Responsibility, not Blame

This feels like ancient history now, but just a few months ago the mood in the White House was not exactly upbeat.  The New York Times website looked like this at one point in January:

The phrase that struck me when I saw this was “responsibility, though not necessarily blame.”  In the article itself, the full sentence reads: “When Mr. Obama presents his first State of the Union address on Wednesday evening, aides said he would accept responsibility, though not necessarily blame, for failing to deliver swiftly on some of the changes he promised a year ago.”  What is the distinction being drawn here?  It seems that there is substantial overlap between accepting responsibility and accepting blame.  Here is one hypothesis, rather crudely stated for now: the word “responsibility” can be used to describe a situation where one is merely one actor among many whose collective efforts produce a certain outcome; whereas the word “blame” tends to bring attention to that one actor whose actions or inactions so overwhelm the moral picture that they either deflect attention from others or even absolve them even if they, as a matter of fact, contributed to the bringing about of the negative outcome in question.

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5 Responses

  1. Nate Oman says:

    It seems to me that you are suggesting that the distinction between responsibility and blame is something like the distinction between but for causation and proximate causation. I would have thought that the distinction — if it makes any sense — hinges on fault. Obama admits that his actions have been responsible for bad outcome X but denies that he has engaged in those actions in bad faith or negligently.

    FWIW, I read this as a merely rhetorical move to have one’s cake and eat it too. The idea is to get credit for magnanimously taking responsibility for bad outcomes while avoiding the cost associated with magnanimously taking responsibility for bad outcomes.

  2. Alice Ristroph says:

    Great question. I came across this post while procrastinating work on an essay on responsibility. It’s pretty common to equate responsibility with blameworthiness or desert (especially among those prone to retributive thinking, Jae), but I see a number of differences between taking (or accepting) responsibility and accepting blame. Blame connotes disapproval for wrongdoing, and it’s necessarily backward-looking. Responsibility implies some causal relationship, at least in this usage, but accepting responsibility need not involve an admission of wrongdoing. And responsibility can be forward-looking — a promise of future action.

    I’m fascinated by some related questions about the verbs we use to discuss responsibility and blame. What does it mean to “accept” blame? Does it just mean agreeing with your detractors’ assessment of your moral failures? If you accept blame, do you have to let your detractors punish you? Nate refers to “taking” responsibility, but is that the same as accepting it? When we say someone “takes” responsibility and someone else is “held responsible,” are we even talking about the same concept?

    Back to my essay, which will clear the air, or muddy the waters.

  3. Youngjae Lee says:


    Thank you for your comments.

    The distinction I have in mind does not map on to “but for causation” and “proximate causation” because I consider both “but for causation” and “proximate causation” to be present in both responsibility and blame.

    And I am not sure whether, at least in this context, “bad faith” or “negligence” is necessary for blame. I think, in certain situations, you could have a well-meaning person who makes reasonable decisions who still ought to be blamed if those reasonable decisions turn out to have been wrong decisions.

    Finally, this may be “a merely rhetorical move,” but good “rhetorical moves” are those that tend to resonate with the audience, and I am interested in exploring why/how a distinction like this would or could resonate.

  4. Jon says:

    Abstracting for the moment from the political context in which Obama made the statement, here is one suggestion for distinguishing between blame and responsibility: Blame is a social phenomenon involving human emotions, like disapproval and resentment. Thus the object of blame in any given instance is a descriptive fact. (Mary and Eliza blame Jon)

    Responsibility is a property of moral agency. Moral agents are typically conceived as those people who, due to important characteristics that they retain, (e.g. control over action, deliberative processes, and knowledge of moral norms) are held morally responsible for their actions. Being held morally responsible for one’s actions means that one can be held blameworthy (morally-appropriate ascription of blame for one’s actions) and praiseworthy (morally-appropriate ascription of praise for one’s actions).

    So here is the relevant distinction: We can use “blame” in a purely descriptive manner by taking account of whether a person or group of persons in fact resent and disapprove of another’s actions. Or, we can use “blame” normatively by talking about “blameworthiness”, indexing “blame” to a conception of moral responsibility that determines whether a person is the fitting and proper object of blame.

    However, this summary of the concepts doesn’t help solve the paradox presented by the original remark–how could one accept responsibility (admit that he is, at least in part, morally responsible) but not accept blame? (admit that he is the morally appropriate object of disapproval and resentment) According to my summary above, moral responsibility for a given wrong act/outcome is a sufficient condition for blame.

    I think we can only make sense of the White House aides’ statement by attending to the political context in which it was made. My reading of the remark places it within Obama’s broader call for the end of the political “blame-game”–the practice of assigning blame to one’s opponents for political gain, as opposed to working with one’s political opposition for the nation’s greater good. It seems to me that Obama is attempting to accept moral responsibility for his actions without encouraging his opponents’ (purported) political malfeasance (the blame-game). “Blame” here is indexed to a very narrow moral norm that is particular to the political context, viz. one should not blame another simply for the short-term theatrical gain to be had by attacking the opposing side.

  5. Youngjae Lee says:


    Thank you for your thoughts. I am not sure if I am on board with everything you are saying, but I do think the last bit you said about “blame game” is interesting and is similar to how I was thinking about this. That is, what a “blame game” does is to deflect attention away from the blamer’s own (or the blamer’s allies’) responsibility and to highlight someone else as the central actor at fault. By saying that he is “accepting responsibility,” then, Obama is doing something that is precisely the opposite of playing the “blame game,” while at the same time making it clear that his acceptance of responsibility should not be confused with letting others involved in the political process off the hook. If he accepted blame, others’ (presumably Republicans’) responsibility would be minimized, whereas if he accepts responsibility only, there would be no such implication.