I want to introduce what I think is a new puzzle and get your feedback. I might have an answer, but I’m curious to hear what others think first, about whether this is a (new) puzzle and about what might resolve/dissolve it.
If I blame you for a wrong I myself have also committed, I am a hypocrite. If we are married, for example, and you know I’ve just cheated on you, yet I blame you for cheating on me, you may properly say, “Who are you to blame me?” My hypocrisy undermines my standing to blame you. This doesn’t mean I lack any reason to blame you (you did cheat on me!); it just means that there are stronger reasons against it all-things-considered (what those reasons are is the subject of lots of recent writing).
Turn, then, to self-blame. If self-blame were just like or analogous with other-blame, as most responsibility theorists seem to think, then there should be the following serious puzzle arising out of its reflexivity: Given that the blamer and the blamed are one and the same person, self-blame should always ground a legitimate charge of hypocrisy. After all, if the blamer is one and the same person as the blamed, then the blamer himself is guilty of having done precisely what he is now blaming the blamed for. So every time I blame myself for hurting someone, I (the blamed) should be able to demand of myself (the blamer), “Who are you to blame me?” But this is just silly. No such questions of standing ever arise for self-blame. This seems to suggest that there’s actually a real difference between self- and other-blame.
I don’t think that this oddity has been pointed out before. It resonates, in a way, with Plato’s remark in the Republic that the notion of self-control, taken literally, is “ridiculous,” as the “stronger self that does the controlling is the same as the weaker self that gets controlled, so that only one person is referred to in all such expressions” (430e-431a). Plato’s solution was to render the phrase intelligible by distinguishing between different parts in the soul of a person, so that a self-controlled soul is one in which the naturally better part of the person (rationality) controls the naturally worse part of the person (appetite).
So too, in trying to explain away the puzzle of hypocritical self-blame, we might try to distinguish between different parts of the soul, a (naturally better?) blaming part and a (naturally worse?) blamed part. Such a division of the psyche won’t fly with most people today, of course, especially given how it seems to require tiny little blaming and blamed homunculi. Furthermore, while there is something phenomenologically plausible about there being a wrestling match between reason and desire that takes place in the face of temptation, there is no such phenomenological wrestling in self-blame. Indeed, when I blame myself for something, the thorough unity of blamer and blamed is what feels most striking.
Alternatively, then, we might appeal to Al Mele’s (1987) explanation of self-deception, a phenomenon which on its face is also paradoxical: In self-deception, I have somehow brought myself to simultaneously believe both p and not-p. Mele’s solution is that in such cases I might have caused myself to be deceived unintentionally and, further, this can be a function of motivated irrationality, a desire to believe something against evidence that I might easily have absorbed and deployed in my belief-formation were it not for the desire in question.
Nevertheless, self-blame isn’t, or isn’t necessarily, irrational, and it’s not necessarily a function of motivated reasoning. If I have deliberately hurt someone, then I do have a reason to blame myself (as does anyone). Indeed, we often talk as if self-blame is both rational and appropriate. Yet surely we don’t think the self-blamer is a hypocrite. So what gives?