President Trump: Who is to Blame?

Who is to blame for the horrifying and disastrous outcome of the recent US election?

Spoilers: this is the wrong question to ask.

The universe runs on causality, not morality. Morals are something human beings invented to help ourselves negotiate our relations with each other.

Everything that happens is caused. The appearance of indeterminacy is a function of our incomplete knowledge of a fluid and complex universe.  As such, indeterminacy belongs to the present, not to the past. The moment that something has happened, it becomes absolutely determined and could not possibly have happened in any other way. The task of scientific inquiry is to understand the precise causality which produced an event.

Before an event has happened, we have limited time for explanation; we will have to act. Once an event has happened, we need no longer act on it; indeed, we cannot. So we have more time for explanation.

When we are trying to unravel the causality of an event, moral judgements are nothing but an impediment. This is because moral claims are performative, not constative. When we make a moral claim we are not describing things, we are trying to change things. The moment we assign moral blame we have, in effect, decided that we know enough about why things happened and that now it’s time to act.

What work is done when we assign moral blame? Remember that we cannot act on the past, only on the present. So when we assign blame for past events, it’s always with an eye to making some difference to events in the present (and the future).

People lay blame to try to accomplish many different purposes. Sometimes it’s to express pain and demand reparation. Sometimes it’s to discourage a repetition of the blameworthy act. Sometimes it’s to shame the blamed person, to reduce their status or to exclude them from the group altogether. Often it’s all of these at once. Probably there’s other kinds of purposes also.

For what it’s worth, I think under the present circumstances, blame is not useful. Of course it’s tempting. Some version of, “Trump happened because not enough people, or the right people, or the party leadership, doesn’t follow my particular politics” has been articulated from every centre and left position from Third Way liberalism to social democracy to revolutionary socialism. Such critiques say more about the preferences of the person articulating them than they do about the causes of the mess we’re in.

In any complex system it’s always possible for multiple observers to each point to a different variable and say “if this variable had been different, then the outcome could have been avoided”. But of course, once events are in the past, none of the variables could have been different. It’s up to us in the present to understand why.

What we desperately need is a causal explanation of how this disaster came about, one that is capable of informing an effective strategy for egalitarian social transformation. Whether moral blame will play any part in such a strategy is contingent.

2 thoughts on “President Trump: Who is to Blame?

  1. The blogger states “Everything that happens is caused”..
    Fair enough.
    The universe happened. What is its cause?

    LLH Calgary


    • Thanks for the question!

      Strictly speaking, the universe did not happen. That wording implies a flow of time in which there is a time without the universe and a time with the universe. But since the universe consists of all of time and space, there is no “before” the universe, hence no moment in which the universe “happens”.

      A more rigorous formulation would be to ask why the universe exists. It can be argued that even this question actually doesn’t make sense. But assuming for the sake of argument that it does make sense, it cannot be answered by a naturalistic explanation. Naturalism is the approach of explaining events in terms of the interaction of objects and forces within the natural universe. In naturalistic terms, therefore, the question of why the universe exists is (probably) unanswerable.

      Even if the question of why the universe exists is both sensible and unanswerable by naturalistic means, this doesn’t invalidate naturalistic science, because the question turns out to be unimportant on a practical level. One can explain the movement of the planets, discover penicillin, invent the microchip, without having an answer as to why the universe exists.


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