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.

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