Saturday, March 19, 2011

Some Thought Experiments on Moral Responsibility

I have previously stated I believed moral responsibility was bound up in causal responsibility. That is, if one is causally responsible for an act then he is morally responsible for that act. However, I’ve come to reconsider this as an all-encompassing statement.

First, consider the bank robber who holds a gun to the head of the bank manager. The robber demands the bank manager give him all of the bank’s money. In effect, the bank manager is being asked to steal. At the very least the bank manager is causally responsible for the money’s leaving the bank’s possession. One may protest that the bank manager did not exercise his will freely, but in fact he could have refrained.[1] Yet we do not assign moral culpability to that man in this case.

Now consider a man who does a home invasion with the intent of killing all at the home. He holds a gun to the wife’s head, gives her some poison which will cause death immediately, and demands the wife to give it to her husband. If she does not, he warns, he will shoot the husband in the head in front of her, and then kill her as well. The poison pill would be painless. However, most Christians would assign moral blame to the wife in this case were she to give the pill to her husband.

What this suggests is that not only is moral intent involved in assigning moral culpability, but being utilized as a tool may have something to do with it as well. In the first example, it’s not enough to claim the scale of the crime dictates the blame—for then we are not deciding whether or not moral blame is to be placed, but whether punishment is warranted.

One possible solution is to suggest the bank manager is only causally responsible for the act of putting the money into the hands of the robber. It is the robber who is responsible for stealing the money. As to the second scenario, the wife wouldn’t simply be enabling the would-be killer (nor is it a sufficient justification to claim he would have committed the act anyway)—she would be herself the killer. In any case, it seems there is more to moral responsibility than mere causal responsibility (though such a responsibility is surely necessary to any theory of moral culpability). What do you guys think?

                [1] While the exact post escapes me, Alex Pruss of Baylor University explores this concept when he says someone in this type of scenario is choosing something after all: he is choosing act X and life over not-X and death. < >

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  1. Have you read about the Trolley Problem?

  2. Hi Andrew! Yes I have. I even did a cool little exercise to see if I was a utilitarian lol. I take a view akin to William Lane Craig's view: there are no (completely) pure and good choices in such a scenario. It's fascinating, and still hotly debated today. Thanks for commenting! :)


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