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  • Blame, Reproach, and Responsibility
  • Jeanette Kennett (bio)

In the study reported in their rich article, Brandenburg and Strijbos (2020) investigate the attitudes of clinicians, in a facility for adults with autism, to norm transgressions by service users. In doing so they interrogate Hanna Pickard’s responsibility without blame approach to therapy and ask whether it applies across different clinical settings.

Pickard draws a distinction between responsibility for an action in the sense of being the agent of the action and so, by definition, having some control over it, and moral responsibility for an action which includes being blameworthy for it. For Pickard, you can be responsible for a harmful action without being morally responsible and therefore blameworthy. You might have an excuse which mitigates your moral responsibility, as in cases of personality disorder where due to a traumatic and deprived life the person has not had the opportunity to develop the skills to regulate and respond appropriately to intense negative emotions and distress. And even in cases where a person is blameworthy, affective blame is counterproductive as it adds to the person’s shame and self-hatred, exacerbating the destructive emotions that the therapist seeks to assist them to regulate. Pickard argues, in any case, that judgments of moral responsibility are conceptually and practically detachable from the angry emotions commonly associated with blame.

So even if the person is blameworthy, the appropriate stance for the therapist is one of detached blame only. The person will be held accountable for her actions. She may be called upon to explain her actions and reflect on alternatives. She may face agreed consequences. But she will not be subject to negative reactive attitudes. How is this to be achieved? According to Pickard, reflection on the very difficult lives such service users have led seeds compassion and empathy which defuses and replaces entitled feelings of anger and resentment. In the situations where anger or other affective forms of blame are nevertheless felt, “clinicians need a good poker face—a commitment and capacity to mask their emotions and refrain from acting out of any blame they may feel” (Pickard, 2019).

Brandenburg and Strijbos agree with Pickard that the hostile negative emotions that Pickard sees as integral to affective forms of blame interfere with the therapeutic relationship, but they argue that milder, affectively tinged, forms of reproach can be effective both in communicating normative expectations and boundaries, and engaging service users in therapeutic relationships. Indeed, through their interviews with clinicians they describe some advantages to what they call “nurturing reproach,” including honesty and congruence in the therapeutic relationship. They resist the requirement to mask emotions as antithetical to these important therapeutic values.

Let’s consider then, how reproach, as described by Brandenburg and Stijbos, differs from the forms of blame rejected by Pickard. Strawsonian views have focused on resentment as central [End Page 395] to our responsibility practices. Resentment is a reactive attitude: according to Strawson (1962) it is adopted from within the participant stance and presupposes that the agent with whom we are interacting is responsible and answerable for their actions. We eschew resentment when we move to the objective stance, but we also eschew seeing and treating the agent as a full participant in adult human relationships. If Strawson and his followers are right, responsibility without blame is either conceptually incoherent, or unstable and unsustainable for human beings.

I think, however, that Pickard is correct in her analysis of the sense of entitlement that goes along with angry forms of blame such as resentment, and I would argue that such entitlement sits uneasily with remaining in the participant stance with the person to whom such feelings are directed. These are feelings that militate against respect for the other and reject rather than engage them. By contrast, reproach, at least as described by Brandenburg (2017) and Brandenburg and Strijbos, is distinctively second personal and aims to draw the other into a dialogue. Unlike blame, it can assume the other is fundamentally well-motivated but needs to have their attention drawn to a hurt or harm they caused by being exposed to some moderate expression of hurt feelings. Nurturing reproach thus seeks to elicit empathy rather...


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pp. 395-397
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