What is wrong with the argument:

Had I not been born, I would not have done X, thus it is my mother's/father's fault

If you excuse the fact that I don't know how to phrase this better or in a more appropriate format, but I'm pretty sure that the aforementioned counter-argument has to somehow be invalid, but after a week of trying to figure this out, I still have no clue.


Practical and completely non-philosophical refutation: If one of my children makes this argument to me, I'll slap them around the face and blame it on my parents.

Practical refutation 2: Police officers, bosses, judges etc. don't accept that argument so it won't help you much.

Practical refutation 3: If you make mistakes, you can blame these mistakes on your parents all you like, but that's not going to improve your situation one bit, so you better do something to improve your life instead of trying to shift the blame. (In practice, this argument often needs to be used when the parents actually might be at fault for the way they raised their child, but the child needs to be reminded that finding someone to blame doesn't actually improve their situation).

Philosophical refutation: You may be right, but by claiming that your mistakes were already predetermined at your birth and you had no choice but making them, you give up the right to call yourself a human being. Worse for you, if being born is so awful that you blame your parents for it, that is a fixable problem. (Imagine instead of a child a robot who was created and programmed by a person. That person would have to accept blame for damage caused by the robot, and would probably decide to turn the robot off).

Philosphical refutation two: If you claim that your parents are to blame for all the bad things you do, then surely they are the ones to praise for all the good things you do. So when you you get your next salary, you better send that straight to your parents because they deserve it.

Philosophical refutation three: Being born is a necessary precondition for you to be able to misbehave, but it's not the cause of your bad behaviour. As evidence, there are millions of people who were also born but don't show the same bad behaviour. Even if it was the cause, we pass blame only for foreseeable consequences of actions. Your misbehaviour was not foreseeable when your parents decided to have a child.

So there are two entirely different kinds of refutations: The last one just shows that the argument is wrong. Other refutations say that you may be right, but you haven't quite thought through what the consequences of being right are - and if you are right and think properly about the consequences, you'd be very quiet about this and not draw any attention to it.

  • I feel Philosophical refutation #3 is the most consice and efficient answer to the initial question. When stated like that, it's pretty clear that Precondition =/= Cause. Oct 6 '14 at 18:10
  • I agree with squish. The Philosophical #3 is the one that describes the flaw of the argument in its core, as squish already said.
    – user1337
    Jun 10 '15 at 7:12
  • 1
    Your statement "we pass blame only for foreseeable consequences of actions" should be carved in sight of every person everywhere all day long. I think it would solve most of the world's problems. Finally, a use for Philosophy!
    – user16869
    Mar 14 '16 at 12:13

The question turns out to be a flawed one that undermines its own conclusion. Let's reformulate the claim as:

  1. A is not responsible for action Q because A's existence is caused by B.

There are several routes of refutation depending on the views you have concerning morality.

Route #1: Blame God (or the First Cause)

But B's existence is caused by C ... and then go to the end of the chain.

Ergo, it's the first cause's fault, because the first cause is uncaused.

This route accepts that A does not meet the requirements of responsibility, because A is caused by B and then A transitively applies that.

Route #2: Deny Morality Exists

Yes, A is not responsible for Q but that's because 'responsible for' is a meaningless type of predication. So the flaw is that one speaks of responsibility at all. (This is the latent metaphysic that is not made clear in a few of the other answers).

Route #3: Deny that Responsibility is transitive

Merely, because someone would not exist without being created by another does not mean that moral responsibility transitively moves from A to B.

Consider for instance the following:

  1. Hitler would not have lived if not for medical care made possible by Z.
  2. Therefore, Z caused Hitler to live.
  3. Therefore, Z is responsible for Hitler's life and actions [follows from transitivity built into original question]

But conclusion 3 is absurd. So then we can deny that responsibility is simply transitive to that which enables life.

  • I recently read a science fiction story about Hitler dying some time in World War I before anyone heard of him. Consequence: New York destroyed by German nuclear bombs (with the assumption that Hitler drove Germany into a war that couldn't be won, and without him a war would have started later with much more technology available).
    – gnasher729
    Jul 17 '15 at 18:02
  • You have kicked "Original Sin" in the head. Publish!
    – user16869
    Mar 14 '16 at 12:15

You have to consider what makes someone blameworthy for some wrong. Presumably a minimal condition is that they caused the wrong. But this is not plausibly sufficient. Consider the following example:

I'm driving a car in a generally safe and responsible fashion. All of a sudden, I sneeze and my eyes close--- involuntary reaction. Now, in that split second my eyes are closed I veer slightly due to the jerking motion (it was a violent sneeze) and go into oncoming traffic, causing an accident.

In this case I caused the accident, but it doesn't seem right to say I'm blameworthy in the same way I would be if I had been driving negligently. But if the argument you give is correct, I would be blameworthy, since if I hadn't been driving, the crash wouldn't have happened.

The problem here is that the counterfactual condition you apply (if I/my parents hadn't been driving/birthed me, the bad thing wouldn't have happened) only captures the minimal, causal condition (or something like that). It doesn't capture the extra elements involved when we want to say that someone is to blame for something bad that happens. I don't know what these extra elements are, but its clear that more than merely causing a wrong is required for you to be blameworthy.

TL;DR You're implicitly assuming an implausible definition of what makes someone blameworthy for an action (i.e., what makes that action their fault).

  • 3
    +1 but maybe to state your point more simply. "Cause" can be said in many ways. Moral responsibility arises from being considered a cause of a certain kind.
    – virmaior
    Sep 28 '14 at 6:28
  • Ill accept this answer because the blameworthyness factor seems the most reasonable counter-argument.
    – user1337
    Sep 28 '14 at 16:43
  • @virmaior Fair enough. I thought of some modifications but thought it would bring too many complications. For instance, the notion of "proximate cause" is probably more appropriate and rules out the problem in the OP's question, but still has me being blameworthy for sneezing into an accident. So it's not even that, something else has to be added. At that point, I'm not sure what this "something else" is, so I decided to leave blameworthiness unanalyzed.
    – Dennis
    Sep 28 '14 at 20:20

The fallacy comes from using a true statement to give validity to an unrelated statement.


Had I not been born, I would not have married Alice (true statement), thus, it is my parents fault I married Alice (not true because I could have chosen to marry Peggy, or Rachel,or Sue, etc.).

There is no legitimate connection between what I choose (or not) to do, and me being born!


No one is to blame because this question assumes physical determinism. Thus, no one has choices or free will and cannot be blamed for actions they did not choose to do, but rather their actions and all actions of the universe was caused.

  • Yes. Thoughts are natural phenomenon. Desire, intention and will do not transcend physical law. Sep 27 '14 at 21:04

As far as current scientific knowledge can warrant, all courses of events in the world, including those that occur in human brains, obey physical laws.

It is valid to say "it is not my fault," because You are as responsible for your fault as the earth is for earth quakes or the volcano is for eruptions or a cancer patient for his brain tumour. In Bertrand Russell's words:

When a man acts in ways that annoy us we wish to think him wicked, and we refuse to face the fact that his annoying behaviour is a result of antecedent causes which, if you follow them long enough, will take you beyond the moment of his birth and therefore to events for which he cannot be held responsible by any stretch of imagination.

Source: Russell, Bertrand. Has Religion Made Useful Contributions to Civilization?

It is wrong to blame the parents, because, for the same reason stated above, as far as our current knowledge can warrant, the blame can be traced all the way back to fish.

  • So it's not possible to counter-argue the statement in the question title?
    – user1337
    Sep 27 '14 at 19:56
  • 3
    The statemnt is wrong because the parents are as innocent as the child. Sep 27 '14 at 20:01
  • You can't really say "That statement is wrong" without proving why it's wrong. Your answer says "it's wrong to blame the parents, because - [stuff] - the blame can be traced all the way back to fish". I ask "why is it wrong and how do I prove it?" (because if something really is wrong, proving it should be possible)
    – user1337
    Sep 27 '14 at 20:14
  • I don't think that last comment made sense to even myself. You said my argument is wrong, but you didn't say why. On the other hand, you said that "It is wrong to blame the parents", and (more or less) explained why. Unfortunately, that explanation doesn't really tell why I can't blame anyone that came before just as I can't blame the parents. From reading the answer over (yet again), the way I interpret it is: "You can't blame X because you can blame everyone else as well", and admit it - that's not really a valid argument.
    – user1337
    Sep 27 '14 at 20:33
  • The parents are not blame worthy because their parents gave birth to them. Sep 27 '14 at 20:44

At a strict logical level, this is an if-then statement with a counterfactual as the antecedent. Anything could be inserted as the conclusion with equal validity. Even folk culture recognizes this pattern, with such mocking replies as ...and if 'ifs and ands' were pots and pans, there'd be no work for tinkers! and ...and if your aunt had [testes], she'd be your uncle!

At a more expansive philosophical level, this hinges on both questions of causation and responsibility. What qualifies your birth as a "cause" of your actions? Thinkers such as David Lewis have done work on counterfactuals and causation, but it turns out to be far from trivial to make such intuitions rigorous.

Even once a causal relationship between the antecedent and the consequent are established, however, there's still the question of assigning responsibility. From a Sartrean point of view, for example, your own personal responsibility for your actions is an absolute that cannot be diminished, no matter how many others can be shown to have contributed to a given outcome.

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