Sunday, April 26, 2009

No responsibility for what one did?

President Obama of the USA decided that the torturers of Guantanamo would not be prosecuted for their acts, because they were ordered to do what they did. According to him not they but his predecessor, so former president Bush, was responsible for the torture. But is that really so? I mean, of course, president Bush was responsible for it, but does this imply that the torturers do not have a responsibility of their own for which they can be called to account, and for which they need to be called to account in case of a criminal act like torture?
The case makes me think of a famous study by Stanley Milgram, which I also mentioned in my blog of August 11, 2008, titled “No news”. As Milgram has shown in his famous study Obedience to Authority some people tend to think: “If this person with authority tells me that I can do it, it must be okay”, and then they simply execute what they are ordered to do, even when they know or could have known that what they do is not good, cruel or illegal, and should be despised, and even when they have the opportunity to say “No, I do not do it; I refuse to do it”.

In normal life it is accepted that subordinates follow the orders of the persons above them and then it is so that they above are held responsible for the acts of their subordinates. However, there is a limit and that is when these acts are illegal if not criminal. Then the subordinates have to say “No, I don’t do that”, even if they risk to lose their jobs. Obedience to authority is no excuse. There are even armies that go that far that orders must be refused if these orders require to do criminal or illegal acts. And why should there be an exception for the torturers of Guantanamo? Isn’t it so that in the end every person is responsible for his or her own acts? What would the world become if we would allow that obedience to authority is accepted as an excuse under any circumstance? That would lead to legalized criminality in the end. Only when one accepts that there are limits to obedience to authority, that these limits are there where criminality and illegality begins, and that each person is responsible for his or her own actions anyway, it is fundamentally possible to remove criminal and despicable acts like torture from the world. If we would accept that the executors of criminal acts can hide themselves behind the fact that they have no responsibility for the orders they take and that they simply have to execute them, whatever that order is, how can we expect then that these criminal and despicable acts can be and will be removed from the world?

Monday, April 20, 2009

The measurability of responsibility

The idea that there is a gliding scale of responsibility supposes implicitly that it is clear how to ascribe responsibility and in what degree. Remember that we are still talking about responsibility for the side effects of an action or, as in my last blog, about my responsibility for what another person did in reaction to an action of mine. Now, if it would be the case that someone acted and there is a clear idea of responsibility in the sense mentioned, then it would be fundamentally possible to know after a thorough research whether an agent was responsible for an action and how much, maybe even as exactly as for say 20, 37 or 69 per cent. However, when we look in the philosophical literature the actual view is far from that. Or look around yourself and you’ll see that people disagree in their judgments about the degree of responsibility of an agent for his or her acts, a fact that has been confirmed by recent research. When we compare people in different cultures, the differences in judgment will certainly be bigger. The upshot is that responsibility exists and that we can say a lot about it but in practice we are far from being able to give it a clear interpretation.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Responsibility for what one doesn’t do

In my blog last week I concluded that I cannot be held for responsible for a consequence of an action of mine if this consequence was an action done by another person, say A. The example was a thief that dropped my vase when he noticed that I came home, while I did not know that there was a thief in my house. In this case it is clear that I am not responsible. But does this mean that I am never responsible for what another person does? I think that we cannot give a general answer to this question but at least we can distinguish several cases:
a) I hadn’t foreseen the action by A and I couldn’t have foreseen it.
b) I hadn’t foreseen the action by A but reasonably I should have foreseen it.
c) I had foreseen the action by A, but A acted on his or her own initiative.
d) I had asked, ordered, forced …. A to do the action.
I shall not give examples and discuss this in detail, but I think that we can say that responsibility is a position on a gliding scale. a-d indicate a few positions on this scale from not responsible at all to very responsible. These positions can be further refined (especially d); intermediate positions can be added.
The upshot of all this is, and in fact we knew this already from daily life, that one can even be responsible for what one hasn’t done in person.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Responsibility and how we describe what we do (2)

Let us take another time Davidson’s example in my last week’s blog, which I have extended a bit: I come home, I flip the switch, turn on the light, and illuminate the room. Unbeknownst to me I alert also a thief in my house to the fact that I am home. However, the thief hadn’t expected me to come home yet, was scared stiff, and unintentionally dropped the vase that he had in his hands. Now we can describe what I did at least in these ways:
- I illuminated the room.
- I alerted the thief.
But can we describe what I did as that I made that the thief dropped the vase? I think this is a difficult question. However, I tend to say “no”. Why not? Because it was the thief that dropped the vase. It was not I who did it. The thief could have done many things: putting the vase back on the table and taking his gun; or fleeing with the vase through the backdoor; or walking to me and saying that he was a policeman and that he had seen a thief indoors and that he had saved the vase; or who knows what. It was up to the thief what would happen, intentionally or unintentionally (or a combination of both: dropping the vase because he was scared and fleeing through the backdoor, for instance). This is different from what is described in the two other descriptions. In the first case it is clear that it was I who illuminated the room. Who else? I flip the switch already as long as I live in this house and always the room becomes illuminated then.
Also in the second case I think that the description is unproblematic. If the thief hadn’t noticed that the room became illuminated, he wouldn’t have been alerted, but the fact is that he did and normally it is so that a thief becomes alerted in such a situation. It was a direct consequence of an action that was done by me.

The case of me making that the thief dropped the vase is a bit like the soldier’s fighting in the First World War that contributed to the development of plastic surgery (see last week). If the soldier (and no other soldier) had not fought then this development would have been much slower, but actually he had no influence on it. There we concluded that the soldier was not responsible for the faster development of plastic surgery, because we could not redescribe his actions in the war that way. This is also true for the fact that the thief dropped my vase. How about the two other cases? Following the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy I want to distinguish at least two different senses of moral responsibility: responsibility in the accountability sense and in the attributability sense. In the second sense an agent is responsible for an action if it can be attributed to him or her in the sense that he or she did it without having explicitly the intention to do it. If the latter is the case, we can hold the agent responsible or accountable for the action and then we talk of responsibility in the accountability sense. Now we can say, I think, that I am responsible in the accountability sense for having illuminated the room and responsible in the attributability sense for having alerted the thief. So in the case that what we have done is a side effect of what we intended to do our responsibility is a responsibility in the attributability sense. But in the case of making that the thief dropped the vase I am not responsible at all, because the fact that the thief dropped the vase was not something that I did. Maybe it was a consequence of what I did but then one done be someone else, in reaction to what I did, just as in my last week’s blog.