Inspired by reading The Problem of Punishment (which is hard-nosed analytic philosophy, albeit on a pretty intellectually light topic) and for old time’s sake, a post in the analytic style.
Assume a scenario reminiscent of the current negotiations over the fiscal cliff. (1) Assume two parties, A and B. (2) Assume three options: A’s preferred option (pA), B’s preferred option (pB) and the status quo (sc). (3) Assume that pA cannot be enacted without B’s support and pB cannot be enacted without A’s support. (4) Finally, assume that pA is better than pB which is better than sc.
Given (1)-(4), these two propositions seem true: (a) B should support pA. (b) A should support pB if B does not support pA.
Now, if sc eventuates then both A and B have acted contrary to their obligations. And they would seem to be equally to blame for bringing about sc because each had equal power to avert it. So, it might seem, they are equally blameworthy. This is the puzzle of failed compromises; at least in a bilateral situation, parties to the failure seem to be equally to blame for the failure, but we don’t think they are equally the blame.
I think this puzzle can be resolved by correcting a misidentification of what A and B are to blame for. They are not both to blame for bringing about sc. They are to blame for bringing about the difference in value between sc and what they could have brought about. This means that A is to blame for the difference in value between sc and pB, and B is to blame for the difference in value between sc and pA. B is thus more to blame because the difference in value between sc and pA is greater than the difference in value between sc and pB.
This same approach also entails that if B does not support pA but A supports pB then only B is to blame. The options A could bring about were pB and sc; the options B could bring about were pA, pB or sc. A brought about the best option A could and so is blameless. B could’ve brought about a better option, and so is to blame for the difference in value between pA and pB.
Does this seem right? Test it against a simplified representation of the fiscal cliff scenario. Assume three options: the Democrats’ preferred reform (pD) which is preferable to the Republicans’ preferred reform (pR) which is preferable to the fiscal cliff (fc). If the Republicans are spoilers would you blame them more than the Democrats if the Democrats were also spoilers (making them, together, total spoilers) and we went over the fiscal cliff? If the Republicans are spoilers and the Democrats accept their proposal would you blame only the Republicans?
I don’t have any clear intuitions here, but that’s because my capacity for formulating other-regarding reactive attitudes — including blame — is underdeveloped because I have almost fully internalized Galen Strawson’s picture of life.