Thursday, December 06, 2007

Blame and Disappointment

Scanlon suggests that to blame someone is to (negatively) revise one's relationship with that person due to judging that they are blameworthy, i.e. that "there is something about the person that impairs one's relationship with him or her" ('Blame', p.1). Given this close personal focus, Scanlon suggests that the positive correlate of blame is not praise, but gratitude. In class yesterday, Michael made the interesting suggestion that the negative correlate of gratitude, if that's what Scanlon wants to talk about, is more like disappointment than blame. In this post, I want to defend Scanlon's conception of blame, and clearly differentiate it from the broader category of disappointment.

First, note that we must distinguish the state of blame from censorious expressions of blame:
To modify one's expectations and intentions toward a person in the way I have described, in response to that person's deficient attitudes -- to conclude that one can no longer interact with that person as a friend -- is to blame that person in the sense I have in mind, whether or not one also feels resentful or indignant. One might just feel sad. (pp.14-15)

This can't be a sufficient condition as stated, for we may withdraw from another in response to their deficient attitudes without blaming them in any sense. Tristram suggests a nice contrast here between disrespect and low self-esteem. If a (supposed) friend is consistently disrespectful and inconsiderate, this is the sort of failing we consider blameworthy. But if another's low self-esteem makes them difficult or unpleasant to interact with, we may consider it a character flaw which justifies us in revising our attitudes towards them - it may reduce our desire to befriend them, say - but we wouldn't blame them for it. It is more like a case of brute difference in tastes or interests, a mere "drifting apart" that - although a response to "something about the person" - does not reflect any violation of the relationship on their part.

There was much discussion in class about the "reasonable expectations" that people may have of each other, and whether it is necessarily blameworthy to disappoint these. It seems clear that it is not, at least if your expectation is merely based upon general epistemic clues and not any kind of promise or other normative commitment on the part of the other person. But I don't think this is a problem for Scanlon's account; at least, I read him as being peculiarly concerned about the reasonable expectations that are internal to a relationship, deriving from its constitutive norms, and not just any old expectation that you might (however reasonably) have come by and hope not to have disappointed. Let me emphasize a key passage from p.14:
[T]he way in which a friendship can end when the parties drift apart [does not involve any] violation of the standards of friendship, and this is what differentiates [it] from the kind of impairment I am concerned with. Impairment of that kind occurs when one party, while standing in the relevant relation to another person, holds attitudes toward that person that are ruled out by the standards of that relationship, thus making it appropriate for the other party to have attitudes other than those that the relationship usually involves.

The answer to Tristram's objection, then, is that disrespect is a violation of the internal standards of friendship, whereas low self-esteem is not. The latter is still a flaw, to be sure, and one that may have the effect of impairing your relationship in some sense, but only in an 'external' or instrumental kind of way. It is not intrinsically antithetical to the norms of friendship in the way that disrespect is. This difference explains why the one flaw, but not the other, warrants the friend's blame. Both, though, may be disappointments.


  1. Richard:

    this seems promising. In the case i was imagining, where one comes to realize that one's friend is a total drag due to his low self-esteem, and downgrades the relationship as rapidly as is seemly, I think it is a bit funny to describe this as 'drifting apart' (for one thing, the phenomenon I have in mind could be completely one sided, with LSE wondering: why does Electra never call anymore?).

    Things are still complicated, though, because of the funny moral status of friendship. So, suppose that Cain and Antigone become friends, but at some point Antigone realizes that that Cain is really evil, despicable, etc. (she takes loyalty to one's siblings appropriately seriously; maybe more than appropriately) I'm going to go out on a limb and say that taking someone to be despicable, beneath contempt, is an attitude 'ruled out by the standards of' friendship. But it would be crazy to say that Cain could legitimately blame Antigone for having these attitudes, because they are just an accurate assessment of his character.

    One might be tempted to say that Cain's attitudes already legitimate downgrading the friendship, but this threatens to overmoralize friendship: surely two mafiosi could be really excellent friends, however they treat other people.

    Michael was suggesting that maybe we need to relativize blame to a ground relationship, so there could be all kinds of wicked relationships where, say, petting kittens was grounds for blame.

    That's all thats in the fuzzy head at the moment.

  2. In general I find that the simple heuristic "down-grade" the priority of your category "blame" in generating emotions works pretty well for most humans.
    People are rarely harmed by blaming too little, and often by blaming too much. For the deontologically inclined (even non-deontologists with that inclination) blame tends to be crippling.

  3. So, to dumb it down:

    blameworthy =merits=> blame
    =equivalent to=>disappointment

    Where to blame is to revise a relationship and to be disappointed is to feel some way about the relationship, no matter the action taken.

    Is that the gist?

  4. Jared - close, but there's a further restriction in that to blame is to revise a relationship in response to a violation of the internal norms of the relationship. We may also choose to revise relationships in response to 'external' disappointments (e.g. changing interests), but that wouldn't properly count as blame.

    Michael - watch out for my next post!

    Tristram - right, LSE isn't literally describable as 'drifting apart' (that was poor sentence construction on my part; I was thinking of it as still falling under the "more like a case of..." operator). But it does seem normatively analogous to that sort of situation.

    I like your Cain and Antigone case, though. It'll be interesting to hear what Scanlon makes of it next week!

  5. So some one could think he blamed another person for something that was not 'blameworthy' and you could tell him "you don't actually blame him because its not blameworthy"? Or "you don't blame him because he isn't the prime actor"?

    And if we are to revise blame should we feel obliged to revise “praise”? ie to say that to praise someone is to (positively) revise one's relationship with that person due to judging that they are praiseworthy, i.e. that "there is something about the person that improves one's relationship with him or her"
    Otherwise it seems a bit like we have revised the definition of left but not right. Should there be rules about such things?

    Anyway if the revised definition is the case then that seems to define gratefulness and blame together (because they are more oriented towards the person) but not disappointment (which seems oriented towards the actor) and praise (which is action oriented - rather like what blame used to mean).

  6. I'm not sure that blame is tied to personal relationships. If someone kicks a stray cat in the face, that looks blameworthy. I suspect I would even go so far as to blame that person. So, contra Scanlon, the praise-blame opposition still looks pretty good. Neither one is tied to personal relationships.

    Gratitude, on the other hand, is (let's assume) tied to personal relationships. So what's the opposite of gratitude? And what might be the thing that Scanlon is talking about when he uses the term 'blame'? The traditional answer still seems right to me: resentment.

    But I'm not even sure if gratitude and resentment are tied to personal relationships. Random benefits from strangers will tend to elicit gratitude, just as random face-kickings from strangers will tend to elicit resentment. I'm not sure if any of our terms will have the 'tied to personal relationships' feature Scanlon's talking about.

  7. Dog Pipes - I should clarify that Scanlon does not mean to limit his account to intimate personal relationships. Friendship is just one example. As you say, we can also blame people we don't personally know. But Scanlon points out that there is a baseline "relationship" that holds between all moral agents, governing their mutual expectations (and what they owe to each other) simply in virtue of their status as fellow rational beings.

    At a minimum, this involves not causing gratuitous harm to them. And, more positively, it may involve being disposed to help them out when one is able, or at least to wish them well. However, when someone displays immorality, we may blame them by revising our conception of our moral relationship accordingly. That is, we may no longer be disposed to help them or wish them well, etc.

  8. Richard: Not having read Scanlon in four years, I should have hesitated before joining in! But if that's the sort of relationship at stake, then why does Scanlon say praise isn't the opposite of blame? It's by taking the relationship at stake to be an intimate one that I understood his rejection of the praise-blame opposition.

    But I can just look it up on my own.

  9. I think the idea is that praise is simply an expression of one's evaluative judgment, so the negative correlate would be mere censure or disapproval -- a kind of "pointless grading". If that's all blame is, Scanlon suggests, it doesn't seem especially important or worthwhile. But if we understand it as also involving a revision of our attitudes and dispositions etc. -- of how we relate to the other person -- then this adds a bit more substance to the practice.


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