Saturday, 16 April 2011

Responsibility to vs. Responsibility For

Chuck Grassley posted a tweet yesterday claiming, "Reports of Gaddafi using Cluster bombs Nato'stimidity to stop means "blood on" Nato hand for every legles kiod. That is what clusters do". This tweet: "@ By that reasoning, there's blood on your hands for each murder in DC on a night you failed to have been out crime fighting." was my clumsy attempt to respond in fewer than 141 characters. This post is my attempt to clarify what I was trying to say.

Grassley's contention that NATO has blood on their hands if kids are hurt by Gaddafi cluster bombs seems to assume the following principle: "If an agent fails to take steps to prevent an event that they may have been able to prevent, they are morally responsible for that event." I think that it's widely accepted that moral agents have an obligation to take steps to prevent undesirable events from occurring. I think the extent of one's obligation is determined by a number of factors including the need to respect autonomy of other agents, the relative costs of interceding, the anticipated negative utility of the negative action in which one is considering intervening and the likelihood of the intervention's success. (This is the sort of analysis Peter Singer alludes to, pointing out that obviously we have a strong obligation to intercede when, say, we can save a child from drowning by sacrificing our shoes.)  I don't want to subject Libyan intervention to this sort of analysis here, I simply want to note that there is, in my opinion, a very important difference that Grassley may be paving over here. Even if one can make a case that an agent has an obligation, even a strong one, to prevent X, shouldn't we distinguish between being morally responsible for X and failing to prevent X? Arguably, one can't be morally responsible for X unless one has played a fairly direct causal role in X. That's not to say one isn't morally blameworthy for failing to prevent X, but I think it remains useful to distinguish between an obligation to prevent X and being responsible for it. This distinction does, admittedly, get a bit blurry when the obligation to intercede is extremely obvious. If I won't sacrifice my shoes to rescue a drowning child, it doesn't seem odd to suggest that I'm responsible for her death to some important extent, but I think here we're simply confusing the strong responsibility to intercede with the responsibility for the death.

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