Responsibility Research Paper

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1. The Concept Of Responsibility

The focus of this entry is moral responsibility. Although it begins with an examination of the concepts of causal responsibility and of responsibility as duty, the discussion in these sections is intended to orient the reader to the distinctive character of the concept of moral responsibility and to attendant philosophical theories about what is meant when moral responsibility is ascribed to a human agent for some act or state of affairs. Attributing responsibility to an agent as to a cause is logically and conceptually distinct from claiming that the person is morally responsible for causing an event. Equally, discerning those tasks for which a person has a responsibility or a duty to perform is different from claiming that they bear moral responsibility for the performance of those tasks. In short, the concept of responsibility has a number of distinct applications, the analyses of which point to the variety of conceptions of responsibility.

1.1 Causal Responsibility

One interested in action theory may investigate causal responsibility. Thus, in claiming ‘Alice is responsible for spilling the coffee on the floor,’ we may be saying that Alice spilled the coffee as a result of some action on her part. In such a causal context, responsibility ascriptions credit a person or an entity with a role in bringing about an event or state of affairs, and nothing more. Assigning causal responsibility consists in identifying a salient factor that must actually operate in order for an event to transpire—its cause—and not in evaluating the moral quality of an event with which an actor is instrumentally associated.

Moral responsibility, and responsible agency, cannot be identified with causal responsibility. This is true for at least three reasons. First, that someone or something is causally responsible for some event or state of affairs is not sufficient for the thing being morally responsible for the event. The kind of responsibility attributed to one who is identified as causally responsible for something is not a sufficient basis for moral evaluation. That the agent is causally responsible is not, in and of itself, a reason to judge the agent a good or bad, praiseworthy or blameworthy, person as a result. But judgments of moral responsibility are typically of this sort.

Second, a person need not be causally responsible for all those acts they are held morally responsible for—causal responsibility is not necessary for moral responsibility. For example, parents are vicariously responsible, legally and, although this is controversial, perhaps morally, for at least some of the acts of their nonadult children.

Third, that someone or something is causally responsible for some event or state of affairs is not sufficient for the cause to be an agent who can be held morally responsible. Because causal responsibility can be ascribed to events, things, nonhuman animals, and to irrational or underdeveloped humans as well as to fully mature, rational persons, it does not single out a class of things that might properly be described as moral agents, or members of a moral community. When we hold a person such as Alice morally responsible for something, it is in light of certain expectations we have of Alice, given a maturity we assume of her, given what we have reason to believe she knew herself to be doing, and given the circumstances that led her to act. But the conditions for responsible agency met by Alice, and considered more fully below, are not met by very young children, or animals, or trees. Thus, while we might claim that faulty construction is to blame for the collapse of a building, what we mean is that a salient cause of the collapse was poor construction. We might allege that the baby was causally responsible for the broken lamp. But neither the baby nor the faulty construction are morally responsible for the states they cause because neither are moral agents.

In sum, an account of agency must make sense of moral approval or disapproval. Even if the act for which we deem a person responsible is morally neutral—is neither praiseworthy nor blameworthy— we appraise the moral quality of the person who acts, and not simply the state of affairs the person initiates.

1.2 Duty And Obligation

By contrast, in describing a person as ‘responsible’ for some act or state of affairs, we may be expressing the belief that the person has a duty. Here, the judgment ‘X is responsible for Y’ is intended as a statement to the effect that X has certain responsibilities to others: tasks, duties, or obligations pertaining to Y, usually in light of X’s position in society or role. Claiming that a person is responsible for Y in this sense is to credit responsibility prospecti ely; it is to look forward to what the person is duty bound or obligated to do. This idea of having responsibilities is analogous to Kurt Baier’s notion of ‘task responsibility,’ or the ‘forward-looking aspect’ of agent responsibility. In its forward-looking sense, agent responsibility consists in being socially entrusted, on either customary, legal, or moral grounds, with a specified event, state of affairs, or duty.

Thus, parents are responsible for overseeing the well-being of their children, adult wage earners are responsible for paying taxes, attorneys are responsible for respecting the confidentiality of their clients, and so forth. In this forward-looking sense, the claim that Alice is responsible for giving Bernie the medicine would mean, at a minimum, that Alice has a duty to give Bernie medicine. The sentence is then ambiguous between (a) the sense in which it attributes a prospective duty to Alice; (b) the sense in which it attributes mere causal responsibility to Alice for Bernie’s having been given the medicine, and (c) the sense in which it attributes moral responsibility and implies, perhaps, praise or blame.

In the latter sense, to be morally responsible is not a matter of having or owing an obligation to another. A person may be morally responsible for those things they have a moral obligation to do, such as caring for their children. But the things for which a person can be held morally responsible in the sense of being praiseworthy or blameworthy is not restricted to things they had an obligation or a responsibility to do. I might be held responsible for my slovenly habits, or for my acts of bravery, where neither of these attends the discharging of an obligation. Equally, the fact that an act is one I am obliged to perform does not decide whether I am morally accountable for performing it or for failing to do so.

Once we have set aside causal responsibility and responsibilities in the sense of duties, we are left with the idea of responsible agency and the idea of responsibility for action. What we are interested in is the idea of being responsible—both being a responsible person and being responsible for an act.

2. Being A Responsible Agent And Being Held Responsible

2.1 The Conditions For Responsible Agency

In order to be morally responsible for an act, or trait of character, a person must be a responsible agent. Responsible agency typically requires that an individual satisfy certain epistemic conditions and certain social and psychological conditions of control.

The epistemic conditions guarantee that the responsible agent is self-aware, that they are rational, that they are not ignorant of the circumstances in which they act, that they are cognizant of and able to act within established moral guidelines, and that they are responsive to reasons to adjust or amend their behavior in light of these guidelines. In order to be held responsible, the moral agent must know that doing a particular act (or an act of a given type) or cultivating a particular trait of character (say, jealousy, rage, bigotry) is right or is wrong. The moral agent may be held responsible if, suffering from none of the conditions that exempt a person from responsible agency, they should have known the nature of the act or trait, and could have been motivated by the relevant moral guidelines. A person’s ignorance in this case might be called culpable. By contrast, a person should not be held responsible, if they did not know, and should not be expected to know, that the act is of an undesirable moral quality.

The control conditions ensure that the agent acts freely. The morally responsible agent is not hostage to debilitating and uncontrollable neuroses of a sort that incapacitate their resolve; that is, they can control the manifestations of neuroses by medical means or by strength of will. A person who is prone to neurosis of a certain type or scope, or who finds them-self the victim of coercion or manipulation, may be a responsible agent but one whom we excuse from responsibility for specific acts when it is plain that on a particular occasion coercive or manipulative elements played a decisive and ineliminable role in action.

Satisfaction of the control conditions for responsible agency ensure that the agent, rather than a mechanism foreign to them, actually guides or actually executes the agent’s actions and those traits of character for which the agent is morally responsible. A mechanism of action is foreign to a person when it is one to which the person does not assent as a force by which they wish to be moved. Although the responsible person may lack the power to alter the mechanism that leads them to act—to do otherwise than they in fact do—they are moved by their own lights. At a minimum, the morally responsible agent is capable of deliberate, intentional behavior.

Absent some of the epistemic and control conditions, a person will be a less likely candidate for responsible agency. The satisfaction of some set of these will mean that the entity is a responsible agent. There is obviously a threshold that decides when a person is a responsible agent, but it is not within the scope of this discussion to explore the specifics of the threshold. Let it suffice to say that the responsible agent is someone who acts knowingly and freely, and the actions and characteristics for which they are responsible are ‘their own.’

2.2 Holding Responsible And Being Responsible

Generally speaking, when we describe someone as a morally responsible agent, we mean that the person is someone whom we recognize as bearing characteristics of the sort that make them a member of the moral community. They are someone with whom morally relevant relationships are possible, and they are a fitting subject of moral appraisal. But there are different theories about the analysis of judgments that a person is morally responsible for their character, their choices, their actions or omissions. Three accounts, in particular, bear mention.

One possibility is that we might simply be signaling that an actor, having met certain conditions for responsible agency, is a suitable candidate for certain kinds of corresponding regard and treatment forthcoming on the part of others and, perhaps, on the part of himself. This approach has been coined the reactive attitudes analysis of responsibility ascriptions. The idea is that when we say a person is responsible we mean that the person is liable, through their behavior, to a response on the part of others marked by attitudes such as gratitude and resentment, and that the person is an appropriate object of such attitudes in light of certain conditions for agency that they have met. On this analysis, the claim ‘X is responsible for Y’ (or, for Y-ing) will amount to the conjunction of the claims ‘X did (or is) Y,’ ‘X possesses the qualities of a responsible agent,’ and ‘X is rightly subject to the favorable or unfavorable responses of others as a result.’ The reactive attitudes analysis offers an account of the emotional dynamics at play where decisions about responsibility occur. That a person is appropriately subject to certain attitudes and practices gives us reason to consider them a free, responsible agent, and as good or bad, praiseworthy or blameworthy, and so on.

A second possibility is that, in judging a person responsible, we may be saying the person is accountable for their behavior, in the sense that we think it appropriate that the person offer an explanation of their intentions or beliefs about their behavior. That is, we may be focusing on the phenomenon of holding an agent answerable for their actions. Construing judgments about moral responsibility as judgments about accountability is appropriate for a number of reasons. One reason is that holding persons responsible is part of a social practice of ascribing responsibility, first by making clear any moral expectations we have of persons vis-a-vis behavior and character, and then by having in place certain social instruments that ensure adequate redress where necessary. Making moral expectations clear presumes the existence of a shared set of beliefs, and a system of norms against which actions and traits of character are assessed.

A third possibility is that judging a person responsible for some act, omission, state of affairs, or trait of character is essentially a statement of attribution. The philosopher Gary Watson advocates this perspective, which he labels the aretaic face of responsibility, for its focus on ethical appraisal of conduct that can be attributed or imputed to an individual as its agent and thus as the author or adopter of ends. Because these ends are self-adopted, acting upon them discloses the quality and character of the agent’s life. The attributability approach does not merely assign causal responsibility, for the focus is on the behavior of a human agent, his her character, and his her ends—the object leading to action. Acts of attributing responsibility on this account differ from both the reactive attitudes and accountability analyses. Attribution need not involve the registration of emotions such as resentment or gratitude, nor need it be true that an explanation of the act in question is expected of the actor.

Two varieties of cases illustrate the differences among these three analyses. First consider examples of extreme and, some would contend, irremediable evil. If we consider the behavior of someone such as Hitler, it may well appear that he is morally ‘beyond the pale’ so that none of the standard reactive attitudes is an appropriate response to, for instance, his ‘Final Solution.’ Hitler, and like-minded persons, are seemingly incapacitated for ordinary adult interpersonal relationships. Such persons simply will not be responsive to the demands of membership in our moral community. At the same time, the heinous acts they have committed are properly attributed to them as perpetrators. The attributability account allows for Hitler, and similarly sociopathic or psychopathic persons, to be deemed responsible for their immoral behavior, yet permits the hesitation some might have in regarding such actors as moral interlocutors, as the accountability approach demands, or as appropriate objects of any of the ordinary moral attitudes.

A second, ostensive, merit of the attributability approach is that it enables us to credit persons with responsibility for matters that are essentially private, matters that are the affair of none but the actor them-self. It seems unreasonable to reply to my slovenly garb, or foolish financial practice, with resentment or indignation, just as it seems unreasonable to expect that I account for these practices if they affect no one but myself. Where these practices reveal something about ends I have chosen for myself, they speak to my character—they express, as Watson claims, my own evaluative commitments and my identity as an agent. Thus, on the attributability account, they can be attributed to me as practices for which I bear responsibility.

3. Responsibility And Free Will

3.1 Causal Determinism And Moral Responsibility

An adequate discussion of the central problems faced by any account of moral responsibility will include the problem causal determinism poses to the idea that we have freedom of will. In brief, the problem is that if our present choices and conduct are causally determined by past events and states, then it appears that we do not have any freedom with respect to the performance or occurrence of our present choices and conduct. The past is something over which we have no control. And it is equally true that we have no control over the laws of nature operative in the world. Together, these claims suggest that we have no control over the present.

It is a matter of lively debate among philosophers whether or not the truth, or the likelihood, of causal determinism would affect our status as responsible agents. Some philosophers argue for the incompatibility of determinism and responsibility; if either obtains, the other does not. We cannot be both determined and responsible for our conduct. Others argue that the conditions for responsible agency are independent of determinism. On this view, the truth or plausibility of determinism aside, we can control our conduct in a manner sufficient for responsible agency. At the very least, to deny responsibility of persons whom we regard as participants in our moral framework would be to strain the limits of our natural practices. It is undeniable that persons treat one another as agents, as individuals answerable for their conduct, and that the alternative—that persons cultivate an attitude of detachment from the conduct of their human associates merely because of the truth of determinism—would signal an impoverished state of human interaction that few, if any, could bear.


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