Responsibility vs. Blame

I’ve argued before that we are pulled in many different ways by our feelings and needs, and that we do not consciously choose our actions. Also, believing that somebody deliberately chose to act badly is what triggers anger, hatred and blame.

– Heresy n°2 –

Everyone is always doing their best.

While I characterise it as a heresy, it’s not exactly a new idea. Many people reject it because thy are afraid that if noone is to blame for their actions, we will lose any kind of morality, and the basis for social order. In one sense this is true: our current societies are based on blame, and that does go out the window. At the same time we can easily replace it with something better: responsibility.

Blaming is about looking backward, about judging and finding a guilty party. Responsibility looks forward: it is our common responsibility to find a way of living together in peace. Blame is divisive, responsibility binds us together.


Adopting Heresy n°2 means we can think in terms of incentives and deterrents. These don’t depend on free will: if an action is connected to a cost or benefit, this becomes a factor in the unconscious decision making process, and influences our behaviour. And we can think about influencing behaviour much more clearly without the fog of concepts like blameworthiness, and just deserts.

Have you ever found yourself defending your own behaviour, although, in your heart of hearts, you were unhappy with it yourself? When we play the blame-game, we are automatically creating opposition. When we say “you are a bad person” to someone, it’s not really surprising that they push back. Suppose instead we say: “I understand you had a good reason to act as you did, at the same time I really don’t like what you did, maybe you aren’t completely happy with it either?” Then maybe together with that person we can find ways to help them act differently in the future, or to prevent the negative consequences of such actions.

Most important of all, when we adopt the idea that everyone is always doing their best we can stop wrestling in our minds with what we think is going on in someone else’s head. Have you ever found yourself repeating an argument you had with someone? Have you ever found yourself wanting to “teach someone a lesson”, or to “show them how it feels”? This is all unpleasant, and it’s not about what really happened, but about what you think is going on inside the other person’s head. When you accept that that person did not choose to act as they did, you can let it go.

Personal slant

There are many ways of expressing Heresy n°2., e.g. “Everyone is acting the only way they can act in the situation as they see it.” I prefer my version “Everyone is always doing their best” because I find it emotionally more appealing. The positive slant makes it easier for me to feel compassion with someone whose actions are getting on my nerves. Of course, everyone is free to find their own way of putting it.

A final test

If you think: “Well that’s all very nice, but it’s not really true, is it?” try this test. Think of something bad that you’ve done, something you are really unhappy with in retrospect. Were you happy and relaxed that day? Was the sun shining, the sky blue, and did you decide to do something bad just for the hell of it?  Or were you under pressure, stressed out, exhausted, afraid, or hurt? Was this something you did because you saw no other way, or you just couldn’t help yourself?

I think you will find that at that moment, under those circumstances you did the best you could, however miserable that best may have been. Now, if you claim this compassion for yourself: how can you deny it to anyone else?

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I like blue.

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