In an age of ubiquitous media coverage on anything and everything, most people see blaming behaviour every day. But what exactly is blame? How do we do it? Why do we do it?

During the 2019-20 bushfires, the Prime Minister Scott Morrison was blamed for taking a vacation during an environmental crisis. During a peak in the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, protestors in Australia blamed individual police and the government at large for the historical and present violent mistreatment of First Nations people.

Maybe you still blame your overly angry high school teacher for making you an anxious person. Maybe you blamed your co-worker recently for standing you up on your weekly Zoom call.

Whatever the stakes, we are all familiar with blaming, but could you explain what it is?

At a very basic level, blame is considered a negative reaction that we have towards someone we perceive as having broken a moral norm, leaving us feeling wronged.

There are several theories of blame that explore different interpretations of how exactly it works, but an overarching distinction is that of how or whether it’s communicated.

On the one hand, we have communicative blame – this is the outward behaviour that indicates one person blames another for something. When we yell at someone for running a red light, scold a politician on social media, or tell someone we are disappointed with their actions, we are communicating blame. Sometimes blame can even be communicated subtly, in the small ways we speak or act.

Some people think that it’s necessary for blame to be communicated – that blame without this overt aspect isn’t quite blame. On the other hand, some people think that there can be internal blame, where a person never outwardly acknowledges that they blame someone for something but still holds an internalised judgement and emotion or desire – imagine someone who holds a grudge against a friend who moved across the world but doesn’t speak to them anymore.

When we think about blame, we have to ask ourselves why do we blame, what does it do and when is it ok?

A common answer looks towards history and especially religion. In the Bible, for example, blame is often seen to hold us to account and discourage dissent. Blame has often been (and is still) used as a social and political indicator of what’s acceptable to citizens and/or governments.

This is more obvious when we consider communicative blame. Take for example, the way that the Australian public and news media communicated their blame of the Prime Minister during his bushfire vacation. These expressions ranged from simply showing dissatisfaction, to more complex indications of a desire for change and a serious acknowledgement of a moral failing.

And it also goes the other way. During the 2021 daily COVID-19 press conferences, various politicians have been quick to communicate their blame towards various groups of people flouting public health orders.

But is this type behaviour always okay? Is it always effective? These are the kinds of questions ethicists ask and attempt to answer when thinking at things like blame. One way to think about these questions is to look at them through different ethical frameworks.

Consequentialism tells us to pay attention to the outcomes of our actions, dispositions, attitudes, etc. A consequentialist might argue that we shouldn’t communicate blame if it would cause worse consequences than if we kept it to ourselves.

For example, if a child does something wrong, a consequentialist might say that sometimes it’s better to not outwardly blame them and instead do something else. Perhaps give them the tools to fix the mistake or praise them for a different aspect of the situation that they did well.

Less intuitively, though, is the implication that sometimes it will be wrong to blame someone for something, even if they deserve it! Say you have a friend who is very contrarian and does the wrong thing on purpose to get attention. Some consequentialists might say that it is wrong to communicate blame to them because under these circumstances you’re encouraging the behaviour, since they want the attention of being blamed. This might be a frustrating conclusion for people who think others get what they deserve by being blamed.

deontologist might help them here and say that if someone is blameworthy then they deserve to be blamed and it is our duty to blame them, regardless of the consequences. Some deontologists might say that as long as our intentions are good, then we have a responsibility to blame wrongdoers and show them their moral failing.

Some different issues arise with that. Does this mean we are obligated to blame someone who “deserves it”? What about in situations where blaming would have really bad consequences? Is it still our duty to blame them for their wrongdoing?

Next time you go to blame someone, think about your intentions and what you are hoping to achieve by taking that action. It might be that you’re better off keeping it to yourself or finding a more positive way to frame the situation. Maybe the best consequences are to be gained by blaming or maybe you do just deserve to get that frustration off your chest.

Join the conversation

What role does blame play in your life?