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Moral responsibility can refer to two different but related things. First, a person has moral responsibility for a situation if that person has an obligation to ensure that something happens. Assume that John promises to baby-sit for his neighbor while she goes to a job interview. However, he decides he will go to a concert instead. Arguably, John has moral responsibility for finding another appropriate babysitter for his neighbor. Second, a person has moral responsibility for a situation when it would be correct to morally praise or blame that person for the situation. If John fails to find an appropriate babysitter, then he might be said to have moral responsibility for his neighbor's failure to make her job interview.

People who have moral responsibility for an action are usually called moral agents. Agents are creatures that are capable of reflecting on their situation, forming intentions about how they will act, and then carrying out that action.


Moral, causal and legal responsibility

Moral responsibility is both related to and different from causal responsibility and legal responsibility.[1] People are causally responsible for events when those events are directly brought about by their actions. Often when people have moral responsibility for a situation, they also have causal responsibility for that situation. Someone who is praised for acting in a morally responsible way has usually caused some good state of affairs to occur. To see that a person can have moral responsibility without causal responsibility, however, consider that John might claim that there was nothing in his failure to keep his promise that caused his neighbour to fail to make her job interview. (She could have taken her child with her, or found some other babysitter, for example.) Nevertheless, he may still be morally responsible for her failing to attend the interview. A person is legally responsible for his or her actions when it is that person who will be penalised in the court system for an event that has occurred. Although, it may often be the case that when a person is morally responsible for some act, they are also legally responsible for some act, there are clearly exceptions to this rule. Rules of law and rules of ethics do not always overlap.

Collective moral responsibility

When people attribute moral responsibility, they usually attribute it to individual moral agents. However, Joel Feinberg, among others, has argued that corporations and other groups of people can have what is called ‘collective moral responsibility’ for a state of affairs.[2] For example, when South Africa had an apartheid regime, the country's government might have been said to have had collective moral responsibility for the violation of the rights of non-European South Africans.

Moral responsibility, free will and determinism

The existence of moral responsibility is an important factor in philosophical arguments about free will and determinism.[3] These arguments sometimes begin by assuming that human beings have moral responsibility, and argue from that premise to the conclusion that humans have free will. At other times, philosophers who hold that every event is either determined or occurs due to chance have concluded that there is no such thing as moral responsibility.

See also


  1. ^ Klein, Martha. 1995. ‘Responsibility’, In Ted Honderich, (ed.), The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  2. ^ Risser, David T. 2006. 'Collective Moral Responsibility'. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Accessed 8 Sept 2007)
  3. ^ Waller, Bruce N. 2005. 'Conditions for Moral Responsibility'. In Consider Ethics: Theory, Readings and Contemporary Issues. New York: Pearson Longman: 215-216, 219-221.


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