Moral Responsibility 2

In the previous post I was talking about what is called backward-looking responsibility: the issues there are ‘backward-looking’ as they are concerned with what the agent has already done. In this section I want to introduce another kind of responsibility, called forward-looking responsibility. These two kinds of responsibility are most assuredly related, although the precise nature of the relationship needs to be spelled out. As the name suggests, this second type of responsibility focuses, not on what has happened in the past, but on the future, on what should or should not happen in the future. And this has to do with what I called a special responsibility. A number of professions have responsibilities of this kind, lifeguards for instance – a example which is simple but demonstrates the main elements of this kind of responsibility.


We can describe someone who is a lifeguard as having a profession, occupation or even pastime. The first thing to notice is something obvious, namely that all sorts of people can be lifeguards, provided they have the required ability and training – being a lifeguard is not something unique. We could then say that being a lifeguard is a role that people can take on at one time or another, for instance, when they are at work, or at the weekend when they volunteer at their local club. There are certain duties and obligations associated with this role, things a lifeguard is supposed to do, which basically amount to making sure swimmers are safe. There are evidently lots of roles that people can take on, sets of behaviours that are routinised and rule-governed, the performance of which is supposed to meet certain standards. The performance of some, perhaps the most important, roles are such as to prevent harm and promote well-being, and clearly the role of lifeguard is one such example.

The forward-looking responsibility of a lifeguard is made up of what she is supposed to do, namely rescue swimmers who are in distress, give them first aid, call for more medical help if necessary and generally make sure the conditions are safe for swimming. These are duties, things an agent is supposed to perform. A person who is not a lifeguard does not have a duty to rescue a swimmer in distress: if that person were a strong swimmer and capable of the rescue, then we might well criticise her inaction if she did not rescue a swimmer in distress, but we would not say, as we would had a lifeguard failed to conduct the rescue, that she failed in her duty (I note that the utilitarian would disagree). A lifeguard who fails to do her duty fails to fulfil her (forward-looking) responsibility.

We can see now what the connection is between backward-looking and forward-looking responsibility. Speaking in general terms, suppose Q suffers some harm which could have been prevented by P taking appropriate action. If the circumstances were such that P was supposed to (try to) prevent harms of this nature occurring  - she occupied a role that has associated  with it the responsibility to prevent harms of the kind in question - and made no worthwhile effort to aid Q, then we would judge that P must take responsibility for the harms and is therefore open to blame. The matter is not closed at this point: we should not yet conclude that B is actually to be blamed – again, this is a prima facie judgement – and there may be matters that lead us to withdraw the charge. Perhaps P really did make a ‘worthwhile effort’, but the circumstances were just too challenging? What is clear is that a person with no such forward-looking responsibility would not be held responsible in this way for such harms, harms that she did not cause.

Is it therefore the case that forward-looking responsibility only comes into play when someone is harmed? If we allow that there are varieties of forward-looking responsibility that comprise obligations to promote the well-being or interests of others, as opposed to preventing harm, in line with the demands of utilitarianism, then failure to discharge such an obligation will not entail responsibility in the backward-looking sense (which only arises for common morality when someone is harmed). However, even if we restrict the scope of forward-looking responsibility to the prevention of harm, it does not follow that failure to perform the duties in question must actually cause harm. Returning to the lifeguard, she is supposed to make sure that conditions are safe for swimming. On beaches in Australia, and elsewhere, this involves placing flags where there are no rips, undercurrents, sandbars, etc., hazards that only experienced swimmers can handle. If the lifeguard marks out a section of beach as safe, whereas in fact there is a dangerous sandbar, then she has failed in her duty even if no swimmer got into difficulty. In the previous case, we can say that she is responsible because she failed to prevent harm – a swimmer being harmed in the sea, and this is a kind of omission: a case of ‘omit to prevent’. Now we have seen that forward-looking responsibility can give rise to another kind of omission: cases of ‘omit to do’. We refer to such failure as negligence.

We can conclude that the only grounds for judging that an agent who failed to act in certain circumstances should have done so, is if she had a forward-looking responsibility, some role which brought with it certain duties and obligations. I have maintained that the actions of ‘ordinary’ agents, agents who have not acted in accordance with some forward-looking responsibility, are such that the agent is only held to account if these cause harm. On the other hand, agents acting in contexts in which they have certain duties, may be held responsible for omissions, and in most instances this is because they are negligent. Harming and being negligent are not the same things. Being negligent can be defined as behaving in a way that risks harm unnecessarily. Since it may seem, in some cases at least, that being negligent is not as bad as actually harming, assuming no harm comes about in the former case, one might think that here the agent is ‘less responsible’. I am not, however, in favour of any kind of degrees of responsibility. I believe an agent is responsible for something, or she is not. What does come in degrees or grades is blame. Perhaps an agent who only risks harm is less blameworthy that one who cause harm? That will depend on the case in point. Where more than one agent takes part in an action that causes harm, perhaps the instigator or person who plays the greater part is more to blame? These are issues to be resolved once it is determined who is responsible.


 The relationship between forward-looking and backward-looking responsibility is that the existence of the former is a sufficient condition for the latter to come into play. In other words, we do not hold an agent responsibility for what she fails to do, unless she has a role which she failed to perform correctly and someone was harmed or there was a risk of harm. For an ‘ordinary’ person, someone who does not have any special responsibility, we could say that she has a responsibility not to harm, and if she omits to do this – if she actually harms – then we hold her to account. Using a double negative here is an elliptical way of saying that persons are moral agents and being a moral agent means that one can be called to account for harming. But this way of putting the matter does focus attention on the fact that agents should take care than they do not harm others; they should look ahead and assess the outcomes of their actions. The essential difference here is that those with a special or role responsibility are obliged to prevent harms they did not cause, whereas this is not the case for ‘ordinary’ agents. This distinction is important when we come (at last) to addressing the responsibility of agents for getting the covid vaccine.