Strict Liability: Should intention really matter?

The most contentious and complex issue in the debate of responsibility is the role of intention in determining legal and moral responsibility. In class we discussed whether wrongful intent should be a necessary element in determining responsibility when we used the example of me spilling coffee on Nicole’s laptop. We discussed how my level of responsibility may or may not change based off my intention. I could have accidentally spilled my coffee on her laptop or I could have swung my arm back and purposefully spilled my coffee.

Throughout our discussion on responsibility, I’ve been inclined to separate legal responsibility from “responsibility” (which I put in quotes) in the sense most people use it in. Being generally “responsible” for causing something, namely the coffee to fall on the laptop, and being responsible or liable for the damages caused by that action are usually two separate things. I am “responsible” for dropping the coffee on the laptop and damaging it because I am the direct cause of this outcome. I am not although necessarily legally responsible for the action because it was an accident.

Although I do believe that intention should matter in determining level of responsibility, I recognize the importance of the existence of strict liability. Strict liability is necessary in our legal system because human nature demands that people are blamed, and that wrongs are righted. People who are damaged or suffer loss are compensated by those who were directly involved in causing the damage. Strict liability however, in reality is only enforced in certain circumstances of serious damages. If I were to drop coffee on a laptop by accident without any intention of causing harm in most social situations, the laptop owner would probably accept an apology or perhaps an offered compensation, but they usually would not seek legal action for damages. In a criminal circumstance of strict liability a person can be found guilty even without the intention to commit the crime.

My opinion on this continues to waver. While I recognize why such rules exist, it still does not sit right with me. This issue is an example of my inability to perfectly separate my idea of legal responsibility and “responsibility.” These two ideas are meant to overlap in order to satisfy the human need for justice; legal responsibility is a reflection our notion of “responsibility.” We created legal responsibility as a means of guaranteeing justice in citations of damages done. The issues arise when legal responsibility and “responsibility” vary drastically.


1 thought on “Strict Liability: Should intention really matter?

  1. I believe that if damage or destruction is done, then action can be taken. Even in your example of the coffee spilling on someone’s computer, it is not the owner of the computer’s fault that the coffee spilled — the person who had the coffee should accept responsibility. Why should the computer owner be left to care for damages to his property if he had nothing to do with it? Accidental damage does not remove the person from liability, in my opinion.

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