Moral Responsibiliy 1

When is a person P morally responsible for some action A? On the basis of the discussion of the previous section, we have a basis on which to place P’s actions into two groups, namely  those that cause harm to others and those that don’t. If A belongs to the latter class, then A does not cause any harm and so is not within the purview of common morality, and hence the question of P’s moral responsibility does not arise. However, if A was one of a number of alternative possibilities open to P, one of which prevented harm and P chose A instead, then this would be relevant to judging whether P was morally responsible for wrongdoing were we to have adopted (some version of) utilitarianism. This is not the moral system we have adopted here and hence once again the question of P’s moral responsibility does not arise, in the normal course of events. There are two comments in order here: first of all, it could be remarked that P has not lived up to a moral ideal, though questions of moral responsibility do not arise for the moral ideals. More importantly, the assumption is that this is in ‘the normal course of events’ and by this I mean that P does not have any special responsibility when it comes to the situation where the harm could have been prevented, and this is something that we shall need to consider.  However, if A is such that someone was harmed – and I leave aside here just who the candidates are for ‘someone’ - then the issue is whether P is responsible for the harm. I note that common morality and utilitarianism will agree on this point: utilitarianism covers all the cases that fall within the scope of common morality, but not conversely.

If P deliberately brought about A, knowing full well that this would cause harm to others, then we judge that she is morally responsible for her action. Until all the relevant features of the action are known, this will be a prima facie as opposed to an ‘all things considered’ judgement. There are two sorts of matters that need to considered before the judgement is confirmed. The first has to do with whether P has an excuse. Sometimes, but not always, not knowing or realising the effects of one’s action can excuse, but by hypothesis, this is not the case here. However, if P has no control over her action, if she is forced to do A, then normally this would excuse her and we would withdraw the original judgement. In this situation A is in a sense not an action that ‘belongs’ to P because she has no choice but to do it. On the other hand if P did not actually perform A, it was Q and we were mistaken in attributing it to P, then P’s moral responsibility is not at issue. (I note that again, the utilitarian might make a different judgement, for instance, if P could have prevented Q from acting and hence prevented the harm that occurred.)

If P has an excuse, then we withdraw the judgement that she is morally responsible for A, all things now considered. In this regard, a justification, the second of the two relevant  sorts of consideration, is different from an excuse. Let us suppose that P has prevented more harm than she caused, by deliberately and freely doing A, and that her reason for doing A was precisely because she wanted to prevent harm. I assume, as before, that the only acceptable justification for causing harm is the prevention of at least a comparable degree of harm. In this instance then, P is morally responsible for (the harm caused by doing) A, but her action is permissible because she was justified in doing A. To say that an action is permissible means that there is no blame attached: P is not guilty of moral wrongdoing. The contrast with utilitarianism is again instructive. Common morality does not take into consideration any benefits or goods that P brings about by doing A, but the utilitarian does. So now suppose P confers considerable benefits as well as doing some harm by action A, then if (on some calculus) the former ‘outweigh’ the latter, the utilitarian may judge the act to be permissible, or even possibly – if the benefits are very great indeed – mandatory. I believe that one of the strengths of common morality is that it does not allow this kind of calculation.

Some philosophers have suggested (rather than seriously argued) that if P only foresaw that harm would come about when she performed action A, rather than intended the harm – for instance if the harmful element was a side-effect of A - then she is not morally responsible. Others, taking their lead from Aristotle, have said that ignorance of the harmful element/side-effect counts as an excuse. I reject the suggestion that merely foreseeing but not intending harm excuses. Knowing that what one does will cause harm is enough to render the agent morally responsible. Not knowing this amounts to a rather more plausible excuse. If P could not have known that when she did A this would cause harm, then she is not responsible and not to blame. But there are a range of possibilities here, from wilful ignorance to genuine lack of knowledge. If P acts carelessly, negligently or recklessly, then she should have known that such actions could cause harm, and if indeed she does do so, then we hold her responsible and reject any excuse based on P’s actual lack of foresight.


To conclude this very brief exposition of the idea of moral responsibility, we can say the following: If agent P undertakes action A which causes harm, then P is to be held morality responsible for the harm caused, provided that she does not have an excuse. P has an excuse if she had no choice but to undertake A, or if she was not in a position to see that A was harmful to others. If P is morally responsible for (the harm caused by) A, then she is blameworthy unless she has a justification to the effect that she expressly undertook A to prevent greater harm. In which case A is permissible and P is not blameworthy. This is not quite all we need to say about moral responsibility. I mentioned above that P should not be held responsible for preventing certain harms from occurring, given that we are using common morality as our moral compass, unless she had a special responsibility to do so. Insofar as we say agents have ‘a moral responsibility’, it is not to harm others, and if someone does harm someone else, then we hold them to their moral responsibility, or more simply, hold them morally responsible. Common morality does not require agents to prevent harm. However, some agents have what I have called a special responsibility in view of the role they play in public life. This will be important when we return to the issue of responsibility for vaccination, and I will address it in the post.