On the Concept of Responsibility

The relationship between moral and legal responsibility is a complex one.  Are morality and law inherently connected, and what is the significance of the term “responsibility,” precisely, in relation to the legal system?  A brief analysis of John Locke’s A Letter Concerning Toleration, as well as the concept of hard determinism, will be hereto evaluated to these ends.

Locke’s political theories set forth in A Letter Concerning Toleration are often depicted as the foundation on which limited government and individual rights are based (that is, our modern legal system).  In championing the rights of the individual, the Lockean social contract theory should, in theory, respect the basic tenants of personal liberty, including religious freedom.  It must be noted that in Locke does, however, contradict the very basis of religious freedom in promoting societal acceptance for all religious belief systems save Catholicism and atheism.  Locke’s justification for barring such individuals from civil society is as follows.  He declares, “Promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist” (Letter 20).  Furthermore, Locke argues that they have no motivation to behave morally or in accordance with established law, as they deny the existence of heaven.  Similarly, Catholics are to be mistrusted because they serve the Pope, a foreign magistrate who allegedly serves only to undermine the executive.  This truth underscores Locke’s inconsistent sense of equality.  It is important to consider, then, what implications this has in regard to Locke’s responsibility to the law, and, in turn, morality.  If the majority of American citizens would today regard Locke’s understanding of toleration as morally objectionable, does Locke necessarily abandon his responsibility to the law?

The principle of hard determinism mandates that one cannot be found morally responsible for his or her actions.  Take, for example, the issue of one’s socioeconomic status.  Does the convicted felon who was abused as a child in a single parent household necessarily lack a proper understanding of morality?  If so, how can we properly define this felon’s relationship to the law, if at all?  Assume that the term “affluent” implies the opposite; an individual’s proper upbringing, coupled with his or her financial and educational opportunities, endows these privileged individuals with a fuller understanding of morality.  Should these people, then, be held strictly liable for all legal offenses?  Imagine an impoverished man fatally shoots an innocent bystander.  One might argue that his impulse to take another life was propagated by any number of things (or lack thereof) that the man saw or experienced in his past.  Are the poor conditions in which this man was raised to blame for his apparent lack of morality?  If we can establish that he does not, in fact, have an obligation or responsibility to morality, does he also lack a responsibility to the law?  In closing, John Locke’s paradoxical understanding of  toleration in the Letter and an assessment of the hard determinism argument underscore the difficulty in affirming the concept of individual responsibility in regard to morality and law.

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One thought on “On the Concept of Responsibility

  1. I would agree that at least from a modern perspective, Locke’s theory seems ambiguous when applied to a large society. By excluding both atheists and Catholics from the scope of the law, how then, do we treat the actions of these groups of people? Without a general concept of who the law applies to, how are we ever able uphold a positive law that all members of the population can adhere to? Furthermore, we must address the issue of how one’s upbringing could affect their actions later in life. By finding innocence in certain individuals due to an unfortunate upbringing, what kind of precedent does that leave for future cases? It is my opinion that in order to provide the greatest justice and utility to the greatest number of people, we must develop a foundation of law that is more universally applicable.

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