Moral Responsibility is not a probability density function

“A is responsible for X” does not imply “B is not responsible for X.”

Sometimes people do damage to themselves, or incur the risk of doing so, at the (often not disinterested) prompting of others. Call this pattern “temptation,” and the parties the tempted and the tempter.

The tempted, and their friends, often blame the tempters for the bad results, and sometimes sue them or demand that the activity of temptation be constrained by law. The tempters, and their friends, always respond that the tempted need to start taking personal responsibility for their actions, and that the tempters can’t be held accountable for the foolish acts of others.

The proposition that the blamelessness of the tempter follows from the responsibility of the tempted strikes me as obviously fallacious, but clearly many other people find it convincing. Since disagreeing with me is clear proof of error, the question arises as to the origin of this error, and I think I have found it.

That “It’s not A’s fault; it’s B’s fault” seems to embody a valid argument stems from the intuition that the moral responsibilities in a situation must sum to unity, like the probabilities of a set of events that partition an outcome space. But that intuition is transparently false. An outcome may be largely the result of chance, or of impersonal physical or social forces, in which case the human responsibilities sum to less than one, or it can be the result of independent actions by a variety of persons, each a necessary condition of the end result, in which case the sum of the responsibilities will be greater than one.

After all, the Lord seems to have held Adam, Eve, and the Serpent all fully responsible for that unfortunate business with the apple.

[Every time I try to illustrate a general conceptual point with a policy example, somebody or other crawls all over me, assuming that I’m only arguing the general point in order to push my policy preference about the example [he grumped]. So I won’t this time. Instantiation is left as an exercise for the reader.]

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: