was completely well-intentioned, those latter things would still exist. They wouldn’t be sexually harassing people, but they still would be firing people and giving each other bonuses for doing so.

Let me use parenting now. I know that one annoys people a lot, but there’s a great example that can be used here. People will sometimes argue that using coercion against children is justifiable because children need to be saved from their own foibles; they will generally use the example of a toddler that walks into a busy street, and is saved by his mother, as an action which is both coercive and justifiable. But this is not a particular trait of parenting: people may save, or hinder, each other regardless of their parental relation (in fact, strangers sometimes save children from their parents). Of course, parents generally love their children and will try to save them from life-threatening situations.

On the other hand, the millions of baby genital mutilations, sexual child abuse (most widespread in the form of spanking, but millions of children are still being raped by parents and family members), verbal child abuse, attacks on children’s rights, and so on, which take place in our society can be squarely blamed on parenting, since we know only parents have the power to do these things. It’s built in the system. They are in near-full control of a vulnerable human being who can’t defend himself: it’s not rocket science to expect them to exploit that control, and you can’t have a parenting system without that control being there.

A teacher who forces his students to repeatedly perform meaningless exercises all year and gets rewarded because said students successfully pass a meaningless standardized exam is doing so because that’s his job. A teacher who is sadistic towards his students and insults them is doing it on a personal impulse. The schooling system can persist with or without his sadism and insults, but it cannot persist without the meaningless exercises.

There are cases where the difference is more ambiguous. Catholic priests have raped little children since virtually the beginning of Catholicism, so it seems natural to attribute it to the religion itself. To a certain extent this is true, but only insofar as Catholicism is a faggot religion. It is not a coincidence that the earliest records of priests’ crimes included sexually molesting young boys, in the fourth century, around the time when priests were generally required to be celibate. So here it is not necessarily religion as an institution which is to blame, but the specific sexual requirements of the religions where the sexual abuse is taking place.

Now, beyond these examples, I want to make this clear, because I know I’m going to get comments saying that I am trying to remove personal responsibility from the people committing these actions. As I’ve said before, understanding does not preclude judgment. My point here is not that the actors in an unethical system are not responsible for their actions. If anything, the fact that they willingly participate to an unethical system compounds their guilt.

The distinction also applies, albeit in a more tenuous way, to our views on our own actions or outcomes, and other people’s actions or outcomes. The actor-observer bias, which I’ve referred before, shows that we explain our actions in response to stimuli as being driven by the stimuli, while we explain other people’s actions in response to stimuli as being driven by their personality. What this means, in clear, is that when we look at other people’s behaviour in a hierarchy, we’ll tend to attribute it to their personality rather than to the stimuli they receive within that hierarchy. When we do bad things, we attribute it to the situation, but when other people do bad things, it’s their personal fault.

People also apply this to outcomes. They believe that poor people are poor because they are lazy or stupid, while they believe they are rich because of their good upbringing, their choice of careers, and so on. Poor people believe that rich people are rich because they are greedy and corrupt, while they believe they are poor because of their life circumstances. And so on and so forth.

One thought on “How should we attribute blame?

  1. […] brought it on herself, whether that “it” is getting killed, raped, beaten or harassed. Real attribution of responsibility has to start with a cool-headed confront of the system’s guiding principles and incentive […]

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