This may sound naive and I'm not a native english speaker, but recently I've started wondering what people really mean by the notion of "fault", for example in the context of saying "it's someone's fault". In what kind of worldview it has any meaning and what place it's got in a social sphere.

So, I'll be honest, sometimes I really don't understand such statements and it appears as just a tool to discriminate someone on empty grounds and I don't see it having any place in a proper philosophical discourse. When I read someone's statements like "it's USSR fault for invading Poland in the beginning of ww2", it doesn't really make any sense to me.

Like, is this something related to Christianity and people just extrapolate this notion to the whole world and all the people (from their experience in local Christian community)? Or do such people think they are "owed" something by other people?

I don't want it to become a political question, but the example above with Poland is pretty simple. Why would someone assume one country owes something to another country and would do something to hurt their interests in favor of another country? People don't do things for no reason. Their decisions are based on something. More than that probably every decision or action impacts some people in good way and some people in bad way (or not just people), hence there would always be this kind of "fault" towards someone/something. And then this kind of "fault" could be propagated endlessly and the term becomes meaningless.

Or do people maybe mean the very "primary" consequences of an action and kinda omit everything that lead to this action?

Or do people maybe use it implying the "harm" towards some specific group of people? Synonymously: "it's your fault that happened" = "your decision lead to this something happening which impacted specifically me/some group of people in a bad way"? If that's the case, then why is it so ambiguous? How would anyone guess from such statement what who/what/what kind of group of people are being "hurt"? (If there's always someone's interests hurt by any actions)? And then that would be an absolutely neutral term, just a statement that event A happened and caused event B. But people usually imply something negative by such statements, as if excepting some kind of compensation for this event B happening because of A.

What I mean, this notion is not universal, not something rational and can't possibly be. Is this just a meaningless "smalltalk"? Or is this really just a way for people to get something out of their situation for free by bamboozling someone with how it's their "fault" so they should give some kind of compensation?

  • Fault can be either error or sin: the two are not the same. When you re to "it's USSR fault for invading Poland in the beginning of ww2" are you considering that USSR's action was wrong from a strategic point of view, I think, because of course from the moral point of view invading you neighbor is a bad action (a sin). Commented Jul 26, 2023 at 11:37
  • @MauroALLEGRANZA well, I'm not "faulting" anyone and just described the very recent argument from some guy on the internet. I'd assume that the guy was implying "a sin" as if USSR just for no reason decided to grab Poland, but obviously the situation is more nuanced and a series of events forced USSR to do so. I see it as neutral. This event isn't "more important" in any way than other events leading to it. I mean, even if we talk about a serial killer killing people around, it's as his fault as fault of the society, his parents, nature itself in the same sense of the word.
    – Denis
    Commented Jul 26, 2023 at 11:50
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    Your 3rd paragraph suggests that the comment thread here may prove useful to you
    – Rushi
    Commented Jul 26, 2023 at 11:52
  • "a series of events forced USSR"? Maybe Stalin's decision to do it. But again: are you referring to "sin" (and thus the context "moral responsibility") or to "error" (and thus the context "historical understanding")? Commented Jul 26, 2023 at 12:17
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    @MauroALLEGRANZA Responsibility before whom? In what worldview does a country place it's interests lower than, well, other countries' interests? And why is mosquito not at fault? How deep does that "fault" reaction go? Are Stalin's parents at fault? Are people from neighboring countries making a military build up at fault? Are people following Stalin at fault? Is Poland at fault for being in war with USSR around 1920? etc. How do you determine who's "at fault"? Would you call an animal eating another animal at fault? If so, how is it different from people? What bias are you implying?
    – Denis
    Commented Jul 26, 2023 at 12:42

4 Answers 4


"Fault" works like this.

  • Things in general would be good if everybody followed rule X.
  • Most people do follow rule X.
  • Some people broke rule X, and as a result problems occurred.
  • Then, the problems are the fault of the people who broke rule X.

For example, there may be a "no littering" rule that almost everyone follows almost all of the time. As long as people do that, things are good (as far as trash outside is concerned). But then somebody throws some trash out his car window, as a result causing a problem (trash on the road), and so it is his fault there is trash on the road.

Fundamentally, the reason we attach the label "his fault" is to disincentivize the breaking of rule X. If it's David's fault a problem occurred, then David can be punished or fined or made responsible for solving the problem, to disincentivize him (and others) from breaking rule X in the future in a way that causes problems.

  • i might agree with this, that we only find fault with conventional rules and not obligations proper, be that deontological etc..
    – user66760
    Commented Jul 26, 2023 at 19:51
  • "responsibility for an accident or misfortune." there's "no moral luck"
    – user66760
    Commented Jul 26, 2023 at 19:54
  • Yes, that does make sense in a "disincentivizing" way. But that still seems strange to use such "faulting" in a meaningful discourse. Like, a person states something, and a statement basically translates into a very subjective/cultural sentence like: "I want to punish that guy for doing what I don't like and make an example of it".
    – Denis
    Commented Jul 28, 2023 at 8:18

Jack and Jill and Two Kinds of Freedom


To the extent that I am not restrained, by the use or threat of physical force, from acting according to my own judgment, I am said to be free. Freedom in this sense depends on how others act in regard to me. And since actions are guided by value judgments, I can be free only to the extent that others value my freedom by refusing to aggress against me. This brings us to a key question: Why would other people value my freedom?

Consider the hypothetical case of Jack, an ethical nihilist who does not believe in any moral principles whatsoever. He sees other people as natural resources that may be exploited for his convenience, beasts of burden that may be beaten into compliance or even killed, if necessary. Jack, in other words, draws no moral distinction between persuasion and coercion. Whether he deals with others voluntarily or through the use of physical force is a purely pragmatic decision.

Let us now reverse the situation and make Jill the person who wants Jack to go with her up the hill to fetch a pail of water. Unlike Jack, however, Jill is a libertarian who strongly believes in the moral autonomy and rights of all persons. Freedom, for Jill, is a fundamental moral value, so she will deal with Jack voluntarily or not at all.

Maybe humans cannot ultimately choose whether to be like Jack or Jill in their attitude towards others. If Jack harms Jill, through deception or aggression, then Jill will assign fault or blame to Jack, and not to the Universe as the ultimate random or deterministic cause of his deceptive or aggressive behavior. Jill would be foolish and naive to do otherwise.


There's probably a subtle difference between being blameworthy and being at fault

So take the example of impending climate breakdown. Some people are morally to "blame" for it (e.g. sheer greed ensured that no-one phased out fossil fuels quickly enough) others are at "fault" for it (any work to stop climate breakdown failed because of some factor external to their moral qualities, say gullibility) and others are neither at fault nor to blame but lacked the opportunity to do anything more.


Fault, in the sense you mean, is responsibility for an undesirable outcome. Fault is therefore inherently subjective, since an outcome that appears undesirable to some might seem desirable to others.

Take the invasion of Poland by the USSR. To those who believe the invasion to be undesirable, the USSR would be at fault. To those who believe the invasion to be desirable, it would be to the credit of the USSR.

However, there are very many outcomes which almost everyone would consider undesirable, such as a train-crash, say- if the crash was the responsibility of a careless train-driver, you would say the crash was the driver's fault.

Fault does not necessarily imply hurt. For example, if I forgot to recharge my laptop, it would be my fault if the laptop ran out of power, but that would be easily remedied by connecting the laptop to its charger and no harm would have been done.

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