Wednesday, 5 October 2005

Blame for Cause

Blame entails moral responsibility, and the word requires of its legitimate use that the guilty party is not only part of the causal conditions of an act but also that he acts wrongly. If one were to remove the element of moral responsibility from the definition of blame, it would entail only the causal conditions of an act. It would be absurd to use as a term of moral condemnation the word “blame” in this new sense, as a consideration of the following should elucidate:
(1) I try to kill a man for no good reason, and in defence he kills me.
(2) I slight a man for no good reason, and in reaction he kills me.
(3) I happen to stand near a man, and for no good reason he kills me.
In all three propositions, I am to differing extents part of the causal conditions of the man’s killing of me. Even in (3), the causal conditions include also my presence, and I could not legitimately deny that my presence near the man is part of the causal conditions of my death; but it would take a perverse mind indeed to hold that I am to blame – that is, morally responsible – for my death in that my presence was part of its causal conditions. As I have said, cause alone is not enough to fulfil the concept of blame; an element of moral responsibility is also required. Thus, in the case of (3), blame – that is, moral condemnation – for my death is directed towards the man who killed me. In (2) I am again part of the causal conditions of my death, but though I have committed a wrong in slighting the man, his wrong is disproportionate to mine, and thus he takes the greater part of the blame; for he has committed the greater wrong. In (1), however, it is my wrong that precipitated my death at his hands, and though his action is a major cause of my death, one should have no trouble in saying that I am to blame.
I use these three stark examples only to establish that cause and blame are not coterminous. This should be obvious enough, but as George Orwell pointed out, a restatement of the obvious becomes a duty in such times as these, when ideological struggles kick up such a dust that the obvious becomes difficult to see. Recently, for instance, there has been a tendency, especially in connection with the war in Iraq, to fail to distinguish between cause and blame, in order that the one might be construed to imply the other. Consider the following example from Soumaya Ghannoushi in The Guardian:
Whether political Islam develops in a more peaceful or violent way is in the hands of the west. . . .
. . . London and Washington must decide which Islam they want: a peaceful, democratic Islam, crucial to any pursuit of global stability, or the anarchical and destructive Islam of al-Qaida and its ilk. The shape of contemporary Islam will largely be determined by the environment within which it is forced to operate.
Soumaya Ghannoushi, “Many faces of Islamism”, The Guardian, 5th October 2005.
I shall not here attempt to answer the question of the extent to which the West is the cause of the development of contemporary Islam, except to say that positing the West as the main casual factor is misleading insofar as it leads us away from consideration of the main attributes and conditions that inhere in the Muslim world. If we were to assay an answer, however, we might wish to start with a quick mention of the Koran, just to get things rolling; but this is only a suggestion. Nor shall I say anything about the extent to which the West is to blame, if at all, for the ills of contemporary Islam. These things I shall leave aside.
Given that there is an advantage-seeking propensity on the part of ideological types to make the meaning of blame coterminous with that of cause, I should like rather to make plain some suspicions of mine; for I do not believe that I am being too cynical in suspecting that Ms Ghannoushi and her ilk would like us to assume that the West is not only largely the cause of but also largely to blame for the development of violent forms of Islam. Nor do I think that I sit alongside old Diogenes when I suspect that there is no wrong in contemporary Islam that she could not blame on the West, even on its very existence; for the import of Ms Ghannoushi’s words is plain enough: namely, that moral responsibility for the fate of contemporary Islam lies largely in the hands of the West, whereas in its own hands lies very little.
Ms Ghannoushi has no monopoly on this moral irresponsibility, however, and we could, if we wished, turn the whole thing round and say that whether the West develops in a more peaceful or violent way is in the hands of political Islam, with the consequence that we in the West might blame Islam for our wrongs, including those committed against Islam! Moral scruple, however, might prevent us from stooping so low. Ms Ghannoushi, on the other hand, has no such qualms about sinking for the sake of her own argument; but I wonder what her argument would look like if contemporary Islam were to develop into a unified doctrine of peace, productive of cultural and scientific wonders. If that happened, should we be surprised to find that Ms Ghannoushi would forget her words about Islam’s development being largely determined by the West, and hear her talking instead about the self-determining triumph of contemporary Islam?
I’d bet Mohammed’s beard and my flying pig on it.


dearieme said...

Indeed, there are serious historians who argue that the final transition in the West from late antiquity ("sub-Roman") to the Dark Ages was a consequence of the Muslim invasions of the Christian East, which so disturbed trade patterns that all hope of a commercial society in the West..well, went west, for many generations. Yep, by their own lights, you can legitimately blame them for anything to do with the West.

The Pedant-General said...

Another superbly brilliant post Deogolwulf.

This is a complete (or at least very nearly complete) answer to the general case of which "root causing" is but a specific instance.

e.g. "Bombers of London or Madrid or Bali were wrong/bad whatever, but we must examine the root cause of their desperation which is (of course) the war in Iraq/occupation of Palestine etc etc"

It is the invocation of a moral agent at each link in the causal chain that is required to trace blame to the root cause.