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?
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.)
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.
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.