Intellectual Blame

Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse Tarot Fool

1.

Here's a philosophical heuristic about normative assessment: Domains and grounds for assessing responsibility will track domains and grounds for holding ourselves and others to be praise-worthy and blame-worthy. So, if there are unique ways to be blameworthy, there are coordinate ways in which one can be irresponsible. That's the rough heuristic, and we think it helps to elucidate intellectual responsibility.

One particular locus of intellectual irresponsibility is the exercise of our argumentative skills. On analogy with practical skills, there are situations where things go badly due to one's failure to exercise one's skill appropriately. Take the professional soccer player who shanks a shot over an easy goal, or the bartender who over pours a drink, or the teacher who mishandles a simple question in class. In these cases, it is appropriate for these people to blame themselves for their poor performances – it was their fault for failing to live up to a standard set by the skills they have. It's not because of the overwhelming difficulty of the situation, but rather it was because the requisite skills were not engaged effectively. Hence a modestly negative assessment of their performance is appropriate. Each may kick themselves for squandering a shot on goal, wasting whiskey, or a missed pedagogical opportunity. And so, too, may others. The sports writers may speak of the soccer player's ‘whiff,' and the barfly may mock the bartender's ‘party foul,' and a student may resent a question badly answered. Finally, notice that the degree of negative reaction of fault-finding is proportionate to the skills we assess these agents to have – the more skilled the soccer player, for example, the more blameworthy the shank. There's little, we think, unusual about these mundane practical failures of skill, and so it goes for intellectual skills, too.

Consider the skill of simply exploring a range of deductive entailments from a few pieces of information. The following task, Republican Friends, is illuminating. Assume these facts:

A is a Republican

A and B are friends

B and C are friends

C is not a Republican

Now the question: does it follow from these facts that there is at least one Republican with a non-Republican friend? Give yourself a second.

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