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Responsibility: Anglo-American Perspectives


In the English language responsibility is generally defined as a quality or state of being answerable or accountable for acts or decisions. However, the term responsibility and its cognatex responsible are used in a variety of ways. H .L. A. Hart illustrated that variety with the following story of a drunken sea captain who lost his ship at sea.

As captain of the ship, X was responsible for the safety of his passengers and crew. But on his last voyage he got drunk every night and was responsible for the loss of the ship with all aboard. It was rumoured that he was insane, but the doctors considered that he was responsible for his actions. Throughout the voyage he behaved quite irresponsibly, and various incidents in his career showed that he was not a responsible person. He always maintained that the exceptional winter storms were responsible for the loss of the ship, but in the legal proceedings brought against him he was found criminally responsible for his negligent conduct, and in separate civil proceedings he was held legally responsible for the loss of life and property. He is still alive and he is morally responsible for the deaths of many women and children" (Hart 1968, p. 211).

Four Types of Responsibility

Hart uses this story to identify four different senses of responsibility: role responsibility, causal responsibility, liability responsibility, and capacity responsibility. Role responsibility refers to the duties and obligations a person has by virtue of occupying a role such as mother, doctor, or captain of a ship. When a person occupies a role, others expect certain kinds of behavior and hold that person accountable for failure to do what is expected. In this context individuals have duties to behave in certain ways that can be referred to as role responsibilities. Causal responsibility is attributed to things and events as well as persons. In the case of events one might say of the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, that the event has been causally responsible for instilling fear in many U.S. citizens. In the case of persons a particular action by a person is specified as the cause of or the major causal contribution to an untoward event or occurrence. For example, a person's failure to stop at a stop sign may be said to be causally responsible for the ensuing accident. Causal responsibility may or may not be connected to blameworthiness. Thus, if the person failed to stop at the stop sign because she had a heart attack, she may not be blameworthy but her failure to stop is still causally responsible for the accident. Similarly, even if a person unknowingly or under coercion pressed a button that detonated a bomb, that person would be causally responsible for the resulting damage.

Liability responsibility often refers to legal liability and identifies the person or group that is expected to pay damages or make compensation or sometimes explain (give an account of what happened) in situations in which harm is done. Liability often but not always accompanies causal responsibility or blameworthiness. Strict liability refers to holding an individual liable—to pay damages, make compensation, or give an explanation of what happened—when that individual is not causally connected to the event and has done nothing wrong. An example would be holding a company liable for harm that resulted from a defect in one of its products despite the fact that the company did everything possible to make the product safe. Capacity responsibility refers to the capability (generally psychological) a person must possess to be considered morally responsible for his or her behavior. For example, if an individual lacked the ability to reason and to understand and control his or her behavior, it would be inappropriate to hold that person responsible for his or her actions.

In describing this fourfold distinction it is helpful to bring in the notion of blameworthiness. Being blameworthy or at fault is another sense of responsibility that depends on the other uses of that term. A person typically is considered blameworthy when (1) the person had capacity responsibility (that is, had the ability to understand and control his or her behavior); (2) the person did something he or she was not supposed to do (such as fail to perform a role-responsibility); and (3) the person's act or omission was causally responsible for an untoward event or harm. For example, a person would be blameworthy if while working as a night security person for a bank (and having the capacities of most human beings) he or she forgot to check to see if a door was properly locked and consequently allowed a burglar to get into the bank and steal money.

In addition to Hart's fourfold distinction and the concept of blameworthiness, moral philosophers have distinguished many different kinds of responsibility, including personal, collective, moral, legal, diminished, prospective, and retrospective responsibility. Thus, discussions of responsibility must attend carefully to the differing meanings of the term.

Analytic moral philosophers have focused largely on capacity responsibility and especially the connection between freedom and responsibility. For individuals to be responsible for their behavior, it would seem that they must be free to act as they do. If individual behavior were entirely determined, say, because it is predetermined by God or results from external causal forces such as genetics, upbringing, and circumstances, it would seem that individuals could not be held responsible for what they do: Their behavior is not in their control.

With this in mind, moral philosophers have focused on giving an account of human freedom without denying the various factors that influence human behavior. Often scholarship on this topic has focused on what it means to say that a person is free or "could have done otherwise."

By contrast, some philosophers have argued that ascriptions of responsibility should be seen as forward-looking (prospective) social practices. In this context human freedom is not a requirement. For example, ascriptions of responsibility can be understood to be mechanisms for exerting pressure on individuals to behave in certain ways. Society holds individuals responsible for their behavior to exert pressure on them to behave in socially desirable ways. When individuals behave in socially undesirable ways, society disapproves and tells them they are bad. Society uses the law to threaten and actually punish individuals when they engage in undesirable behavior. This is done to instill in individuals a sense of responsibility for their actions, a sense of responsibility that influences how they behave. Understanding responsibility in this way gives responsibility ascriptions a utilitarian and deterministic foundation. Responsibility ascriptions are utilitarian practices aimed at achieving good results. This account eliminates an element at the heart of notions of responsibility and at the core of the connection between freedom and being human: a sense that what it means to be human involves carrying the weight of responsibility for one's actions.

Responsibility in Science and Technology

A host of important responsibility issues arise in the fields of science, engineering, and technology. The issue that has received the most attention involves the responsibilities of scientists and engineers for the production of scientific knowledge and technological products. Because science and engineering give human beings enormous power for good and ill, questions about the responsibility of scientists and engineers, both individually and collectively, have always surrounded scientific and technological endeavors. The question became particularly prominent in the twentieth century with the creation and use of the first atomic bomb and later with the production of civilian nuclear power. The question persists in the early twenty-first century in regard to genetic engineering, surveillance technologies, cloning, and biological weapons. Are scientists and engineers considering the social and moral implications of what they are doing? Do they have a responsibility to stop what they are doing or to speak out when they think the risks of their work or that of their colleagues are too great?

Evidence of concern about the scientists' or engineers' responsibility for their work is seen, for example, in the ongoing fascination with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818), a science fiction story in which a doctor-scientist uses scientific and technical prowess to bring a humanlike monster composed of separately acquired body parts to life. Doctor Frankenstein is horrified at the sight of his creation and immediately flees his laboratory; he does nothing until the beast begins to interfere in his life. Left to its own devices the beast wreaks havoc on the lives of Doctor Frankenstein and others.

The Frankenstein story is an indictment of those who fail to think about the implications of their attempts to create new knowledge, products, and techniques; it is an indictment of those who refuse to take responsibility for what they create. Whatever Mary Shelley's intentions were in writing Frankenstein, the story serves as a morality tale for a technoscientific world. Its relevance to a world in which biological weapons, clones, and powerful surveillance technologies have already been created is evident.

Failure and Disaster

The Frankenstein story suggests that scientists and engineers should consider the implications of their work before they do it and take responsibility for that work after it is done. More often than not responsibility issues arise after knowledge has been created and technological endeavors have been undertaken and some sort of failure subsequently leads to a disaster. Then attempts are made to trace back role responsibilities and identify who is to blame. For example, when the Challenger spaceship and more recently the Columbia crashed, public attention turned to figuring out what went wrong and who was responsible. Engineers, as well as managers, were put on the spot. Who made the decision to launch? Were there not signs that a problem existed? Who had failed to fulfill their responsibilities?

Similar questions arise for all technological failures, especially those which have catastrophic results, such as the Three Mile Island accident; the disaster at Bhopal, India; the DC10 airplane crash; and the Hyatt Regency hotel collapse. After September 11, 2001, questions were raised about the structural design of the World Trade Center as well as the failure of American intelligence organizations.

Although responsibility issues can and do arise independent of science and technology, the issues surrounding technological disasters seem particularly daunting because of their complexity. Modern technologies are so complex that the individuals involved in their development, production, distribution, and use often cannot understand fully the projects to which they are contributing. Because of that complexity there must be a division of labor, and this means that engineers and scientists often work on pieces of a larger project. This challenges traditional notions of responsibility, for how can individuals be responsible for what they are doing when they cannot fully comprehend what they are doing?

Information technology is a good example of this issue. Many computer programs consist of millions of lines of computer code. Can a single individual be responsible for all the lines of code in a program? No one can be expected to understand the entire program, and so how can particular individuals be held responsible for the program? Computer scientists develop testing procedures and standards for reliability, but there are limits to what they can be expected to do. Moreover, when projects are divided into parts, there is a danger of something falling into the cracks or of error being introduced when the parts are put together. The complexity of modern technologies poses daunting challenges both retrospectively in tracing back failure and prospectively in assigning responsibilities for large projects in a way that minimizes the likelihood of failure.

Many scientific and engineering professional associations acknowledge that their members have social and professional responsibilities both individually and collectively. Professional organizations are an important means of addressing some of those responsibilities. One method professional societies use is to adopt and promulgate codes of ethical and professional conduct.


SEE ALSO Engineering Ethics; Normal Accidents; Unintended Consequences.


Feinberg, Joel. (1970). Doing and Deserving. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Hart, Herbert Lionel Adolphus. (1968). "Chapter IX Postscript: Responsibility and Retribution." In Punishment and Responsibility: Essays in the Philosophy of Law. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Johnson, Deborah G. (1989). "The Social/Professional Responsibility of Engineers." Annals of The New York Academy of Sciences 577: 106–114.

Shelley, Mary. (1995). Frankenstein. New York, Pocket Books. Originally published in 1818.

Zimmerman, Michael J. (2001). "Responsibility." In Encyclopedia of Ethics, 2nd edition, ed. L. C. Becker and C. B. Becker. New York: Routledge.

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