Yes, We Can Blame People For Their Feelings, Not Just Their Actions

“You can’t blame people for how they feel, only for what they do.”

“You have every right to be offended, but you don’t have the right to censor others just because you’re offended.”

In this post and the next one, I want to explain why I think these two common moral sentiments are quite mistaken—or, at least, are oversimple. Along the way I also want to clarify my remarks yesterday that one should not get offended at satire. In this first post, I will address only the general point that we can legitimately blame people for their feelings. In the next post, I will work out my views on when it is appropriate or inappropriate to be offended, and how we should approach satire in light of such considerations.

Let me clarify from the outset that what interests me primarily is ethics. I think there is a tendency in our culture to collapse too many ethical discussions into legal ones or to reason about ethical questions as though they were legal ones.

If we were talking about the law, then yes, you can’t blame people for having bad feelings that they do not act upon, but only blame them for what they do. Even there, of course, feelings matter since with many actions the intention helps define the action. If I completely innocently trip and knock you over and you get seriously injured, then I may have some civil liabilities to you. But it would not be the same as if I maliciously knocked you over with the intention to injure you. In which case I should be charged criminally.

And, yes, if we are talking about the law, you have (or should have) the complete and total legal right to be upset by whatever upsets you. That’s your freedom of conscience, and as long as you do not strip others of their civil rights or their rights to free expression, then as far as the law is concerned, you may let your offended feelings gnaw away at your insides until you are an empty shell.

So, legal concessions aside, let’s talk strictly about ethics. Why and when can we say someone’s feelings are bad?

Ethics, as far as I am concerned, is about how we live the best lives we can. I am self-consciously in the perfectionist tradition, which stretches back from at least the ancient Greeks through Nietzsche to moral philosophers like Thomas Hurka today. In this view, moralities and specific moral decisions are ultimately justified by the ways that they contribute to our living excellent human lives and having excellent human characters in order to live such great lives.

To me, morality is only ultimately important insofar as it leads to maximal human flourishing in power among the maximal number of people possible and with as much consideration for the flourishing of those living the worst lives as possible, consistent with overall growth. Put more simply, morality is a means to our living well, it is not an end in itself. But, nonetheless, if we develop strong virtues that morality requires of us, these can be ways of living well in themselves. This is because well-designed moral rules will be ones that conduce to our flourishing, rather than hinder it. Moral virtues are habitual character traits which make it second nature for us to make good moral decisions, which conduce to our flourishing. So it is excellent for us to have moral virtues both as a means to flourishing and as constituting our flourishing. In other words, it is good in itself for us to have truly moral virtues. Just having and expressing them is a big part of being a flourishing, happy, excellent person. And, even if it weren’t, it would be definitional of being a good person.

So, in this context, if I have ill-humored and unfair feelings of destructive jealousy, pettiness, intolerance, irascibility, selfishness, self-pity, greed, etc., then I am both ill-disposed (and therefore less likely) to do good actions rather than bad ones. This is morally problematic because even on occasions where I successfully manage in the end to restrain these feelings, they can come precariously close to making me do evil things in the first place. It is better that I just not have such inclinations than that I am frequently wrestling with them and overcoming them. I would be both more reliably excellent in my actions, and happier in my excellence, if I acted from feelings that were morally inclined towards what was truly best than if I always felt like doing what was wrong and had to struggle to do the right thing against my inclinations. A good person, interested in an excellent life, conscientiously develops feelings which will lead her to do better actions and to do them more readily, and will feel happier as a result.

And so when someone does a wrong action from a bad character, we can blame their character at least in part. The issue is not just that they did something wrong but that they did not, in advance, work on improving their feelings so that they would avoid their error. Say I go into an unjustifiable rage and physically attack you. The physical assault is not the only thing I’ve done wrong. The original, deeper wrong was not getting my rage under control. And if I never learn to get my rage under control, I will lash out repeatedly and not just in this one instance. While you can only press legal charges against the physical assaults, from an ethical perspective my out of control feelings of rage and my weakness of will to control them, are the more damnable things because they are what motivate and perpetuate the harmful outward behaviors.

We should not advise people to see their inner-life as a playground for negative feelings and attitudes, as long as they do not let them lead to negative actions. What we feel will affect what we do. And what we feel, if it is false, unfair, self-pitying, etc., will involve intrinsically putting ourselves into a negative or dishonest mental relationship to that which we are considering negatively and that is intrinsically an inappropriate attitudinal relationship, even if it ends there.

And so in light of these considerations, when we actually do wrong sometimes the only way to properly own up to our wrong is to say, “I should not have had that attitude, which led to that wrong emotional response, which led to my negative behavior.” Sometimes, in this way, we need to take responsibility for three things and for changing all three—the attitude, the emotional responses springing from it, and the actions that finally result.

And sometimes even when we do not do wrong but are strongly tempted to do so, we should look at our feelings and ask, “Why am I so strongly inclined towards something which is wrong? How can I check this before it turns into bad actions or causes me more painful struggles to resist them?” And we can say to those who wrong us that changing their actions is not enough if they do not also reexamine their emotions. And sometimes we can just observe that one of our attitudes is just plain fucked up, even if we do not see how it is having any negative consequences, and just work to see things more truly and fairly and less irrationally and less unfairly.

This view of ethics accounts for and justifies a lot of our moral judgments. An important common moral judgment to highlight is that it is wrong to be bigoted and not just to act on bigotry. We typically think there is something wrong about hating and wrong about having a prejudiced disposition that leads us only to see what is bad about a group of people to the exclusion of what is good. We also recognize that hatreds and prejudices lead to cognitive errors according to which we imagine unreal badness in those we hate or are otherwise prejudiced against. Prejudiced feelings hinder our abilities to judge properly.

Now, you may be objecting that this is unfair to people. What if you have feelings you don’t wish you had? What if you find yourself thinking homophobic, racist, or sexist things and yet wish you did not? Surely we cannot blame you for that, as long as you work your hardest to not let these things affect your actions, right?

It is certainly true that it is wrong (and often counter-productive) to moralistically pummel someone who is conscientiously working to overcome bad habits of feeling and judging which were inculcated in them through years of socialization which was out of their full control. I am not suggesting we flog ourselves or each other for every erring thought we have, clothe ourselves in sack cloth and ashes, call humanity irredeemably evil and the heart desperately sick and depraved. I am not a Christian anymore.

But, nonetheless, to the extent that we still have to struggle to be good, we can recognize that as good as our intentions are, we still have more perfecting to do and we still have to be vigilant against implicit biases coming out and affecting our judgments and actions, even without our conscious awareness. To the extent that we are not yet perfect, I am not saying that we have to be blamed but we do have to at least admit our remaining weaknesses, be scrupulous in preventing them from leading to poor behavior, and actively work on correcting our feelings.

In addition to trying to correct prejudicially negative feelings, we must coordinate all our feelings to be those which are the most rationally approvable for our circumstances. And I also agree with Nietzsche that since feelings play an ineliminable role in our thinking, we must actively attempt to not only look at many issues from a range of perspectives but to feel them from various emotional perspectives, so that we have a fuller understanding of them. I have explained that already in the posts On Zealously, Tentatively, and Perspectivally Holding Viewpoints and My Perspectivist, Teleological Account Of The Relative Values Of Pleasure And Pain, and so I will recommend those interested in exploring this point to read those posts for now. I have also talked about prejudice before in my post, What is Wrong With Prejudice and is it Prejudicial to Dislike Someone over his Bad Thinking?

In my next post, having made these these clarifications of why and how feelings, and not just actions, can be ethically, I will turn to the question of when and how it is right and wrong to have feelings of offense. And in that context, I will explore the rational ways to feel in response to satire.

Your Thoughts?

The considerations spelled out in the above post should offer a greater context and justification for the ideas in the following, roughly logically ordered, posts. Listed below are some of the most salient posts I have written on problems in value theory, metaethics, moral psychology, practical ethics, and normative moral theory. There are a lot of them but you do not need to read them all to understand any of them whose titles interest you in particular. So don’t avoid all of them for fear you cannot read all of them.

Goodness Is A Factual Matter (Goodness=Effectiveness)

Grounding Objective Value Independent Of Human Interests And Moralities

Non-Reductionistic Analysis Of Values Into Facts

Effectiveness Is The Primary Goal In Itself, Not Merely A Means

What Is Happiness And Why Is It Good?

On The Intrinsic Connection Between Being And Goodness

Deriving An Atheistic, Naturalistic, Realist Account Of Morality

How Our Morality Realizes Our Humanity

From Is To Ought: How Normativity Fits Into Naturalism

Can Good Teaching Be Measured?

Some People Live Better As Short-Lived Football or Boxing Stars Than As Long Lived Philosophers

The Objective Value of Ordered Complexity

Defining Intrinsic Goodness, Using Marriage As An Example

The Facts About Intrinsic and Instrumental Goods and The Cultural Construction of Intrinsic Goods

Subjective Valuing And Objective Values

My Perspectivist, Teleological Account Of The Relative Values Of Pleasure And Pain

Pleasure And Pain As Intrinsic Instrumental Goods

What Does It Mean For Pleasure And Pain To Be “Intrinsically Instrumental” Goods?

Against Moral Intuitionism

Moral vs. Non-Moral Values

Maximal Self-Realization In Self-Obliteration: The Existential Paradox of Heroic Self-Sacrifice

On Good And Evil For Non-Existent People

My Perfectionistic, Egoistic AND Universalistic, Indirect Consequentialism (And Contrasts With Other Kinds)

Towards A “Non-Moral” Standard Of Ethical Evaluation

Further Towards A “Non-Moral” Standard Of Ethical Evaluation

On The Incoherence Of Divine Command Theory And Why Even If God DID Make Things Good And Bad, Faith-Based Religions Would Still Be Irrelevant

God and Goodness

Rightful Pride: Identification With One’s Own Admirable Powers And Effects

The Harmony Of Humility And Pride

Moral Mutability, Not Subjective Morality.  Moral Pluralism, Not Moral Relativism.

How Morality Can Change Through Objective Processes And In Objectively Defensible Ways

Nietzsche: Moral Absolutism and Moral Relativism Are “Equally Childish”


Is Emotivistic Moral Nihilism Rationally Consistent?

The Universe Does Not Care About Our Morality. But So What?

Why Be Morally Dutiful, Fair, or Self-Sacrificing If The Ethical Life Is About Power?

A Philosophical Polemic Against Moral Nihilism

Why Moral Nihilism Is Self-Contradictory

Answering Objections From A Moral Nihilist

If You Don’t Believe in Objective Values Then Don’t Talk To Me About Objective Scientific Truth Either

On Not-Pologies, Forgiveness, and Gelato

Yes, We Can Blame People For Their Feelings, Not Just Their Actions

Why Bother Blaming People At All? Isn’t That Just Judgmental?

Is Anything Intrinsically Good or Bad? An Interview with James Gray

My Metaethical Views Are Challenged. A Debate With “Ivan”

On Unintentionally Intimidating People

Meditations on How to Be Powerful, Fearsome, Empowering, and Loved

Is It Ever Good To Be Annoying?

No, You Can’t Call People Sluts.

Why Misogynistic Language Matters

Sex and “Spirituality”

Can Utilitarians Properly Esteem The Intrinsic Value of Truth?

No, Not Everyone Has A Moral Right To Feel Offended By Just Any Satire or Criticism

Moral Offense Is Not Morally Neutral

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • quantheory

    This reminds me about the question of whether people can be morally blameworthy for believing certain propositions. My tentative conclusion was that they shouldn’t be held morally accountable solely on the basis of the content of their beliefs (they may be too poorly or mis- informed to know better), but they should be held responsible for adequately investigating questions which they can percieve as having serious ethical significance. You can’t blame a child for being raised in a prejudiced society, but you can blame an adult for not investigating those prejudices, which is a form of morally blameworthy negligence. And in certain cases, an ethically dangerous idea is so easily refuted by such accessible information that we can consider them blameworthy for believing it at all, without pausing to ask how they came to believe it. This overlaps with cases where we might suspect intellectual (or plain old traditional) dishonesty.

    I should pause to note that, within the pragmatic utilitarian framework that I usually use, the purpose of assigning blame is to change people’s behavior, not to uncover on a metaphysical truth about who is “really” to blame. The point of blaming people for failing an epistemic duty is to give them reasons to change, and to do so with sufficient fairness that it doesn’t appear to be a no-win system.

    Anyway, it seems to me that one could apply a similar criterion to feelings. You aren’t morally accountable for your feelings by themselves, but you are accountable for trying to change the way you feel insofar as you know your feelings might impact ethical behavior and insofar as you have the means to change them.

    The major difficulty in both cases is the question of how much one can reasonably be expected to change. Many spiritual sorts think that, as long as their beliefs cannot be “disproven” by some ridiculously high standard, there’s no method by which anyone can show that they can change their mind. On the feelings side, I often hear from straight people (usually men talking about men) that they find gay people’s affection intrinsically repulsive, not merely at the level of sex, but in feeling uncomfortable about any sign of romantic attraction (kissing or hand-holding, what-have-you). I have no doubt that such people do feel uncomfortable, but the balance of evidence suggests to me that these feelings are a product of socialization and to a certain extent can be unlearned. Given that vague unease about gay people, even among people who theoretically support equal rights, contributes to their marginalization, it seems that one should try to deal with those feelings.

  • quantheory

    To clarify about the last point: the difficulty is not merely that people accept a certain amount of prejudice in themselves, but that they believe that feeling a certain amount of homophobia is intrinsic to being a straight person, and that therefore it is unreasonable to expect the to feel otherwise. This is a statement of fact about psychology, and one that appears to me to be investigated only indirectly, but so far seems false.

  • NewEnglandBob

    If someone recognizes that a feeling is bigoted or prejudicial and restrains self from taking action on that feeling, isn’t this actively working on the problem? What else can one do? Go for psychotherapy?

    Hey, the Republicans actively work at harming 85% (99%?) of the US and hardly no one calls them ethically offensive.

  • http://richarddawkins.net/profiles/51655 Peter Grant

    I’m not entirely sure we should “blame” people for their actions, never mind their feelings. In any case, what good does it do?

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      Well, for one thing, it is just a matter of truthful assessment of good and bad, for whatever that is worth.

      Pragmatically, in a social context, we should only worry about assigning blame to feelings, motives, or actions in cases where it would do the good of making sure that the appropriate people are punished—and that people who do not deserve punishment are not—and that the punishment be of the proper sort to actually lead to the maximum flourishing of the individual punished and the group.

      Where explicit blaming would be counterproductive to such flourishing, it’s unnecessary. It’s not a good-in-itself. But it’s also not an absolute evil either. It should be an unpleasantly good thing under the right circumstances.

    • http://richarddawkins.net/profiles/51655 Peter Grant

      Well, for one thing, it is just a matter of truthful assessment of good and bad, for whatever that is worth.

      Why? Surely we can assess things as good or bad without assigning blame.

      Pragmatically, in a social context, we should only worry about assigning blame to feelings, motives, or actions in cases where it would do the good of making sure that the appropriate people are punished—and that people who do not deserve punishment are not—and that the punishment be of the proper sort to actually lead to the maximum flourishing of the individual punished and the group.

      Punish people by all means, if it effects their behaviour for the good, but the question of desert is a tricky one.

      Where explicit blaming would be counterproductive to such flourishing, it’s unnecessary. It’s not a good-in-itself. But it’s also not an absolute evil either. It should be an unpleasantly good thing under the right circumstances.

      I’m not suggesting that blame is an absolute evil or even that is an avoidable one. I’m just not sure yet if it actually has anything to do with morality or ethics.

  • Stacy

    I think you’re still a Christian at heart.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers


      No, I’m really not. As I said, I am not about actual acts of blaming interpersonally than are constructive to people’s growth. I don’t have any of the traditionalistic, unpragmatic allegiance to rules for the sake of rules either.

      What I am is a perfectionist. My conception is Aristotelian and Nietzschean. Aristotle is decidedly pre-Christian (even though the Catholics try to co-opt him) and Nietzsche is anti-Christian. Not all concern with ethics or with ideals like perfection or emotion-based ethical judgment, etc., is Christian. That’s just Christian propaganda. It’s not from Christian sources that I developed my views. It is not even that the views spelled out above remained unbroken from my Christian days. I was initially, after leaving Christianity, much more of an emotivist and a fictionalist. I developed my ethical views primarily through writing my dissertation on Nietzsche and through teaching classes on ethics that had me explicating Aristotle and Kant regularly.

      Now maybe you say in some way I still have a Christian’s instincts about issues, in spite of myself, but that’s a culture wide issue that relates to many atheists. The nihilists for example who talk about how meaningless and valueless everything is are the ones who I take to be accepting Christian categories and saying essentially, if meaning and value and morality as defined in Christian categories are not fulfilled than there are no such things as meaning, value, and morality in any true senses. That’s to me the real struggle to let go of Christianity among atheists. Not the attempts to explain how norms and ethical practices can still be normatively binding in true and challengingly austere senses without any divine effort.

    • Stacy

      Not all concern with ethics or with ideals like perfection or emotion-based ethical judgment, etc., is Christian

      OK, then, I take it back. But the Christians glommed onto it, didn’t they? Because they believed people are perfectible. Of course, their mechanism for perfecting involved a magic man and some mojo with blood sacrifice and a cross (and then you had to die). Maybe yours has to do with ivory tower cogitation or psychotherapy or psychotropics (there are questions about the efficacy of all three).

      My intuition is that this concern with perfection as an ideal is a bad thing.

      Possibly even worse than bad, I don’t know.

      I don’t have much larnin’ in philosophy–or anything else–so I don’t think I can argue my intuition very effectively. But I’ll just mention my concerns as best I can.

      I think it’s wrong to judge people against a perfectionist ideal, because, A) Whose ideal gets to be considered the perfect one (Aryan ubermensch, anyone)? B) It’s just fucking inhuman. I think we’d do better to approach realizable human ethics by looking at evolutionary biology (the work of Frans de Waal on the evolution of morality, for example) and psychological research. C) The assumption that people’s feelings and character are perfectible seems to me a dicey one (see above). And D) What about mental illness? What do you say to someone who grew up unloved and bullied, who is left with feelings of self-consciousness, hypervigilance, anger, and envy towards those who knew love and stability? Do you blame that person for his feelings (which are self-hating already?)

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      Okay, yes, those are objections I mean to address, and hope to get too soon. Thanks.

      (Here is my own statement of my recognition of these problems and my promissory note to address them soon: http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers/2011/10/13/homosexuality-as-naturally-good-part-1-laying-out-objections-to-ethical-naturalism-some-on-behalf-of-gays/)

    • Stacy

      OK, and I’ve just read your new post, and it addresses many of my concerns as well. Thank you for addressing these concerns and for giving me lots to think about!

  • Axxyaan

    My impression from this is that people who are grieving a loss are not acting ethically.

    Grieving is not a way to live well and there is no rationial ground to grieve. It won’t bring the person back.
    So the best way to proceed is, to bring back your life on the rails as soon as possible and look ahead not back.

    And we can blame those for whom this process takes too long, for not working hard enough on it.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      The Stoics would agree with that, though I’m not sure you’re being serious.

      Personally, I think that grieving is a good thing because it is a function of our powers to truly love and so an expression of a human excellence. If psychologically we protected ourselves against grief by diminishing our powers to love, we would be less excellent than we could be. Human excellence and human power are not just about maximum pleasure or maximum productivity.

    • Axxyaan

      I am serious in the sense that I think this is what IMO your arguments lead to.
      And I dont see grieving as a function of our powers to truly love. Grieving is how we deal we the loss of a loved one. Some people grief very little and other grief more, but AFAIK there is no evidence to suggest the latter have deeper loving relations than the former. Maybe the former are just better at dealing with a loss.
      So people who have a lot of grief can be blamed for not being able to handle losses gracefully.

  • Charles Sullivan

    Yo mama is so poor they put her picture on food Stamps.

    Yo mama’s so fat, she got Baptized at sea world.

    Yo mama’s so stupid she thought a quarterback was a refund.

    Words by one can create feelings in another. As long as you don’t mind I’ll keep going.

    Yo mama is so ugly that people go as her for Halloween.

    Yo mama is so poor that when she goes to KFC, she has to lick other people’s fingers!

    You know I’m just teasing you, but your feelings would be different if I took a different tone about your mama’s, er, private parts. And who would have created those feelings in you? Me.

    I’m flourishing right now. Thank you.

    • Charles Sullivan

      No, you’re not above it all.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      Well, that’s that. I have been decisively refuted. I tip my hat to you, good sir.

  • crowepps

    I don’t think the problem is people’s feelings at all. I think the problem is people EXPRESSING their feelings. Someone can have homophobic or misogynist or prejudiced feelings and the rest of us won’t even know unless they insist on SHARING them and creating a huge drama insisting their feelings are more important that those of anyone else.

    Personally, having been taught that it was vulgar for a person to “parade their feelings publicly” and that a person with manners keeps their emotional reactions strictly to themselves, stiff upper lip and all that, I find most people’s insistence that everyone else in the whole world WANTS to know their internal thought processes and fleeting feelings pretty tiring.

    I see no point in blaming people for having emotional reactions, so long as they keep them to themselves so we can have a civil society. Frankly, if those people emoting heard the honest feelings they inspire in those who have to listen to their egocentric rants, they’d shut up.

  • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

    Frankly, if those people emoting heard the honest feelings they inspire in those who have to listen to their egocentric rants, they’d shut up.

    HA! OUCH! Remind me never to emote when you’re reading…

  • crowepps

    The written word is a privileged place, because the reader can stop at any time and leave. If something offendeth thee, clicketh the red X.

    I have had to listen to a few too many total strangers justify their inability to accomplish what they’re supposed to do because of how wounded they are by what their significant other/spouse/parent/children did and how upset they are and how everything always happens to them.

    I have listened to a few too many bigots explain how their clinging to stereotypes and their irrational hatred isn’t something they can control ‘because that’s the way I was brought up’. And a few too many people who insist on explaining the details of their highly unusual lifestyle and who assert ‘and people shouldn’t disapprove of that because that’s just who I am’.

    LESS honest sharing would be a relief.

  • Chana Messinger

    Rereading this. Really really great. Well done.