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Responsibility and Victim-Blaming

Written by Dr Rebecca Brown

The recent sentencing of Wayne Couzens for the murder of Sarah Everard, along with the murder of Sabina Nessa last month, has prompted discussion in the UK of the prevalence of violence against women and the shortcomings of the criminal justice system. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has himself criticised the police for failing to take cases of violence against women sufficiently seriously. In particular, there has been outrage at comments made by some regarding steps women can take to ‘keep themselves safe’.

After the attack on Sabina Nessa, a community group shared advice from the Metropolitan Police website on ‘tips for staying safe on the street.’ It included recommendations to:

“Be assertive. From the moment you step out onto the street in the morning, look assertive and act and walk with confidence. This will always make you appear in control and much less vulnerable.”


“Trust your instincts. Try to avoid walking alone at night in places such as parks and side streets or any unfamiliar environment. If you do have to walk, stick to busy places where is a lot of activity CCTV and good lighting.” [sic]

Wayne Couzens was a serving police officer at the time of his attack on Sarah Everard, and he kidnapped her by falsely ‘arresting’ her for breaking covid regulations. In light of this, the police have encouraged the public to challenge plainclothes officers who approach them. In a much-mocked piece of advice, the force suggested someone who does not feel safe could flag down a bus in order to escape.

Understandably, there has been concern that advice like this places responsibility on victims to take steps in order to avoid being attacked, rather than placing responsibility on those who do the attacking, or on the institutions which fail to prevent or appropriately punish those attacks.

But is this the case? It seems mistaken to assume that offering advice to people as to how they might avoid being attacked is the same as asserting that it is up to them to ensure they aren’t attacked, or suggesting that they are blameworthy if they get attacked. One thing that may be going on here is the elision of causal and moral responsibility.

Causal responsibility applies when events are causally linked: ‘the bridge collapsed due to the strong wind’ identifies the wind as causally responsible for the bridge’s collapse. Moral responsibility applies when there is some moral agent whose action brought about some event (or whose inaction allowed some event to take pace). So, ‘the bridge collapsed due to the engineer’s neglect’ identifies the engineer as morally responsible for failing to pay appropriate attention to the design and building of the bridge. When someone is morally responsible for an event they are typically blameworthy or praiseworthy as a result (depending on whether it is a good or bad thing).

It is important to keep causal and moral responsibility distinct. Someone may be causally responsible for an event without being morally responsible. If Sarah has a seizure, during which she strikes Claire, Sarah not blameworthy for bruising Claire since she had no control over her limbs during the seizure. Nonetheless there are things Sarah could have done to avoid injuring Claire, such as not meeting up with Claire, or keeping her distance. There may be things Claire could have done, such as wearing protective foam. But assuming the chance of Sarah having a seizure, or it resulting in injury to Claire, was very low, it was not reasonable to expect either Sarah or Claire to take any of these precautions. Neither of them is blameworthy for the injury that occurred.

There are things we could all do to keep ourselves safer and reduce our risk of injury. Any time you drive a car or ride a bicycle you risk being involved in a crash. Playing sports could result in a sprained ankle. Patting a dog could result in getting bitten. But in order to experience any quality of life we have to expose ourselves to some risks. It is far from reckless for people to ride bicycles, play netball or make friends with dogs.

The advice to women in the wake of Sarah Everard’s and Sabina Nessa’s deaths highlighted things they could do in order to reduce their risk of being attacked. Things like walking along well-lit routes and staying alert. We can think of other things women could do to reduce their risk of attack: never leave the house, hire a bodyguard (a team of bodyguards?), cultivate a large and threatening physique. To say that women have some control over their risk is to say they have some causal influence. It isn’t to say that we should reasonably expect women to take these steps, or to say that they are morally responsible – and blameworthy – for being attacked if they choose to go out without a team of bodyguards, or at night time.

Does this mean we shouldn’t even tell women about the ways they might be able to reduce their risk? For instance, take the advice to stick to well-lit paths. I have no idea how much difference this makes to one’s risk of attack, perhaps none. But say, for a moment, you are much less likely to get attacked if you stick to well lit paths. I would like to know this. I would like my friends to know this. It might not be possible to take a well lit path – I may live in a neighbourhood where the council has failed to install adequate lighting, or I might be in a rush and want to take the quickest route. But if there is an opportunity to easily and significantly reduce one’s risk of attack then it is wrong to deny people that information.

Eliding causal and moral responsibility can get us into all sorts of trouble. Undoubtedly there are people who will say women who get attacked on poorly lit paths are partly blameworthy – such people make the mistake of assuming that causal responsibility = moral responsibility. They neglect the fact it is not always reasonable or possible for women to take only well-lit routes; that there should be no obligation or expectation for women to do this. On the flip side, it is wrong to assume malice whenever advice about how to reduce one’s risk of attack is given, and to launch campaigns against those who offer ways to reduce risk on the assumption that providing such advice implies women are blameworthy for being victims.

Instead, we should be clear about where causal and moral responsibility lie in cases such as these. Only then will we understand what can be done to reduce such appalling attacks, and what must be done.

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2 Comment on this post

  1. Imagine there was a smallish device that everyone could carry that would render them impervious to any attack. But it was a bit too big to be convenient, due to a single component, which if we cared to investigate we would see could be easily amended. So a person did not carry it, and was attacked. Where should we place the blame?

    It seems eminently sensible to blame that single component, since that is the clear ‘salient improvable’ focus. Is there still a sense that somehow the attacker must really be the proper target of blame? But any conception of blame must be very misguided that moves it away from what we can most do to have a material effect on the world.

    That example worked because of its isolated and malleable component. But the complexities come with the causal network not being easily modularisable and calculable. And so we can discern that what imparts moral responsibility is this: being deemed (by an accepted explanation/model) to be the ‘salient improvable’ in a scenario. It is not “when there is some moral agent whose action brought about some event”, but how we choose a focus of intervention to achieve certain aims in the future. The important clarification here is that it has nothing to do with free-will, agency, sentience, or rationality ‒ it can apply to anything.

    The minimal exemplar is to be able to trivially point to an object that is costlessly improvable. But real cases spread this over a causal network, so that evaluating the cost and benefit is a problem of gathering and weighing, and choosing simplifications that put that within tractability. One can return to the example and imagine the attacker replaced by a tiger, or the victim by a crow, and ponder how replacing those sections of the network change our evaluation of where the salient improvable blame-focus might be …

    Why favour this technically inflected approach? Because it is capturable as software, and that is how we will manage our oncoming large-scale systems of interaction of human and non-human agents.

  2. There are many ways of viewing responsibility (another facet of blame). In the example of the bridge, if the engineer had highlighted the problems yet had been unable to progress any repair due to financial constraints, or their report had gone astray, they may still be blamed for not progressing the matter urgently enough, even if the bridge had been signed as closed. Yet causal responsibility for the collapse would not have wholly been theirs. And if a person had been walking across the bridge at the time of collapse, avoiding any closure mechanisms, it is possible responsibility would not wholly have been theirs, if the closure mechanisms had allowed for that risky crossing and the pedestrian had not been in full knowledge of the situation with the bridge and the true risk they took at that time.

    With the non-human agent example, most of those types of example fail because they generally break down to a focus upon pure logic and power, often looking to singular answers for improvements and control rather than a broader responsibility, something which is elided in that response as ‘what we can most do to have a material effect’. It does seem that responsibilities do become more thinly spread, and hence diluted when blame is apportioned. That denial of and weakening of responsibility could be where the elision referred to is occurring. In a social sense (we build the society we live in), is it possible we could all be responsible for Wayne Couzens actions, yet apportioning ‘blame’ in that way becomes widely unacceptable and perceived as an ineffective motivator, so perhaps turning it around to looking after oneself is the best one can do whilst continuing attempting improvements. And it is probable that each social group and individual will differ on the best way to achieve personal safety in the contexts they find themselves. But considering the person crossing the bridge when it collapsed in the example, is it necessary to comprehend the why and what of every other set of safety advice when making any risk assessment?

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