Enough Blame to Go Around

One common thread in the aftermath of any tragedy is victim blaming: the idea someone facing prejudice, oppression, or crime has a responsibility to reduce the risks they face. The arguments against this are clear. However, a more subtle fallacy is sometimes found alongside victim blaming: the idea that responsibility is zero sum.

It is easy to feel that, if someone is not at fault for a particular event someone else must be. And in the case of violent crime it holds true that if the victim has not provoked the incident the sole blame must lie on the perpetrator. And to therefore place the consequences on the perpetrator.

However, the situation is much less clear where both parties intents are less than the outcome. For example: an eleven-year-old girl as a dare sneaks into woman’s house after dark; the woman comes across the girl unexpectedly in the dark and lashes out in fear; the child falls down a flight of stairs and is killed. It would be an extreme stance to either say the child was responsible for their own death or say the woman was to blame.

The child intended to have a bit of fun; albeit in a less than ethical way.

The woman intended to defend herself against an attacker; if an instinctive response can be said to be intended.

We are all formed of frailty and error; let us pardon reciprocally each other’s folly – that is the first law of nature.

– Voltaire

The only ethical way to judge them is to look at the ethics of how they reacted to the situation as they saw it: a girl sees a game, so only bears blame for a cruel game; the woman sees a threat so bears no blame. Their total blame does not add up to the result.

Someone might argue that the remaining blame still lies somewhere: that the girl’s parents bear blame for not teaching her better; that her friends bear blame for applying peer pressure; that the police/government/&c. are to blame for a society where the woman sees a stranger in her house as a threat.

However, even if some of those are valid apportionments of blame, do any of them equate to a group killing the girl by proxy? The level of blame on any person or group is not such that they bear the consequences of the event, and a death cannot be divided, so the blame cannot ever add up to the result.

While this might seem an intellectual exercise, the theoretical search for a perfect answer, the idea blame is not zero sum is one of the cornerstones of the legal concept of responsibility:

  1. Did the actor believe something?

  2. Would the reasonable person, believing that, have potentially acted that way?

Where a person has acted ethically and legally they bear no blame. Where all persons have acted ethically and legally, the event was a pure accident. But where several persons have acted with greater or lesser ethics and legality, the total blame can be greater or lesser than the consequence.

Therefore, it is too simplistic to say the actor must always bear the excess of consequence above which the other parties deserve.

Do you believe someone is always responsible? Do you believe people are not responsible at all unless they fully intended a consequence?

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