Philosophical Multicore

Sometimes controversial, sometimes fallacious, sometimes thought-provoking, and always fun.

Assessing Responsibility, Revisited

Posted by Michael Dickens on July 23, 2010

Last August, I wrote about assessing blame. I’ve learned a lot since then, so I think it is appropriate to revisit the issue and look at it from a broader perspective.

When something goes wrong, it is often useful to assess who is responsible. Since my previous post on this subject I have determined a solid primary goal, which can be used to reach stronger conclusions: prevent the misoccurrence from happening again.

Given this primary goal, my previous thesis still makes sense. I argued in my last post that responsibility is based upon one’s ability to affect the outcome of the event. If our goal is to prevent a similar misoccurrence, then the person most able to do that is whoever is most able to change what happens. It therefore makes sense to hold this person responsible.

Once this definition is established, it is also useful in preventing the unfortunate event from occurring in the first place. If people understand who will be held responsible for the outcome, then those who will be held responsible will make an appropriate effort to ensure that the outcome is beneficial. This definition will thus serve to create the best possible outcome.

For those of you out there who reject the notion of free will (which I know isn’t many, but I am one of those few), you may notice that this definition makes no reference to free will. It simply attempts to prevent a misoccurrence from happening. By this definition, unlike the more colloquial sense, responsibility is not dependent upon free will. This may serve to ease the minds of those of you who believe that moral responsibility is dependent on free will.

Responsibility is not based on free will or intentions. Rather, the definition of responsibility that deals with who is capable of changing the course of events is the most useful and the most empowering.


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