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The Arbitrariness of Blame (Part 2 of 3)

Finally, criticizing others is nothing short of gratuitous.

Is Blaming Warranted--Ever?

Tout comprendre, c'est tout pardonner.

("To understand everything is to forgive everything." --French expression)

Tout comprendre, c'est tout pardonner.

Going beyond pragmatic objections to blaming (i.e., it really isn't very effective), I'd argue that the entire concept of blame and blaming is suspect because, from a purely scientific viewpoint, no one is ultimately blameworthy. Being "worthy" of blame assumes that individuals have full control over their behaviors--and this assumption is one that I believe needs to be questioned. If my position here seems extreme (if not downright wrong-headed), let me explain the reasons behind my personal--and professional--biases.

If you believe in basic tenets of causality--i.e., that essentially the world can be understood in terms of cause and effect (including that there can be many causes for one effect, and a single cause for multiple effects)--then human behavior itself can be seen as dictated, or compelled, by such principles. In which case it's difficult to justify how anyone, personally, is to blame for their mistakes or wrongdoings. This isn't to say that we don't need to hold individuals responsible for their behaviors, for I certainly don't wish to advocate a position of moral nihilism. If only by default, people need to be held accountable for their actions. After all, who else, finally, could "own" them? Still, for us to accept responsibility for our deeds (or mis-deeds) isn't the same as asserting that we're actually to blame for them-that, as free agents, we could have acted independent of all the internal and external forces that have "driven" us to who, what, and where we are today.

If we're to approach the matter objectively, how then are we to grasp an individual's actions-their underlying non-volitional causes or motivations? What's key is that we focus on the essence of behavior, which scientists would postulate is a manifestation, or expression, of (1) our biological endowment (the genes--the DNA--"bequeathed" to us by our parents) and (2) the circumstances of our environment (both our family, as well as our broader social surroundings)-which constitute the context for all our experience.

It could be argued--and, in fact, is frequently argued--that each and every one of our behaviors is best understood in terms of these two basic sets of contingencies (neither of which is self-determined). And I'd add that fully apprehending our "existential blueprint"--which, doubtless, you never got to vote on--must also include our nine highly influential months in utero. Many writers have convincingly made the case that, as the author, Annie Murphy Paul, recently summed it up: "The kind and quantity of nutrition you received in the womb; the pollutants, drugs and infections you were exposed to during gestation; your mother's health, stress level and state of mind while she was pregnant with you--all these factors shaped you as a baby and a child and continue to affect you to this day." (See "How the First Nine Months Shape the Rest of Your Life.")

You might ask: "What about an individual's moral character . . . or value system . . . or will . . . or spiritual beliefs? Don't they (and who knows what else?) define us--non-deterministically--as at choice, and therefore warranting praise or blame for our various actions?" But any quality, any trait, you might come up with is still logically comprehensible through examining the various linkages between our biology and early biography. And it should be axiomatic that our later biography is controlled by these same forces as well.

Moreover, whether or not we might feel at choice (as do--most of the time, at least--the overwhelming majority of us), what we choose, and how and why we choose it, is still governed by (1) our DNA, (2) our nine months in utero, and (3) all the situations and events we've subsequently been exposed to (or, you could say, "chose"--but then only as an inevitable result of our inborn propensities, and experiences that go all the way back to the womb.

Or, to reduce this equation to its fundamental elements, all behaviors can be perceived as an outcome of some combination of nature and nurture. And, from the very beginning, the former impacts on--or "shapes"--the latter (i.e., nurture works through nature). So whether what controls behavior comes mostly from within or without, individual volition--as discrete from what's been biologically inherited or environmentally conditioned--is something that humans (alas) have been taking on faith all along.

At any given moment, then, your behavior isn't really freely chosen so much as "arbitrated" by forces existing outside your conscious will. And, as I've already suggested, your will itself can be logically understood as a product of your genes, in utero circumstances, and early programming.

That said, if ultimately you live in a deterministic universe where even your behaviors are decided by dynamics having nothing to do with free will (at least as conventionally defined), are you "at liberty" to change your behavior? I believe that the curiously affirmative answer to this seminal question is--and has to be--steeped in paradox. For yes, you're free to change the way you think and act--but only in ways that are controlled, constrained, or circumscribed, by some mixture of non-chosen characteristics of mind formulated earlier by both chemistry and conditioning. It could even be said that the less rigid the structures of your mind, or the less firmly entrenched your dysfunctional inner programming, the more likely major personal change will be possible for you . . . and, unfortunately, vice versa.

Given this highly qualified perspective on free will, it should be fairly obvious that it's a "reach"--or, as I prefer to put it, arbitrary--to blame others for behavior that they're more controlled by than in control of. To state it a bit differently, though their behavior may appear to be under their control, such control is mostly illusory. For their behavior, if all the variables determining it could be known in advance, would be entirely predictable.

NOTE: Part 1 explored why blaming others, however tempting, is both unproductive and detrimental to relationships, while this present part has examined why blaming others is ultimately gratuitous. Part 3 will discuss the importance of replacing such behaviors with more effective, and compassionate, ones--as well as what will help you effect such a transformational shift.

---I invite readers to follow my (frequently unorthodox) ponderings on Twitter.