Thursday, April 7, 2011

The blame game

Ethical theories can be thought of as ways to tell us who or what to praise and blame. But blaming itself can be a moral issue. That is to say, publicly attributing responsibility for an action sometimes seems to call for moral reflection. There is the question of who to blame, or which acts are blameworthy, and then the further question of whether to make the attribution of blame public. Not to mention other questions of how much blame to attribute and what punishment, if any, should go with the blame.

This Economist blog post rightly says, of Terry Jones' Qur'an burning and the subsequent murders by Afghan mobs, that, "The buck stops in each zealous breast."  That is, Jones is responsible for his irresponsible and offensive actions, and the mobs are responsible for theirs.  Jones is not responsible for the murders just because they would not have happened were it not for his actions.  In some sense he is the cause of these murders (the sense in question is the one I just explained, i.e. that they would not have happened without his action), but this is not, I would argue, to say that he is morally responsible for them. Anscombe uses adultery as an example to make this point, although she leaves the example very undeveloped.  Here is what I think she means.

Imagine a man suspects his wife of having an affair and confronts her about it.  She has done no such thing and refuses to dignify his questions with an answer.  He takes this as a confession and so cheats on his wife to get revenge. The adultery (we can imagine/stipulate) would not have happened if she had responded differently to his accusations (and perhaps also if she had not done whatever it was that made him suspicious in the first place).  So she is part of the causal chain that led to adultery.  But she is not remotely guilty of adultery in this case.  He is.  Being a link in a causal chain is not the same thing as being morally responsible for what comes at the end of that chain. (We might think she should have handled the situation differently, or we might not, but either way this does not affect the question of who is guilty of adultery in this case.) 

The Economist article goes on, though, to say that: "It's imprudent to issue official statements that suggest otherwise—that suggest responsibility rests with those who try to incite and not with those who choose to be incited." This is its criticism of 
General David Petraeus and Mark Sedwill, NATO's senior civilian representative in Afghanistan, [who] issued a joint statement condemning the Florida zealot's zealotry and offering "condolences to the families of all those injured and killed in violence which occurred in the wake of the burning of the Holy Qur'an", omitting to note the agency and responsibility of the zealots actually responsible for the deadly mob violence, almost as if zealots in Florida are expected to control themselves while zealots in Afghanistan are not.  
But here is the statement in question:
In view of the events of recent days, we feel it is important on behalf of ISAF and NATO members in Afghanistan to reiterate our condemnation of any disrespect to the Holy Qur'an and the Muslim faith. We condemn, in particular, the action of an individual in the United States who recently burned the Holy Qur'an.

We also offer condolences to the families of all those injured and killed in violence which occurred in the wake of the burning of the Holy Qur'an.

We further hope the Afghan people understand that the actions of a small number of individuals, who have been extremely disrespectful to the Holy Qur'an, are not representative of any of the countries of the international community who are in Afghanistan to help the Afghan people.
As far as I can see, this is the entire statement.  There is no false blaming of the victims here, no suggestion that the mobs are not responsible for what they have done.  It strikes me as very misleading to talk about what the statement almost suggests by what it omits to note.

Nor does the Economist explain why it is "imprudent" to issue such statements.  Is it because the general understanding of responsibility will be nudged closer to consequentialism as a result?  That seems unlikely.  I suspect the objection is not so much to any imprudence as it is to the unfairness of singling out one bigot who has insulted about 1.5 billion people when bigoted mobs have murdered 24 people in a related set of incidents.  There is a kind of unfairness about this.  Murder is much worse than insulting.  But it is the job of diplomats to be prudent, and any intelligent person reading the statement will realize that prudence is the name of the game here.

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