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Hammering at the margins….

When I get deeply into the argument of a book, two things happen: a second “close reading” and a complete immersion of thought.

And both have consequences.

My close reading turns me into an obsessive “marginalian”, scribbling lots of notes in the margins of the pages even though I will probably never recall what most of those marks mean if I refer back to them in a month or so. The immersion bit transforms me into that two-year old Abraham Kaplan famously used in his “law of the instrument”: give a two-year old a hammer and everything becomes a nail (see here).

This is the effect Scanlon’s book, Moral Dimensions, is having on me at the moment. Having openly struggled with the argumentation on wrongness and meaning, I hit chapter 4 on morality based on blame-based relationship and began to see applications everywhere — and I mean everywhere, from episodes of Dexter to the latest turmoil on Wall Street (think of the “impaired relations” among those who trusted Madoff!!!).

For my purposes, however, what is most interesting (and exciting) about Scanlon’s treatment is the clarity it provides as I return to my decade-plus intellectual flailings about the role of blameworthiness in shaping accountability and governance. Having immersed myself in that topic in the mid-90s without much background in the “literature”, I found there really wasn’t that much that helped me move my thinking about accountability and blameworthiness along. There have been some works in psychology and sociology that often bordered on New age babble, but none of that seemed to relate to the fundamental (and positive) role of blame and blameworthiness in civil and civic relationships. Over those ten years or so I have also stumbled across some really interesting work (of surprisingly recent vintage) by philosophers Judith Butler, Stephen Darwall, Jay Wallace, Marion Smiley, and others that have helped me along. But with Scanlon’s latest work I think it now becomes possible to move the logic of my thinking forward….

This is not to say I think Scanlon’s latest provides a firm foundation for my thinking on blameworthiness and accountability — and their role in governance. In fact, my excitement about his argument is based on what I regard a two “flaws” in the blame-relations argument that need adjustment to be useful for my purposes.

First is Scanlon’s premise that blame and blameworthiness is best understood as a relationship among equals. I assume this assumption is made “for argument’s sake” — as indicated by his exploration of the role of blame in unequal relations (e.g., parent-child). And it is in his effective presentation of blame-relations-among-equals that I understood that governance relationships are necessarily — by their very nature — based on presumed inequalities (sort of a “duh!” moment when I realized that simple point — and its major implications).

The second “flaw” is his focus actions taken which challenge or actual impair human relations. From his perspective, blame and blameworthiness are reactions to actions that damage (or threaten to damage) expectations. Scanlon’s explicit highlighting of expectations is a key factor — I have long regarded accountability, in functional terms , to be the “management of expectations”. But I think his focus on action-triggered impairments overlooks (probably again, for argument’s sake) the role that expectations play in the “pre-establishment” of blameworthiness that goes on in society, and especially in the development and institutionalization of governance relationships. Blameworthiness, I have argued, is a precondition for governance — one that is subject to cultural determination and variation. 

The implications of this modification of Scanlon’s argument can prove significant for our understanding of governance relationships, for it puts accountability and account-giving mechanisms right at the core of governance. 

Point: If governance is based on the presumption of impaired relations between those involved, then the development of accountability mechanisms and the norms of accountability can be seen as at the heart of governance, rather than as merely reforms to attempt to “repair” government operations.

Back to my “marginalizations” and hammering….

December 18th, 2008 Posted by | accountabilitybloke | no comments