Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Blaming the System (a.k.a. Damn The Man)


What does it mean to "blame the system"? Is this the same thing as distributively blaming all the people responsible for the system? Who, if anyone, should be made to make amends for a bad system? What constitutes a bad system anyway?

Rather than try to discover what makes a good system, which involves a web of concepts like justice, fairness, etc, let's just assume that the system is simply either objectively good, or objectively bad, and go on from there. Myself, I would argue that such an ascription will always be of mixed value - something is seldom wholly good or wholly bad, but let us work with a broad brush for the time being.

Let's suppose a person called Adam is suffering, and percieves "the system" to be either the cause of, a contributing factor to, or failing to give relief from his sufferent. Either Adam is right or Adam is wrong. If he is wrong, then his blaming of the system is simply the result of poor reasoning. If he is right, then we must come to terms with why this is so, and what the implications may be.

Let's make this a concrete example, such as someone on unemployment benefits. Many people on unemployment benefits are there because, for one reason or another, they are not attractive as potential employees. Furthermore, sometimes this is because they are unemployment benefits, or for some other linked reason such as low education or a variety of other socio-economic factors.

Adam may choose to "blame the system" - being unemployed further exaggerates downsides that might not be immediately obvious from simply not having a job. The system, designed to address the needs of the unemployed, is failing in its task. Other systems which routinely fail in their goals are the police system, education, mental health, aged care, etc. In these examples, all else being equal, the system can be said to be at least partially responsible for Adam's situation.

There are three problems which seem to me to be paramount in these kinds of problems.

One is that these systems are almost always a kind of triage - they ignore those who cannot be saved and those who might save themselves, and concentrate on the remainder. One might say that these systems are designed to fail some elements of society.

The second is one of limited resources. Society is largely unwilling to bear the full resource cost of a system which addresses the issues fully - sometimes they are literally unable to. Indeed, a gain in one area comes often at the cost of another, and some issues cannot be solved only with money. Other scarce resources, such as inspired leaders and hard workers are often equally hard to come by.

The third is the philosophical issue of blame - who is to be held to account. These systems inevitably involve large numbers of individuals, each of whom could maybe do a lot more if singled out, but bears little personal responsibility and holds little power. The systems themselves are in a sense alive - being affected by and affecting those individuals with whom it comes into contact. Holding actual people to account, in order to get restitution or implement change, is often a difficult process.

This last issue is probably the most hotly contended in intellectual circles.

The first issue is seen as largely inevitable, and not the result of poor thinking or poor implementation. While the precise decisions are often divided between, for example, left-wing and right-wing politics, usually the division is a fairly straightforward ideological one, and falls out naturally from the positions held by each group. The second issue is also a no-fault (or sometimes everybody's fault) issue. Some systems may be underfunded relative to their efficiency, which is a correctable problem, but ultimately everyone must simple do the best they can with the resources they have.

Now that the position has been outlined, I will present some specific positions on blame over the coming days...



Anonymous Paul said...

“The ignorant man’s position and character is this: he never looks to himself for benefit or harm, but to the world outside him. The philosopher’s position and character is that he always looks to himself for benefit and harm.”

Epictetus Enchiridion 48 [Matheson Trans.]

6/15/2005 10:20:00 AM  
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