Causal Responsibility

Perhaps the root notion of responsibility concerns the sense in which we use the term to indicate mere causal efficacy as when we say things like, "The leaking value is responsible for the water in the basement," or "An infestation of locusts was responsible for poor crop production and starvation in Eastern Africa last year."

In these cases we attribute responsibility, in the sense of causal efficacy, without also imputing agency or intention­ality to the cause. The causal sense of responsibility differs from the moral senses of the term in that it carries no implication of praise or blame. Responsibility in this sense has to do with mere happenings rather than with doings. Non-agentive causal factors can be said to be 'responsible' for producing effects in this basic sense of the term.

The locust infestation case represents agent causality. As living beings, locusts are agents, that is, they act autonomously and their actions evince a certain purpose that is, in this case, built into their biological program. Locusts, like other living things, need to take in energy from their environments in order to survive and reproduce. The locusts did not intend to cause human beings to starve; they only intended to feed themselves. While it is possible to impute agency and a kind of intentionality to things like locusts, we do not treat them as moral agents, that is, we do not hold them responsible for their actions in the moral sense of having liability and being subject to moral blame. The question of how far down the tree of life agency and intentionality go is a difficult and complex one. I will discuss it later on in the sections on agency and intrinsic value. But for the time being it suffices to note that non-human agents can be responsible in the causal sense but not also in the moral sense.

When applied to human beings attributions of responsibility can sometimes take this form, that is, agentive causal efficacy, as when we say an infant was responsible for spilling some milk on the rug. The infant did not spill the milk intentionally or deliberately, but the infant is responsible for spilling it nonetheless, but only in the causal sense. This is an example of agent causality but without any imputation of intentionality or purpose.

In law, the insanity defense rests on the possibility of distinguishing among cases in which the agent acted knowingly and intentionally, in which case they are held morally responsible for the conse­quences of their actions, from cases where the actions were unknowing, unintended, or compelled, even though the defendant may have been causally responsible for some harm.

Even fully competent moral agents may sometimes be causally responsible for producing effects though they did not intend them nor deliberately act to produce them, as when we accidentally knock over the coffee mug. The idea expressed by this sense of responsibility can also be applied in cases in which the subject of responsibility is a person, however, except for cases such as those noted above, when applied to persons there is normally also an attribution of intentionality and moral agency that goes along with the assertion of causal efficacy.

The assumption of intentionality and moral agency is generally held to be necessary to ground ascriptions of moral, as opposed to mere causal responsibility, and is seen as a necessary precondition for the further ascription of "responsibil­ity" in the senses of "accountability", "culpability", or "liabil­ity."

However, it is important to note that not all attributions of responsi­bility in the senses of accountability or liability presuppose causal responsibility. We may, for instance, hold a military officer liable for the actions of a soldier under his command, even though the officer was not the cause of those actions himself. While responsibilities, in the moral sense, are limited by the range of our causal powers, that is, by the range of effects which we have produced or can causally influence, there is no necessary connection between an agent being the cause of some effect X and his being morally responsible for it.

Ascriptions of liability, culpability, and blame require the presumption of moral agency, which in turn requires the presumption of intentionality as well as further conditions such as whether the act was a voluntary one or done under duress, whether the actor did or should have foreseen the consequence, and assumptions about the agent’s moral competence. Moral agency is also a necessary condition of being the bearer of moral duties and obligations. But it is not a necessary condition of being the object of the moral duties and obligations of others. Things which can function as the direct objects of moral duties and obligations I call "moral patients." Moral agents can also be moral patients, but moral patients need not also be moral agents. I will drill down further into the meaning of these terms in other posts.

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