Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Blame and Creating Risks for Others

Colin Heydt

Before turning to the pandemic, allow me to tell a story. One of my cousins—let’s call him “Walt”—grew up loving cars. As a 12-year-old, Walt could name the make and model of every car we passed in his rural New Hampshire town. When Walt got old enough to drive, he and his friends would modify Fords, Toyotas, and Chevys, trying to increase their maximum speeds. At night, they would travel across the border to Vermont and the lightly trafficked Interstate 91 to test their modifications, reaching speeds of over 110 miles per hour. It may comfort you to know that no one was ever hurt by these experiments. But you may still blame my cousin and his friends for having acted as they did, even if you can sympathize with their impulses. Why?

Blame rests on two pillars: fault and wrongfulness. The person we blame has done something wrong, that is, he has violated an obligation, and he is at fault or responsible for it. In the case of my cousin’s nighttime adventures, there is little debate about fault. Walt knew what he was doing and wanted to do it. He didn’t accidentally push down the accelerator too far or inadvertently achieve high speeds. Those speeds were the goal.

The trickier component in this case is wrongfulness: if no one was hurt, what makes what these aspiring Mario Andrettis did wrong? The answer: what they did was wrong because they created substantial and unjustifiable risk for others travelling on the interstate. The risk to others wasn’t worth any pleasure they got from the speed. Nothing bad came of the risk they took, but they were simply lucky.

So, we direct blame at wrong actions and what makes some actions wrong is that they create substantial and unjustifiable risk for others. Here, I suggest we return to our omnipresent pandemic, because with a novel virus, we deal constantly with taking risks and with blaming and praising. Should administrators reopen schools? Should the hair salon encourage customers to visit? Should professional sports recommence? Is it worth the risk to reopen universities, restaurants, cities?

Start by acknowledging that the question “Is it worth the risk?” is too bloodless. It is always some individual who is taking on the risk: “Is it worth her risk? His risk? Their risk?” And when a mayor reopens a city, she determines the importance of the risk you take. When an owner reopens her restaurant, she puts a value on the risk of her employees and customers. While we may agree that my cousin’s joy from speed is not worth the risk it creates to others, do we agree that what happens at a university is worth a .04% chance that this professor of art history will die and a .007% chance that this bartender in the university town will suffer severe lung damage?

These are hard decisions. I don’t envy the people who have to make them. I would, however, like to point out two problems that we face in evaluating and creating risks for others—a problem of knowledge and a problem of framing.

As we blame officials and fellow-citizens for taking undue risks or for not taking enough risks, how confident should we be that we judge risk well? Not very confident, it seems. We estimate complex risks poorly (think of pandemics or climate change) and with bias. Some of those biases are cognitive. For instance, the availability heuristic is the tendency to judge risk by how readily we can think of the harms those risks produce. Thus, rare cases of children abducted by strangers can dramatically alter a nation’s child-rearing practices. Some of our risk-assessment biases are social. Sharing beliefs with those around us cements social ties. We’re therefore prone to agree with peers about the relative risks of gun ownership, drug use, climate change, or going to a store without a mask in the midst of a pandemic. One indication of this bias is our resistance to looking for disconfirming evidence—the point is the social tie, not the veracity of the belief. It may be that Aristotle held the truth to be dearer than his friend Plato, but most of us choose our friends.

The second problem: how should we frame or describe what creating risks for others means? When a university declares that it is reopening for in-person instruction in the fall term, how should it present the implications vis-à-vis students and staff? Are students and staff invited to take the risk of coming back to campus? Required? Entreated? Requested? The differences here matter.[1] If I say yes to an invitation, you might express gratitude. If I comply with an order, I might merit little more than acknowledgement. If you entreat me and I say no, I may feel a tinge of regret, but certainly won’t feel guilt.

The same issues arise for public officials. Am I being instructed to stay home by my mayor? Is it rather an invitation to be a contributing member of a community—a call to serve something greater than myself? Is it simply advice about what’s good for me? Is it a complex combination of all of them? Some of the most important differences in how nations, institutions, businesses, and individuals have dealt with the pandemic stem from the stances they’ve taken toward our risk and the ways they’ve asked us to think about (or ignore) the risks of others.

[1] Mark Lance and Rebecca Kukla [AKA Quill Kukla], “Leave the Gun; Take the Cannoli! The Pragmatic Topography of Second-Person Calls,” Ethics 123 (April 2013), 456-478

Moral Philosophy in Eighteenth-Century Britain by Colin Heydt

About The Author

Colin Heydt

Colin Heydt is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Florida. His work has been published in numerous journals and he is the author of Rethinking Mill's Ethi...

View profile >

Latest Comments

Have your say!