Sunday, November 16, 2008

Review of In Praise of Blame by George Sher

This review appeared in Philosophy in Review, Volume 27, Number 5, (2007) pages 375-377.

George Sher In Praise of Blame. New York: Oxford University Press 2006. Pp. 160. US$35.00 (cloth ISBN-13: 978-0-19-518742-7).

In this excellent monograph Sher sets out a defense of the practice of blaming people for wrongdoing. He argues that there is a need for such a defense because it has become increasingly common in contemporary society to claim that blaming is counterproductive and even neurotic. While punishment and even retribution continue to receive plenty of philosophical scrutiny, the attitude of blame itself has remained relatively unexamined in the literature.

Sher approaches his topic systematically. The argument is divided into six main chapters. In Chapter 2, Sher argues against the Humean claim that we blame people for bad actions that derive from their bad character, and the associated claim that we blame them because those bad actions derived from their character. Sher’s counterargument considers different cases of people who act in cruel or hurtful ways and whom our moral intuitions would cause us to blame, despite the fact that we would not deem them cruel or hurtful people.

In Chapter 3, Sher examines how the disapproval of a bad action can be extended to the blame of the agent without appeal to the notion of character. He points out that an action is the joint product of the desires, beliefs, and dispositions, and he claims that these items make her who she is. Thus there is a close connection between the person's action and her identity, and so it is conceptually coherent to blame her for her actions. He employs the fact that actions stem from a large network of desires and beliefs, and this makes his claim that they are strongly related to the person’s identity more plausible, although he says very little about when changes to a person’s beliefs, desires and dispositions could be said to lead to a change in the person’s identity.

In his fourth chapter Sher, taking the surprising route that it can be reasonable to blame people for aspects of themselves that they cannot change, argues that it can be morally reasonable to blame people for their character traits. He agrees that we should not blame people for accidents over which they had no control, but if their action proceeded from their bad traits, such as cruelty, then we can blame them. He first shows that claims that people should not be blamed for what they cannot control have not been well defended. He then proceeds to defend his view positively, by pointing out there is such a strong connection between a trait and a person’s identity that to believe a trait is reprehensible comes to the same thing as believing that the person herself is reprehensible, and thus blaming her for her bad trait.

Sher moves on to the nature of blame. In Chapter 5, he begins by addressing some views he believes to be mistaken. First, he shows the flaws in the utilitarian view that to blame someone is to express disapproval for an action or character as a way to change the person’s actions or improve her character. Here the argument proceeds swiftly, because it is possible to blame people without communicating one’s blame. So Sher is able to move to the position that blame is an attitude. But the question is: which attitude? Sher rejects any identification of blame with a simple belief, whether it be that the person acted badly, or that the person has stained her character. He next considers the idea, put forward by Peter Strawson, that blame is fundamentally an affective phenomenon. Sher agrees that emotions are an important common feature of blame, and need to be accounted for. However, he argues that this Strawsonian approach cannot adequately account for the blameworthiness of actions, and cannot adequately distinguish appropriate blame from inappropriate blame. Furthermore, he argues that there can be instances of blame which are not affective at all. It is possible to hold an attitude of blame to someone while experiencing no emotions of anger or hostility whatsoever.

The positive account of the nature of blame comes in Chapter 6. Sher’s theory is simple: blame of someone for an action or a character trait starts from the belief that the action or character trait is bad, and from the corresponding desire that the person had not performed the action or did not have that character trait. In order to make this account plausible, Sher needs to show how this belief-desire combination can give rise to the emotions and dispositions that are so closely linked to blame. A central problem for this account is that since it is impossible to change the past, then when blame includes a wish that an action had not happened, it means wishing for the impossible, which seems to make blame irrational or at least futile. In order to ameliorate this problem, Sher proceeds with a discussion of our reactions to frustrated desires and their links to future-oriented dispositions. He does not pretend to be giving a conceptual analysis of blame, so he does not present necessary and sufficient conditions for when a person has an attitude of blame. However, he does hold that a person with standard psychological dispositions and the appropriate belief-desire pair will go on to have the characteristic emotional reactions that we associate with blame.

The final chapter takes on the question of blameworthiness. Sher argues that to give an account of what it is to be blameworthy, it is not enough just to point out that person has acted badly or has a bad character. He claims that acceptance of a moral principle is conceptually linked to having the desire to blame someone when that person violates the moral principle. Thus, to explain a person’s blameworthiness we must refer to the moral principle as well as the relevant bad action or character.

Sher’s writing style is straightforward and methodical, although his arguments might have been clearer if he had stated his theory at the start and proceeded to justify it, rather than proceeding to his own view through a process of elimination of other positions. The topic of blame is important and Sher’s views are interesting and original. While there is still plenty of room for disagreement with many of his claims, he has made a valuable contribution to the literature.

Christian Perring
Dowling College

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