Moral Fault and Moral Responsibility: Why We Should Always Blame

In this post, I will argue that blame is an expression of a judgement about moral fault. A moral fault is a property F of some object O in virtue of which O impedes the attainment of some morally optimific state of affairs. The orthodox position stands against this. It limits blameworthiness to those objects that are morally responsible for wrong actions. O is morally responsible for some act A if and only if O is responsive to moral reasons pertaining to A. This orthodox position does have a few arguments in its favour given that moral fault accounts of blame tend to have a number of unintuitive consequences. Moral responsibility, however, has a far worse consequence than any implied by moral fault, namely robust blame skepticism such as that defended by Gideon Rosen. My argument will focus specifically on this.

Rosen argues that blame requires either original responsibility or derivative responsibility. There are two conditions that must be met in order for O to be originally responsible for A: there must be some moral reason R that is a decisive reason for why one ought not to do A, and O must be aware of R. Sometimes, O might not be aware of R because O has failed to “discharge one of [its] procedural epistemic obligations.”[i] O may be originally responsible for this failure. And if that is the case then O is derivatively responsible for A.

So far so good. Rosen’s account meets all the normal expectations of an account of moral responsibility. It has the right sorts of excusing conditions and the right sorts of requirements. But blame is about more than just moral responsibility. Blame requires a judgement of moral responsibility, and a particular expression of that judgement. This expression is unpleasant and possibly harmful, and therefore the prospective blamer must be certain that O is in fact morally responsible for A before she can act. This certainty, however, will always elude us. The temporal distance and the opacity of other minds bars us from any knowledge about whether O was in fact aware of R when it did A. Hence we can never hold someone originally responsible for A. But we likewise cannot hold someone derivatively responsible for A either, since every instance of derivative responsibility requires some instance of original responsibility and the problem reasserts itself. Blame skepticism here is unavoidable.

Blame skepticism is a detestable conclusion. Blame serves an important role in moral education and in deterring wrongdoing.[ii] We ought therefore to preserve some account of blame. This is where moral fault comes in. Judgements of moral fault have a much less demanding epistemic burden, and hence are not vulnerable to blame skepticism in the same way. But this is so in part because moral fault accounts of blame are incredibly harsh. Objects are accountable for any failure to realise some morally optimific state of affairs, whatever the reason. They are blameworthy for the their own bad intentions and the ill effects of moral luck all the same. But this shouldn’t be too problematic. It is uncontroversial that ordinary objects of blame are imperfect. Humans and other creatures have their limitations, and we should not be denied from pointing these out from time to time. We need only remember that as blamers, we too would be blameworthy for failing to realise some morally optimific state of affairs, and we may fail to do so because we blamed another. Luckily, then, blame need not be fire and brimstone. It may also be a prod or a joke, a stern glare or a quick lesson.


[i] Rosen, “Skepticism about Moral Responsibility,” Philosophical Perspectives, 18(Ethics), 2004: 309

[ii] For more on the function of blame, see Christopher Bennett, “The Expressive Function of Blame” in D. Justin Coates and Neal A. Tognazzini [Eds.], Blame: Its Nature and Norms, Oxford University Press (Oxford, UK), 2013: 66-83; and Christopher E. Franklin, “Valuing Blame” in D. Justin Coates and Neal A. Tognazzini [Eds.], Blame: Its Nature and Norms, Oxford University Press (Oxford, UK), 2013: 207-223.