A few meandering thoughts on an important semantic distinction

March 8, 2007

Today, and not for the first time, a colleague and I sat down and spoke briefly of issues and problems related to a work context. While I have intention of neither betraying my colleagues trust, nor of boring you faithful readers with the details of such a discussion, it did raise an interesting point about ‘fault.’

My conversation today was not the first time I have considered the important issues of fault in the context of problems. As a child I was constantly and creatively engaged in interpreting the subtle nuances of such a concept, always ready to provide a new interpretation that would shift the burden causality from myself a convenient friend, sibling, foe or inanimate object.

Likewise, as a teacher, I have defended less forgiving notions of ‘fault,’ helping students to understand that missing key directions due to illness, but failing to follow up and discover what might have been missed, constituted a degree of ‘fault’ for a failing grade.

But ultimately my position on the notion of fault comes down to a distinction between the concepts of ‘blame’ and ‘responsibility.’ To be uncharacteristically un-verbose, my position is essentially:

We may not always be to blame for the situations in which we find ourselves, but we are always ultimately responsible for them.

This position, as noted above, rests on the distinction between being to blame for something, and being responsible for something. Now in our modern use of language, the two concepts are often used nearly interchangeably. To blame someone, according to some dictionaries, is to assign responsibility. This however is an unfortunate conflation of two very different ideas.

The act of blaming is the act of assigning causal fault. To blame someone for event X, is to assign the ultimate cause of event or outcome X as the fault (through action or inaction) of the person blamed.

In contrast, to be responsible for event X, at least in the original understanding of the term, means to be answerable or accountable for event or outcome X.

While there is certainly a degree of similarity in being to blame for a thing, and being responsible for a thing, they are also quite different.

This returns us to the oft forgotten point.

It is my experience that we, in modern western society, are altogether too focused on the assigning of blame, and altogether too negligent when it comes to assuming responsibility.

I may not always be to blame for all the contexts in which I find myself, but I remain ultimately responsible for them.

To say the same thing in another way…

I do not need to be the cause of a problem, to be accountable for helping solve it.

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4 Responses to “A few meandering thoughts on an important semantic distinction”

  1. thekenji Says:

    I would imagine that the general populace in modern society likes to keep the line between “blame” and “responsibility” blurred because the only sneaky way to unload responsibility from your shoulders onto someone else’s is to transfer it via a vague definition of blame.

    The worst is when one person is blamed and then everyone joins in on the blaming, because it’s a convenient receptacle to dispose of their responsibilities.

    The teenage version is: when one person is suddenly outed for being “uncool”, everyone rips into him/her because they want to avert any focus on themselves… since we are all responsible for our own cool.

    The adult case is just a more sophisticated version of the same…


  2. Our agency is our identity. People are just choices and tendancies; you take away that sense of first and final cause and there is nothing left. You don’t grow, you don’t connect; on a fundemental level you disengage from your life.

    The best advice I ever got was: Do and think whatever you want, but be honest about your motivations and take ownership of the consequences…intended or otherwise. You skip that step and you will spend your whole life searching for an inner self that you never bothered to construct, and making excuses for why you can’t find it.

  3. baredfeetandteeth Says:

    Nicely put. I’ve often thought of blame as something you put on someone else, while responsibility is something you take upon yourself. It’s the more proactive option. Unfortunately, the world’s about as proactive as a festering lump of expired cheese these days.

  4. monkey Says:

    cheese never expires


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