Of course, defenders of our responsibility practices could respond by claiming that as long as we correctly identify the guilty, and fairly apportion blame, all the suffering and trauma that Caruso highlights is besides the point. Punishment is supposed to be harsh and, in a sense, traumatic. This, however, ignores the growing evidence to suggest that we are often too willing to blame people, even when the facts may not justify our desire to do so. Studies by the psychologist Mark Alicke, for instance, suggest that people often engage in blame validation, meaning that first they find someone to blame, then they find a way to justify it. Collectively, this evidence, when tied to Caruso's arguments, suggests that our current responsibility practices can be morally inhumane and cause unnecessary scapegoating, physical harm, and psychological torment.
Additionally, a number of philosophers have highlighted the tragic nature of our moral choices. Lisa Tessman, from Binghamton University, is one of the most articulate and emphatic defenders of the idea. In her books, Moral Failure and When Doing the Right Thing is Impossible, she highlights numerous moral dilemmas and choices we face in life, each of which involves some unavoidable and hard-to-evaluate tradeoff between competing moral considerations. Here's a simple example: Imagine that you are a parent to two children. You love them both and think they are both equally morally deserving of your attention and love. Nevertheless, the world being the way it is, you will frequently have to pick and choose between them, attending one child's soccer match while missing the other's piano recital (or some variation on this theme). This is what it means to face a tragic choice: to be forced to pick between incommensurable and/or equally valid moral considerations. How common is this phenomenon? As Tessman put it to me, moral intuition often leads us “to the verdict that we are impossibly required to do something, such as protect a loved one, even if we are unable to do so, or carry out both of two, non-negotiable moral requirements.” So common is the experience, in fact, that Tessman takes “human life to be full of tragedy” because “humans are vulnerable to losing what we deeply value and cannot replace … [and] we are often in situations in which we cannot protect others from these losses.”
The parent-child example is a relatively low stakes and private instance of tragic choice. There are many high-stakes, public decisions that involve similar tradeoffs. Consider decisions about the allocation of scarce medical resources (the “Who gets the ventilator?” dilemma that arose early in the Covid-19 pandemic) or the allocation of social opportunities (scholarships, funding). Anyone who has been involved in such decisions will know that they often devolve into largely arbitrary choices between equally deserving candidates. While some people can ignore the apparent tragedy inherent in such decisions, others anguish over them. Tessman argues that this anguish is a “fitting” response to the pervasiveness of tragedy. But some responses are not so fitting: To morally blame people for their choices in such contexts, and to punish them for making what you think is the wrong choice, is perverse and unjustified. And yet people often cannot resist the urge to do so.