Fault and Blame

We seem to think of fault and blame as a sort of pie that needs to be divided among actors. This seems like the wrong approach.

This page is a stub, created on 2021-10-07. Its contents are notes on the issues and angles I want to address about this topic.


The fundamental issue is that the primary lens through which we tend to look at this issue is that there's some occurrence or event or damage, and then we try to say who had what contribution to it and apportion blame accordingly. This is problematic because the thing for which an individual is responsible for is their own actions. The thing we ought to be blaming someone for is their bad choices. And the fact that another person also made some bad choices that contributed to some bad outcome does not detract from the blame we assign to the first.

A good example is something that comes up in the context of some rape cases. Let's use the construction that often leads to accusations of "victim-blaming":

A woman is dressed "provocatively" and is walking down a dark, dangerous alley. Some lowlife rapes her.

The typical attitude is that if we question the woman's choices, then we're offering an excuse for the rapist or we're not assigning him "as much" blame as he deserves.

I think this is fundamentally wrong.

The rapist is 100% responsible for his crime and should be punished accordingly.

The woman is also 100% responsible for her actions, including her choice to dress in a certain way and walk down a particular alley. If she knew (or should have known of) the risks, she bears culpability for her choices and their contribution to the rape. (Would it be nice if we lived in a world where people weren't victimized for how they dressed or where they walked? Sure, but fantasy land is not where we live and not the context in which we judge the prudence and wisdom of people's actions.)

Recognizing that she made bad choices does not detract from or excuse the crime of the rapist.

In this case, yes, the victim is to blame, but the victim didn't commit a crime, however foolish the behavior was. The rapist is also to blame, and one thing has nothing to do with another. The rapist has committed a crime.

And so in a trial, the defense can knock themselves out trying to blame the victim for how she dressed, where she was walking, how provocatively she was behaving, what a slutty reputation she has, how intoxicated she was, or whatever else. None of those things is a crime, and even if they were, they would have nothing to do with the rapist's culpability for his own actions.

Fault for some outcome is not some reified quantity that needs to be apportioned among the contributors to that outcome. In some cases, such an analysis may be relevant (eg, in calculating monetary damages), and then we may need to perform some kind of calculus as to the causal contribution of people's actions to the result, but even in those cases, we could only do so among those actors who violated rights, not those actors who were rights-respecting assholes.

It gets more tricky in situations with multiple actors who acted immorally, but none of whom violated any rights. In such a case, if we are looking for a way to assign responsibility for rectifying the bad result, we do find ourselves in a pie-dividing scenario.

The point is not that dividing a pie is never the right approach in assigning fault or rectifying a wrong, but it cannot be the primary lens.

I need to think about this more, but it seems to me that the only time that kind of apportioning is warranted is when we are attempting to figure out, of all those who acted badly in a way that led to a bad outcome, who is responsible for how much of making things right.