On Blame

Blame. It’s an interesting concept for me. I think it’s worth thinking about. Even if it’s just on a little seen blog for a silly band…

Our society says blame exists. We blame people for things. If we blame people for something deemed serious enough we put them into prison. The purpose of prison is either punishment or rehabilitation (or both), depending on who you ask, on what you may think. In any case it is society’s way of saying “we blame you for this”.

In fact, studies, referenced in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, have shown that people would rather have other people punished for their misdemanours, even ones that didn’t effect them personally, than have personal gain. In fact people would choose to become worse off themselves to ensure other people punished for their crimes.

Blame is important to people.

And so, it would seem, is justice.

But can we ever really truly blame people?

It can be argued that we human beings are a product of two things; nature and nurture. How important each of these things are, I can’t say. But you can’t one without the other.

Imagine nature without nurture. You lock Albert Einstein or Usain Bolt into a dark room as a baby and only clean and feed them. By the time 25 years have passed you do not end up with a 100m world record or a theory of general relativity.

Usain Bolt celebrates the completion o f his Theory of General Relativity

On the other hand, give a child the finest education, all the opportunities, the space it needs, love and support but the child was born with no higher brain function. A general relativity  or world record you do not get.

In fact the scenario of the boy raised in a dark room is a favourite with writers – Paul Auster exploring it in “City of Glass” (eternally damaged man-child), Werner Herzog in “The Enigma of Kasper Hauser”(idiot-savante) and the possibly aprocryphal tlae of the king who locked his child in a tower never hearing a word, assuming he would learn the language of God (dumb child). )
So, say a child is born with a violent nature. They grow up and eventually get into an argument, things escalate and the adult kills someone. They are charged with manslaughter. Can we truly blame this person? It’s in their nature after all. Can we blame someone for their nature, for their genes?Ah, but then they should have learnt to control these impulses.
This is where nurture comes into it. Can we truly blame this person for not being nurtured to quash their impulses, by either their parents, their peers, or society in general? Surely we can’t blame someone for not having been “brought up better”? Or, after not having been “brought up well”, to then not choose better (moral) surroundings, which would have allowed them to learn to quash their impulses, for themselves as an adult?
How often we have heard the phrase “I blame the parents”, even if it’s just in jest? For example, it’s often reported that people who become paedophiles were abused themselves as children. Two recent high profile cases being Pete Townshend of The Who and Chris Langham of The Thick Of It, not that these people ever abused anyone (or are technically paedophiles). what of these people’s victims, who we pity so much as children, when they go on to abuse others themselves, they suddenly become monsters to blame?

So if we blame people’s parents (/their surroundings/their peers) for their misdemeanors, fine. But wait, surely their parents’ parents are to blame for their parents behaviour? And wait, surely their parents’ parents’ parents are to blame for their parents’ parents behaviour? and surely…. and on and on.

I, myself, can see two glaring counter arguments to my argument, water tight and well spelt out as it is.

My argument - visualised

Firstly, we might argue that we can judge and blame someone on their actions, on the quality of their character. That they have to follow society’s norms and moral judgements or else, we can, legitimately, blame them. Case closed. Except it doesn’t quite work like that. Take two rather extreme examples; Nazi Germany and Inquisition era Spain. Follow the expected moral codes there and here and now you would be branded a monster.

That’s the problem, there is no such thing as moral absolutism, a right way to live your life. It becomes up to the individual to decide. Which brings us to the second counter argument, free will.

This is a tricky one. What I’ve written so far could assume people to be mere automatons, following preprogrammed scripts, with their nature as hardware and their nurture being the software. No one is an active-agent in their own lives, seems like bullshit doesn’t it?

It’s a tricky one. I would argue that on the micro level, sure we all make our own decisions, we’re masters of own destiny. I myself have made the decision to write this article, for good or for ill. No one forced me to. I can be blamed for it. But I got to the point of writing this article because of

a) my nature: I’m introspective – I consider these things too much; I’m extroverted -I need people to hear my thoughtsand

b) my nurture: my background up to this point has lead me to be able to, and want to, have quasi-cod-philosphical thoughts about the nature of blame.

Going back to the “blame the parents to infinity”  scenario, we can take out “parentage” all the way back to before we human, before we were bacteria, before there was life, right back to the big bang. It could be argued that all of this was set in motion from that moment, like a supremely complex Rube Goldberg Machine (think Tom and Jerry’s  complicated follow-on mousetraps).

But then some people think Quantum Uncertainty means nothing can truly be predicted, thus free will does exist in the universe.

Either way, I say we’re a product of nature and nurture. Neither of which are our “fault”.

So to begin at the beginning again, there’s always a need to blame, people often feel wronged. Honestly, can you never think of  a sitaution where you’ve been wronged and you blame the perpetrator?  But those of an inquisitive bent will look for reasons as to why these injust things have  been done to them. Leading back to people’s natures, people’s nurtures.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t punish and we shouldn’t try to rehabilitate  but the notion of blame is a tricky one. Both on the macro (murder) or micro (shittiness in relationships) scale….


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