Philosophy Phriday: On Blaming Ants

The Daily Ant hosts a weekly series, Philosophy Phridays, in which real philosophers share their thoughts at the intersection of ants and philosophy. This is the fifty-eighth contribution in the series, submitted by Dr. Craig Agule.

On Blaming Ants

Last week I made my favorite bean salad:  grilled green beans, red peppers, and radishes. I put the salad on the table outside for just a minute to finish preparing some other dishes before sitting down to eat, and when I returned, I discovered unwanted guests. Ants. Ants had found my new favorite bean salad, and they were busy carting it away as fast as possible. I was livid. I let fly a few choice, biting words, unappreciated by the ants, and I fecklessly waved my hands in fury. But I worried that it was all useless performance. What I wanted was not just to act like I was blaming, but to really, actually blame these awful ants who were barging in on my meal. But could I do that? Could I blame the ants?

A few choice, biting words in flight. Image: Alex Wild

I quickly realized that whether I could blame the ants might depend on which sort of blame I was considering. Sometimes when we blame, we are pointing out the cause of a bad effect. We blame a rainstorm for a canceled golf outing, and we blame a frayed wire for a power short. Could I perhaps blame the ants that way? Sure–the ants were part of the causal story of my meal’s being disrupted. But I quickly realized that this sort of blame would not be satisfying. The ants were part of the causal story, but so was I. After all, I left the bean salad out and uncovered when I returned into the house. And the bean salad was also part of the story. Had the salad been less tempting, the ants might not have bothered. But I wanted to blame the ants, not me, not the salad. Also, this causal sort of blame is too neutral. The rainstorm is not morally good or bad; it’s a storm. But I didn’t just want to attribute some descriptive causal role to the ants; I wanted to my blame them in all the nasty depth I could muster.

The ants were not just part of the story. The ants were at fault, and I wanted my blame to capture that disapprobation. Philosophers like J.J.C. Smart and Gary Watson point us to an appraising sense of blame: when we blame, we take someone else to measure up poorly against some sort of excellence, and we metaphorically place a black mark in their ledger. This kind of blaming is like grading. Wasn’t that what I wanted? I wanted to grade the ants! But presumably these are not bad ants as far as ants go. It wasn’t a particularly miscreant, bean-salad marauding bunch that had stumbled into my patio. They were presumably just ordinary ants. So what was the sort of excellence against which the ants fell short? Were ants bad animals in general? As far as I know, ants are quite successful at reproduction and propagation–there are ants everywhere! And I was begrudgingly impressed at their cooperation in their salad heist. I struggled to find any measure of excellence against which the ants fell short that made sense.

Maybe I wanted more than mere intellectual assessment. Maybe I needed to think of blame as changing my behavior or wanting the world to be different. I thought of T.M. Scanlon’s account of blame. Scanlon teaches us that, for an important kind of blame, we blame someone by changing how we relate to them. We blame by pushing people away, by rescinding trust, and by similar behaviors. Scanlon’s account of blame seemed promising. Before their invasion, I had not thought much at all about the ants, and I had practiced benign neglect. Now I was deeply invested in finding a satisfying way to condemn them. Our relationship had changed. But was this changed-relationship account of blame really enough? A number of philosophers have thought that Scanlon’s account of blame struggles in cases where there isn’t a particularly robust relationship for blame to impair. Was my prior relationship with these ants really rich enough for me to blame them by taking that relationship to be degraded? The ants probably never even knew my name! Scanlon’s blame also seemed not to be the right sort of blame.

At this point, I was really steamed. But feeling my anger prompted a thought:  maybe what I wanted was to direct an emotional response at the ants. I was angry with the ants. Wasn’t that anger a kind of blame? This thought seemed promising, especially as sharp philosophers like P. F. Strawson, R. Jay Wallace, Susan Wolf, and Macalaster Bell have thought about blame as an interpersonal, emotion-like attitude. We blame someone by resenting them. Resentment is a rich response with many dimensions. When we resent someone, we are responding to a judgment that the other is at fault (echoing the causal and appraisal stories above), we are prompted to act in certain ways (echoing the behavioral story above), and we often feel a certain way. This sort of blame was promising for me. I was angry at the ants:  I saw them as the cause of the ruined salad, I wanted to shoo them away and chastise them (as ineffective as the latter effort would have been), and I felt heated and enraged. I could blame the ants–by being angry at them!

There was one final thought that made me certain I could blame the ants. For Lucy Allais and Christine Tappolet, attention plays a central and important role in many of our emotional responses, including the resentment that marks interpersonal blame. When we blame someone for something, we see them in the light of their wrongdoing. The metaphor of the wrongdoing as a spotlight is powerful. Exacerbating facts are highlighted, and exculpatory facts are cast into the shadows. This role for attention fit my response to the ants perfectly. Although I know ants are complicated, fascinating creatures, I couldn’t think of any of that. I appreciated neither their complex path-marking and cooperation nor their display of strength in porting away the heavy components of the salad. Instead, I could only glare at the ants and at the polluted dish. I dwelled on the ants and their invasion, noticing each bit of purloined salad and thinking of the contamination of the portion that remained. I keenly felt the resulting incompleteness of the meal, and I thought of the time wasted in preparing the salad. My attention was captured by the bad thing the ants had done. That was how I could blame the ants:  by stewing on what they had done to my salad.

profileDr. Craig K. Agule is an assistant professor at Rutgers University-Camden. He works on issues in ethics and law, with particular interest in questions about blame and responsibility. He has written on the relevance of an agent’s past to her responsibility. In addition to that continuing research, he is currently working on projects about how blame and responsibility interact with attention and emotion.