Weaponizing Blame (Neal Tognazzini for A&R October)

[Welcome to the first of our official “Agency & Responsibility October” Posts, written by Neal Tognazzini. Take it away, Neal!]
closeup of a young caucasian man pointing his forefinger to the front pretending that it is a gun, against a black background

In a recent NYT column, Paul Krugman draws on recent work by two political scientists to argue that our democracy is dying. The major symptom of a dying democracy, according to the book How Democracies Die, is that “institutions meant to serve the public [become] tools of the ruling party, then [are] weaponized to punish and intimidate that party’s opponents.” What worries Krugman is some recent actions taken by the Trump administration, including the decision of the Justice Department to  launch an anti-trust investigation into four auto makers that have agreed to comply with California’s regulations on emissions. The government of course does have the power to enforce anti-trust legislation, but what’s worrisome is that this doesn’t seem like enforcement – instead, it seems like punishment for dissent. The claim, I take it, is that the Justice Department is wielding the institutions of government as weapons, rather than calling on them to serve the function they were created to serve.

As I was reading this column, it struck me that there is an interpersonal parallel here, where someone weaponizes a normative power that’s intended to be used for the enforcement of moral norms, and uses it instead as a tool for self-serving punishment. What I have in mind is the recently-much-discussed phenomenon of hypocritical blame. Many have tackled the question of what exactly is inappropriate about hypocritical blame, and the question of how to understand the dismissive tu quoque response that seems legitimate in those cases. (See here for a brief discussion of some of those answers.) There’s no consensus – perhaps because of how many sorts of hypocrisy there are, and how many varieties of blame – but maybe we can make some progress by thinking of hypocritical blame as an abuse of power.

To start, let’s narrow the focus to expressed blame, or what’s sometimes called moral address. So, an example of the standard sort of case at issue would be one where you confront me and take me to task for violating a moral standard that you yourself routinely violate. In this sort of case, you are engaged in hypocritical moral address, and it seems like I am permitted to reply, “Oh, come off it” or “You, of all people, have no right to preach about that”. There are two puzzles about this sort of case: (1) what exactly is inappropriate about what you’ve done? and (2) what exactly is the force of my reply?

Sometimes the word ‘standing’ gets used to describe debates about the first question; other times it gets used to describe debates about the second question. I don’t want to legislate how the word ought to be used, so I’ll just say that my interest here is in the interaction between these two questions. Specifically: when a tu quoque reply is called for, what is the feature of the hypocritical blame that does the calling? What is the tu quoque reply saying about the blamer? (Uninformative answer: it’s saying that the blamer lacks the standing to blame. But what exactly does that mean?)

When we examine things from this perspective, we can see that some explanations of why hypocritical moral address is inappropriate are irrelevant, even if true. For example, it may well be – as Wallace (2010) and Fritz & Miller (2018) and others propose – that hypocritical moral address is morally wrong, because it violates norms involving the equal standing of persons. But the “who are you” reply isn’t merely an assertion of moral wrongdoing. As G. A. Cohen (2013) puts it, the reply is meant to be a way of silencing one’s critics – or, better, of pointing out that their blame will have exactly the same effect on one’s behavior as would their having remained silent. (So, no effect at all.)

But even this isn’t strong enough. The tu quoque response isn’t just a way of saying that, as a matter of fact, hypocritical blame will be fruitless. Instead, there’s some normativity: I’m right not to be motivated by your blame. Or: the fact that you are blaming me gives me no reason to shape up. (Careful, though: this is not the claim that I have no reason to shape up; it’s merely the claim that your blame is not among those reasons. See Herstein 2017 for a view along these lines.)

Supposing that the hypocrite’s blame is fitting (i.e., true to the facts), though, why wouldn’t it give me a reason to apologize and shape up? Here’s the hypothesis: the hypocrite is someone who weaponizes blame, attempting to use it as punishment rather than as a mechanism for the enforcement of moral norms. And if we think of blame as a move in a moral conversation, then the hypocrite is abusing it. Their lack of commitment to the relevant norms (see Todd 2019) reveals that they aren’t interested in conversation. They are talking at me, rather than with me.

There remains a disanalogy with the political case, though, which is that the Trump administration isn’t exactly being hypocritical – or, at least, they need not be interpreted that way. As Krugman points out, even if the administration had a track record for worrying a lot about monopolies, the investigation into the auto makers would still be worrisome, since it seems not to be motivated by those concerns, but instead by politics. The problem consists simply in wielding political power for purposes of punishment, regardless of the underlying commitments of those in power.

But maybe this disanalogy, too, can teach us something about blame. Although hypocritical moral address gets the bulk of the attention in discussions about standing, it looks like there will also be cases of lost standing – i.e., cases where the person being blamed can dismiss the blamer – where the blamer’s past record is clean, but where the blamer is nevertheless wielding the blame for purposes other than moral conversation. These cases, too, will count as an abuse of normative power, and deserve to make their way into our discussions about standing.

12 Replies to “Weaponizing Blame (Neal Tognazzini for A&R October)

  1. Hi Neal,

    I think the cases of hypocritical blame that you’re picking out are a particularly pernicious subset of cases of hypocritical blame. For, even if we restrict ourselves to directed hypocritical blame, it doesn’t seem necessary for the blamer to ‘attempt to use blame as punishment’, which would seem to involve the blamer’s intending to inflict suffering on the blamed. Admittedly, when we ourselves are blamed hypocritically, it often feels as if this is what the blamer is doing. Maybe there’s an insight to this feeling– for, maybe the badness of hypocritical blame is somehow to be understood in terms of the badness of these especially pernicious cases. If a case could be made that paradigmatic instances of hypocritical blame *are* cases of attempting to use blame as punishment, then perhaps instances of hypocritical blame lacking the intention to make suffer will nonetheless count as (explanatorily non-basic and non-paradigmatic) instances of hypocritical blame. Is this along the lines of the way you’re thinking about the issue?

  2. Hi Dan — thanks for the comment. Yeah, one tricky thing here is that there are several different varieties of hypocritical blame. I’ve focused here on what Macalester Bell calls “clear-eyed hypocrites”, who merely pretend to care about the values that are supposedly motivating their expressions of blame. I don’t think I’d want to make the claim that this is the paradigm case, but I like your suggestion that when we feel the impulse to challenge the standing of the hypocritical blamer, we are often presupposing that the hypocritical blamer is a clear-eyed hypocrite in this sense. Or, to make a slightly stronger claim, perhaps hypocrisy serves as some evidence that the hypocrite is only pretending, and it’s on the basis of that evidence that we feel justified in responding with “come off it”. Of course, we could be wrong about this, but mostly I’m trying to capture why “come off it” would be a fitting response in the first place. The suggestion is that a challenge to standing is like accusing the blamer of trying to exploit a loophole.

    So, yeah, I suspect that there are cases of hypocritical blame that don’t fall into the weaponizing framework. (As I mention at the end of the post, I also think there are cases of weaponizing blame that don’t fall under the rubric of hypocrisy.) But I’m not convinced that we need to give the same account of why clear-eyed hypocrisy undermines standing as we give of why other types of hypocrisy undermine standing. (I’m also open to the possibility that other types of hypocrisy *don’t* undermine standing, but we just tend to think they do.)

    As for the notion of punishment, I guess I wasn’t trying to give it too much positive content (in terms of inflicting suffering, for example), but instead was just trying to point out that there are ways to wield blame for purposes other than the ones blame is meant to serve. Punishment, humiliation, silencing, deflection, distraction, defense, virtue signaling, etc.

  3. Great post! (Also, I am not the Dan above – I am a different Dan! And I tried to post a version of this earlier and it didn’t show up, so apologies if it does show up in the future…) Hypocrisy is a fascinating topic (about which I haven’t read a ton, so apologies if this is covered in the literature already). I’m not sure I’m compelled by the suggestion that “the hypocrite is someone who weaponizes blame, attempting to use it as punishment rather than as a mechanism for the enforcement of moral norms.” This is because I want to count someone as a hypocrite even if they are not attempting to use blame as punishment; because someone can use blame as a mechanism for the enforcement of moral norms and still be a hypocrite; and because someone can attempt to use blame as punishment but also at the same time attempt to use it as a mechanism for the enforcement of moral norms (and be a hypocrite all the while).

    For an example of the first case, I think someone could be a hypocrite if for instance they are blaming only in order to make themselves look good. Perhaps for instance Val thinks think that by blaming Robin for Xing, others will be convinced that Val does not X. Val does in fact X, so Val is a hypocrite. But Val doesn’t want anyone to know this. I think Val is still hypocritical, and if hypocrisy is wrong, I think Val’s blame instantiates this wrongness just as much as any other hypocrite’s blame. But Val is not trying to punish Robin. Val could not care less about Robin except as a useful tool to convince third parties that Val does not X.

    For an example of the second case, imagine that Adrien gets $5 for everyone who follows a certain moral norm. It’s not worth it to Adrien to follow the norm, but it’s certainly worth it to get others to follow. So, Adrien blames me to get me to follow the moral norm, not to punish me. That still seems hypocritical, though.

    For an example of the third case, take the Adrien case and add the assumption that, in blaming me, Adrien also is trying to punish me, perhaps out of personal antipathy. This still strikes me as hypocrisy.

  4. Hi Danny — I like those cases, and I think you’re right that they show that hypocrisy isn’t to be *identified* with weaponizing blame. I’m not sure what hypocrisy is, exactly, but I was just trying to suggest that, in those cases where the tu quoque retort seems appropriate, perhaps that retort can be understood as a way of saying that the hypocrite is (in that instance) abusing the practice of blame — deploying it for some purpose other than the enforcement of moral norms, or other than to have a productive moral conversation.

    So, in your Val case, for example, even though Val may not be punishing, Val still seems to be exploiting a normative loophole, so to speak, using blame in a way it’s not meant to be used. Insofar as Robin seems entitled to question Val’s standing, we can perhaps see Robin as trying to call Val out for this abuse of power.

    The Adrian case is interesting, and I’m not altogether sure it even counts as an instance of hypocrisy. Or, more to the point I’m interested in, I’m not sure it counts as a case where the tu quoque objection is apt. I think perhaps it depends on how the case gets filled out. But even if it is a genuine case of hypocrisy, or standingless blame, it still seems like the problem is that Adrien is using blame in ways it’s not meant to be used.

  5. Sorry, Danny Weltman, your disappeared comment got spammed, so I didn’t see it in time to rescue it.

  6. Really enjoyed this post, Neil. The more hypocrisy chat, the better!

    I think abuse, or misuse, of our blaming practices plays an intuitive role in explaining deficiencies in standing. However, I have some doubts that weaponisation is the only or central form of abuse.

    Entrapment is a case of non-weaponising abuse. Suppose I lure you into culpably committing a wrong that you were going to commit anyway, in order that I can (with warrant) blame you for it. I might entrap you in this way precisely because I am committed to the moral values at stake – e.g. I might judge that doing this is the only way to hold you accountable. In this case, I’m not weaponising in your sense; still, it does look like I’m using the accountability practice perversely, and my standing to blame you is plausibly deficient.

    There’s this other worry about views like Cohen’s and Herstein’s (and I think James Edwards’ 2018): It is mysterious why it would be apt to dismiss the content of the person’s accurate criticism on the ground that they’re weaponising. Fair enough to get pissed off with the weaponising, but why dismiss what they say? As you suggest, it is apt for a wrongdoer not to treat the *fact* that a weaponiser blames her as a reason to act. But I think this is just because it’s always apt not to treat the fact of blame as a deeply normative reason: Culpable wrongdoers have duties to reflect on their wrongdoing regardless of whether anyone blames them, and regardless of who blames them. It feels odd to think that the strength of these reasons could be hostage who happens to be around to deliver the blame. To be sure, this is not a unique problem for the weaponising account; it goes for any account of standing as a normative power.

    Incidentally, Gerald Lang is working on a weaponising account of hypocrisy, though he’s sceptical about standing!

  7. Hi Kartik – thanks! I like the entrapment case. And I think you’re right: that does seem like a case of deficient standing, and it does seem like the deficient standing is due to some sort of abuse, but it’s not exactly the blaming interaction itself that is being abused. I wonder: does that case seem different to you than a case involving complicity, where I’ve basically helped you to commit a wrong and then blame you for it? It’s not exactly the same, but it seems similar.

    As for why it would be apt to dismiss what the weaponizer says: I guess I was thinking that when you are blamed for wrongdoing, you typically have two reasons to apologize and make things right: first, the fact that you’ve done the wrong thing, and second, the fact that the person you’ve wronged is demanding (through their blame) that you apologize and make things right. In cases of lost standing, the first reason might still be as strong as it always was, whereas the second reason is the one getting ignored or dismissed. That still doesn’t answer the “why” question with respect to dismissing the second reason. I’m not sure about that. I was thinking that maybe we have reason to think that a weaponizer isn’t interested in having a productive moral conversation, so we are justified in taking what they say as mere bluster, or something along those lines. And perhaps bluster doesn’t create reasons.

  8. No worries David! And thanks for the reply, Neal! The point about not identifying hypocrisy with the weaponization of blame is helpful. My ulterior motive is that I don’t think tu quoque is ever an appropriate response to the hypocrite, and so whereas you’re trying to save the phenomena, I’m looking for ways to sink it, so to speak. So, how does this sound:

    In your response to Dan, you narrow the field to clear-eyed hypocrites. One reason you need to do this is so that you can avoid a case like Jo. Jo thinks it’s immoral to eat meat, but is also akratic and thus eats meat. Jo blames me for eating meat. That’s hypocrisy, albeit not clear-eyed.

    But I think if tu quoque is ever appropriate, it’s appropriate here. As far as I’m concerned, I’m ready to call tu quoque against Jo as soon as I see Jo eating meat, before I find out whether Jo is akratic or clear-eyed.

    In other words, I think you need to be committed to a unified account of whether tu quoque is appropriate in both the akrasia case and the clear-eyed case, because anything else looks ad hoc. Do you think there’s some justification for splitting the cases up by looking only at clear-eyed cases? My suspicion is that I’d want to take on that justification and thus force you to start widening the scope of your account, at which point you’d end up open to cases where we might want to understand tu quoque as appropriate for reasons that have nothing to do with the misuse of blame. Or maybe the idea is that Jo is not hypocritical, just like Adrien is not hypocritical?

    (I’m also interested in where other people stand on whether Adrien is or isn’t hypocritical in either of the cases, and whether Adrien is or isn’t subject to the tu quoque retort. I wonder if we can solve any of this without first committing to some account of hypocrisy.)

    Finally, unrelated to the above: I was hoping the Adrien cases are cases where blame is being used “for the enforcement of moral norms” – after all, Adrien only gets paid if the moral norms get enforced. So, if you reply that Adrien is misusing blame, then we at least need a slightly more specific account of what blame is for: it can’t just be for the enforcement of moral norms. Maybe it has to be for the disinterested enforcement of moral norms? Fair enforcement? Mere enforcement, rather than enforcement plus (e.g.) earning money? I haven’t read the Todd paper yet so chances are this is all cleared up in there!

  9. Hi Danny – thanks for the follow-up, and for the pushback.

    Macalester Bell distinguishes the clear-eyed hypocrite from the akratic hypocrite from the exception-seeking hypocrite (someone who sincerely but falsely thinks that there’s a relevant difference between their behavior and yours). In each case a tu quoque seems appropriate (speaking for myself here, not Bell, who is skeptical about standing norms on blame). But need it be appropriate for the same reason in each case? I guess I don’t exactly feel the same pull toward unification here.

    In the case of the clear-eyed hypocrite, the force of the tu quoque seems to be something like “you don’t really mean it, you’re just putting on a show”. In the case of the akratic hypocrite, the force of the tu quoque seems to be something like “you’ve seen how hard it is to live up to those standards, don’t be so judgmental”. In the case of the exception-seeking hypocrite, the force of the tu quoque seems to be something like “you have a misunderstanding of what’s morally relevant here, your moral competence calls into question your moral testimony”. Maybe this is just to grant your point that sometimes the tu quoque is appropriate even though there’s no misuse of blame? I think I’m okay with that. But in general, why think that the objection has to be the same in each of these cases (just because we call them all ‘hypocrisy’)?

    About the Adrien case: yeah, I guess that is a sort of literal enforcement of moral norms, though that’s not the reason why Adrien is blaming. Adrien is blaming in order to get some money. Still, I agree that we’d need a more specific account of what blame is for. I realize I contrasted “punishment” with “the enforcement of moral norms”, but I was thinking more under the general rubric of sincerity or earnestness. When the clear-eyed hypocrite blames, they are simply using blame as a tool for a totally different job.

  10. Thanks Neal!

    Entrapment might overlap with complicity, but it seems distinguished by the blamer’s intentions: The entrapper plays a role in the commission of the wrong *in order to blame the wrongdoer*. This is the part that seems perverse. So although complicity more generally involves deficiencies in standing (I think more serious deficiencies than hypocrisy), the deficiency in entrapment cases has a distinctive explanation. At least that’s how I have been thinking about these things so far!

    I found your thoughts on the ‘why dismiss’ question really interesting. I definitely think there’s something to the view that hypocritical blamers aren’t ready to engage in conversation, though I cash this out a bit differently – I reckon hypocritical blamers can engage in a conversation, albeit a deficient one.

    Where weaponising hypocrites are unprepared to engage in any conversation at all, and where we are justified in believing this, then I agre with youe: it does seem apt (or not inapt) not to proceed with a conversation even when the blame is accurate. A conversation takes two, and no point if our interlocutor won’t play ball.

    But, not attempting to converse is not the same as dismissing the content of the weaponiser’s criticism. We can absorb that content without any dialogue, and I still think it would be inapt to block this out, since as I suggested wrongdoers have moral duties to reflect on their wrongdoing, and it just seems straightforwardly inapt to ignore our duties.

    I guess the disagreement on this is probably a deep one, though, about second-personal reasons (or your reasons of type 2). I’m unsure why the fact that people demand that we comply with our duties gives us extra reasons to comply. I see the intuition, but struggle to see the explanation.

    Demands might provide fitting occasions to deliver the responses we owe, or reasons to deliver them here and now, or reminders to deliver them, etc. But I doubt they have deeper moral force. I also doubt that weaponisers can’t give us any of the above sorts of reasons – if we’ve wronged them, it is generally apt that weaponisers demand corrective responses from us, and it is apt that we deliver these to them. As you rightly say, this is clearly not the ideal situation to reconcile: It would clearly have much been more apt to apologise to the weaponiser had they been morally committed and ready to converse. Still ultimately this is a situation where someone we’ve wronged is accurately blaming us, and these facts alone make a dismissive response seem unwarranted.

  11. Hi Kartik – thanks for the further thoughts. It could be that we have a deep disagreement, or it could be that we don’t disagree at all! I agree that “we can absorb [the] content without any dialogue”, and I agree that “wrongdoers have moral duties to reflect on their wrongdoing”. I also agree, in some sense, that “it is generally apt that weaponizers demand corrective responses from us” and that “it is apt that we deliver these to them”.

    Still, what I’m trying to get at with the stuff on second-personal reasons is a distinction between moral blame, on the one hand, and moral advice, on the other. The proposal is that the moral advisor merely points to, or highlights, reasons that the wrongdoer already has, whereas the blamer manages to give the wrongdoer a new reason. I don’t think that hypocrisy undermines one’s standing to advise — on the contrary, it may *enhance* one’s standing to advise. (Or at least, their prior experience with the very same wrongdoing should probably make you listen to what they have to say more closely.) So in that sense, I agree that it’s apt even for hypocrites to “demand corrective responses from us” — so long as that’s in the mode of moral advice. (Of course, I also agree that it’s apt in another sense: the content of their demand does fit the facts — I have done wrong, after all.)

    As for the explanation of why blame demands would create new reasons — yeah, I struggle with the explanation there, too. It’s still something I’m thinking through!

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