Where blame begins… by NRC

Where blame begins…

Whether somebody is to blame for another person’s suffering is a question that is not always easy to answer. Psychologist Gert-Jan Lelieveld examines the origins of blame.

Nobody can have failed to see the news last month about the fire that broke out at night in a residential tower block in London, killing 80 people. The fire in the 24-storey Grenfell Tower in the borough of West Kensington was caused by a faulty refrigerator. When these sorts of terrible incidents occur, the question immediately arises of who is to blame. Soon after the disaster the police announced they were opening a criminal investigation. For years, residents had apparently been expressing concerns that fire safety measures in the building were inadequate. Is the housing association or the council to blame for the 80 deaths, and should these authorities be punished? Of course this will be a matter for the courts to decide, but what do people think? Insights from social psychology show us what sorts of actions are viewed as immoral and/or blameworthy.

Intentions matter
Classical theories of blame start from the premise that there are two factors that together determine whether an action that harms others is viewed as immoral and blameworthy. First, there must be an important relation between one person’s actions and another person’s suffering. Secondly, the action must be intentional: i.e., it must have been carried out deliberately in order to cause people harm. Not replacing fire alarms or not installing fire doors did not directly lead to the death of the residents of the flat, and it was certainly not the intention of the authorities to cause people harm. Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that these authorities will get off scot-free. And more recent insights from social psychology do indeed show that the classical theories of blame do not always apply. There are plenty of situations in which people are found guilty or viewed as immoral even though they did not directly cause the suffering of others and did not have any intention to cause people harm.

Blame without harm or intent
An unsuccessful attempt to cause harm to others can be a criminal offence. If somebody tries to detonate a bomb vest but doesn’t succeed, that is of course viewed as punishable, even though it doesn’t directly lead to suffering for other people. Conversely, unintended negative side effects are also viewed as immoral behaviour. If a police officer gives chase to a car thief and then causes further fatal accidents on the motorway by recklessly pursuing the perpetrator, that officer will probably be considered blameworthy. Research has also shown that people who take pleasure in another person’s pain are judged to be immoral, even if they did not actually cause the pain. A tennis-player, for instance, who is visibly pleased when his opponent breaks his leg, is likely to be seen as morally lacking. Recent research shows, finally, that people who benefit from other people’s misfortune are also seen as immoral. Behaviour such as investing in shares that increase in value thanks to an earthquake in a developing country, for instance, tends to be viewed as reprehensible.

So it turns out that behaviour is not only viewed as blameworthy or immoral if there is a causal relation between the behaviour and the suffering of others, and/or if it is intentional. The housing association or the council in London can be found guilty even if their intentions were perhaps not wrong. In this case it is the negligence of these authorities that is viewed as culpable, blameworthy.

The hilarious final episode of the sitcom Seinfeld shows something similar: the main characters are thrown into prison because they fail to help (and even laugh at) someone who is being robbed. Awful as these sorts of incidents are, one positive side effect is that fire safety measures are now being implemented in sixty other residential tower blocks in the UK to prevent this sort of disaster from happening in the future.

This blog is a translated version of the Dutch column in the online NRC newspaper: 'Waar schuld begint'