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.


Suicide or Wrongful Death: Is the drug Ambien responsible?

Earlier in 2012, an interesting case arose out of Las Vegas concerning the issue of liability and responsibility. Two years prior, the CEO of the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino,  Randy Kwasniewski, was found dead in his home due to a self-inflicted gun shot wound. There is no doubt that his death was a suicide. This means that technically, the deceased is the one strictly liable and responsible for his death. However, his family has recently filed a wrongful death lawsuit against anofi-aventis U.S., a limited liability company based in Delaware responsible for the sleeping drug, Ambien. They have also filed a lawsuit against a therapist Mr. Kwasniewski had seen days prior to his death.

The family is trying to argue that although the deceased was taking the medication Ambien properly as prescribed by his physician, the company is responsible for his wrongful death because “they new Ambien was defective and had the propensity to cause severe injury, including death” yet seriously under-warned Kwasniewski and other patients of the dangers of taking the drug. Apparently, the CEO was unaware of the fact that taking the drug could cause suicidal tendencies. Furthermore, the therapist he was seeing is also brought into this lawsuit for her apparent failure to warn Kwasniewski of the possible mental and physical dangers of taking Ambien.

I find this case extremely interesting when thinking of what should be considered under “legal responsibility.” There is no doubt that the actual death was a result of Mr. Kwasniewski’s own actions. No one pulled the trigger nor forced him to do so. He was an adult man and obviously extremely intelligent and competent as indicated by his occupational position. So how can an outside party, who was not present in the room when his death occurred, did not give him the gun, and did not even know him personally be held responsible?

This is also an interesting situation because I believe responsibility lies within the chain of events that led to the end result. The closer a person is to the ultimate end result the more responsibility that person holds. Therefore it would seem that the defendant in this case is extremely distant in the chain of responsibility for Mr. Kwasniewski’s death.

However in situations such as this it seems that justice would not be served if no one was held responsible for this tragedy. I believe this suggests that there is a moral responsibility on the part of the liability company, however I am not completely convinced that this can be translated into a legal responsibility.

To play the part of the Devil’s Advocate, though, I can see where the need to hold the company responsible is necessary despite their distance in the chain. There should be a precedent that companies in charge of certain drugs must disclose the dangers of taking such drugs. But is it not part of the patient’s responsibility to find out what the side effects of their medication could be? It seems to me that the therapist Mr. Kwasniewski was seeing is far closer to the end result, making it arguable that she holds some responsibility for his death.

What makes this an even more challenging case is the fact that neither the company nor the therapist lied about the side effects. It is not as though Mr. Kwasneiwski asked if suicidal tendencies were a side effect of taking Ambien and both the company and therapist lied, saying that they were not. If this were the case it would seem easy to hold the two parties responsible. However, this was a failure to disclose. It is not the same as directly lying, thus it makes me wonder if the responsibility of the two parties can really be the same.

I will be interested to see how the courts rule in this case.

For further reading or coverage of the case check out:

NAACP vs. Department of Education

Eight specialized New York City public schools, including the one I attended, Stuyvesant High School, have recently come under fire for their admissions process which consists solely of a singular examination. Critical members of the NAACP point out that despite the fact that over half of the city’s population is Black or Latino, these races only represented 3.6% of the student body at Stuyvesant (the most competitive of the 8 schools) last year. The NAACP is trying to hold the Department of Education responsible for this appallingly low percentage of racial minorities in some of NYC’s top schools and claims that the test has “breached the Civil Rights Act by having an ‘unjustified, racially disparate impact.'” It remains to be seen what will come of this complaint, however it has definitely stirred up a lot of controversy and is an interesting topic to look at with regards to both legal and moral responsibility.

Regardless of what side you are on, it is important to acknowledge that no test administered to hundreds of thousands of students will be perfect. The test is simply a rough measure of potential academic success and intelligence. It is hard to argue against the fact that for whatever reason Black and Latino students tend to not do as well as, for example, Asian students who make up a majority of the student population in schools like Stuyvesant and Bronx Science; the question is why. It is widely known that many in the Asian community devote much time and effort to studying for this exam- in fact many people I went to school with have been training to take this test for over 5 or 6 years. It is perhaps then not a coincidence that as a group, they tend to do better on this exam.

In an article about this controversy, the legal director of the NAACP is quoted as saying “Quite literally, a kid could have straights ‘A’s from kindergarten to Grade 8, could have won a national spelling bee. But none of that matters – all that matters is the test.” This is true, however it also brings up another point worthy of consideration. Whether or not it does so perfectly, the test gives us a way to compare people from different schools and backgrounds. Not all A’s are created equally and in fact I would argue that a person’s grades often have little to do with their intelligence and potential in life. Whether or not that means they should not be a factor in admissions as they are for this set of high schools is not a statement I am prepared to stand by; however given the fact that these schools see so many applicants and are percentage-wise more selective than the nation’s top colleges- it is not inconceivable that as a practical convenience a test like this may be necessary. Whether or not the NAACP wins this complaint legally, it is not clear whether or not an alternative to raise the amount of Blacks and Latinos would be something that is more morally responsible and fair than the test as it currently exists.

Source for quoted material and for more information