The fallacy that you have explained and in part solved a problem when its complexities have been focused, summarised and embodied in a person, a group, or other agent. A goat, perhaps.

Blame is therefore a quick way of making up your mind about a situation which you have not understood, or it at least provides a useful distraction. It avoids the need to explain a person’s behaviour or an event, still less to trace the sequence of cause-and-effect through to its origins. It is a way of making sure that trouble, once it comes, will settle in, its causes forever undiscovered.

If blame for an action is to have any meaning, it must be the case that the person was free to choose a different action. And yet, if the sequence of cause-and-effect is traced properly, there is no space left in which “free choice” makes any sense. Why not? Because the choice the person made was shaped by circumstances which were themselves beyond his control—and without free choice, blame becomes meaningless. This does not in any sense eliminate the role of responsibility in making a judgment; a choice is undoubtedly a person’s responsibility and he or she must be held to account for it. But the possession of a sense of responsibility is itself a matter which is largely or entirely a gift of inheritance or upbringing, or other circumstances not of the person’s own making.

What, then, can you make of an undesired action or circumstance? You can apply judgment, or you can apply blame. If you apply judgment, you may simply, but reasonably, judge the action, or the person, or any of the circumstances surrounding it, to be bad (or good), against any standards you wish to use, such as the laws and expectations of the time, and you can then proceed to punish (or reward) accordingly. Equally reasonably, but at greater depth, you may wish to apply judgment by understanding how the event came about. The alternative is to apply blame. The problem is not just that, when you do this, you fail to understand how the action came about, but that, having failed to do so, you then proceed to plug the gap in your understanding with the pretence that the action has been understood: it fills the gap with blame, the thought-equivalent of fast food.

It matures easily into the witch-hunt. It is evidently comforting, when there is a crisis, to have someone to blame for it. Typically, the search for someone to blame crowds out all other deliberation. Blame seems to explain everything: any part of the analysis which is not blame is seen as evasion: to blame is to affirm and establish one’s own moral standing beyond challenge—for if you challenge it, you are defending the guilty. And a common variant is the conspiracy version: no action or statement, not even the most benign ones, can be understood until the evil intent underlying them has been ruthlessly exposed. That ability to discover the true, rotten heart of everything is seen as proof of intelligence and moral standing.

The number of people on whom anxiety and confusion will be dumped in the form of blame is likely to rise as, in the future, unexpected events crowd in. There is witch-hunt potential. But lean thinking does not blame. As far as it can, it explains.


Related entries:

Choice, Causes, Devil’s Tunes, Five Whys, Trust.

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was an economist, historian and writer, based in London. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, Lean Logic and Surviving the Future. A film about his perspective and legacy - The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation? - was released in 2019, directed by BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong. For more information, including on Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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