Liability Responsibility

Moral responsibility, as opposed to mere causal responsibility, for actions is applied to agents only when several psychological conditions have been fulfilled.

The main conditions usually assayed for ascriptions of moral responsibility in the sense of liability are: (1) intentionality, (2) voluntariness, (3) being able to give an account of one's actions (4) being able to have done otherwise, (5) being able to tell right from wrong, (6) foreknowledge of probable consequences, and (7) causal efficacy. Moral agents may be excused from moral responsibility for their actions if one or another of these conditions are not present at the time of the act, e.g. if they did not in fact cause an effect, or if the consequences of their acts or omissions could not have reasonably been foreseen, or if they were at the time not able to do otherwise, or not able to distinguish right from wrong.

Moral responsibility applies only if an agent possesses certain normal psychological capacities of understanding, reasoning, and control over his own behavior, the possession of which is commonly held to be a precondition of the appropriateness of moral praise or blame. Ascriptions of liability responsibility are mainly retrospective; they function to ground moral evaluations of the past actions of presumptive moral agents.

Determining whether or not a moral agent is liable for a past action is related to the notion of accountability. Moral agents can be asked to give an account of why they have done or not done a certain thing. In some cases, the agent may be able to present an acceptable excuse or justification for their action which may have the effect of reducing or removing his moral liability to blame or punishment. Thus, one can be accountable for one's actions without also being liable for them. When an agent is found to be liable for some kind of moral wrong we say that she is culpable. Moral agents who are culpable for wrongful actions, however, may still not be punished or blamed, because they may be forgiven.

To be forgiven is not the same thing as to be excused. Forgiveness presupposes that the agent was iiable to be blamed and was in fact culpable for some wrong. To excuse someone from a moral obligation, on the other hand, means that there is some reason why the agent should not be held liable or culpable for not doing what they ought to have done. Many kinds of reasons can be exculpatory, for instance, the agent may have lacked the power to do what was morally required, or may have had other, stronger moral obligations to fulfill that prevented her from doing it. The ability to give an account of the reasons for one's actions, then, plays a crucial role in ascriptions of liability responsibility. When we use moral language in an evaluative, backward-looking way, then we want to know why an presumptive moral agent did or failed to do something that might ordinarily be considered something she ought or ought not do.

This is one reason why we do not generally ascribe liability responsibility to nonhuman animals, nor to human infants and young children -- they lack the ability to give an account of their actions. Some other categories of moral patients, for instance, those who are psychotic or in comas, also lack this capacity, and so are not held liable for their actions in the same way in which competent moral agents, generally speaking, human adults, are. Since most human adults are competent moral agents, we generally expect them to be able to give an account of why they have acted in the ways that they have, and those reasons are then factored into our moral evaluation of their behavior.

A great deal of the literature of moral philosophy and of law deals with understanding the precise contours of the notion of liability responsibility. The notion of liability responsibility is connected with metaphysical questions, for instance, the notion of free will, and is vital for understanding the legal notions such as culpability for harms or liability for damages produced by one's action on others.

The philosopher Iris Marion Young contrasts the notion of liability responsibility with a different idea of responsibility that she calls 'political responsibility' but which I prefer to call 'social responsibility'. In drawing this distinction she notes that, The most common model of assigning responsibility derives from legal reasoning and is used to find guilt or fault for harm.

Under the fault model, one assigns liability responsibility to particular moral agents whose actions can be shown as causally connected to the circumstances for which responsibility is sought The agent that produces harm can be a person or a collective agent, such as a corporation (Young 2004, 368).

Liability responsibility can be further divided into fault liability and strict liability. In the former case one assumes that the agent knowingly and voluntarily engaged in behaviors that caused harm to others, while on the strict liability interpretation a person or collective agent can be held to be liable for action that caused harm even if they did not specifically intend the harm.

Both the fault and strict notions of liability responsibility are essentially backward-looking. They function in moral discourse as a mean of assigning blame for past actions, and in judicial proceedings for determining punishment or compensation for past crimes or torts.

Furthermore, according to Young, liability responsibility “has the function of absolving other agents who might have been candidates for fault…. and usually implies that others who were accused are not guilty” (368). This feature of liability responsibility is not also a feature of the notion of social or political responsibilities which can be shared without diminishing the responsibility of other agents. For political, or what am calling social responsibility, my having these kinds of responsibilities does not diminish or excuse you of your similar but perhaps not identical social responsibilities.

While it is necessary to understand the notion of liability responsibility, is it only of marginal interest to us here. Rather, the primary sense in which I shall be using the term “responsibility” is in the forward-looking sense in which moral agents are said have certain "responsibilities", in the sense of moral obligations, that direct them to the attainment of certain ends concerning other moral agents and towards moral patients. This is the substantive and prospective sense of the term in which moral responsibilities guide the actions of competent moral agents towards the attainment of certain ends or direct them to perform certain duties.

While the conditions for competent moral agency used in the retrospective, evaluative sense of "responsibility" can also be employed as a criterion for who can qualify as a bearer of substan­tive moral responsibilities, moral agency alone does not tell us in particular what these obligations are, or to whom they are owed. Moral agency, which is the precondition of both liability responsibility and normative moral responsibility thus lacks substantive normative content since it does not specify the ends of moral action, nor its proper objects, nor how moral responsibilities are assigned to particular moral agents. All it tells us is that the agent in question can be presumed to be a moral agent, that is, the sort of thing to which moral obligations and duties, 'responsibilities' in the sense, can be meaningfully ascribed.

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