on February 15, 2011
This account of blame deserves some praise. It offers a unique account of blame, both what it is and why it is important for morality. Sher argues that the traditional theories associated with the justification of blaming someone from both a Humean account and a consequentialist account (among some other accounts as well) are flawed.
The Humean account sees the justification of blaming someone for an action only if the agent's action stems from a persistent character flaw (vice). There are obvious attractive qualities of this theory as it explains why we should attribute blame (and probably relatedly of punishment and scorn, etc or other potentially harmful counter measures) to the agent himself. Since the action performed is momentary while the agent is more temporally persistent, it was a philosophical puzzle why we should attribute blame to an agent after his actions have been completed. Since we blame agents and not merely their actions, the Humean account explains why the locus is the agent for it is the agent that has the character traits which causally led to the action. But there are also obvious devastating criticisms of this view because it seems to suggest that if the locus of blame is on these persistent character traits, it is justified to blame people who have these traits even if they do not perform a blameworthy action (maybe because the person never had the opportunity to perform them). On the other hand, it seems to also suggest that we cannot blame those who caused something bad "out of character."
Other accounts see blame such as "future oriented" accounts never are really directed at the person. It is directed at the badness of the action while holding that blame or other potentially harmful counter measures can only be directed at agents if it will effectively curb the likelihood of future recidivism. The locus for blame here is derivatively targeted towards an agent that performed it only when the agent can be changed for the better (so that he or others will not perform similar actions in the future) by blaming. The consequentialist account focuses on the outcomes of actions and how to change them, etc instead of agents per se but there are also deep philosophical problems with this account too as Sher argues. Sher's criticisms of these theories as they were traditionally understood are wholly convincing.
Sher then offers a "bridge" account which seeks to connect the blameworthy actions with the agent and to formulate a theory of blame which has the locus of blame targeted at this "bridge". He does this by analyzing all the mental causal factors which contributes to a blameworthy action and shows that a host of motivations, beliefs, desires of the agent is responsible for its performance. Motives, beliefs and desires can truly be said to be part of an agent but they are also the immediate causes of blameworthy actions. Attributions of blame do target these aspects of the agent but does so in a way that does not attribute blame to him when he has not performed a blameworthy action. This is an "intermediate" position from the previous accounts and this, Sher argues, is its strength for it has many of the strengths of both accounts but lacks many of their respective weaknesses. I think that Sher's position is not that satisfying as it seems to me that it is susceptible to many of the objection facing the full-fledged Humean account.
What is even more interesting in this book is Sher's account of just what blame is. He argues that the traditional definitions of blame from Jack Smart, Jay Wallace among others are deficient in one way or another. Sher's definition of blame is that it is a belief-desire pair. The belief part is a belief that some person has violated a moral norm or has some vice while the desire portion is a desire that he had not done so or that he did not have this vice. When both portion of the belief-desire pair has been satisfied, the dissatisfaction of the desire part normally causes the blamer to have a host of familiar affective and behavioral dispositions (such as to get angry, reproach, punish, etc at the blamee). Sher says he is not committed to the question of whether these dispositions are an analytical part of blame to be included with the belief-desire combo but argues that it would indeed be odd for persons to react to the satisfaction of the belief-desire pair while not having the dispositions to react in the familiar ways.
There is something very attractive about this definition. However, I also think it is vulnerable to counter examples. Consider if someone punches you because you wore a blue hat and the puncher hates blue hats because of his fashion sensibilities. That is clearly a blameworthy action on behalf of the self-appointed fashion enforcer. You believe he has violated a moral norm (and clearly you would be correct in so believing). But let's say that someone, then a stranger on the street, sees this morally blameworthy act against you and she is your one and only true love who then rushes to your aid. You then fall madly in love with her, and she with you, perhaps induced by the sympathy from seeing the injustice you experienced, and the two of you live happily ever after. Thus it would seem that you can still blame the agent who punched you but still *not* desire that he had not done so because had he not done so, your one and only true love would not have come to your aid and the rest would *not* have been history. However, Sher can probably find ways to patch this up by tweaking his definition.
I am undecided between Sher's definition of blame and Wallace's but there is something very right about Sher's account which it captures that Wallace or the other accounts Sher criticizes does not. It just has the right feel of being the correct account of what we experience when we blame because it takes into account the affective and behavioral dispositions which are activated by the frustration of a desire (for someone to have done or to refrain from doing something).
Sher also argues why blame is vital for morality. In other words, he thinks that we can't have anything remotely like a morality without the existence of blame playing in crucial role within that moral system and he shows that many of the blame abolitionist theories are incorrect.
Overall I found the book well argued though I think there were portions that were seemingly a little sloppily argued. It was also very insightful and covers a lot of ground in the literature associated with blame. It is a very "complete" theory of blame.