Philosophy Professor Earns Fellowship to Greater Understand Blame and Forgiveness

By Tom McLaughlin

As a young law student, Craig Agule was interning for the Georgia Indigent Defense Council when he attended a hearing for a client of the council.

On one side of the courtroom, recalls the Rutgers University–Camden professor, sat the family of a man who would likely be imprisoned for the rest of his life. On the other, sat the family of the victim of the council’s client— “another family there to show concern for a daughter who had been lost forever.”

“The moment stuck with me,” says the assistant professor of philosophy. “The sober seriousness of the proceedings and the emotional restraint of both families really impressed upon me that, while these two families were in deep disagreement about what should be done, I, as an outsider, would be horribly remiss to think that either family was mistaken.”

Explaining how people can disagree on an issue without anyone being mistaken would become a motivating concept throughout Agule’s scholarship. He posits that, in conflict, it is tempting to see the other side as simply mistaken or morally corrupt. However, his “choice model of blame” allows the possibility that we can see the other side’s choices as reflecting a different perspective or values. In doing so, he says, one can open to the possibility of forgiveness.

“This certainly does not mean that we should accept those perspectives or values as legitimate; some points of view are reprehensible and in need of correction,” says the Philadelphia resident. “However, seeing the other side’s position as grounded in a particular perspective or values can often help open a path to reconciliation.”

Craig Agule

The Rutgers–Camden professor is now focusing more than ever on choice – particularly a greater understanding of blame as a choice – thanks to earning a 2020-2021 fellowship from the Wolf Humanities Center at the University of Pennsylvania. He plans to develop a set of papers showcasing his “choice model of blame and its explanatory power.”

Agule argues that understanding blame as a choice helps people to appreciate the perceptual nature of blame, to solve persistent puzzles about forgiveness and moral responsibility, to determine whom and when people should blame, and to better live up to one’s own values.

“Blame corrals and directs our attention. When we blame others, we see them in the light of their wrongdoing,” he says. “However, because we have limited attention, blame competes with other demands on our attention. This means that the ethics of blame goes far beyond questions of wrongdoing and responsibility.”

In his work, Agule looks at cases where observers are puzzled by how to respond to wrongdoers in morally complicated situations, such as cases of wrongdoers who have suffered grievously in their own lives, child wrongdoers, and influential figures from the past with their own noxious histories.

“I tease apart the different demands on our attention in those cases, urging us to see these cases as having as much to do with us and our priorities as with the wrongdoers and their wrongs,” he says.

In a paper under review, Agule takes up the case of Robert Alton Harris, who was executed by California in 1992 for the murder of two teenage boys. Prior to his execution, Harris became a cause célèbre in the anti-death penalty movement as the first person executed when California resumed executing prisoners.

“Harris’s crime was horrifying, brutal, and pointless,” says Agule. “However, for many, our reactions to learning about Harris are complicated by the stories of his own childhood. He was neglected and abused by his father, mother, and the school system. So our reactions to him are conflicted.”

When then-California Governor Pete Wilson denied Harris clemency, says Agule, he spoke of the anger he felt toward Harris, the man, and the sympathy he felt toward Harris, the boy. The Rutgers–Camden professor argues that, because sympathy and blame conflict, people face a choice in how they react to bad-history wrongdoers like Harris.

“Do we go with sympathy on account of the abuse Harris faced, or do we go with blame on account of the crimes Harris committed and the pain he caused,” asks Agule. “Or perhaps we can identify more accommodating, productive third options.”

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