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Nigel Warburton on... blame

Updated Thursday, 6th March 2008

What standards do we apply when we apportion blame? Are there degrees of censure?

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While working as a school teacher in 1926, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein hit an eleven year old child so hard that the child collapsed. This was undoubtedly a terrible thing to do, and there was an investigation in the school. But in 1926 it was commonplace to use corporal punishment as a teaching technique. Today in Britain, fortunately, it isn't. Indeed the NSPCC has mounted a campaign to protect children legally from physical punishment.

So is it wrong to judge teachers of the past by today's standards? An easy response is to appeal to ethical relativism. This is the idea that all our judgments of right and wrong, praise and blame, and so on, are relative to the time and place when the relevant acts were performed. On this view it may have been right to control a child by using physical punishment in the 1920s (within limits which Wittgenstein overstepped); whereas it would be morally abhorrent now. Ethical relativism is, however, deeply unsatisfactory and hard to sustain with consistency.

Miranda Fricker in her discussion of this topic for the podcast series Ethics Bites has some interesting things to say. She is surely right that it is a condition of blaming someone that we believe that they could have chosen to act differently. It is wrong to blame someone for something over which they have no control, such as their height.

In the case of Wittgenstein's act, we can rightly blame him: even by the standards of his day he was brutal. There would be nothing anachronistic in that. But if he had caned the child within the limits accepted in 1926, should we hold him blameworthy? Miranda points out that we do want to have some sort of negative attitude to people who did things like this in the past, even though they couldn't necessarily have known any better. Yet blame implies that they could have known better.

We need a richer moral vocabulary to account for our feelings here. Clearly some of Wittgenstein's contemporaries would have thought that all corporal punishment of children was wrong: these were exceptional people who could see beyond the dominant perspective. We appropriately feel moral disappointment at the child-hitters of the past. We are sad that people behaved that way, recognize that, though it would have been difficult, they might have thought differently and judge appropriately. We can't exactly blame them, because that implies that they might have done otherwise. But at the same time, we don't want to have a neutral attitude to them. We are disappointed in them.





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