Oct 20, 2015 | By

Blame versus Responsibility – Navigating the Confusion

How often have we been admonished to “condemn the behavior, not the person?” Yet this seems to be incredibly difficult — how do you confront a bad behavior without also confronting the person who is doing it?   There is a subtler version of this conundrum in New Church Theology – based on the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg. Swedenborg teaches that it is the intent of a person, their truest inner love, which ultimately defines whether a person is good or evil. Yet we can never know another person’s intention – only God can do that. While we can name an action as having a positive or negative outcome, we cannot judge whether the person that made the action is good or evil.

Dr. Hanna Pickard was recently a guest on The Philosopher’s Zone podcast, and a short article Responsibility Without Blame is also posted to the website.  Dr. Pickard is a philosopher by training who, after getting her PhD, began working in a mental health clinic with people that had behavioral disorders. In her philosophical work, she had been particularly interested in the theory of mind. That topic is, among other things, concerned with the question of determining when one is acting as a free and independent agent. One of the debates in the field concerns the question of when an individual is blame-worthy. When is someone responsible for their action or behavior, and how should they be held accountable?

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The insights she gained in her clinical work provide a very interesting way of thinking about the question of blame. Her patients were largely those with “personality disorders” — exhibiting behavioral and cognitive patterns disconnected from the world they inhabited and the people they dealt with. Such people are often difficult and behave in unusual and unwelcome ways – sometimes including criminality, self-destructive action, or violent and aggressive behavior. When dealing with such people, our normal reaction is to blame them for the negative behaviors – we react with judgment and condemnation, sometimes quite intensely, in what can be called “affective blaming”. At the other extreme, there can be a response that excuses inappropriate behavior as being the result of their condition, or as a result of causative influences over which the patient had no control. This reaction can exonerate a perpetrator of any blame or responsibility. A confirmed determinist would follow this approach

From a clinical perspective, these reactions are often unhelpful – the blaming response can escalate emotions and reinforce the errors in behavior and thinking exhibited by the patient, while the excusatory response enables, rather than confronts, the behavior. Dr. Pickard observes that to be helpful to the patient, the clinician needs to set aside those “normal” reactions and seek to respond to the patient in ways that will lead to adaptive modifications in behaviors or thoughts patterns. The presumption has to be that the patient is capable of acting as an effective agent in the world by making different and more positive choices. Yes, patients need to be held responsible for their actions, but in a reflective rather than a blaming or condemning manner. In order to do this, the clinician needs to learn, or be trained, to avoid personal reactions and craft responses that focus on the needs of the patient.

Pickard is not sure this strategy is appropriate in all cases, as, for example, between family and friends on a routine basis. After all, intimate relationships need to be reciprocal and words and behaviors authentic. One should be able to communicate feelings of anger and frustration at inappropriate behaviors rather than trying to always script one’s reaction. However, she also observes that how we react to others and our attitudes about blame and responsibility are largely culturally determined. We can make choices that deviate from cultural norms. She wonders what the world would be like if we lived in a culture in which we did not respond in anger and frustration at others and instead sought to focus on their best interests.

This analysis provides some insight on how to “condemn the behavior and not the person.” The key is to be aware of our own reaction to the behavior of others. It may be quite natural and appropriate to express our anger or frustration at someone else’s behavior – and to blame them for the consequences. At the same time, we should believe that people could change and that things could be different in the future — this requires us to create some space in the conversation for change to take place, perhaps by expressing the hope that the behavior will not happen again. We also need to complete the process by letting go of the anger and frustration after it has been expressed – ideally this will involve a two-way process of reconciliation and forgiveness.

However, we do have another choice. There may be times when it is more appropriate for us to mediate our anger and frustration and confront someone else’s behavior in a spirit of counseling or conciliation. This may involve holding them accountable by pointing out the behavior and its consequences but without anger, recrimination or blame. This requires a commitment to that person’s best interest and the sincere hope that by following this approach we can “make the best of a bad situation.” In particular, we should always follow this advice when we can see that our normal response is likely to make that bad situation worse.

Pickard’s approach is also consistent with Swedenborg’s admonishment that we not judge a person’s moral character on the basis of a presumed intention that we simply cannot know. It can be obviously true for someone with a personality disorder that a behavior is inconsistent with that person’s own best interests. In such cases it is clear we should refrain from judging moral character even as we confront negative behavior. The same may be true in our interactions with a “normal” person – we do not know all the factors that have shaped their circumstances, nor do we know what intentions, many of which are hidden from view, have driven their choices. As we confront the behavior, we should do so without judging the moral character. Our ultimate goal should be to be instructive and loving, rather than blaming, in our response.

Moreover, we should always be cautious in venting our own personal reactions to another person’s behavior. Our own reactions may be driven by intentions that we do not fully recognize. How often does our anger and frustration reflect our hidden desire to get our own way – a selfish rather than a beneficent purpose?   As it says in Matthew 7:5 – “first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

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