What’s Your Fault?

We use the phrase ‘your fault’ in a way that’s different to the sum of its parts. A fault can be any kind of problem, defect, or undesirable property. ‘Your’ just means belonging to you. If you have very unsteady hands, that’s a problem of sorts, and it’s yours. But if I hand you a full mug of coffee and you spill a bit of it, if you apologised, I’d say “It’s not your fault!”

Your faults are not ‘your fault’ if you’re born with them, if they’re forced on you, if you didn’t know about them, or a whole variety of other conditions. Language forms organically and messily, and it only makes sense to talk about it in generalisations. But the most prevalent trend I can see in the types of faults that are not ‘your fault’ is this: they’re the ones you can’t reasonably change.

Back to the coffee: if I knew you had shaky hands, I might go one step further and say “It’s my fault, I shouldn’t have given you one so full!” I could have prevented this problem, whereas you can’t really do anything about your shaky hands, at least not right now. If we really care about this coffee getting spilled, I’m the one who should change: I should remind myself to be more mindful of other people’s physical quirks. Or I should put less coffee in cups. Either way, the reason I give myself the blame is that there’s something I can do about it.

So far, the way we naturally behave is pretty logical. It makes sense that we have this urge to assign blame, because our feelings about where it should lie match up with who should take action to prevent the same problem from happening again. Not only is it not nice to yell at someone for being born with shaky hands, it also doesn’t get you anywhere: the problem won’t get solved.

So this is an effective way for social creatures to work: when a problem occurs, figure out who can do something to prevent it in future. Blame is an inbuilt tool to direct our energies towards the most effective course of correcting action.

The Self-Conscious Killer

But the question of who ‘can’ do something about a problem gets tricky, particularly as we start to understand more about the brain. This article starts with the story of a man who murdered 13 people and wounded 32 more, but left a suicide note requesting that his brain be autopsied after his death, because he felt something in him had changed and that was affecting his behaviour. The autopsy showed a tumour compressing his amygdala, which regulates fear and aggression. He’d even seen doctor for help, and while the note is vague, he evidently didn’t get it.

His fault? Could he have done something about it? Now that we know there was a physical cause for his urges, should we say he wasn’t to blame?

Irresistible Urges

You could claim that urges and emotions are just one input into the decision making process, and one always has the choice of whether to give in to them. I experience the hunger urge as the result of a biological cause, but I can choose to resist it. But what if I was at the point of starvation? I don’t know.

My one experience of an urge that feels completely beyond decision-making is vomiting. In mild illnesses sometimes you can repress it for a moment, but when you’re really ill, sometimes vomiting just happens. It’s an action, I’m still conscious, my body still moves as if under conscious control (I don’t collapse, for example), but I wouldn’t call it a choice, I wouldn’t say I could do anything about it, and I don’t really think it’s my fault.

Whether or not something feels like a choice gets us caught up in questions of free will, but my criteria for saying that vomiting was not a choice is that my intention not to do it had no effect on whether I did. I got to study this in great detail when I had 24-hour food poisoning once, and it happened exactly the same way whether I was in the most convenient and hygienic place to vomit, or in the middle of a full aeroplane. If someone had told me, “Throw up one more time and I’ll shoot your family,” I’d still have thrown up one more time. Nothing could affect the ‘choice’ to vomit, because it happened even when my intention not to do it was absolute. That’s my definition of not-a-choice.

A Blameless Society

In the case of the tumor sufferer, I think we have to say we don’t know what it was like to be him, or whether the urges were resistible or not. His note specifically refers to ‘deciding’ to commit these crimes ahead of time, but there’s good reason to believe a medical problem influenced those decisions.

As we start to understand more of the brain, maybe every instance of criminal behaviour will be traceable to physical trait of the brain that causes it. Is everything that we can explain that way ‘not your fault’? Could we get to a point where nothing is anyone’s fault? Would that even be a bad thing?

The reason we get in a tangle here is that we’re still focusing on where to put the blame. But as we’ve hopefully established, blame is just an emotional tool for guiding us towards who can take action to prevent future problems. In the tumor case, we don’t actually need to answer the question “Was he to blame?” because we already know what action should have been taken, and what action can be taken in future. (Also he’s dead.)

Pointless Punishment

So what about someone with a history of violence? Someone who’s repeatedly offended, even when they knew there’d be harsh punishment? Once we understand the brain well enough to point to a medical cause of this, are they still to blame? I don’t know. But the question of what to do about it is easier: it’s purely about preventing them from hurting more people.

‘Punishment’ as retribution no longer makes any sense: our urge for vengeance is an emotion that comes from a blame system too simple to apply coherently to our more nuanced understanding of human behaviour. Both in the justice system at large, and in our personal lives.

When you’re angry with someone for something they did, it’s worth remembering that the anger is just a tool to direct your attention to what needs to change. And it’s a crude one. It’s still worth rationally checking: what’s the best way to prevent this from being a problem again? It might be lashing out, but it usually isn’t.

The only thing that matters is prevention. And our greater understanding of the mind might influence how we do that.

Unsettling Cures

That will be our next ethical tangle. Once we know the medical causes of more types of criminal behaviour, we might also know the medical ‘cures’. Maybe that violent re-offender just has too much of one hormone, and we can give him an operation to produce less of it. Once we see behaviour as having a medical cause, when do our ‘cures’ become brainwashing?

It seems scary to start modifying people’s personalities to fit our norms, yet it would seem natural to cut out that shooter’s tumor if we’d found it before he died. In that case, he actually wanted to be cured. But what if his tumor-induced urges included the urge to stay the way he was? Clearly we can’t let him kill again, but can we still cut out the tumor? Can we modify someone’s desires when they don’t want us to?

The uncomfortable truth, of course, is that we already do this in some cases. But it’s going to get stranger, and stickier, and harder to agree on as more and more undesirable behaviour maps to physical things we can intentionally change.

18 Replies to “What’s Your Fault?”

  1. Hi Tom, long time reader (I think I emailed you ten years ago asking for advice on the Philosophy of Language) tertiary or so commenter, just to say I’ve always felt that there’s much less choice involved in people’s actions than our justice system gives them credit for. Massively complex though.

    thanks for the read.

  2. Hi,

    Radiolab have a really good podcast on blame. It goes into a lot of similar things.

    You’re essentially discussing a very specific instance of free will. My go-to-read on that was Daniel Dennet’s Freedom Evolves, which looked at free will in a deterministic universe.

    That said, I was talking to a physicist recently who claimed that the universe isn’t deterministic and that quantum effects have a much larger effect on events than are often credited.

    For bonus points: An inflationary universe likely equals an infinite one. How does free will fit into an infinity of possible outcomes.

  3. In the killer’s case, we’re not 100% certain that the tumor was causing the behavior. The only way we know to test that, the scientific method, would involve giving people tumors to see if they become killers more often than a control group without tumors. That being unethical, we rely instead on our heuristics.

    All this reminded me of the Ulysses contract. It’s an interesting question.

  4. I don’t know if you follow NPR’s RadioLab podcast, but you should definitely check out their podcast on Blame. It’s very interesting and it’s a nice exploration of the topic. If nothing else, RadioLab is something one should always be interested in–it’s well delivered content on interesting issues presented with all the verve and sonic mastery of Steve Reich. It’s good talk radio meets exceptional composition. It’s the slickest damn thing I’ve ever listened to.

    I would say that I enjoyed you post (I very much did) and leave it at that, but I’m afraid I agree too strongly with the ideas contained within it to say so, and only so) without reeking of confirmation bias. :P So here’s me noting that I reek of confirmation bias.

    This has long been my own stance on these sorts of matters. I’m torn as to how we respond as a society. Currently, the illusion of free-will is an essential element of the society we want to craft. Whether that’s good or should continue is another matter–but for now at least, I think the society we want to create is very much *not* just one in which the man with the tumor stops killing people, but one in which he is held responsible–socially and legally–for having done so.

    There will always be a fuzzy line, it’s merely a matter of what we want to be fuzziest. Do we want to do as we do and have ideas of blame and culpability be fuzzy and neglected in exchange for a clear sense of self, agency and sovereignty to act as armor against our inevitable systems of social programming such that individuals can stand a greater chance resisting programming when necessary to act as an additional balancing force? Or do we want to place the fuzz on the matter of agency and identity in exchange for clear license to eradicate harm as seen from the perspective of the powers that be–i.e. the Brave New World route (note: this is not meant to be disparaging; I find it fascinating that one of the most compelling passages in the entire book is the part where the Director explains his view to the Savage … that Huxley utterly failed to convince me the Savage’s earnestness in the pages that followed was earned has always been immensely interesting to me).

    There are other axes and requisite fuzzinesses to consider, of course. But I feel that accepting the fuzziness of blame in a cognitive sense is merely a matter of straight-forward data. The case for free-will is not entirely lost–indeed the case for non-local effects of consciousness is not entirely lost and that could well tie in to free will–but the feasible bar for the *power* and *scope* of free-will (and non-local consciousness effects, for that matter) lowers by the day, That, to me, is a matter of routine observation–albeit stifled by our systems of socialization such that it is completely understandable that it is not a way of thinking people find “obvious” or otherwise naturally occurring. it goes against common sense, certainly, but I feel it is quite apparent in a scientific sense.

    But as you discuss somewhat, the extent to which that matters is nebulous. Our society has no particular need to take such things explicitly into account. It is certainly our obligation to *consider* the true costs and difficulties of certain social perspectives and socialization schemes in light of this kind of discussion, but I do not think that because we have any obligation to be *rational* about the way we respond to that consideration. We are not and cannot be rational actors–but we hit a somewhat circular logic at that point: if we decide that our society must rationally abandon the rational actor/agent concept in order to function properly we are cleaving to an inherently rational ideal while simultaneously deciding that that ideal defeats itself. Certainly we should abandon rational actors/agents as *predictive* models of behavior, but to throw away the rational ideal in favor of embracing our wibbly-wobbly-ness wholeheartedly is not necessarily the proper response.

    No system can be properly described within itself. This is true of math, this is true of ethics and of logic. We cannot define the direction our society should move in or the most rational course of action or what-have-you from within those respective systems of parlance–and as long as we’re standing them willy-nilly against each other semi-arbitrarily to achieve a cohesive yet circular justification for the way things are … we might as well consider continuing to assign blame in precisely the way that we do now. It’s no less valid a course in many respects.

    But, again, the recognition of why it is also no *more* valid a course and the specifics therein is essential. Hence my general concurrence with your discussion here. :)

  5. I guess there ‘is’ ‘hope’ in this respect given that over about a century since we started applying science to minds, the sum total of mental technology is to sometimes more or less manage anxiety and depression by titrating the single chemical serotonin.

    I don’t feel ‘punishment’ is a terribly useful word for thinking about management of criminal behaviour. Criminal justice systems are already acknowledged to pursue a broad, chaotic tangle of different purposes – rehabilitiation and discipline in the ideal case, imposition of disincentives on rational antisocial actors, subtitutionary retribution to suppress cycles of private escalation, and down at the bottom simple physical prophylaxis.

  6. P.S.

    I think one of the most productive ways to discuss this sort of thing is in terms of sustainability.

    Rather than concerning ourselves with whether or not the way we assign blame makes sense, we should consider how sustainable it is when compared to our prototype society.

    The extreme of brainwashing in order to construct a society of people who simply never mis-perform is, much like the extreme of any ideological vision, rather antithetical to certain elements of most prototype societies. It erases concepts of identity and agency that are at the heart of many long-standing prototype societies. That means that sustainable doesn’t even get a chance to come into it–programming people more explicitly than we do is out of the question.

    But another view: we have an imperfect vision of the future. By programing uniform adherence to our current vision, we reduce the diversity in our system. Just like biodiversity, social transgression frequently allows societies to be more flexible by continually exposing societies to new ideas and allowing societies to adopt traits, much like organisms, that benefit them. Societies that adhere to their prototypes overly rigidly and uniformly lose the ability to adapt not only to new motivations, but indeed to new basic scientific discoveries.

    But, again, we should nonetheless always be aware of the complete implications, such as is possible, of our social systems so we can properly assess them by whatever wibbly metrics we deem most appropriate. The need not be rational metrics, but only with proper understanding of the complexity of our society can we make informed, consenting decisions as to how our societies operate.

  7. the thought accord to me of why atheists have funerals and the general conclusion was, we remember the dead so that the living will act like they will be remembered. bringing this back to your Blameless Society point. It is important to blame the offender so that potential offenders will act as though they will be blamed.

  8. I was going to mention that Radiolab episode about Blame, but gwathdring beat me to it! Anyway, great essay, cheers!

  9. Hey, Tom! I just wanted to point your attention to something you ‘d find interesting. The Chaos Reborn Kickstarter is live, and they have a working multiplayer prototype available for public play.
    It’s a turn based tactical game about battling wizards and, just like the the werewolf game you posted about, focuses on bluff and deception. I like to call it the ‘poker’ of strategy games.

    The basic mechanics go like this:
    You start the game with one unit, your wizard. He is very fragile, and has crappy offensive skills, but he acts as your ‘king’. If he dies, you lose.
    Your wizard is also the source of all your power . You can use him to cast magic attacks, or to summon creatures.
    This is where the bluffing comes in. Nothing in chaos is ever certain, every action is based on chance. This makes summoning powerful creatures difficult, as they have very low chances to succeed. However, when summoning a creature, you have the option to summon an illusion instead. Illusions have a 100% chance to summon, and are identical to real units in every aspect. However, if an opponent suspects an illusion, he may ‘disbelieve’ it, which destroys ‘fake’ creatures immediately.
    Needless to say, this makes for some interesting strategies.

    I’m sorry this post is so long, and I also apologise if it came across as an advertisement. It’s not, I’d just really like to see your take on the game.
    The link is here, if you wanna try it:



  10. ‘If only there were a Radiolab episode about this.’

    A plaintive cry that is applicable to every topic!

  11. it gets a lot more complicated if you add a sociological perspective to it.
    who is to blame if you can not get a job and need to feed kids and the only solutions you come up with are illegal?

    there is also a risk if you only look at it from a medical/neurological perspective: the brain is more complex than most people realize (from my experience), so if we start to assign aggressive behavior to specific regions right now without understanding how it all works, we might become the same situation we had when we assigned homosexuality to a mental disorder

  12. I think, in the case of the tumor, we could probably agree that a tumor is not a natural part of his brain, and thus is not ‘him’, so removing it would only be fixing his personality, not altering it.

    One thing about the vomiting example: Vomiting is a physical urge, so to speak, a reflex. I would say that the urge to vomit is not something occuring in your higher brain functions, thus you have the capacity to not ‘want’ to vomit, but still do it. However, when something is affecting the higher functions of a person’s brain, how does this urge manifest, and how much of their mind can consciously claim to be against the action? When things start affecting the personality traits of an individual, separating will from action becomes much more difficult. Still a useful example, though.

    I really like what you said about moving away from retribution in punishment, and focusing on prevention. Seems like a very sane way of addressing an increasingly insane reality.

  13. Technically, nobody is to blame for anything. From the beginning of everything, infinity seconds ago, everything was going to happen the way it did. There were a set of variables, and those variables, no matter the odds, were going to make our universe, our solar system, our planet. And out of those things came more variables, which produced everything on earth. And while those variables exist, they will produce their effects.

    Say a child is born into an abusive childhood (one variable) and this variable means they lack confidence, and so end up with no friends at school (a new variable), which makes them depressed (yet another) so they fail school, which could mess up their life. That child’s life could not have turned out any differently, because of their abusive parents, who probably ended up that way because of their own childhoods, etc etc up until the first life ever.

    The point is, that was the only way it could have worked out for that child, and it is the same for everything else in existence. To change the future, or the present, you’d have to change the past. So I guess all blame can be laid upon the first variable which ever existed.

  14. Nah. Even disregarding all physics after 1899 or so, chaos and complexity. Read Godel Escher Bach to understand, or for any other reason because it’s a hoot.

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