When a drunk driver kills someone, we blame and punish the driver. When a drug dealer kills someone, we blame and punish the dealer. When a husband attacks his wife, we blame the husband. When a bomb explodes, we blame the bomber. When someone gets stabbed with a knife, or clubbed with a bat, or beaten with fists, we blame the stabber, clubber, or puncher.

That’s all as it should be. We point the finger of blame at the person who chose to act in a particular way. We recognize that free will exists, and even in cases where someone’s criminal act is abetted by previous reckless behavior (i.e. drinking a dozen shots of Jack Daniels before getting behind the wheel of a car), we hang responsibility on the person.

Sometimes, but not always. Many carve out exceptions to this “blame the actor, not the objects with which he acted,” especially when those objects are things they don’t like. The two most obvious are guns and drugs.

A 19 year old with a long history of rage and threat making shoots up a school. A national dialogue ensues, and immediately, that dialogue fixates on guns themselves. Advocates for infringing the gun rights of millions who’ve done nothing wrong are lauded as brave and heroic, and solutions that would not have stopped the shooter in the first place are rushed forward. Meanwhile, multiple obvious failures by government people at multiple levels, i.e. the FBI that failed to act on actionable information and the local law enforcement officers that did not even attempt to intervene, go with little comment and little recrimination.

This is a recurring theme with guns, where the shooters are subordinated to the tools of their carnage. This is illustrated by the stock response to gun crime, and in particular mass shootings, i.e. calls for greater restrictions on guns themselves, and a seemingly deliberate ignoring or deflection of any discussion that is not about further restricting guns.

It’s also a theme that’s repeated when it comes to illegal drugs, and opiates in particular. The government’s language itself, the “War on Drugs,” elevates chemicals themselves over human choice. This is reinforced by assertions that the dependency those chemicals create undermines free will and rational thought. But, these assertions are themselves contradicted by the form of punishment. We prefer to incarcerate, rather than treat, addicts, when they run afoul of law enforcement. If people are rendered incapable of truly free will by drug addiction, how do we justify punishing them for continuing to take drugs? Here, we witness a major dissonance in society. We ban a substance, on the presumption that its use renders its users incapable of free will, yet punish users on the presumption that they do so by choice.

A thing, bereft of cognitive ability, free will, or self-action, cannot do harm without human action. Even booby traps must necessarily be rigged by someone, and even holes in the ground must be dug by someone and stepped into by someone else. To blame a thing instead of the human actor is to misplace blame – sometimes innocently, sometimes with nefarious purpose. And, indeed, too many instances of blaming things are meant to drive agendas rather than address problems.

Part of this is because people want their solutions to be correct, no matter any evidence to the contrary. Part is because people place more stock in their own preferences and choices than they are willing to grant to others. Part is because people hate to be publicly wrong, and resist having to backpedal on a declared position. Part is moralizing, wherein one’s personal beliefs and tenets trump all. And, part is simple stubbornness that values “gut-check” conclusions over those supported by facts, evidence, analysis, and the lessons of history.

Sloppy arguing is, of course, nothing new, but blaming things doesn’t solely amount to sloppy arguing. In blaming a thing, we subtly remove responsibility for the bad act from the actor, from the person who did the bad thing. If a hunk of steel, plastic, and wood bears responsibility for murder, the murderer himself has some accountability absolved. If drugs are to blame for a user’s acts of robbery, the user himself has some accountability absolved. This falls within a broader societal trend of abdicating individual responsibility and dismissing individual fault. It also ignores the humanity of our fellows, and reduces them to faceless, thoughtless blobs of “other” that are merely to be managed. In blaming things rather than people, we delete humanity from society, a perilous act that has long been the road to totalitarianism.

Blaming things also fetishizes unattainable perfection. Expecting to tame every evil person in our midst is beyond most people’s ability for self-delusion, but totally eliminating some things from our society is not. Many offer quaint admiration of other societies’ draconian prohibitions, and ignore the ubiquitous black market availability of those things they want banned.

Blaming a thing when we should blame a person also shields us from the cheap and personal rebuttals many respond with, such as (spurious) accusations of racism, callousness, or hatred of some sort. Such rebuttals are themselves sloppy arguing, but they’re usually quite effective at changing the topic of debate, because few can resist the urge to refute an accusation of racism, even when it’s obviously an ad hominem fallacy.

As is true with other fallacious arguments, properly responding to a blaming-things argument starts with recognizing it for what it is – and that goes beyond the examples of guns and drugs I discussed herein. From there, we should avoid making them ourselves, and challenge those who do. After all, we should want policies that produce good, achievable results. Blaming things may feel good and easy, but it doesn’t accomplish anything of value.

Finally, a grain of salt. There are times when blaming the person for bad acts isn’t the end-all. Among those times are when the person suffers from mental illness. As illustrated in this recent blog post, there are indeed times when a person is not of sound mind, and it behooves us not to shield our eyes from that reality and simply toss that person into an out-of-sight-out-of-mind box.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.

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