Monday, March 30, 2009

Responsibility and how we describe what we do

In my recent blogs I made a distinction between an action as intended and the side effects of an action, as is done by many philosophers. Often we talk also of the unintended consequences of an action, when we mean its side effects, which is usually distinguished from the intended consequences of this action. That unintended consequences of actions can be seen as side effects does not need to make them less important than the intended main effects. For instance, a side effect of an industry can be that it causes serious damage to the environment and this can be a reason to close down this industry.
Another way of making a distinction between the different effects of an action is talking of actions under different descriptions, an idea introduced by Elisabeth Anscombe. Instead of using the example used by Anscombe, I prefer to take one by Davidson, which I have slightly adapted (Donald Davidson, Essays on actions and events, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980; pp. 4-5). Let us say, there is a thief in my house, and the thief knows that, when I come home, I’ll turn the light on and that he will be warned then. Now I come home, I flip the switch, turn on the light, and illuminate the room. Unbeknownst to me I alert also the thief to the fact that I am home. Now we can describe what I did, according to Davidson, in different ways. For example, we can describe what I did by saying that I illuminated the room.

However, we can also say that I alerted the thief, which is a side effect of the action described as illuminating the room.I think that it is right that in many cases we can say that describing an action in different ways is a way of taking account of its side effects and of making clear that an actor is responsible for the side effects in some way. However, not all side effects can be taken account of by redescribing what is done. Take for instance the example in my last blog: a side effect of the First World War was contributing to the development of plastic surgery. Or, in case one finds “First World War” too vague as a description of an action, one can say that the fighting of a soldier in this war contributed to the development of plastic surgery. Can we now say that one description of what the soldier did is fighting and another description is contributing to the development of plastic surgery? I think this is weird. What is then the difference with Davidson’s example? I think it is this. I think that one can defend (which I’ll not do her) that in a certain sense I am responsible for having alerted the thief, but that it is impossible to defend the thesis that the soldier (or “The First World War” whatever that may be) can be held responsible for having contributed to the development of plastic surgery. This contribution is a pure side effect by way of speaking.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Bad actions, good effects

Is a bad action less bad if it has positive side effects? Say, I am a pacifist and I am absolutely against war. So I judge war is bad. As a consequence, for me the First World War was bad. However, this war stimulated medical surgery very much, and especially it stimulated plastic surgery. Is my opinion that the First World War was bad then a reason for me to be against plastic surgery in any form and for any purpose, for example operating people whose faces have been injured in an accident? Or is it a reason to change my opinion and to say: In the end the First World War wasn’t so bad at all? Or even more: In the end wars are not so bad at all?

Monday, March 16, 2009

Responsibility and the levels of meaning

Once I made a distinction between meaning 1 and meaning 0. With the former I indicated the meaning a scientist gives to an object, either physical or social in character. It is the scientist’s theoretical interpretation of reality. With meaning 0 I indicated the meaning the people who make up social reality give to the social reality or to parts of it themselves. It is their interpretation of their own lived reality. If we take now my distinction between objective and subjective responsibility of my last week’s blog we can say that objective responsibility is responsibility in the sense of the meaning 1 of the concept of responsibility. Looked from a distance, from the viewpoint of a not involved scientist (not involved in what the responsibility is about), there seems to be no reason why the negative side effects of an action should be judged differently than the positive side effects. We can also say that from a third person’s point of view objective responsibility is responsibility on the level of meaning 1.
However, the reality as experienced by the participants is often different. Social reality is often not as simple as one would like to have it from a mathematical or mechanical point of view. Here I do not talk about why negative and positive side effects of intentional actions are judged differently. It is a fact that participants in social life do judge them differently. Their interpretations of the world around them take place in a way that is meaningful for them, consciously or unconsciously. That there are subjective interpretations of the world makes that there is also subjective responsibility, so responsibility in the sense of meaning 0. From a subjective point of view it needs not to be so that objectively the same kinds of effects lead to the same kinds of responsibility. Formulated in another way, from a first person’s point of view there is a subjective responsibility under the level of objective reality where the third person judges responsibility, i.e. on the level of meaning 0.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Objective and subjective responsibility

Given what I said in my last two blogs I think that we can distinguish two kinds of responsibility: objective and subjective responsibility. We do what we do, and we are the authors of what we do; not somebody else is. Therefore, in the end, only we are responsible that our actions have taken place. I want to call this kind of responsibility objective. However, that we are objectively responsible for our actions does not imply that we are also held responsible by other people for what we did. It is not necessarily so that we are made accountable or liable for the actions that were objectively our responsibility. Only when this is done, we are responsible in the subjective sense.
There are many reasons why we are not held subjectively responsible for what we did. One reason may be that our actions are simply ignored by other people. Another reason may be that everybody knows that we are the authors of certain actions but the idea of accountability or liability simply does not apply. What we did is just a normal action, like taking the train to Utrecht, and there is no reason to discuss it in terms of responsibility. Another reason that we are not made liable for what we did is that we were forced to do our action so that not we but the person who forced us to do what we did is made liable for our actions. And so there are other reasons for not being held responsible.In view of this distinction we can say now that we are objectively responsible both for the positive side effects and the negative side effects of our intentional actions, but we are subjectively responsible only for the latter.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Being responsible depends on what one does

In my last blog, I showed that people judge the negative side effects of intentional actions and their positive side effects not in the same way. While people are held responsible for negative side effects of what they do, they often aren’t for the positive side effects. This difference has deep consequences, I think, for our idea of moral responsibility, but also for our idea of doing something intentionally, albeit maybe not directly for doing something with an intention. For it means that fundamentally moral responsibility is not only dependent on the fact that we do it but also on the contents of what we do. Moral responsibility seems not to be simply a consequence of the fact that we are the agents of what we are doing but also of the way our doing hits other people, namely negatively or positively, at least as far as it concerns the side effects of what we do. Apparently our moral responsibility is bigger in case when we hurt than in case we do good, and we need to avoid of doing something bad, although, on the other hand, we are not necessarily required to do something good. Moral responsibility seems to be something asymmetrical.
Mutatis mutandis the same can be said of the idea of intentionally. Apparently side effects of actions are considered to be intentional or not dependent on whether they are seen as bad or as good. The positive side effects of what we do are not necessarily intentional, although its negative side effects always are. At least, that seems to be so if we look at the subjective side of how people judge the effects of what agents do.