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What is normally meant when someone is described as a scapegoat is that the person is being blamed for something more than he or she deserves and that some blame could or should in all fairness be directed at others. In the realm of criminal justice, scapegoats are commonly identified as those who have been assigned penalties out of proportion to their involvement in a crime, where the others involved cannot be prosecuted or are not assigned penalties to the extent that they deserve. Although little attention has been paid to this phenomenon by those in jurisprudence or moral philosophy, the practice of scape-goating deserves serious study. It is an interesting and important moral concept in its own right, one that is recognized by people from a variety of different cultural traditions, and there is value in clarifying what it means to be a scapegoat and in investigating its relationship to other moral concepts.

The term "scapegoat" derives from an Old Testament practice in which the high priest lays his hands upon a goat that is chosen by lot and, under the belief that the guilt of the people has been transferred to the goat, he turns the goat loose in the wilderness.(1) Subsequently, the notion was broadened to include human beings who had been banished from their communities.(2) Modern usage of the term does not seem to presuppose that a transference of guilt is necessarily thought to take place when a person is made a scapegoat. Nor does the modern usage connote the complete lack of complicity characteristic of the goat (which allowed the Christian tradition to associate the scapegoat with Jesus). But it does retain the idea that someone is chosen, often with some degree of arbitrariness, as the primary or sole bearer of guilt or blame for something that has happened, and it does seem to retain the notion that a transference of some sort other than guilt is believed to take place. I shall take as an initial point of departure that of necessity scapegoating involves ascribing blame to someone and I shall address the notion of transference at a later point in the discussion.

There is much of interest that could be said about those who make others scapegoats (their motivations, the injustice of their accusations, and so forth). For example, scapegoating sometimes takes place because people harbor hostile attitudes toward a particular individual or because they wish to bolster their own feelings of importance by seeing another blamed in a public manner. However, this discussion will focus mainly on the status of the scapegoat. There is also much of interest that could be said about theological concepts (such as the doctrine of the atonement) which relate to scapegoating or various ancient rituals or myths concerning scapegoats, but this discussion will focus mainly on philosophical issues. In addition, this discussion will focus on situations in which moral blame is ascribed to someone. Frequently, people are referred to as scapegoats in contexts in which the blame that is ascribed is not moral blame. Sometimes, for example, the term is applied to the recently fired head coach of an athletic team that has not performed up to expectations. To the extent that moral blame is not the driving consideration in cases such as these, they fall outside the scope of this inquiry.

Sometimes scapegoats are identified as those who have borne the blame for some scandalous or cataclysmic event or for something that has caused great damage or suffering to various individuals. But frequently the moral blame that is ascribed to scapegoats is in connection with a relatively trivial state of affairs. Several children leave their popsicle wrappers and sticks lying on the grass and, when an angry adult arrives on the scene, the one child who is still present receives an inordinate amount of blame. Assuming that the adult is aware that the other children are blameworthy for the resultant state of affairs, this can qualify as an instance of scapegoating. Thus, among cases in which scapegoating involves the ascription of moral blame, there can be great differences in the nature or seriousness of the situation in question.

In all cases of scapegoating there is a state of affairs for which the scapegoat is blamed, and this state of affairs must in some way be unfavorable or unwanted. It does not make sense for someone to be made a scapegoat for nothing in particular. Nor does it make sense for someone to be made a scapegoat for a state of affairs for which no one has any inclination or reason to assign blame. Moreover, the state of affairs cannot be some future state of affairs. It does not make sense for someone to be made a scapegoat for something that has not yet happened. Of course, someone might be made a scapegoat in a situation which a number of people make it likely or inevitable that a terrible future event will take place, but the person is then a scapegoat for this event, not for the future event.

Is it possible to be made a scapegoat for a state of affairs which has never occurred? Initially it may seem impossible. If Jones was not murdered, then it does not seem to make sense for someone to be made a scapegoat for Jones's murder. Suppose, however, that a great many people believe Jones was murdered; the blame might be focused upon a particular person with the intent that this person be made a scapegoat for the murder of Jones. But from this it does not follow that the person has been made a scapegoat for the murder of Jones (as opposed to a different state of affairs), for scapegoating takes place only when some blame could be directed at others. However, no blame can rightly be directed at anyone for an event that never took place. If Jones was not murdered, then no one can be blamed for Jones's murder.

Nevertheless, ordinary usage seems to tolerate reference to "scapegoat" in contexts in which the state of affairs in question never occurs. It has been claimed, for example, that in the days before the civil rights movement negro Americans were made scapegoats for a number of well publicized rapes in the Deep South, even though the rapes turned out never to have occurred. Now cases of this sort might seem to be ones in which the blame in question is something other than moral blame. For again one cannot bear moral blame for a non-occurring state of affairs. Thus, these cases seem to be similar to those involving the fired football coach in that the relevant blame is not of the moral sort. However, one can direct moral blame at a person for something that people incorrectly believe to have occurred. Thus, even though no one bears moral blame for a non-occurring state of affairs, one can be the object of moral blame for such a state of affairs. For this reason the cases of Jones's murder or the rape should be judged to fall within the scope of the present inquiry after all, unlike the case of the football coach. We shall therefore insist, not that moral blame can rightly be ascribed to the parties involved for scapegoating to take place, but only that it can reasonably be ascribed.

If all of this is true, our initial supposition, that scapegoating takes place only if the state of affairs for which blame is ascribed actually occurs, needs to be revised. If it is widely believed that this state of affairs has occurred and if it is reasonable for people to ascribe moral blame on this basis, then the potential for scapegoating is present. Thus, under certain circumstances, it appears to be possible to be made a scapegoat for something which has never occurred, and this is true even in cases in which the relevant blame is moral in nature (a phenomenon one might profitably compare with the punishment of the innocent).

It does not seem possible, on the other hand, that one be made a scapegoat for a state of affairs in situations in which no other moral agent is believed to have contributed to its occurrence. Others besides this agent must bear (or at least be believed to bear) some degree of moral blame for the event. Suppose that ! am prosecuted for stealing a large sum of money, and it is absolutely clear that no one else was involved in the crime. Since I am solely to blame for the loss of the money, I cannot be made the scapegoat for the loss of the money (although if there are people who mistakenly believe that others are to blame, they may mistakenly believe they are making me the scapegoat). Scapegoating always presupposes that others are partly to blame for the outcome in question.

When a person is made a scapegoat for a state of affairs, there is normally a connection between the person and its occurrence. Typically, the person either performs an act which contributes in some manner to its occurrence, or the person fails to prevent its occurrence. Either way, the person incurs some blame for the outcome. Thus, typically, the scapegoat has done something at least tangentially connected with the event in question and really does deserve some measure of blame for it (but is then assigned a disproportionate measure of blame for it).

Nevertheless, there seem to be instances in which a person is made a scapegoat for a state of affairs for whose occurrence that person has little or no responsibility. Sometimes a perfectly innocent person is selected as the scapegoat for a bad or scandalous situation. But these cases appear to be the exception rather than the rule, for the practice of ascribing blame would seem to depend for its credibility upon the assumption that there is usually some truth to the various claims that a particular person is to blame for some event. If scapegoats came to be generally regarded as innocent people selected to play the role of someone upon whom to fix the blame for what happens, we would have less inclination to pay attention when attempts were made to scapegoat individuals. Of course, we do not always know which assertions of blame constitute scapegoating and which do not, but their credibility may nevertheless be undermined in the long run if the practice of scapegoating acquired this type of reputation.

Actually, a different Old Testament metaphor is sometimes used to describe situations in which a perfectly innocent person is selected to bear the blame, and that is the metaphor of a "sacrificial lamb." When someone is described as a sacrificial lamb, there is usually no presumption that the person is to blame for the situation in question. This idea, at any rate, seems implicit in the notion of a sacrifice in a way that it does not seem implicit in the notion of a scapegoat (at least insofar as the modern notion of a scapegoat has deviated from the Old Testament notion). To summarize, the following schema can be offered, with the reminder that it applies only to situations in which moral blame is ascribed:

X makes Y a scapegoat for S only if:

(1) S is a state of affairs which has occurred, or is widely believed to have occurred

(2) X forms a judgment (or otherwise imputes guilt or blame) that Y is blameworthy for S's occurrence

(3) X's judgment exaggerates the degree to which Y is blameworthy for S's occurrence

(4) X's judgment understates the extent to which X knows (or truly believes) that others contributed to S's (actual or alleged) occurrence.

The schema is not a definition, for it is doubtful that (1)-(4) constitute sufficient conditions for X's making Y a scapegoat for S. There is surely more to making a person a scapegoat than overstating the extent of his or her blame for S, while understating that of others. If I see several children spraying graffiti on a public building, I may form the largely groundless belief that the one child who looks older than the others is primarily to blame for what is happening (in a manner which satisfies the last two conditions). But if I do not say anything to anyone about this belief, or if I express the judgment privately, it seems doubtful that the child has thereby been made a scapegoat.

This is not to say that I make someone a scapegoat only if I make my judgment about this person public. There may be situations in which a less than public expression of judgment suffices to render someone a scapegoat for what has happened. However, it is difficult to specify exactly what situations these might be. Moreover, even if a clause is added that stipulates that the judgment is made public, sufficient conditions would still be lacking without suitable specification of the people to whom or manner in which the judgment is made public (announcing my judgment to a roomful of non-English speaking people would scarcely make the difference between someone's being made or not being made a scapegoat).

The possibility is also left open that X makes Y a scapegoat for S without setting out to make Y a scapegoat. For there may be cases in which X sets out to make Z a scapegoat and ends up making Y a scapegoat through a case of mistaken identity. In fact, it is not necessary to know anything of significance about the identity of a person or persons whom one is making a scapegoat. Several years ago, while great numbers of people were descending upon an ethnic festival in South Bend, Indiana, a local television station reported that many vehicles were being parked illegally in spaces reserved for the handicapped. A camera crew proceeded to film one such vehicle as it was being parked. Subsequently, the occupants of the vehicle angrily complained in a letter to the editor of a local newspaper that they were being made scapegoats by the station. The members of the camera crew did not know the identity of these occupants, but they were evidently able to make scapegoats of them (assuming they deserved less blame than was warranted by the massive media exposure).

Furthermore, those who have been made scapegoats are frequently not recognized as such by others. This, of course, is precisely what is hoped for by those who attempt to focus blame for on the scapegoat. Others recognize that the blame is being focused upon someone, but they are generally unaware that the person is playing the role of a scapegoat. Rene Girard goes so far as to say that true scapegoats are those whom people have never recognized to be such.(3)

In situations in which the state of affairs S occurs, the schema does require that X have knowledge that others contribute to S's occurrence. From this it follows that others in fact contributed to S's occurrence and are thereby at least partially blameworthy for it. Their contribution, however, does not need to constitute a causal contribution. Sometimes moral agents are blameworthy for what happened because they fail to take action which would prevent this state of affairs. If so, they could be said to contribute to what happened without causally contributing to what happened.

In some cases true belief on X's part may suffice. Suppose that X believes that others have contributed to S's occurrence and that it is true that others have contributed to S's occurrence. However, X's specific beliefs about which people have contributed and the manner of their contribution may be less than completely accurate. Hence X may lack the type of justification required for knowledge that others have contributed to S's occurrence. But it may still be evident that X makes Y a scapegoat for S.

The schema leaves open the possibility that X and Y are identical, and this does not seem unreasonable. Occasionally people appear to make scapegoats of themselves. Feeling guilt over their role in bringing about a bad situation, people sometimes ascribe too much blame to themselves for what happened. They are mindful that others contributed to the situation. But they downplay the degree to which others are blameworthy while exaggerating the degree to which they themselves deserve blame.

At the outset of the discussion the notion of transference was mentioned in connection with the Old Testament practice of turning a goat loose in the wilderness. Although, to contemporary ways of thinking, an actual transference of guilt is not generally thought to take place in situations in which someone is made a scapegoat, it is plausible to suppose that a weaker sort of transference takes place. Suppose that various people, including Y, contribute to the occurrence of S and they come to share blame for S. If Y is blameworthy to degree d for S, then, when Y is made a scapegoat for S, Y is judged to be blameworthy for S to a degree greater than d. An appeal to the concept of moral taint is helpful in explaining this phenomenon. For it is possible that part of the explanation for this phenomenon is that X's judgment magnifies the degree to which Y is tainted by the actions of others. At least part of the increase in the blame attributed to Y can perhaps be explained by a magnification of the tainting of Y by the others.

When a person is tainted by what others have done, the person does not come to bear guilt or responsibility for what these others have done, for taint is a weaker moral concept than either guilt or responsibility.(4) But one of the results of being tainted is that shame can attach to one, and hence, when one is made a scapegoat, the exaggeration of taint can affect the degree to which the person is shamed by what happened. Arguably, this is significant if scapegoating is thought to preserve the element of transference from the Old Testament paradigm. As a result of the exaggeration of taint, shame is transferred to the scapegoat; though the person being scapegoated is not necessarily regarded as more guilty, additional shame is transferred to that person.

To say that shame is transferred to the scapegoat is not to imply that the scapegoat becomes more shameful, for the transference of shame is undeserved. Just as the scapegoat is blamed more than he or she deserves for a state of affairs, shame is transferred to the scapegoat more than he or she deserves. In the eyes of others, the scapegoat appears more shameful, but the scapegoat is not in fact more shameful.

The connection between taint and scapegoating is described by some authors as a polluting of the scapegoat. Girard reports that, "[i]n certain types of travelling theatre [in Japan], the principal hero, who is of course the one who plays the role of the scapegoat, is so `polluted' by the end of the performance that he has to leave the community without having contact with anyone or anything."(5) And E. 0. James, in describing certain Jewish rituals on the Day of Atonement, refers specifically to a transference of pollution: "The `scapegoat,' like the bird in the purification of the leper, was a vehicle for the removal of the pollution transferred to it."(6)

Sometimes collectives, rather than individuals, are spoken of as scapegoats. Girard speaks of "collective scapegoats" and offers the Jews as a paradigm example.(7) Some have alleged that women are commonly the victims of scapegoating.(8) Just as an individual can be made a scapegoat for what has occurred, the same may be true of collectives. It is not clear that the scapegoating of a collective has a distributive property; if the Jews are made the scapegoat for a state of affairs, it is not clear that each Jew is thereby made a scapegoat for this state of affairs. But acknowledging collectives among the types of entities can qualify as scapegoats seems consistent with ordinary usage. Sometimes it is membership in a collective that can lead to one's scapegoating. When harm is produced by certain members of a collective, the blame for this harm is sometimes focused upon a member of the collective who had little or nothing to do with this particular harm. Suppose that an act of racial violence is committed by several members of a racist organization. A prominent politician, who had nothing to do with this act of racial violence, happens to be a member of the organization. Because the identity of those directly responsible for this harm is not known, the politician then becomes a convenient target for those wishing to speak out about the incident. Although it can be argued that the politician deserves some blame for having joined the organization, exaggeration of the politician's blame may make him or her a scapegoat.

That scapegoats are selected in this fashion suggests that scapegoating is closely related to collective guilt or blame. Given a rather loose understanding of what collectives are and how they are formed, all instances of the scapegoating of an individual might be interpreted as selecting one member of a collective, exaggerating this member's blame for the result of a collective action or omission, and taking insufficient account of blame which could be accorded to other members. Some type of group dynamics is at work in all cases of scapegoating, except perhaps cases in which the scapegoat is completely innocent or chosen with complete arbitrariness (and hence not in any manner connected with those who are actually blameworthy). And it seems probable that coming to understand these dynamics could promote a better understanding of the dynamics of collective guilt.

In fact, an awareness of this relationship suggests two ways of understanding the relationship of the scapegoat to others. An individualist approach views the scapegoat as someone set apart from others and who incurs blame as the result of his or her own actions, not those done in collaboration with others. A collectivist approach emphasizes the scapegoat as part of a collective which is blameworthy for what has happened; although the scapegoat is judged to bear an inordinate amount of blame, part of the scapegoat's identity remains as part of the collective. Following the wreck of the Exxon Valdez, it was widely claimed that the captain of the vessel, Joseph Hazelwood, was being made a scapegoat for what happened. Whether this judgment is accurate will not be of concern here. What is of concern is that such a claim can be approached in two different ways. On the individualist approach, Hazelwood, standing alone, bears the blame. He is seen as having acted as an individual, not in the name of the Exxon Corporation, and upon this basis he is made a scapegoat. On the collectivist approach Hazelwood is seen as having acted as an officer of the Valdez and as an employee of the Exxon Corporation. Although the lion's share of the blame attaches to him as scapegoat, it attaches to him as an officer of the Valdez and as an employee of the Exxon Corporation. In this way he is seen as acting in the name of the Exxon Corporation.

One who is sympathetic to the individualist approach may find the collectivist account puzzling. By its very nature, making someone a scapegoat singles that person out as unique and sets him or her apart from others who are shielded from blame or responsibility which they might otherwise bear. But the collectivist sees no incompatibility between someone's being viewed as a scapegoat and as part of a group or collective from which the scapegoat derives part of his or her identity. Moreover, the collectivist acknowledges the symbolic dimension of scapegoating. When one person is made a scapegoat, this person's actions symbolize the actions of others. Just as the fate of the goat is symbolic or representative of the guilt of the people in the Old Testament paradigm, the role of the scapegoat is arguably symbolic of the roles of others. The actions of the driver of the illegally parked car come to symbolize the actions of the others who were similarly parking in spaces reserved for the handicapped.(9) And it is open to the collectivist to charge that taking the symbolic dimension seriously requires one to view the scapegoat in relationship to the collective, just as it is open to the individualist to challenge this view.

What appears to be a common assumption of both individualist and collectivist approaches is that being made a scapegoat by someone is the way to become a scapegoat. In other words, a person becomes a scapegoat only when someone makes this person a scapegoat. It might be objected that there are cases in which persons simply find themselves to be scapegoats without having been made such by anyone in particular. Suppose that George and several others commit arson and in the process George is injured. The others flee, but George remains in front of the burning building, unable to move and surrounded by empty containers of gasoline inscribed with his name. Is this not a case in which he simply finds himself the obvious scapegoat for the destruction of the building? Imagine that someone comes by and makes George a scapegoat for the destruction of the building. Could it not be said that he was already a scapegoat prior to this?

Here I am inclined to say that George was no more a scapegoat prior to this than the goat was a scapegoat prior to its being selected. Until someone came by and formed judgments of the requisite sort, George was a prime candidate for being made a scapegoat, but his potentiality as a scapegoat was not actualized until someone formed these judgments. Godfrey Leinhardt calls scapegoats receptacles of human passions.(10) Whether human beings inevitably express or exhibit passions when making scapegoats of themselves or others is perhaps debatable, but it seems correct to believe that human activity of some sort is required for someone to become a scapegoat for what happens.

The same is true of mercy, and indeed scapegoating bears some interesting similarities to showing mercy. In each case one person is singled out as the focal point for special consideration. Just as the scapegoat is singled out as the person primarily to blame for what happens, the person being shown mercy is singled out to receive a benefit of some sort. In each case the recipient is given something that is not totally deserved. In each case a state of affairs must have occurred to create the possibility of the phenomenon. The scapegoat is blamed for something that has happened (and if nothing happened, a different state of affairs, widespread belief, must have occurred), and something must have been done (or omitted) by or happened to the person being shown mercy to create the possibility of receiving mercy.

However, scapegoating and showing mercy are not mirror opposites, for praise is not bestowed upon those to whom mercy is being shown. The mirror image practice of scapegoating would be the practice of singling out someone as the object of praise for a beneficial state of affairs, when the person has acted in a way that is only tangentially connected to its occurrence. When many survivors are rescued at the scene of a disaster, one of the rescuers may emerge as a hero because his or her actions happen to be captured by a press photographer. Others who are deserving of praise for their contributions may receive none.

It is perhaps fitting to conclude this discussion by observing that this mirror image practice has evidently been given no name, either by ethicists or legal experts. Perhaps this is due to its occurring less frequently than scapegoating. People show less inclination to single others out for praise than to single others out for blame. But perhaps there are reasons to suppose that it is of less moral significance than scapegoating. Perhaps there is less at stake in general, morally speaking, when people are judged praiseworthy than when they are judged blameworthy, but I shall not here attempt to explain this phenomenon. Regarding this matter, one thing seems certain: the phenomenon of scapegoating will fascinate people to a degree that will never be equalled by this mirror image practice. I hope to have shed light upon this phenomenon, and I hope in particular that this moral analysis will enable those who speak of scapegoating in the context of criminal justice to attain a more precise grasp of what it means and how it functions in discussions of the accused.


I have benefitted from the advice of two anonymous referees and the editor of this journal.

(1) Leviticus 16: 8-10.

(2) On occasion, the Athenians would expel from the city various people, chosen from the ranks of the poor and ugly, in an effort to purify it. The word referring to these people (pharmakoi) is usually rendered into English as "scapegoats" or "offscourings." As to the origins of the English term "scapegoat," according to Jacob Bronowski, it "is an invention of Tindale's Bible. It is not clear that the Old Testament word that it purports to translate is anything but a name" (Bronowski, The Scapegoat King, in THE SCAPEGOAT: RITUAL AND LITERATURE 36 [ed. J. Vickery & J. Sellery, 1972]). The modern notion of scapegoating implies that it is at least prima facie wrong to make scapegoats of others, but from this it does not follow that doing so is never morally justified.


(4) The notion of taint is admittedly somewhat obscure. For a clarification of what it means to be tainted by another see my COLLECTIVE RESPONSIBILITY 71-82 (1997), and my Collective Guilt in 1 ENCYCLOPEDIA OF APPLIED ETHICS 543-49 (ed. R. Chadwick, 1998). Here I follow philosophers such as L. MAY, SHARING RESPONSIBILITY ch. 8 (1992) in regarding shame as a weaker concept than guilt. Feelings of shame are appropriate whenever feelings of guilt are appropriate, but the reverse is not true. A minor wrongdoing might not merit feelings of guilt, but feelings of shame may nevertheless be appropriate.

(5) R. GIRARD, supra note 3, at 133.

(6) James, The Day of Atonement, in THE SCAPEGOAT, supra note 1, at 33.

(7) R. GIRARD, THE SCAPEGOAT 4 (1986).

(8) Paula Caplan writes:

In most situations in which power is unequally distributed, the people with the most power use scapegoating as a technique for maintaining their unfair share. Scapegoating serves this function in the following way: when anyone has a complaint that might threaten the current power balance, those at the top blame the trouble on the scapegoated group, who expose (but do not create) the problem. Throughout most societies, women are a primary target of such blame. Scapegoating thereby serves the dual purpose of keeping in power the mostly white, mostly male group that now sits at the top of most academic institutions and of keeping members of other groups out of power


(9) For more on the symbolic value of actions and its relationship to scapegoating, see my Symbolic Value, Virtue Ethics, and the Morality of Groups, 43 PHIL. TODAY 302-08 (1999).

(10.) As reported by R. GIRARD, VIOLENCE AND THE SACRED 99 (1977).

Gregory Mellema, author of Collective Responsibility, is Professor of Philosophy, Calvin College, Grand Rapids, MI.
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Date:Jan 1, 2000
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