Blaming Past Generations

According to Bernard Williams, what is true about relativism is that the more distant cultures are historically and culturally, the less willing we are to make moral appraisals that concern them. We don’t think that their ethical views are incorrect, and we won’t adopt reactive attitudes of praise and blame towards the representatives of these cultures – no matter how well or badly they behave. Yet, we do make moral appraisals of cultures that are closer to us in the history, and we blame their people for their evil deeds. 

There is then a challenge of giving an account of moral appraisals (I’ll focus on blame) that carves up the joints of history at the intuitive places. Here I’ll focus on three accounts: Williams’s, Miranda Fricker’s, and Tim Scanlon’s. I’ll then develop my own proposal on the basis of Scanlon’s view. 


1. Williams himself began from confrontations between moral systems. Such confrontations happen when the systems come to different practical conclusions about some acts. He then made a distinction between ‘real’ and ‘notational’ confrontations. There are two conditions for being a real confrontation. First, another system of beliefs is in a real confrontation with ours if we could, as a community, adopt the beliefs of that system. Second, we should also be able to make rational comparisons between our system and the other system we could adopt. 

Williams thought that this explains why we do not blame Greek Bronze Age chiefs or mediaeval Samurais. Their ways of lives are not in real confrontation with ours because we have no way of living them (and thus the first condition is not satisfied). However, Miranda Fricker convincingly argues that the first condition is too demanding. As a community, we could not today really live the Victorian system either but we can still blame the Victorians for many things (their sexist and racist attitudes for instance). So, it cannot be required for the appropriateness of blame that a past culture is in a real confrontation with our moral system in Williams’s sense.

2. Fricker’s own solution is more appealing. She suggests that one cannot be blamed for failing to do something if one is not in a position to access the reason to do it. The idea is that accessing moral reasons depends on one’s conceptual resources. These resources are provided by the standard, routine moral thought of the ethical culture in which one lives. Fricker then claims that one cannot be blamed for behavior which is a product of thinking that is routine in one’s culture. Of course, there are people who do exceptional moral thinking and thus rise above the culture’s moral failures, and one could in principle at any given time do such a move. Yet, if some individual failed to do so in the past, we can only be disappointed in him or her, but blame would be out of order. So, the routine moral thinking of a given culture gives a criterion for when blame is appropriate.

My problem with this is that, if I think of the cultures in the distant past, many moral reasons would have been accessible in routine deliberation for them, and yet I don’t think that blame is appropriate in the relevant cases. The histories of ancient civilizations are full of stories of murder, destruction, rape, torture, slavery, and so on (consider even Williams’s examples). My sense is that we don’t blame the agents who took part in these wrongdoings. Now, could the responsible agents have been able to come to the conclusion that these things should not be done by routine moral reflection? This may be a bit naïve, but I believe they could have. First, not everyone at the time thought that these were the right things to do. Presumably the victims didn’t for one. Second, everyone should have been able to think that there are moral reasons not to act in these ways – merely in virtue of being able to put oneself to the other person’s shoes. It’s not such an exceptional leap to think that causing unnecessary unbearable suffering to another human being is wrong. Yet it still doesn’t seem that we blame the people who lived in these cultures for their wrongdoing.

3. You might think that Scanlon’s account is especially bad for understanding blame towards the past. On Scanlon’s view, you start from the presumption that people mutually recognize each other as fellow rational beings. Such recognition enables one to see the other person as a source of reasons, as someone to whom one should be able to justify one’s actions. Likewise, one begins to expect similar constrained behavior from the other person. Now, if the other person acts wrongly, this can be seen as expressing certain demeaning attitudes that are incompatible with the ideal of mutual recognition. This changes the way in which one sees one’s relationship with the other person. In fact, for Scanlon, to blame the other person just is to modify one’s relationship to a more distant one, to be less willing to interact, and so on. 

This doesn’t seem to work well for the past. Scanlon begins from symmetric relations of interaction. Blame then is to remove oneself from such a relationship. But, we cannot relate to the past people in relevant way in the first place. There’s a paragraph in which Scanlon recognizes this. He says that the ‘content’ of blame changes when we think of people in the past. He writes: “As our distance from a person increases, blame becomes simply a negative evaluation, or attitude of disapproval, and even this evaluative element can seem pointless grading unless we have some particular reason to be concerned with what the person in question was like.”

I think this is wrong. It’s true that we may disapprove the people murdering and raping in the very distant past. But, we should not call this blame with different content. Mere disapproval is never enough for blame. Furthermore, the initial intuition was that we don’t blame people in the very distant past. But, if mere disapproval can count as blame, then it’s not clear why we shouldn’t disapprove everyone in the past alike, no matter how distant they are.

I think Scanlon should stick to the original account of blame and use it to explain our intuitions about the past. There’s a spectrum of relationships we have towards past cultures. At the other end, we have the past cultures that are mainly presented as curiosities in historically orientated museums. Towards them, we take a more ‘scientific’ attitude similar to the one we would to alien species. In contrast, other cultures closer to us in time are alive to us in a different way. Their art is also shown in the art galleries, and their philosophical texts are not only studied as history of ideas but also as philosophy which speaks to the problems we still struggle with. Their literature is not only seen to tell us about their times but also teach us things relevant to our lives. And, of course, there are many cultures that are located between these ends.

Now, assume that we are thinking of blaming people in past cultures as distancing ourselves from them. With the first kind of cultures, we start from a situation in which we could not do so. We have already placed those cultures in the formaldehyde of museums. Yet, at least with the cultures at the other end of the scale, the move to distance ourselves from them is always available. Instead of interacting intellectually with the given culture, we can always distance ourselves from them if we find out that their attitudes express contempt towards other human beings who are like us in most respects. This is why blame is available and appropriate for wrongdoing. The wrongdoers reasons for wrongdoing may express attitudes that were common in the culture and which make us distance ourselves from it.

So, if we think of blaming as severing our relationships to others (be they individuals or cultures), we can explain why blame towards distant past is inappropriate. We need to start from a relationship from which we can distance ourselves in the first place, and in the more distant past cases this precondition just isn’t satisfied. 

11 Replies to “Blaming Past Generations

  1. Jussi,
    A few comments, not all that well thought out, especially since I find blame and blaming somewhat mysterious at times.
    (1) Scanlon really has a two-attitude account of blame and blaming. So that suggests to me some extra complication in the account.
    To believe someone blameworthy is (very roughly — I read the book a while ago) to believe that someone has acted in such a way as to justify blaming them. And that is to believe that they have acted in such a way as would justify you as changing your relationship to them in a way that damages the relationship based on that recognition. That’s the first attitude, believing blameworthy.
    The second attitude is that of blaming them. That is to allow the action that you believe to be blameworthy actually to damage the relationship. So this second attitude involves the first but goes beyond it. And you can have the belief without going on to blame a person.
    It seems like he could get some mileage out of this. You might think (contra Williams) that it is easy enough to think that the pretty morally messed up ancient Greeks were blameworthy for doing various things. You could even bring in Fricker’s thought as you explain it, that people need to have a certain conceptual resources to grasp alternatives and so on to be blameworthy. We could then believe the old dead folks blameworthy for certain sorts of actions, without going on to believe them blameworthy for things they were not in a position to grasp the wrongness of.
    But you could have even more variation in the second attitude, the attitude of blaming them. Given differences in the kinds of relationships we can have with long dead people we might think it is harder for judgements of blameworthiness to effect the sorts of relationships we have with the long dead, than for similar judgements to effect our relationships with the living. If that were right we’d still have something like your proposal for the blaming but not for the attitude of believing blameworthy.
    (2) I don’t actually have the intuition that Williams thinks we all have. I find it easy enough to believe distant people blameworthy, at least where they meet something like the conditions that Fricker’s account would give you. (There’s a little bit in my paper that we discussed on the other thread that fits with that way of thinking.) I find it rather easy to blame distant people for stuff that I take them to have been in a position to recognize as wrong. So I think I don’t have the intuitions you use against Fricker. Still, partly because I think you can work the Fricker idea into a Scanlon-type account, I don’t think that this is a problem for the Scanlon-style story.
    (3) I haven”t read the Fricker. Where can we find it?

  2. Thanks Mark for reminding of the importance of the blameworthy/blaming distinction. I actually agree with you that you can have a view that combines both Fricker and Scanlon. I just think that most of the moral reasons have always been accessible so the Fricker condition has almost always been satisfied for most basic types of wrongdoing.
    Note though that there’s two ways to read the blameworthiness condition. You could either say (i) that someone is judged to be blameworthy if she is judged to have acted in way as would justify changing the relationship if one had happened to be in one, or (ii) that some is judged to be blameworthy if she is judged to have acted in a way as would justify changing the relationship one happens to be in.
    On (i), blameworthiness extend backwards all the way back to the history (within the limits of the Fricker criterion). In contrast, on (ii) blameworthiness too extends to only as far as our more richer relations to historical cultures on the model I suggested. I think I prefer (ii) of these blameworthiness proposals – at least it would bring it closer to blaming.
    I agree with you. My own intuitions are not quite as clear cut either. I’m blaming loads of people in the past… But, my point against Fricker was more ad hominem here. She seems to share Williams’s intuitions but I worry that her view extends far beyond those intuitions.
    You can find the Fricker account from chapter 4 of her recent book Epistemic Injustice and her paper ‘The Relativism of Blame and Williams’ Relativism of Distance’ which is in this year’s Supplementary volume of the Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society. That volume also has a brilliant response to her by Michael Brady.

  3. Thanks Jussi,
    I think that we’re in agreement on the options then. And I see the two readings of the blameworthiness condition. I have a tendency to prefer (ii) but I find blame a hard topic so I don’t have firm views.
    BTW, after feeling like the first couple of the Scanlon chapters were frustrating, I found that last chapter worth the price of admission.
    The Fricker seems worth running down from what you say here. I heard Michael Brady give a version of his response to it at a conference in San Antonio and I remember it being a good paper as well.

  4. Jussi: Interesting stuff. For me to assess what you say, though, I’d like to hear more about your account of the nature of the blame. Does it involve reactive emotions (e.g., resentment/indignation), is it merely about the alteration of relationships, or is it primarily just about judgments of wrongness? I think blaming those in the past makes sense only on the very last understanding of blame, but then I don’t think that’s what blame even consists in. On this point, I’m in agreement with Scanlon.
    As Scanlon says in the passage you reference (p. 146), “[T]he idea that we ourselves blame [the person who lived long ago] for what he did can sound somewhat odd.” He then goes on to say that blaming such an agent becomes, as you’ve noted, simply a negative evaluation. But that’s not at all to say, as you suggest, that he’s saying blame can just consist in negative evaluation; rather, it’s to say that, the further away some agent is to us, blaming can only tranform into negative evaluation.
    This is because of Scanlon’s relationship-based view of blame, and because he believes that we essentially can’t be in the relevant moral relationship with someone from the distant past. As a result, what some past agent did can “have no significance for or effect on our lives,” so the most we can really do is judge the person blameworthy, where this is really of “vicarious significance,” a “judgment about how it would have been appropriate for those closer to the agent to understand their relations with him.”
    Presumably, then, the closer the agent gets to us and our world, the more plausible it might be to say that we could be in a moral relationship with him, although it seems to me that this really makes sense only if he’s still alive and amongst us: we must be capable of interacting with him in order for his actions to be those that have indeed impaired our actual relationship (this is the content of the judgment of blameworthiness, for Scanlon).
    The main point of the stuff on blame is that it is a response to the meaning of people’s actions for our relationships with them, and as such, it does indeed make little sense to say that we blame those who aren’t or couldn’t be in any actual relationships with us. How indeed could we alter our relationships with them in a way their actions render appropriate if we simply cannot in any way interact with them? You say, Jussi, that we can blame them in virtue of distancing ourselves from “it,” i.e., from what they’ve done, but that’s not to say we’ve distanced ourselves from them. What would that involve, precisely, and why would it count as blame? (And so I return to my original question.)

  5. Thanks David. I tried to explain that we should always think of blaming as alteration of a relationship on the basis of judgment of blameworthiness/wrondoing (I’m not sure what’s ‘merely’ about this). So, mere judgment of wrongdoing will not be enough. There might be disapproval and other negative reactive attitudes involved but they are extra, not essential.
    I was thinking of that interpretation too. But, then he does say that the content of blame changes. This sounds more like the idea that one still blames but in a different way rather than the idea that one first blames, then stops, and adopts another attitude. Maybe the text is misleading though. Your interpretation is plausible though as the right view.
    The last three paragraphs are something I wanted to disagree with. I think the past history (to some degree) is much more alive to us. The past actions of past people do affect us, and they are significant. This creates moral relationships to past people. Part of this is that we let the past people and cultures to have a voice in our collective moral discussions through their cultural artefacts and texts. This is an actual relationship we can impair.
    I know you lose an argument when you mention Nazis but I use them as an example here. Many people blame them for the genocide. This isn’t only a judgment that they did wrong and were blameworthy, or only a having of a con attitude towards them. It’s also a matter of distancing oneself from the German culture of the time that is related to the ideology. Their utterances are no longer heard. Admittedly, some people extend this to Heidegger, Nietzsche, Wagner, current Germans, and so on (all of which might be a step too far). In any case, the historical distancing is a matter of distancing ourselves from ‘them’ rather than ‘it’ in a way analogous to blaming current individuals.
    However, in some cases, the baseline in our relationship to the past culture and its representatives is so low that there’s no room for distancing. The representatives of those cultures didn’t have a voice in our collective debates and games of reason-giving in the first place. So, here blame would be impossible in the way that would fit Williams’s intuitions.

  6. Jussi: Thanks. That someone’s actions affect us isn’t sufficient to establish their being in a relationship with us, one that they have impaired. It seems to me (and looks like it seems to Scanlon) that a relationship essentially involves at least the potential for interaction. There is, crucially, a symmetry between the parties on this front. I don’t see how this is possible with those from past generations.
    What this means is that your notion of “distancing yourself” from something doesn’t, to my mind, amount to blame in and of itself (even if accompanied by a judgment of wrongdoing). For one thing, blame is a response (on the Scanlonian story) to an agent. In the Nazi story, you’ve again got us distancing ourselves from non-agents, namely, “the German culture of the time that is related to the ideology.” I don’t know what that means, other than a rejection of an ideology. Second, though, even if we allow that the distancing is really to those past agents, why should we think this would be any different from the way in which we might distance ourselves from long-ago agents? That is to say, I might well find a very old tablet from some lost tribe with vivid descriptions of how the author disciplined his wives through horribly cruel torture. Surely my “distancing” myself from this person would be of precisely the same sort as my distancing myself from the Nazis and their advocates, wouldn’t it? That they don’t have art in our museums strikes me as irrelevant. So why would only the latter count as blame? (It seems to me that neither does, for the “interactability” reason mentioned above.)

  7. I’ve never been particularly happy with Scanlon’s talk of relationships in his account of blame. It seems to raise certain puzzles.
    Am I in a relationship with the culpable BP employees? I’m pretty sure I blame them – but, intuitively, I’m not in a relationship with them. At least, I don’t think I’m in any more of a relationship with them than with ancient wrongdoers.
    It seems to me (though I may be mistaken) that Jussi is proposing a broadening of the notion of a relationship. We might opt for different language and call it “adopting a stance”. There seems room to incorporate this into the spirit of Scanlon’s view. If there isn’t, it seems to me all the worse for Scanlon’s view, for I think one will be hard-pressed carve out a restrictive notion of relationship that carves things up the right way.
    One might think that there’s a sense in which I could be in a relationship with the BP execs, in a way that such a relationship is not a possibility for me and the ancient wrongdoers. But Scanlon’s view involves blame as a relationship-impairing attitude, which seems to presuppose a relationship. If, instead, one were to say that it impairs the relationship by precluding its very existence, then this would seemingly be applicable to wrongdoers in the past (even if other facts preclude the relationship as well). And it can’t be that blaming BP execs itself constitutes a relationship, because that constitution could go through equally well with past wrongdoers.
    I suppose one might think you just can’t blame what no longer exists. But I think intuitions will be as opposed to this claim as they are for the claim that we don’t blame ancients. I can blame my dad for wrongs even if he’s dead, especially if he’s recently dead. Or at least it seems so to me.
    The plausibility of Scanlon’s view strikes me as hinging on how broadly we can understand the notion of a relationship. Because who we can blame will thereby depend on who we can stand in a relationship to. Because I think we can blame lots of folks, this looks incompatible with a restrictive notion of relationship. If we’re inclined to follow ordinary usage, relationships will require reciprocity, an element missing from me relation to most individuals I think I blame. If we broaden the relevant notion, then perhaps there’ll be no way to deny it holding between me and ancient wrongdoers.

  8. David,
    thanks. Well, first of all, surely there are relationships that are not one of interaction. But, you are right, I’m not saying that interaction is possible with past generations (even if often they were concerned about being able justify their actions to us and we to them). The point though is that so far there’s been no argument for why the relationships that are relevant for blame would have to be interactive ones. If thinking of them in a more extensive way allows us to give an account of blame towards the past, then I don’t see why we shouldn’t try.
    The notion of distancing oneself has to be metaphorical in even the synchronic cases. I agree that we do distance ourselves from agents. But, how do we do this? It’s not merely that we put physical distance – it’s more that we don’t give them a voice. They are not heard given that their attitudes do not respect our dignity as rational agents. I’m assuming that we do this similarly in the diachronic cases. We distance ourselves from the past agents by not giving them a voice, by not letting them speak to us through their ideology.
    The second case is interesting. In that case, I’d like to say that you didn’t have a relationship from which to distance yourself from. That would have required that you already understood the culture and the agents in them, that their way of living was part of your space of reasons, that you saw something admirable at least in some aspects in their culture from which you could draw from. If none of these were present, then I don’t see what the relationship could be from which you could start the blaming. But, there does seem to be a relevant difference here to the starting point from which we start with German culture (which at least for Finland is very much present for instance in the University system).
    You could say that it is similar to the thin moral relationship Scanlon sometimes seems to think we have to all agents in the world right now. This would extend his account too to all cultures and all times. But, this was the notion that Williams wanted to try to resist.
    Matt,
    well, arguably it might be that you were at least in a relationship of potential interaction (you might have also bought petrol from them…). Given that you are blaming them now, you have blocked the avenues of interaction, you don’t take their attempts in justification at face value, you might not buy their products, and so on.
    But, it’s true. If we extend the notion of relationships in the way I suggested, then you might be able to give a more extensive account of synchronic cases too with respect to strangers. I like the idea of a stance you take towards other people. This would be less misleading in comparison to talking about relationships which might mean actual interaction (as David seems to suggest).
    I agree with you also that creating a right kind of an account of the relevant more extended relationship would require a careful balancing-act between the two lemmas as you right point out.

  9. Hi Jussi,
    It looks like we seem to agree for the most part. I’ll just add one small point. If all that’s required for me to be in a relationship with BP employees is that I may have contributed in some way to their bottom line at some point in time, then I’ve lost the grip on the significance of relationships themselves to blaming.
    No doubt our blaming practices are richest amongst those we have developed relationships, and I think Scanlon has surely hit upon something important about blame. But I’m skeptical relationships (in any restricted sense) are going to figure in an analysis of blame.

  10. Jussi: I guess what I’m trying to get at is that if you expand the notion of relationships in the way you’re suggesting, then I lose sight of what it could mean for some past agent to have impaired the relationship in question, rather than, as Matt seems to imply, merely to have rendered a (moral) relationship impossible from the get-go. (BTW, impairment does make sense w/r/t my dead father, insofar as we were in a relationship that he then impaired, and so I can still feel resentment, say, about that, even after he’s gone.)

  11. Jussi,
    I think your idea is useful and on the right track. You can extend it in certain ways, too: I have students who don’t want to lay blame for the actions of people in contemporary cultures, so long as those cultures are sufficiently “distant” from us that they are not part of “us”. E.g. Amazon jungle dwellers, Eskimos, remote African tribes, etc.
    You might get this effect if you ask people to judge across class lines too: to the extent that the class divide is viewed as dividing “us” from “them”, one would predict that you get a reluctance to exercise blame across it.
    This line of thought suggests that the narrower the scope of one’s willingness to lay blame, the smaller one sees one’s moral community. Ceteris paribus, I would call that a moral flaw, not a virtue, so for that reason alone the account is interesting.

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