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Should we blame wrongdoers who are merely conforming to widespread social practices?

Blame is a common part of human life and relationships. Despite blaming others and being blamed in turn, we find it difficult to understand. Is it anger, bitterness, or disappointment? Is its function to protest, punish, or demand?[I] When discussing blame philosophically, we distinguish between ‘explanatory blame’, for example the accidental spilling of a drink, and ‘interpersonal blame’ (the type that is relevant here), where people are judged blameworthy, and met with blame.[II]

Cheshire Calhoun is a philosopher who writes on morality and ethics. She sees blame as a form of ‘moral reproach’ which can be used to effect social change.[III] In her paper 'Responsibility and Reproach', she explores how blame fits into oppressive practices that occur at a societal level, yet go unrecognised. She argues that it may be reasonable to reproach people for acts of oppression even when they are not blameworthy (because they did not know better). Though knowledge that an action is wrong is not commonly understood, negative consequences of the action warrant some blame response to highlight negative repercussions and prevent reoccurrence. This could ultimately change oppressive practice. Such change cannot happen when you excuse: so blame, despite moral ignorance, is necessary. Specifically, she explores this idea in the context of gender injustice: for example, when women are referred to with unprofessional labels, which is wrong but not always recognised to be. However, Calhoun’s discussion of blame and blameworthiness is relevant to other social contexts where we dispute the moral norms of oppressive practice.

When wrongdoing takes the form of unrecognised social oppression, there is no common social standard to measure actions against. Many of those who perpetuate the problem are simply ‘ordinary characters’ who know no better, so locating 'individual responsibility’ amongst them is difficult. The problem with excusing such practices is this: if the excuse itself is the ‘normalcy and social legitimacy’ of the action, then that excuse will be repeated, so the wrong of the act is never brought to light.[IV] When there is a social practice that not everyone sees is wrong, excusing people for doing it because of that lack of common knowledge is not going to change it.

Calhoun describes cases of oppression as ‘abnormal moral contexts’, compared with cases of ordinary wrongdoing—‘normal moral contexts.’[V] In the latter, those acting outside its moral parameters are recognised as wrong. In the former, those who carry out wrongdoing are not ignorant of a common moral knowledge, but of something realised only by a minority. In the case of oppression, Calhoun argues that excusing has two effects:

1. It functions as a sanction, and permits the behaviour to continue. Excusing can work in a normal moral context, where everybody knows that an act is wrong (and has been excused). However, in an abnormal moral context, excusing simply seems like an endorsement of the act – because the majority do not realise it is wrong.

2. It makes a practice ‘appear unalterable’, eliminating the idea that individuals can cause social change. Indeed, she suggests that excusing will only ‘recognize those who cannot reasonably be further educated.’[VI]

So Calhoun claims that in abnormal moral contexts we should not excuse, but should show that individuals have the ability to rise above social conditioning, by blaming them and demanding they modify their behaviour. This blame has three benefits: it is educational,

motivates change, and conceptually confirms us as ‘moral agents.’ [VII] Nevertheless, while she makes a case for blame as a tool for moral improvement in society, Calhoun’s position is not conclusive. She is unsure whether blame is always the solution, but wants to open up conversation about using blame, even when people aren't always expected to know better.

Is Calhoun’s balanced stance here too soft? Can we still label those who act oppressively without knowing better as morally flawed or corrupt? They may be unaware of their moral shortcomings, and therefore less culpable than those who act with intent, but their actions are still wrong. There are certainly those who come to realisations on their own about right and wrong, even when it is in the details of an addressing term. Are we holding the rest of society to too low a standard? It is possible that we should expect people to be more objective, reflective, and empathetic. Otherwise, admittedly, we put an enormous responsibility on those in the minority (with the moral knowledge) to educate the rest of society.

The issue here is how to deal with preconceived ideas—prejudices—and Calhoun seems to trace them back to ignorance. However, Cicero, the Roman politician and philosopher, rooted prejudice in manipulation, not ignorance.[VIII] So if an oppressive wrongdoer’s actions are a result, not of ignorance (not knowing better) alone, but of manipulation, then perhaps we can rightly claim that there is some blameworthiness. If we are manipulated to carry out prejudiced, oppressive actions, then the blame can be attributed to the manipulators. In fact, on Foucault's account of power, describing it as closely related to knowledge, this sort of manipulative action is an appropriation of power: 'in knowing we control and in controlling we know.'[IX] This supports the claim further that blame is an appropriate response, because it educates and therefore empowers the moral agent. Additionally, it may be that we should judge those (even a majority) blameworthy, who fail to self-reflect and examine the system they partake in. Since she discusses the subtler shortcomings of society, Calhoun claims that this ‘ought to have known better’ approach is difficult to apply; there are ‘limits to the powers of moral self-critique.’[X]

It could still be argued, however, that in cases of oppression (and privilege), those on the privileged side are not so innocent; they could still be motivated by self-interest. Calhoun, in response, distinguishes between self-deception—‘being motivated not to examine one’s actions’—and simply ‘lacking a motive to be morally reflective.’[XI] This lack of motive is what happens, she claims, in cases of oppression, where ‘moral ignorance is the norm.’[XII] However, is there such a distinction between being not-motivated-to or motivated-to-not? Could we claim that moral reflection is the baseline, and that we are never without reason to be morally reflective? Aristotle, for example, deemed listeners responsible for their manipulation when they ‘do not scrutinize the speaker’s arguments.’[XIII] For him, acting intentionally, with agency, is 'to act for a reason.'[XIV] Actions, therefore, should be rationally grounded by a 'sound practical syllogism', using premises to come to an informed conclusion, as opposed to acting purely on intuition or testimony.[XV]

If we uphold this higher standard of moral reflection, we may be able to claim that people are in a sense blameworthy, though this may be too demanding. When thinking about current debates in society that call for moral blame—black lives matter, #metoo, environmental issues—the costs and consequences of a failure to meet moral standards are too high for anyone to hide behind ignorance, whether they mean to or not. In our fragmented and ever-dividing society, it seems wise to encourage and uphold a higher standard of critical and reflective thinking, and openness to opposition when forming opinions. As such, when we conform to poor social practices, we need (and possibly deserve) to be blamed, although hopefully, that blame will help us learn and change.


[I] Angela Smith, ‘Moral Blame and Moral Protest’, David Shoemaker, ‘Blame and Punishment’, Coleen MacNamara, ‘Taking Demands out of Blame’, in Blame: Its Nature and Norms, ed. by Neal A. Tognazzini and D. Justin Coates (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), Chapters 2, 6, 8.

[II] Neal A. Tognazzini and D. Justin Coates, “Blame”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2014, [Accessed 10 December 2017].

[III] Cheshire Calhoun, “Responsibility and Reproach”, Ethics, 99.2 (1989), 389-406 (p. 389).

[IV] Ibid. (p. 390, 391, 393).

[V] Ibid. (p. 393).

[VI] Ibid. (p. 402, 405).

[VII] Ibid. (p. 405).

[VIII] “The False Mirror”, Philosophy Now, 2017, (p. 4).

[IX] Gary Gutting and Johanna Oksala, "Michel Foucault",The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2018, [Accessed 25 May 2018].

[X] Calhoun, (p. 399).

[XI] Ibid. (p. 399).

[XII] Ibid. (p. 399).

[XIII] Gary Remer, “Rhetoric, Emotional Manipulation, and Political Morality: The Modern Relevance of Cicero vis-à-vis Aristotle”, Rhetorica: A Journal of the History of Rhetoric, 31.4 (2013), 402-443, (p.421).

[XIV] Markus Schlosser, "Agency",The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2015 [Accessed 24 May 2018].

[XV] Ibid.

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