Monday, December 26, 2011


The question of "responsibility" plays a central role in retribution and is central to our feelings and thought about justice. There are two different forms:  legal responsibility and moral responsibility.

Legal responsibility is not necessarily identical to moral responsibility. Not everything that is “legal” is “moral,” and not everything that is moral is legal. The basic difference between legality and morality lies in the distinction between “laws” and “rules” and how each are monitored and enforced. Laws are monitored and enforced via the coercive power of the state. If you break a law and get caught, you can get punished by a government. In the Western world, governments “sanction” law breakers via fines, incarceration, and sometimes via death (United States). Some non-Western countries whip or beat law breakers. If you break a moral rule, members of the community will praise you or blame you. Most governments limit what groups can do to enforce morality. In some countries, like Saudi Arabia, almost everything that is immoral is also illegal.  

Moral responsibility involves the basic question of what kinds of persons are “fair” targets for moral praise and moral blame. Simply put, we praise or reward persons that do good things, and we blame persons that do bad things. But what is it about the nature of persons that justifies holding them responsible for their behavior? And, why do we, in fact, hold each other morally responsible for our actions? Well, at least in the Western moral tradition we assess responsibility based on two main criteria: rationality and free will.

We praise and blame persons that are capable of understanding and applying moral rules and reasoning about consequences before they act. The assessment of degrees of rationality usually involves assessing mental processes such as logical reasoning, forethought, learning from experience, processing information etc. Thus, mind or mentality is a necessary condition for the assessment of moral responsibility, but not a sufficient condition. Not all persons that possess mentality are morally responsible. We do not hold young children responsible for their behavior. But as they get older we tend to hold them more responsible. Nor do we hold persons that have a "cognitive or defect" responsible for their actions. And, obviously we do not always hold other persons responsible for acts born out of ignorance of the rules or the consequences. We generally do not hold animals morally responsible for their good or bad behavior, although we may praise or blame them in order to encourage or discourage future behaviors.  

We also praise and blame responsible persons for acts of free will; that is, acts that they are capable of controlling. Basically, this means that we do not praise or blame persons for acts that are coerced by other persons or forced by internal or external circumstances. Personal coercion generally involves the use of personal threats and enticements enforced by others. Both threats and enticements come in various degrees. Major threat: "Rob that bank or I'll kill your family!" Minor threat: "Rob that bank or I'll take your shoes!" Major enticement: "Rob that bank and I'll give you 10 million dollars!" Minor enticement: "Rob that bank and I'll give you one dollar." Generally speaking, we hold moral agents responsible for bad acts that were performed in exchange for enticements and we do not usually praise people that do good things in exchange for major enticements. In other words, responsible persons ought to be able to resist at least some low-level threats and/or enticements. Philosophers argue over whether and/or to what degree threats and enticements undermine free will, and whether the concept of free will even makes sense.

As a general rule, we do not praise or blame others for good or bad consequences that are brought on by chance, or moral luck. If I accidentally run into a fleeing bank robber, I probably will not be praised as a hero. Unless, I could convince the media that I knew he was a fleeing bank robber and that I deliberately tackled him. If I accidentally killed that robber, I might even be held legally responsible and blamed for his death. More on that later.       

Not only do we hold persons morally responsible for their actions, we also hold groups of individuals legally and morally responsible for their actions. But collective responsibility is much more difficult to assess. Here’s why. First of all, our individual association with groups is not always framed by rationality or free will. Sometimes we are coerced into associating with others, and sometimes we associate ourselves with groups without really knowing everything that they do. Sometimes we associate ourselves with groups based on tradition alone.  Most of us remain associated with the same religious group that we grew up with.   

Voluntary associations are those groups that we rationally and freely choose to associate.  These associations are often organized hierarchies that involve leaders and followers. Generally speaking, we hold both leaders and followers morally responsible for their actions. But the responsibility of followers is contingent upon what they knew beforehand and the presence of coercive influences. When we really know exactly what an organization does and when we freely choose to follow its leaders, we are held individually responsible for what that organization does. Hence, responsibility is diminished commensurate to both information and freedom. Unfortunately, in the real world followers do not always possess perfect knowledge or perfect freedom.

Moreover, hierarchies often delegate responsibility, which means that leaders at the top of an organization may not always know what lower level leaders are doing and sometimes upper level leaders employ coercive force on lower level leaders. For example, many of the Nazi doctors claimed that they tortured their patients because they would have been killed if they disobeyed orders.

Corporate responsibility is especially convoluted. Who is ultimately responsible for good and bad corporate behavior? Should we hold the CEO or the Board of Trustees of a multi-national corporation responsible for everything that takes place within that corporation?  Should the leaders get paid for what followers produce? Should leaders be held responsible for immoral and/or illegal behavior of followers? In short, this notion of collective (or shared) responsibility turns out to be very complex.

Another source of complexity has to do with the dynamics of how human beings behave in groups. Historically, philosophers have identified two sources of determinism that limit moral responsibility” biology and social structure. Biological determinists argue that at least some human behavior is “natural,” or caused by our brains and genes. Therefore, biological determinists argue that at least some human behavior lies outside of the realm of rationality and free will and that praise and/or blame cannot alter those behaviors.  

So, how does social structure affect human rationality and free will, and to what degree does "social causation" diminish individual and/or collective responsibility? This question raises a host of other questions concerning the nature and extent of circumstantial coercion, the malleability of human nature, and the "nature v. nurture controversy."  To what degree are human beings conditioned by their social environment and their genetic makeup? There are two wrong answers:

1. Human behavior is infinitely malleable via manipulation of the social environment (social determinism). Therefore individual responsibility is impossible.

2. Human behavior is not malleable at all, but determined by our social environment and biology (genetic determinism). Therefore, the assessment of individual responsibility is impossible.

If the truth lies somewhere between these extremes, then how do we (in fact) go about assessing personal and collective moral responsibility in our everyday lives? How should we?

Now the relationship between legality and morality is itself subject to a long line of philosophical inquiry. Historically, many philosophers have argued that morality is timelessly universal and “objective” and that legality is relative to time and place. Other philosophers have argued that universal morality always trumps legality. Some say that both morality and legality are temporally and culturally relative. Therefore, “When in Rome do as the Romans do.”

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