A World Without Moral Responsiblity?

How are moral responsibility and mental responsibility the same and why are some people not morally responsible because they are not mentally responsible? Those are the two main questions I came up with as we discussed Strawson in class. Strawson believes there is an intrinsic link between mental responsibility and moral responsibility such that without the former the latter cannot exist. Similarly Dr. Dorothy Lewis, a psychiatrist who studies serial killers and criminals, has found a link between the mental state of serial killers and moral responsibility. She, like Strawson, believes that certain people are not morally responsible for their actions.

In his ‘Basic Argument,’ Galen Strawson argues that a person needs be in a certain mental state in order to be morally responsible for their actions. He believes a person must have a mental reason for their actions and they must be mentally responsible for themselves (6). Strawson relies heavily on the mental state of a person to establish moral responsibility. Similarly, Dr. Dorothy Lewis believes that a serial killer is responsible for their actions if they experience abuse, mental illness(es), and brain damage. Only after fulfilling all three criterions, can Dr. Lewis diagnose someone as not being morally responsible for their actions. Dr. Lewis’ rationality aligns with Strawson’s idea that causa sui – cause of itself – is not possible. External forces push on a person and lead to unfortunate circumstances. Dr. Lewis states that murderers are made and not born (“Mind of A Murderer”). Their crimes are not because of them, but because of the abuses they experience and the damages they incur.

Both claim that people are not morally responsible for their actions, however, if they are not responsible them what happens to our legal system? If Ted Bundy or Jeffrey Dahmer are not morally responsible for their actions because they may have brain damage, a mental illness and a history of abuse, then who do we hold responsible for the lives they took? Our society would crumble if prosecutors decided that certain people have broken mental states and are not responsible for lives they take. The question then becomes, do those killers live freely in society since they are not prosecutable or do they go off to facilities with others who are not mentally responsible for themselves? Do we create an alternative world so they can live without moral responsibility while we continue to prosecute people here who are morally responsible? Dr. Lewis gives her three-prong test to establish moral responsibility, but what if those are not enough or too many; where do we draw the line at whom is morally responsible and who is not? No one would ever have a reason to take responsibility for their actions.

There is also a link between moral responsibility and legal responsibility. In most cases, when an action is illegal it is also immoral. What would become of our society if murder were no longer immoral for a certain section of the population, would our laws change to suit that new moral standard? Would the society have to redefine morality? If that were the case, would murder then not become a moral standard for those who are not mentally responsible? Then, would we have to open all of the prisons in the world and release those who pass these new tests to determine who is and is not morally responsible? What would become of their punishments and what punishments would the society dole out for those who are morally responsible (by the new standard)? As these questions demonstrate, the legal and moral standards of a society would have to change to incorporate this new population that is not beholden to the same legal or moral responsibilities as the rest of the world if we allow others to not be morally responsible for their actions.




Morally Responsible No More… What If?

What if Strawson is right? What if we as human beings aren’t entirely responsible for the actions we take and the consequences they bring about? Furthermore, how would society function according to a different moral code, one lacking a degree of responsibility? According to Strawson, it comes down to how we are and what we choose.

The notion that we are not morally responsible for how we act follows from the fact that we cannot be responsible for how we are: “True self-determination is impossible because it requires the actual completion of an infinite series of choices of principles of choice” (Strawson, 7). There is always a precedent; we are, in essence, “as a result of heredity and early experience” (7), and we cannot change or consciously construct these intrinsic qualities—nor are we responsible for them, for they exist outside the realm of our control.

Because responsibility is a concept so heavily engrained in everyday life, it’s hard to envision how a lack thereof would change my personal way of thinking. I can only imagine that right would be no different from wrong, matters of propriety and social conventions would cease to exist, and individuals in our society would be entirely selfish, not considering why, or how, their actions affect others. We would be entirely autonomous, but in the worst way possible.

For the legal system, a society sans moral responsibility would be one of lawful discontent. The law could not use responsibility to accuse, blame, or credit; there would no longer be a standard with which to judge causality or culpability. Thankfully, matters of choice prevail and prevent us from the impossibility of moral responsibility that Strawson so staunchly supports: “Large and small, morally significant or morally neutral, such situations of choice occur regularly in human life… They are the fundamental source of our inability to give up belief in true or ultimate moral responsibility” (10). The fact that we have the freedom to choose makes us feel responsible for the choices that we do make.

While Strawson’s argument for the impossibility of moral responsibility makes sense, a society and legal system lacking responsibility would not be conducive to a normal, productive culture. Instead, how we are and what we choose ultimately define the scope of our responsibility, an idea that even Strawson concedes to: “We tend to feel that our explicit self-conscious awareness of ourselves as agents who are able to deliberate about what to do, in situations of choice, suffices to constitute us as morally responsible” (16). Because we have the free will to make choices, the impossibility of moral responsibility that Strawson stands behind does not hold true today.

Responsibility as dependent upon Intent

Should intent be taken into account when determining moral or legal responsibility?  My answer is yes in both cases.  Although I find it more obvious that intent should play a role in the case of moral responsibility, I believe intent should also play a role in terms of legal responsibility.

Morality implies a sense of individuality.  Each person has his own sense of morality, of what is right and wrong.  If you ignore intent after one has caused harm to another, he will always be deemed responsible, regardless of whether it was an unintended consequence of an otherwise right action. 

For example, a volunteer at a homeless shelter gives a man a peanut butter sandwich and unbeknownst to either, the man has a peanut allergy.  He eventually dies of a serious allergic reaction to the sandwich 

While this example is trivial, if we ignore her intent she is morally responsible.  Ignoring any legal responsibilities, the woman’s desire to feed the man plays no part in other’s determination that she caused his death.  Moreover, the guilt she feels afterwards because she did not want to harm him means nothing.  However, I can think of no occasion when this would actually happen, since given the facts it is obvious that it was an accident.  Intent will always play a part in determining moral responsibility.  I believe we aren’t hardwired to want to cause harm to others because we are ultimately dependent upon each other for viability.  We are naturally inclined to differentiate between moral guilt and moral innocence, which is why we are willing to forgive when accidents occur and apologies are exchanged.  Furthermore, that we recognize regret and remorse proves we acknowledge the link between intent and moral responsibility.

However, in terms of legal responsibility, intent plays a lesser role.  What is legal and what is not legal is universal and objective.  Laws are spelled out and for the most part we can cite specific laws that say what is wrong.  Ignoring intent, we can objectively determine whether an action is right or wrong, making us each legally responsible all of the time.  Laws don’t say, “It is legal to hit a person while speeding to the hospital because you wife is in labor.”  You are legally responsible to obey the traffic laws, as well as maintain control of your vehicle at all times.

But there is a caveat- intent may not matter when determining whether an action is legal or not, but it does impact legal responsibility in the sentencing phase.  Whereas the laws are objective, the sentencing phase, being subjective, allows the inclusion of intent.  This congruency is apparent within the legal system because we have created classifications of responsibility.  Vehicular homicide, vehicular manslaughter- these both mean that you killed a person with your car, but the latter implies that you did not intend to do so.  Moreover, we have even further quantified exactly how responsible a person is by creating the ideas of gross negligence and simple negligence.  It has become vital for one’s intentions to play a part in the sentencing phase because it is avoids distributing overly harsh or inadequately harsh punishments.

Moral Responsibility vs Legal Responsibility

When watching shows such as Law and Order  there is usually a clear good guy and a clear bad guy. If a defendant is found guilty, they are often painted as a morally corrupt person. However, sometimes this judgment is not so cut and dry. There are people who did not mean to harm anyone, but caused physical or emotional pain, and in some cases death. There are also some people who intended to cause harm, but were not able to do so. How do we set about to judge these people? How do we differentiate between moral and legal responsibility?

The law does not punish an attempted murder in the same way as an actual murder. It does not prioritize intentions over outcomes in the same way that many people believe moral judgment should. Everything depends on the results, whether death occurs. The law is concerned with definite results, and second with the intentions. However, knowing someone’s intentions can change your view on their innocence significantly.

Here is an example of differing intentions:


Possibility 1:

Abby and Seth work together in a large office building. They are both applying for a promotion for assistant manager. Abby gets the job so she has to go on a three week long business trip for training. She asks Seth to water the fern that is on her desk while she is on this trip. However, Seth is mad that Abby got the promotion. While she is gone, Seth does not water the fern like Abby asked. Instead, he ignores the fern. When Abby gets back, her fern is dead.


Possibility 2:

Abby and Seth work together in a large office building. They are both applying for a promotion for assistant manager. Abby gets the job so she has to go on a three week long business trip for training. She asks Seth to water the fern that is on her desk while she is on this trip. However, Seth is mad that Abby got the promotion. While she is gone, Seth does not water the fern like Abby asked. Instead, Seth pours acid on the fern. When Abby gets back, her fern is dead.


In these two situations, Seth has two differing intentions, but with the same outcome. In the first one he just ignores the fern. He doesn’t even think about it. But in the second situation Seth clearly determines to destroy the fern. Many people would say that Seth of the first situation was responsible for the death of the fern, but that he did not cause it. At the same time, the Seth of the second situation is responsible and caused the death of the fern.

So with these differing intentions we may be more inclined to judge the second Seth more harshly. This does not fit with the legal importance of outcome and that is where moral and legal responsibility ultimately calsh.

Unplanned Pregnancy…Who’s Responsibility Now?

Society’s values are constantly changing, and a visible shift has been noted regarding single parenting, as an increasing number of parents are opting to raise children without the aid of a second parent.  Also increasing is the number of unplanned pregnancies, and often, men and women do not take the same position when it comes to coping with said situations.  While it has been generally decided that it is ultimately the mother’s decision as to whether the child should be kept or aborted, it is questionable as to whether a man should have a say at all in whether one night in bed with someone results in a child.  If an unplanned pregnancy results from a relationship, no matter the length of it, and the woman utilizes her legal rights and decides to keep the child, should the father be held responsible for the child, even if he voiced his disagreement with the mother’s decision to keep the child? 

            Child support payments are an increasing phenomenon in light of these recent social changes, typically with men who have fathered children but have neglected to raise them being asked to pay monthly payments to the mother of the child to help cover expenses for the child.  Child support may be ordered of any legal parent who has not officially relinquished his or her parental rights, and may be ordered even if the parent in question did not want the child and/or has no physical contact with the child.  Unless the parent has legally given up any and all parental rights (an action that the court and the other parent would both have to approve), he or she can still be ordered by the court to pay child support.  If a parent fails to pay the child support ordered of him or her by the court, various punishments could be enacted, such as loss of driver’s license, having wages or tax returns garnished, or even facing jail time. 

In 2009, among 13.7 million custodial parents in the United States, approximately 50.6% had some type of child support agreements in place, with 90.0% of these child support agreements being formal agreements that were established in a court or through a government agency.  Approximately 35.1 billion dollars in child support was owed during 2009, but among the 6.9 million custodial single parents who were awarded child support, only 41.2% received all that was due.  With more and more parents being asked to pay a portion of their income to support their child, is it fair to ask fathers who did not even want the child to pay such a large fee? 

In a practical world, it would be hard to enforce the idea that a man who did not really want a child would be free from even fiscal responsibility (child support) of the child, as many deadbeat dads would surely step forward and claim that they should be free from child support payments as they didn’t support the birth of the child initially (in retrospect).  In addition, many advocates of child support claim, “if you play, you must pay”.  But if a man clearly states his disagreement with the woman’s decision to keep the child rather than proceed with an abortion, at the initial discovery of the pregnancy, is it fair to hold him responsible for monthly payments for the next eighteen years of his life?  Some claim that fatherhood is not about a moment but about being there for a lifetime of a child, so is being forced to pay child support fair for someone who rejected the claim of responsibility of fatherhood from the start? 

If we want to make a father’s role more relevant, and make steps toward responsible fatherhood, then they too need rights.  Even though these issues are difficult, so is family life.  It is better to deal with the metaphorical dirty diapers than to pursue an inconsistent policy toward fatherhood and an abortion debate that fails to acknowledge the reality of all that is involved with being a father.  While it is difficult to come up with a sound solution for this problem, therefore figuring out how to differentiate between those who actually disagree with a woman’s decision to keep a child from the start from those who are irresponsible in a variety of manners and leave the mothers in difficult situations, there need to be more abortion rights targeted towards fathers.  If a women is granted the legal right to determine whether she proceeds with an abortion or not, a man should be able to have a say in whether this decision is one he supports or not.  Men should not be held fiscally responsible for a child they never were given the right to say they did not want. In order to move toward a healthier future regarding family lives, rights need to be legalized for not one, but both parents. 







Is Ignorance Ever An Excuse?

Vanderbilt University upholds a strict honor code, which is designed to foster and promote a sense of honesty and integrity among the entire student body. The well-established Undergraduate Honor Council focuses on ensuring that students are following the honor code and acting appropriately in regards to all their work. If a student’s behavior seems suspicious to a professor or another student, a violation will be reported to the Honor Council, and the Honor Council will then take several steps of investigation to determine the punishment. For example, if a professor finds that a student plagiarized on a paper, the professor can report the violation to the Honor Council, and the Honor Council will investigate the situation, speak with all relevant parties, and attempt to determine a fair punishment for the violation.

Now, although most of us are aware of what constitutes plagiarism, let us take an example where a student paraphrased in his/her paper and truly did not know that he/she was plagiarizing. In this case, should the student’s ignorance be an excuse for his/her violation, or should the Honor Council go about the normal process and punish the student with the same punishment as other cases of plagiarism? Ultimately, there are various factors that must be considered such as the nature of the plagiarized work, the amount that was plagiarized, the level of premeditation, etc. Once these factors are considered, it is easier for the Honor Council to determine a fair punishment. With that said, one of the main points made by the Honor Council is that ignorance is never an excuse. Therefore, even if a student was unaware that he/she was plagiarizing, if the student was caught, the violation is treated as a violation, and ignorance should not be an excuse. I believe the Honor Council does not allow for ignorance to be an excuse because it would allow for most students to be dishonest and plead innocence based on ignorance. If this were constantly occurring than the overall goal of the Honor Council in promoting honesty and integrity on campus would be threatened. Thus, I do understand why ignorance as an excuse is not really valued, however, should the student be held responsible even if he/she truly did not realize the violation of the honor code? In the end, the Honor Council would argue that it is up to each student to understand and fully comprehend the honor code so that instances like these do not occur.  

Let us now consider a different example where ignorance is used as an excuse and determine whether or not the individual should be held morally and/or legally responsible. Let’s say that you are the bartender at a hip restaurant in downtown Nashville where there are a ton of underage cute girls trying to buy drinks from you without their licenses. You begin to flirt with these girls and want nothing more than to allow them to buy drinks from you, despite the fact that you do not know their ages. When you ask them their birthdays, they hesitate before answering the question, providing you with some indication that they are underage. With that said, based on the information they provide you, they are legally allowed to drink, and as a result, you allow them to buy the drinks they wish. In this case, would the bartender be morally and legally responsible for his actions? Ultimately, the bartender could claim that he “did not know that they were underage,” even if he was given reason to believe that they were underage. In this scenario vs. the student at Vanderbilt, it seems fair to argue that the bartender should be held responsible because he should never allow individuals to purchase drinks if they do not have their licenses and their ages seems unclear. While the bartender would plead ignorance as an excuse, it is clear he was guilty for his actions and he acted inappropriately.

Evidently, all cases are different, and to me, it does not seem right to argue that ignorance is never an excuse. Although I do understand why strict liability laws are in place because they ensure that the guilty are always being punished for their violations, it seems that we are penalizing too many innocent individuals by upholding such strict policies.  


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.