Rachel Achs, "Blame and Conventional Meaning"

‘For the Record’ is a feature where our Fellows-in-Residence and Graduate Fellows have a chance to present their research ideas informally, reflect on their experience at the Center, or report on Center events.

This month's For the Record comes from Graduate Fellow Rachel Achs, PhD candidate in Philosophy. Her primary research is in ethics and moral psychology, although she has also long maintained an interest in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant on a breadth of topics ranging from metaphysics to aesthetics.

Blame and Conventional Meaning
Rachel Achs 

Many theoretical questions seem especially pressing in the context of the unfolding #MeToo movement. Those most related to my own work in moral philosophy are about blame and its warrant: What makes it appropriate to blame people for their mistakes, particularly when blaming involves an attempt or desire to retaliate against an offender by harming that person? And what sorts of penalties are appropriately matched to what sorts of violations? 

One thing that makes it difficult to theorize about blame is that it’s not a particularly unified concept. There are diverse ways of blaming – frustrated yelling, cold silence, public “calling out,” private resentment, punitive sanctions – and philosophers have disagreed over what, if any, essential ingredients blame has. Some have thought that blame consists in a set of judgments about wrongdoing and its consequences; others have thought that blame essentially includes a physiological emotional reaction; and others still, a way of behaving, or a desire that the wrongdoing not have occurred, or a reorientation of one’s relationship with the alleged wrongdoer. In my own view, what unifies the diverse manifestations of blame into a singular phenomenon is actually the blamer’s own conception of what she is doing.  

What makes a particular way of acting or reacting an instance of blame, in my view, is an implicit commitment on the blamer’s part to a target person deserving her present reaction on the bases that (i) that person is a culpable wrongdoer and (ii) the blamer’s reaction is an instance of the type of reaction that we (her community) take to be the appropriate way of responding to culpable wrongdoers. A feature of this view is that it allows for wide diversity in what counts as blaming, but doesn’t allow for too much. Any way of behaving can count as blaming insofar as the agent understands it to be deserved for the reasons just mentioned. But not just any way of behaving will count as blaming because, in order to count, the agent has to understand it as the type of behavior that her community takes to be the appropriate way of responding to culpable wrongdoers – which means that which reactions count as blame will be constrained by what agents can rationally regard as similar enough to what the rest of our community counts as blame so as to fall under the same concept. Throwing some person a party won’t count as blaming him on this account, but anything from silent resentment to criminal prosecution may. 

Can thinking about blame in this way help us answer the question of whether (and why) blaming should ever manifest as retaliatory? The question of what, if anything, justifies the harsh treatment of wrongdoers has a long history, both in the case of interpersonal blame, and in the case of state-sanctioned punishment. Some people – retributivists – think that harming wrongdoers is justified because that’s just what wrongdoers deserve: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Others understandably find this thought unsatisfactory. We may want to retaliate against offenders, or even feel strongly that we should. But that harmful behavior feels intuitively appropriate oughtn’t be enough to justify it, since the intuition is probably just a relic of our evolutionary history. The instinct to retaliate against people who have harmed us likely held survival value for our ancestors. So it makes sense that we naturally have such intuitions. But to conclude that survival value makes the retaliatory instinct right is to commit the fallacy of thinking that what is natural is therefore morally acceptable.  

If harming wrongdoers is really justified, many philosophers have argued, something valuable has got to be achieved in the doing. A classical Utilitarian approach identifies this value as deterrence of future wrongdoing. It is appropriate for blame to manifest in harm to an offender, because harming offenders is to society’s overall benefit: it prevents them and others from committing similar violations in the future. But this Utilitarian argument has gone out of fashion, because it is subject to a number of criticisms, including the worry that it justifies too much. If merely deterrent effects could rationalize harming wrongdoers, then harming innocents would be justified in many cases too – since presumably making a public show of punishing the falsely accused is also sufficiently deterrent.  

A more promising view about the value of blaming appeals to blaming’s communicative or expressive function. What blaming does, according to this view, is communicate, both to the wrongdoer himself, and to the community at large, that a wrong has been committed, that the culprit is at fault, and something about the offense’s level of severity. Public expression of such facts is worthwhile for a number of reasons: it may deter future culprits, but it also evinces the community’s commitment to its norms, and displays respect for victims via communal recognition of their injury. As one of Harvey Weinstein’s accusers, Laura Maddie, opined in The New York Times, “it’s important to recognize his criminal behavior” for social change to happen.1 

Whereas this view surely captures a valuable function of blaming it doesn’t obviously explain why blaming should involve imposing harm on an offender. Couldn’t we communicate just as well that a wrong has been committed and that the culprit is at fault without causing that person to suffer? Perhaps there is some contribution that suffering harm can make to a wrongdoer’s moral education. In recent work I’ve been exploring the idea that a limited form of emotional suffering can be conducive to forming a deeper understanding of one’s wrongful behavior. But even if I’m right about this, it wouldn’t completely vindicate the intuition that wrongdoers deserve to suffer. It wouldn’t, for instance, justify harming offenders when they already understand that they have acted badly and just don’t care. Nor would it show that harming wrongdoers has any necessary role to play in communication to the public at large. Indeed, the view that blame’s value is primarily expressive is often paired with revisionism about our current blaming practices.  

I think, however, that my own understanding of what blame is reveals a second, more roundabout path via which blame’s expressive function can justify hard treatment – one that it’s important not to overlook in reflecting on contemporary political discourse. Remember that in my view, a way of acting or reacting only counts as blame at all if its agent understands it to instantiate the type of response to culpable wrongdoing that our community takes to be appropriate. Blamers, that is, understand themselves as enacting a norm, where this norm is conventional. This view suggests an alternative story about how blame serves its communicative function. It isn’t (or isn’t only) that particular behaviors, such as shouting or harming, just naturally elicit the understanding that a culpable wrongdoing has occurred. Rather, exhibiting blaming behaviors towards a person communicates that he is blameworthy by enacting our conventional response to culpable wrongdoing – by being the sort of behavior that is taken to be the appropriate response to wrongdoing in our community. There is an analogy here to the communicative power of words. It’s not as if the sound “orange” naturally signifies a certain fruit. Rather, in English speaking communities, the convention is that it is correct to call oranges “oranges,” and so when a person speaks of an “orange,” we know what he talks about because he enacts this convention. (Of course, in the case of blame, there is also an evolutionary and cultural story to be told about how many of the particular ways in which blame manifests came to be the conventional responses to wrongdoing. Nonetheless, such responses hold communicative power, in part, simply because they are the conventional responses to wrongdoing.)  

My suggestion, then, is that although there isn’t some natural or supernatural affinity between wrongdoers and harsh treatment, such that wrongdoers necessarily deserve retaliation, in fact there is a sense in which they deserve it nonetheless, which explains why the retributivist intuition is difficult to overcome. Wrongdoers deserve harsh treatment because harsh treatment is the conventional way of responding to wrongdoing in our community, especially to grievous wrongdoing. Thus, anything less fails to communicate the occurrence of a wrong (or its severity) as successfully. That this is so can be brought out by reflecting on a legitimate complaint that the victims of an offense can have if it is not punished in accordance with conventional dictates. The victim can complain that the wrongdoing has not been recognized: that either the occurrence of the wrongdoing, or its level of severity has not been properly communicated, because it received different treatment than wrongs at that level of severity call for in our community. What’s more, it is no good to respond that we do recognize the wrongdoing (or its severity) but are just trying to revise our conventions. For the victim still has a legitimate complaint. What we intend to communicate makes no difference to what we have communicated, for the convention for responding to grievous wrongdoing is not merely to (say) force a workplace leave of absence, but rather to (say) send the perpetrator to jail.  

This explains why Roxanne Gay received the news of planned #MeToo comebacks, including Louis C.K.’s return to the stage, with such distaste: “I have to believe there is a path to redemption for people who have done wrong,” she wrote, “but nine months of self-imposed exile in financial comfort is not a point along that path.”2 Indeed, a similar criticism greeted the sentencing of Bill Cosby, one of the very few men accused in the #MeToo movement who has faced criminal prosecution. “The average sentence length for sex offenders is 11 years, and depending on the severity of the case – up to a lifetime,” wrote Ana Altcheck in The Pitt News, “But Cosby received only a maximum of 10 years…it’s a slap in the face to the 60 women he violated in the most gruesome manner.”3 A less severe response communicates a less severe wrongdoing, because the conventional response to severe wrongdoing is severe response, and this is the convention the community knows. To try and communicate the same wrongdoing with a new convention can be like suddenly deciding to use the word “apples” to refer to oranges. We might intend to be talking about oranges, but our attempt at communication will fail. 

Does this mean that I think that anything less that retaliation will always fail to recognize the severity of a wrong? No, I don’t think this at all; our expressive conventions can change. But I do think that changing a convention necessarily attenuates that convention’s communicative power as it takes time for knowledge of the change to spread. And in the case of blame and wrongdoing this fact presents a difficult challenge, because it is important for treating victims with respect that wrongs against them be publicly recognized. Changing conventions will thus necessarily come at some loss of justice for the victim of a wrongdoing. This doesn’t mean that some conventions shouldn’t change – especially if they are retrograde, unworkable, perpetuate further injustice, or are simply patently absurd (as, incidentally, I think they are in much contemporary criminal justice). Rather, I think that when there are reasons for a convention to change we should remain mindful that they must be weighed directly against the importance of public recognition. (Of course it is not the case that public recognition should always win out against the opportunity to cease an inhumane practice.) 

Keeping in mind this picture of how blame performs its expressive function can also teach us that some strategies for revising our responses to wrongdoing may be better than others. For instance, it is easier for communication not to misfire when we explicitly announce that we are attempting to change our conventions. And it is easier for communication not to misfire when the new conventions we choose to adopt don’t already have some other conventional significance. If putting an employee on a temporary leave of absence normally signifies that his offense was not so severe, then it is going to be difficult to communicate that his wrongdoing was grievous by putting him on temporary leave. If it’s important to break from convention, then better to respond to his wrong in a way that doesn’t already have an assigned meaning. If we had good reason to change our word for oranges, “apples” would probably be a poor choice.