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Blame and responsibility

Humans like to believe that they live in a universe based on logic and sense, so that if something good or bad happens then there must be an underlying reason for it. Such a belief helps us come to terms with a universe where events seem beyond our control. It is a challenge to our dignity and intelligence to realize that perhaps we are not significant in this universe, that perhaps what appears important to us is contextual, based on our ideologies and conditioning, and outside of that has no intrinsic significance to the rest of the universe. In this context, religion has an important role. A belief in a religion based on a god or gods that causes events to happen eliminates the need to account for those events: random events can be attributed to the working of divine beings. Religions also comfort us by placing humans relatively high up on the scale of importance, generally just below the divine being or beings.

There are dangers in such thinking, for if we attribute responsibility for events to superior beings then we are absolved from responsibility for those events. We may be led to a belief in fatalism, the view that nothing that we can do now alters the future.

Believers in fatalism are frequently inconsistent. A person who believes that a divine being has decided the course of future events is often ready to condemn others for their actions in the past, at which point causality is inverted and becomes blame. When something happens that we interpret as bad for us, it seems natural to blame another person for that, because there is no comfort in blaming an invisible god or gods: it is usually much more satisfying to punish a real individual for their crimes, real or imagined.

Our conditioning in this respect is powerful: it is very uncomfortable to contemplate the possibility that those who commit the most hideous of crimes should not be held responsible for their actions, perhaps because they were ill. The fact is, human understanding of causality, on the macroscopic scales defined by human social interaction, is virtually non-existent. Take the case of a driver who goes too fast around a bend and kills a child on a bicycle. To what extent did the driver cause that death? Certainly, if they had not driven too fast, the child might have lived. But, equally, the child’s parents could have decided to prevent the child cycling on dangerous roads in the first place.

Perhaps our ignorance of causality is just as well. If the day comes when human actions are fully understood and controlled, then perhaps we will no longer be humans but machines, running on pre-programmed, deterministic lines with a total absence of blame or responsibility. Whilst this may seem like Utopia, the problem is that such pre-programming is not intrinsic to the universe and we could find our society running along very unpleasant lines, such as the imposition of mandatory termination of life at age 60 [Asimov, 1950].

 
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