Blame and Responsibility

Blame and responsibility

I started writing this post by trying to find a word for “responsibility” (as in responsibility for something gone wrong) which does not have a negative connotation. I was unsuccessful, and I cannot think of a word which assigns responsibility without assigning blame.

Not every failure indicates blame. Even if we can identify who is responsible for a failure, it is not necessarily correct to blame them for it. An immediate example is someone who was forced to accept responsibility beyond their skill level. If all the officers in a platoon are killed in battle, and one of the soldiers assumes command, if he loses the battle we can assign responsibility to him, but we cannot blame him. His responsibility would not include any negative connotation.

The spectrum of responsibility runs from full blame to no blame. Someone who had the necessary skills and knowledge and still failed to do the job has the highest degree of blame. Someone who did not have the skills, and was not negligent in attaining them, and did not put themselves in a situation they were unprepared for is blameless in case of failure, though we can still discuss their responsibility.

There are distinct factors which define levels of blame. The first is a failure to apply one’s skills to dealing with the issue. This is the greatest degree of blame, for the failure is entirely a result of the person not accepting the responsibility, and not exerting themselves to succeed. This is the standard situation when we blame people for failure – students who did not study for their tests, managers who did not mind their schedules, and generals who did not respect their limitations.

A lesser degree of blame is when someone is in a position of responsibility they are unsuited or unprepared for. If they pushed themselves into that position they are to be blamed for that. This seems to be common in hierarchal, structured settings, such as the military or large corporations.

A common situation where conflict arises over assigning responsibility is where someone was decently prepared for their situation, yet they fail to achieve their goal, for no obvious reason. They were not irresponsible or lazy, they took care to learn how to do what needed doing, they made a good faith effort, and still failed. Often other people will be quick to blame them, as they have failed where success was reaonably expected. Theperson involved will refuse to accept the blame, as they have done what was expected of them, even if the results reflect poorly on them. The conflict here arises because the people involved conflate blame and responsibility. In this situation the responsibility is clear while the blame is elusive.

A very common situation where blame and responsibility need to be seperated, but are not, are in cases of divorce. Everyone who gets divorced has some responsibility for it, but usually one side bears the blame. It is very common to hear how it is always both sides who are responsible. This is technically true, if we understand responsibility as a situational evaluation and not as a judgement. Both sides are responsible, not necessarily in the same way, but there is never any reason to assume that both sides are to blame.

At this level the relevant responsibility is to recognize that whatever you are doing is not working, and figure out how to change it. This is a second level of responsibility, more difficult and less obvious than the first level, which is doing what is recognized and expected in the situation. Getting back to marriage, the first level of each person’s responsibility is to care about the other, pay attention to their needs and desires, and generally allow the relationship to grow. There is also the further expectation to stick it out when it does not go well, while continuing to try to improve the relationship. Someone who fails at this level is clearly responsible, and deserves the blame for the lack of success of the marriage. The second level of responsibility is relevant when someone has done what was expected and their marriage is still not succeeding, and this will generally be when their spouse is failing in their responsibilities. At this point they must realize that the standard expectations in marriage are not helping them, and they must try to understand why not, and what they can do instead. What often happens here is that if they are truly committed to the marriage they will double down on doing the standard expectations, investing further energies in what is not working anyway. This will cause extreme frustration if they end up getting divorced, and they are then blamed for failing in their responsibilities, even though on the first level of responsibility they may well have invested more than anyone in a succesful marriage invests.

This second level of responsibility, which is the responsibility to reject standard expectations when they do not work, requires people to reject what they have always been told is their basic responsibilities. They must violate the demands of those same people who will hold them responsible in the end, as they change from expected approaches to finding something that works. The superior who cannot tell the difference between responsibility and blame will also not be able to recognize the need to depart from the standard script, which will often leave people in a situation where they are assigned responsibility and must accept the blame, but they do not have the authority to actually ensure the successful execution of their responsibilities.

The meta-responsibility of breaking away from the initially expected approach is also where moral growth happens. As long as someone handles their responsibilities by simply following their job description they will never gain a better understanding of the nature of their work and of their own abilities and limitations in the relevant area. They will never be forced to analyze the area of their responsibilty and to understand all the potential pitfalls. They will not have the opportunity to creatively apply their own skills and insights in solving the problem. Paradoxically, people who have always succeeded in the field will often turn out to be the least able to guide others, as their success shielded them from gaining deeper insights. People who have failed initially in their responsibilities and then again accepted thos responsibilities and succeeded are the ones who best understand the issues involved, and who are most capable of advising others.

People often deny responsibility because they are trying to avoid accepting blame. Often when someone demands than another person accept responsibility, they are trying to assign blame. Blame and responsibility must be seperated in order to allow a healthy resolution to any failure, and to be able to identify and fix the causes of the failure. Blame must be assigned where blame is due, but it should not get in the way of discussing responsibility where the only issue is the failure but there is no blame. A denial of blame does not necessarily reflect poorly on someone, unless they are to be blamed, but avoidance of responsibility is always a problem. Acceptance of personal responsibility for a failure is the basic condition which says that someone is again ready to assume responsibility in a task where they previously failed.

The 100% Mistake

There is a sure-fire way to identify bad advice in any field. Bad advice demands a 100% effort, and anything less than that will not work. Good advice, on the other hand, will have positive results even when applied half-way.

Good advice reflects the nature of the endeavor, and therefore its effect will be in proportion to how well the advice was followed, which is how well the actions correspond to the ideal. Bad advice is always something which is trying to fight nature, and force it into the desired pattern, instead of working with it. Less than 100% effort with such advice has no chance of forcing nature out of its routine; even a 100% effort has no guarantee of positive results.

One public example is the debate over improving the economy. Obama and his economic advisors know how to fix the economy, but their programs will only work if they are implemented fully. If the Republicans limit the size of the stimulus and other economic programs, they have gutted them, leaving them with no chance of success. If the stimulus failed to stimulate the economy, that is only because it was not big enough, and 99% of the necessary stimulus is insufficient.

If economies in crises can be revived with stimulus spending, then a small stimulus would have a small, but noticable, effect. The argument that it was not big enough does not explain why it failed completely, and rather demonstrates that it failed because stimulus spending is not a valid economic approach.

Arguing for 100% effort means that advice is not testable. You can never know if what you are doing is right until you have invested everything in it, and even then there is no way you have reached the necessary level of investment. Advice which will only work with 100% effort is not worth following, because you have no reason to ever expect the advice to work.

Bad advice will always make the Red Queen’s claim: running as fast as you can is will only let you stay where you are, and you must run faster than that if you are to get anywhere.

Another area where such advice is common is standard marriage advice. Many counselors who offer platitudes on marriage will tell people that marriage is very hard work, and unless they invest 100% it will never work. Standard marriage advice is pretty clueless, and will not offer much when there are real problems. The counselor’s exhortions that marriage needs a 100% investment make his advice untestable and unfalsifiable, but they do not make it useful. Good marriage advice will improve the marriage even when partially applied.

Good advice will never reach 100% compliance. Bad advice needs 100%, because until then there is no return on the investment. Good advice will have a noticable effect even when partially applied, and the benefits of the advice will increase with the effort. Good advice followed with 90% consistency will give people what they are looking for, and usually it will give them far more than they expected. The additional effort will have lower returns, as the effort needed gets more difficult, and anyway the desired results have already been achieved. When someone has followed good advice the extra effort needed to go 100% cannot be justified. At that point they have little to gain from that extra effort.

Bad advice is worthless with less than 100% effort, and any advisor saying that his advice demands 100% is exposing the worthlessness of his advice. When advice is on target, 100% is not only not necessary, it is also irrelevant. Good advice can be sampled, tested, and adapted, and will always show results.