The Legal Futility of Philosophical Responsibility

The discourse over where to draw the line of legal responsibility revolves around two undeniable forces. The first is the Basic Argument presented by Galen Strawson in his 1993 essay, The Impossibility of Moral Responsibility, which infallibly demonstrates the impossibility of wholly individual responsibility. The second is the equally undeniable presence in the human psyche of a feeling that each of us consciously makes decisions with our minds, influencing the outcomes of certain events. So, must we choose between a reason and rhyme, between that which is logically sound and that which is a fundamental aspect of our perceptual existence? On the one hand, the Basic Argument recognizes that it would be insane to place all the causal responsibility for an axe severing a person’s head in the hands of he who holds the axe, for surely many other factors caused this decapitation to occur. On the other hand, however, to remove all blame from the axe swinger would reject our entire system of governing and probably result in total chaos. So, how can we decide our legal responsibility based purely on our moral responsibility? I don’t think we can.

The crucial error this discourse makes in its attempt to define legal responsibility is its over commitment to moral responsibility, such that it confuses the two. It is easy to recognize that a law is not necessarily a law made for essentially moral reasons. Traffic rules, financial industry restrictions, or pretty much any procedural codes are created because they are practical; they facilitate a functional society. In a sense, the same is true for criminal and liability laws. Law exists in order to create some sense of order, so then liability law should in some sense serve as a means toward this end. The question we should be asking isn’t so much, “What is a person responsible for?” but more, “What can a person reasonably be held accountable for in order to facilitate a functional society?”

When faced with the seemingly unanswerable question of moral responsibility, this pragmatic approach seems to be the one legislators have tended to employ. Just look at the varying practices of strict liability. In some cases, like in selling alcohol to minors, citizens are held strictly liable for their actions, regardless of circumstances, because it has been found that this law encourages sellers to be part of the law’s enforcement. But in cases of homicide, strict liability is not at all relied upon, because there are often too many factors that cause a person to die that one person cannot be held totally accountable. The question of moral responsibility may be a philosophically stimulating one, but with no end in sight, a pragmatic approach should instead be employed, focusing on the actual results and effectiveness of legal liability codes rather than their philosophical legitimacy.


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