I have recently been reading up about the ethics of victim-blaming. Victim-blaming is a prevalent phenomenon. It crops up most controversially in cases of sexual assault, and also features in hot-button debates about poverty and police shootings. These controversial cases are not, however, the only ones in which the phenomenon arises. Victim-blaming, of a sort, features prominently in private law, particularly in personal injuries litigation where people who suffer harm as a result of the negligence of others have their compensation reduced (or eliminated) as a result of their own perceived negligence. It also crops up frequently in our day-to-day lives. I suspect many of us have criticised or have been tempted to criticise our friends and colleagues for failing to take adequate precautions to ensure the safety and security of themselves or their families or their possessions. In certain circumstances, this kind of criticism can amount to victim-blaming.
From an intellectual perspective, victim-blaming is interesting because it implicates many important philosophical concepts. These include responsibility, blame, innocence, power, oppression, and distributive justice/injustice. This means that it is not only a practically important topic, but also one that raises many fascinating and complex intellectual questions. The common intuition among people I have talked to is that victim-blaming is always a bad thing, but if you read the literature you find a slightly more ambivalent perspective emerging, with some people accepting that certain forms of victim-blaming can be acceptable (for an excellent exploration of these ambivalent attitudes to the phenomenon, see Susan Wendell’s article on responsibility and oppression)
I haven’t fully developed my own thoughts on the issue (are thoughts ever fully developed?) but I have learned quite a bit from my reading thus far. In the remainder of this article, I want to share two important ideas about victim-blaming. Both come from an article by J. Harvey called ‘Categorizing and Uncovering “Blaming the Victim” Incidents’. The first concerns the different forms that blaming the victim can take; the second concerns the harms that arise as a result. Both help to highlight why victim blaming is seen to be particularly problematic in the case of minority groups or people living under conditions of oppression.
1. Six Different Forms of Victim Blaming
All blaming the victim (BTV) cases have a common structure. First, they involve a victim(s), i.e. someone who suffers a harm. Second, they involve some attempt to assign responsibility for this harm to the victim.
Harvey adds to this that all these attempts to assign responsibility to the victim are inappropriate and hence all BTC cases are morally suspect. I would prefer not to make that assumption part of the defining characteristics of BTV. This is because I think it builds the moral inappropriateness of BTV into its definition; this strikes me as something that needs to be argued for and not simply assumed.
I suspect what is going on here, incidentally, is that in many people’s heads the term ‘victim’ is synonymous with ‘innocence’ and if all victims are innocent, then all blame assigned to them is morally inappropriate. But I prefer to define ‘victim’ broadly to cover anyone who suffers a harm. This avoids making assumptions about their responsibility or innocence.
Beyond those two features there is probably a third feature that is common to most BTV cases, namely: that the harm suffered by the victim appears to have been caused by another person (call them the ‘perpetrator’). The function of victim-blaming is then to shift some or all responsibility for the harm from the perpetrator to the victim. That said, I am reluctant to say that this is a common feature of all BTV cases. This is because people often talk about self-victimisation (e.g. the smoker suffering from lung cancer) and about victims of natural disasters (flood victims/earthquake victims). These cases do not involve a third party perpetrator. The potential absence of a perpetrator is one of the things Harvey highlights in her* categorisation of different forms that BTV cases can take.
Without further ado, let’s consider these six different cases:
Case 1: The victim suffers from some harm that was not attributable to the actions of a perpetrator (call this a ‘non-moral’ harm) and is then blamed for this. This is the kind of case I was just alluding to and would typified by the example of someone blaming a cancer patient for bringing about their own condition.
Case 2: The victim suffers from some harm that was attributable to a perpetrator (call this ‘moral harm’), but they are told that this wasn’t really harm and that they are miscategorising what happened to them. This is usually accompanied by some allegation to the effect that they are overreacting or engaging in false or malicious accusations. Harvey gives the example of a woman in the Canadian military who complained when her commanding officer called her a ‘broad’. Her complaint was dismissed for being an inappropriate overreaction.
Case 3: The victim suffers from some moral harm but it is argued that this was not attributable to a perpetrator and was in fact a case of non-moral harm. Harvey gives the example of a woman who complains of sexual harassment. The complaint is dismissed but it is accepted that the woman suffered from considerable distress and psychological harm. This, however, is attributed to her own dispositions/psychological frailty and not the actions of a perpetrator.
Case 4: The victim suffers from some moral harm, which is prima facie attributable to a perpetrator, but then it is argued that the victim was also partly or maybe even wholly responsible for the harm. This is usually justified on the grounds that the victim either intentionally or negligently provoked the perpetrator. The classic example here is the case of the sexual assault victim who is alleged to have ‘led on’ the perpetrator through their behaviour or dress. This probably constitutes the core case of victim-blaming and is what most people have in mind when they think of the phenomenon.
Case 5: The victim suffers from some moral harm, which is attributed to a perpetrator (i.e. they are taken to bear the majority of the responsibility) but then it is argued that the victim somehow made the harm worse than it needed to be through their own actions. The intuition underlying this case is that people ought to take steps (if they can) to minimise the harm they suffer. So, again, we have the classic case of a sexual assault victim (or harassment victim) who is criticised for not using force against the perpetrator, or for not running away or screaming, or for not confronting the perpetrator and telling them that they did not consent to their conduct.
Case 6: The victim suffers from some moral harm, which is wholly attributed to the perpetrator, but then it is argued that after it occurred the victim did something that made it worse that it needed to be. This is really just a subtle variation on the previous case, involving longer-term reactions to the harm. Harvey notes that victims can sometimes be blamed for exaggerating the harm they have suffered, for brooding or dwelling on it and not moving on, and for protesting the harm in an inappropriate way.
As you can see, these cases vary in interesting ways. You might query whether we need all six, but I think there is value to each distinction. The distinctions show how, even though there is a core BTV case (case 4), victim-blaming can arise in other ways.
2. The Harms of Victim-Blaming
So much for the different forms of victim-blaming what about its ethics? We know that people find it objectionable (even if they frequently engage in it) but why? What’s so harmful about it?
Harvey identifies seven different harms that result from victim-blaming. I’m going to simplify her analysis and talk about three primary types of harm that can result from it:
Misattribution harms: Someone who is innocent or not fully responsible for a harm is singled out as being morally at fault. This is morally wrong and contrary to how we think principles of blame and responsibility should be applied. So this results in a kind of moral harm being applied to the victim. This is the most basic and obvious kind of harm that results from victim-blaming. In practice this can be quite an abstract and philosophical form of harm, unless it has real-world implications (e.g. the victim is punished or has their compensation reduced/eliminated).
Psychological harms: Because they have been blamed, the victim suffers from some kind of psychological harm, often of a lingering kind. For example, the victim may suffer an ongoing loss of confidence, self-esteem or self-respect. They may feel shame and guilt that they ought not to feel. This is distinct from, but compounded on top of, the harm they experienced through their victimisation (e.g. trauma or physical distress).
Oppression-related harms: The victim is assumed to have more power than they actually have and may be expected (unfairly) to proactively protect against their own victimisation in the future. This is a particular problem when members of oppressed groups are the victims because the imposition of additional responsibility-burdens on them tends to compound and perpetuate their oppression.
These harms are not mutually exclusive. Any particular BTV case may involve all three of them. Again, consider the classic case of a sexual assault victim who is blamed on the grounds that she provoked the perpetrator. Here we have blame being misattributed to the victim. This blame is likely to lead many people to expect her to proactively avoid future victimisation (don’t dress like that! don’t drink! don’t flirt! don’t walk alone! etc). These expectations will, no doubt, foist unreasonable burdens upon her. Her freedom of movement, dress and so forth will be curtailed more than that of others (specifically men). This all serves to compound the oppression that she and other women experience, particularly in relation to how they must act in heterosexual relations. It is also possible that the victim-blaming will be psychologically harmful. The woman may experience shame and guilt as a result of the blame, and may lose self-respect and self-esteem. She may even be encouraged to feel those things by others in her community.
Sometimes these harms are not so obvious. Many people engage in (mild) forms of victim-blaming for the best of reasons: they want to empower victims to avoid harm in the future. But Harvey makes the important point that the harm of victim-blaming is independent from the motivations underlying it. This is, in some ways, a trivial observation: harming is distinct from wronging. You can harm someone without intending to do so. But it is an important point to make in relation to BTV cases. We have a tendency to assume that we have more control over the world than we really do. This leads us to endorse narratives of false empowerment, e.g. ‘If I didn’t wear that dress, it wouldn’t have happened…’. These narratives give us an unreasonable sense of what we can do to avoid future victimisation. Encouraging people from oppressed groups, who are already disadvantaged, to embrace these narratives of false empowerment is problematic, particularly if what they have to do to exercise that power curtails their freedom to live a flourishing life in other ways.
But there is a delicate balancing act to perform here. You don’t want people to endorse a narrative of false helplessness either. The victim-mindset can be seductive. We often don’t want to take responsibility for what happens to us. We want others to take up that burden. This is one of the things I like about Susan Wendell’s analysis of victimisation and oppression. She is acutely aware of the delicate balancing act that needs to take place when interacting with victims, suggesting that sometimes we need to get beyond the simplistic ‘blame the victim’ versus ‘blame the perpetrator’ framing of these cases. Instead, we have to develop a mindset in which we can acknowledge the wrong done to the victim whilst at the same time empowering them to transcend their victimhood. I suspect the key to this lies in how we seek to empower the victim. Do we impose unreasonable burdens on them that compound their oppression? Or do we give them some capacity to address the conditions of their oppression? The latter kind of empowerment seems less objectionable than the former
I would also add, as a final point, that there might be a flipside to all this. Harvey is right, I believe, to say that victim-blaming is particularly problematic when the victim belongs to an oppressed group. But not all victims belong to such groups. Does this imply that it is less problematic to blame victims from powerful groups? I haven’t seen this explored in any detail in the literature that I have read but it seems like a point worth considering.
* I don’t know exactly who ‘J. Harvey’ is, but I assume it is Jean Harvey, a philosopher who died in 2014 and wrote a lot about oppression. I could be wrong about this.