After a recent court case where two men were convicted of torturing, raping and eventually killing a young woman, a lot of victim blaming went on in the media and in many private conversations.

I personally find this deeply disturbing and I fail to see the purpose of blaming and/or trying to defame the victims. I am usually empathetic and I rarely take sides, but the older I get I see that that's not the case for everyone.

What types of people resort to victim blaming and why? What social ethics values can be used as counter arguments? Can this be achieved in a more generic basis rather than case-by-case?

EDIT: Most of what disturbs me had to do with negative comments about the victim's appearance/behavior that somehow led to her own murder. That's the victim blaming that I'm most concerned with as it seems as a very fallacious way of thinking.

  • Certainly an interesting question but I fail to see the philosophical relevance. The way the question is posed, it would fit perfectly in a psychology or sociology forum.
    – user14511
    May 27, 2020 at 7:06
  • @user3451767 - I'm interested in the social ethics related with this phenomenon. Perhaps I could be more clear in my OP
    – Ted
    May 27, 2020 at 7:46
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    Could you be more specific as to what "victim blaming" amounts to? Is it just that victim's actions are questioned and/or suggested as contributing to what happened? Depending on context, it can be an adverse reaction to "of the dead either good or nothing" (when it is misleading), or defensive of one's own inclinations, or... It is not clear that a common thread of some sort exists or that there are "types of people" that engage in it.
    – Conifold
    May 27, 2020 at 9:38
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    @Ted Have you perhaps picked up one particular news story (among hundreds of thousands posted daily around the world) to make some kind of personal point? One can always find a news story to be upset about. How about the dog walker in Central Park? How about the cop who killed a black guy by kneeling on the guy's neck for 8 minutes? The news is one daily outrage after another. Click click click.
    – user4894
    May 27, 2020 at 18:36
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    @user4894 & JustSomeOldMan: Victim blaming is a well understood and studied phenomena in psychology, if you aren't familiar with it you should read the definition and history en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victim_blaming Classic examples are blaming victims of rape in a way victims of robbery are not blamed, and blaming black Americans for their higher experience of police violence - a hot topic right now. The arrest of a black CNN reporter helping underline fundamentally different experiences based on skin colour. It is not disputable whether it exists. Doing so, is called gaslighting.
    – CriglCragl
    May 30, 2020 at 15:29

3 Answers 3

  • At the psychological level , one can attempt at ascribing various ( psychological) origins to this attitude :

(1) blaming the victim to praise oneself ( " I'm not the kind of person to which such a thing could have happened"; this would be a Hobbesian explanation : the desire for " glory" is at the root of our social behaviour, including our talks)

(2) feeling pity for the person that has committed the crime, due to imaginary identification ( a sexually needy male person with an aggressive personality may take this stance).

  • But I think that the reasons are deeper than psychological processes. It has to do with " theodicy" , with " justification of God" and not accepting the reality of evil. Let me try to reconstruct the reasoning :

(1) The crime by itself is monstruous.

(2) So, a world in which such things happens is monstruous.

(3) But it cannot be the case that I live in a monstruous world. If it is the case, my life has no meaning! If it is the case, I am myself monstruous in some way, for I participate in that world.

(4) So, certainly, at a deeper level, no such monstruous event happened : what appears as a monstruous/ absurd crime must originate in some " reason" , " justification". There must be a way to " make sense" of it.

(5) Here is the reason: the victim is not innocent! What the victim has suffered is somehow a punishment, something that is " deserved".

(6) Therefore, the world where I live is "in order".

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    Also see the just-world hypothesis that a lot of people seem mentally biased towards believing.
    – Hypnosifl
    May 27, 2020 at 12:05
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    wow! interesting response. denial and self-preservation is definitely lurking in the background somewhere in there.
    – Ted
    May 27, 2020 at 13:39

I would point to the way causality is really a form of narration and narrative grouping, and tools that give definite answers in simple systems (eg physics) do not do so in complex systems, where the assumptions used to make cognitive models are suspect. We basically have a cognitive bias to project ourselves into a locus or centre of a story, and try to use that situation to extract useful information to shape our behaviour: 'I would -' 'If -' 'Should have -'

It's also widespread for the 'default' character to be male, for people, especially men, to fail to develop their empathy and understanding of the situation of people not like them - similar biases exist around being able-bodied, white, middle-class, English speaking. How few films pass the Bechedel Test is an example of evidence for this. Typically male commentators, based on culturally-reinforced assumed social dominance, decide they are the best to comment. And can't imagine the range of pressures and policing of female appearance and behaviours, because they don't experience it. If a man makes an overt display of sexuality, the meaning is totally different. There's also a major trope of maintaining patriarchal power & sway of society, as expressed by disproportionate interest in unborn children over living children, and policing female reproduction. Free female choice in who to reproduce with, is the ultimate power to shape what kind of people the future has in it, evolutionarily. The Men's Rights movement is fueled by a largely unconscious intuition of this, by people not getting chosen.

I am a big fan of Jonathan Haidt's research on moral behaviour, like his 'moral matrix' from The Righteous Mind. It highlights how physical 'purity', and analogous ideas about morality, are major motivators for the right, and part of in-group behaviours from feeling under attack. Basically fear and disgust have been the levers by which modern rightwing populism has risen. The personal manifestation of this, is harshly judging people over perceptions of purity. I visited the Hindu Akshardam temple in Delhi, and in their gallery of heroes, apart from Indira Ghandi, all the female characters were there for having resisted being raped, several for dying in the process. Through this lense, we can make sense of this, as a community and culture under attack, at risk of chaos and dissolution. This conservative policing of behaviour and 'purity' is a subconscious reaction to fear, to the sense of a hostile environment.

We can use this picture to understand how social tools have helped ease these fears in the past, and decreased the risks of violent extremists, and their demagogues. Habeus corpus, separation of powers, strong institutions with powrrs of oversight, local democracy the right to protest and to free speech. Durkheim identified the holding sacred of values as binding together moral communities, that this is the defining universal of what has been called religion. I like James C Scott's resurrection of the word metis for the hard-won craft of how to live well together, that has been challenged by the rapidity of social change.

I don't think we should tolerate victim blaming. But research on changing people's minds says find shared values first, and appeal positively to them, rather than attack ideas people may feel to be part of their identity. Challenge people to imagine the situations of others, to expand their awareness and empathy. Notice how asserting certain things is for social bonding and delineation, often within and between dysfunctional groups that are not fun, but people will choose over no group - see the women on the right victim-blaming, or harshly judging other women's outfits, makeup, or bodies - it's a proxy for policing behaviour, self-expression, and assertiveness. Rightwing people are far more likely to use these, attacking appearance, disabilities, weakness, and 'purity' (see Pizzagate).


There isn't much confusion about why a culprit (or the culprit's immediate family, or lawyer) would engage in victim blaming. Part of human nature is that we see the world from our own singular perspective, and within the context of our own perspective — the 'thick description' of our own lives, to borrow a phrase from Geertz — we understand the motivations for why we do things, and we both approve of our reasoning and excuse our flaws. I suspect there isn't a murderer on the planet who doesn't feel in his heart of hearts either that:

  • He was completely justified in the act of murder, or...
  • That the act of murder was an unfortunate consequence of something else he felt complete justified in doing.

In fact, one of the fundamental philosophical problems in both law and ethics is finding the transition from this singular solipsistic perspective to some common, collective perspective that we can all accept. That is not a problem with an easy solution in any case, and it is complicated by the socio-psychological process of identification. When we evaluate an event as an observer (i.e., where we are not involved in the event) we will often draw lines of identity with one person or the other, on any of a number of grounds: race or ethnicity, gender, income, class, intelligence, citizenship, religion, even subtleties like attitude or outlook. The act of making such an identification means that we import our own 'thick description' of ourselves as though we share that in common with the person we identify with, and this means that we come (to some extent) to see his or her context as though it were our own experience. It's the same effect as if (say) someone tells us they just went on a roller coaster: we remember our own experience on roller coasters, and we reflexively (unconsciously) assert that the other person's experience is comparable to our own. We identify.

Now, on one hand identification is healthy, if not essential, for our social lives. Identification is why we have friends, loved ones, communities, etc. Identification makes for good neighbors, conscientious leaders, effective policies... On the other hand, identification can become pathologically political, with the emotions of identity outweighing reason and common sense. This is what this question calls 'victim-blaming', but is more generally called 'othering': reducing the other to a simplified and problematic construct while endowing the one identified-with with a rich inner life drawn from our own experience. Thus in a murder case of the sort mentioned, certain men will over-identify with the male (culprit) — based on their own experiences of difficulties they've had dealing with women — and see the female (victim) as a caricature: conniving, desperate, angry, slutty, etc. The culprit becomes (in their minds) a moral agent with a rich, contextualized inner life; the victim becomes two-dimensional, an object or force that the culprit is exposed to and must contend with. That such men might defame the victim in various petty ways is a natural consequence: the victim was as such, definitively, and the culprit was faced with the moral dilemma of how to deal with the invariant such-ness. The culprit (from this perspective) may have made a poor moral choice, but it becomes possible to justify that choice by saying that any man might have made the same poor choice when put in that context.

The 'other' does not have a context, just attributes; the 'identified' does not have attributes, just a context. But it is context that excuses and justifies behavior.

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