Some musings on moral responsibility


From the window behind the computer at which I write Ethical Musings, I can see the busy intersection at which a speeding driver last week killed three pedestrians and injured five other people. He was fleeing police who had sought to stop him for a prior traffic violation; police also think that the man was driving while intoxicated. Nine lives were inalterably changed, including that of the perpetrator who was seriously injured and now faces multiple manslaughter and other criminal charges.

From late December to early April, I occasionally see humpback whales apparently cavorting and spouting. When whales are spotted offshore, small boats and the two vessels that thrice daily take people out for an excursion and meal at sea congregate. Federal regulations mandate that boats stay a prescribed distance from whales and not otherwise interfere with the whales. Of course, the whales don’t know the federal rules and may violate those rules by approaching a stopped boat too closely. And, the truth is that nobody knows what a whale thinks. From a whale’s perspective, at what distance will a boat not interfere with a whale? Do whales sometimes enjoy humans?

A common thread – responsibility – links those two diverse views.

Determining the drunken driver’s individual responsibility requires ascertaining whether the driver is an alcoholic, a person addicted to alcohol who cannot control her or his drinking. If an alcoholic, then the driver suffers from a disease. One of the twelve steps toward recovery is to take responsibility for those the alcoholic has harmed, including himself. Yet castigating the driver, if he is an addict, for alleged immoral behavior (driving while drunk) may impede rather than aid the driver’s progress toward sobriety. Multiple convictions for driving under the influence is one indicator that points toward addiction. The addict, in any event, must take responsibility for his or her recovery. Being sick is not an excuse for refusing to get well. Alcoholism is a treatable disease.

If the driver is not an alcoholic, determining responsibility is simpler: the driver acted irresponsibly in drinking excessively and then driving while intoxicated. Clear evidence shows a substantial link between driving under the influence and harming others.

In both sets of circumstances, our criminal justice system appropriately holds the driver accountable for his actions. Too often, people regard accountability as the first step toward punishment. More helpfully, accountability is the first step toward treatment for the addict and prevention of further episodes of drunk driving by the addict and non-addict alike. Learning that actions have consequences is vital in either case.

Incidentally, imprisonment in Hawaii costs between fifty and sixty thousand dollars per year per inmate. The median income in Hawaii is about fifty thousand dollars per year. Imprisonment that serves no preventive or deterrent purpose is a costly error because no punitive sentence – imprisonment, execution, or anything else – can restore those killed to life or those injured to their pre-accident health. Tax dollars spent on punishment may help victims or their families to feel better, but have few if any benefits for the larger community. Tax dollars spent on restorative justice benefit the offender, victims and their families, and the larger community.

Determining human responsibility with respect to whales is much more difficult. Humans cannot speak to whales. Thus, knowing what a whale thinks or feels is impossible. However, scientific research is expanding our knowledge of actions, intentional or unintentional, that may harm whales and how to avoid those actions. Regulations directing vessels to maintain a theoretical safe distance from whales illustrates an effort to be ecologically responsible in spite of incomplete, sometimes inaccurate information.

Limited information and wisdom (knowledge of how to live well) similarly effects good faith efforts to make responsible decisions about many things, e.g., parenting and the potential harms/benefits of new products.

So, what is moral responsibility?

Moral responsibility requires some degree both of awareness that an act is wrong and of ability to avoid that action. In retrospect, I know that painting the exterior of houses with lead paint was environmentally hazardous. At the time, I had no such knowledge nor was that information commonly available. I could have refused to use lead-based paint, but that would have bewildered my customers and cost me at least some of the jobs I had sought. Alternatively, as a Navy chaplain on active duty, I believed at the time, and continue to believe, that some Navy policies were wrong. However, even though I raised my voice in protest, I had no power to change those policies. By staying in the Navy, I may be morally complicit in those policies (e.g., the Navy’s prior policy of discharging gays) but am not morally responsible for those policies.

Abundant living entails pausing to reflect on ordinary and extraordinary occurrences.

·       For what actions am I clearly morally responsible? In those situations, what can I do to act more morally?

·       For what actions am I morally complicit but not personally morally responsible? What, if any, steps can I take to become less complicit or to change the situation such that it results in more moral outcomes?

·       For what actions do I lack moral autonomy? What steps can I take to become more autonomous and then choose a more moral path? (One immense difficulty is that humans generally lack sufficient self-awareness to know when one has autonomy and when one’s choice is determined by genetics, nurture, and other factors entirely beyond one’s control.)

·       For what actions do I have incomplete or perhaps inaccurate information, causing me to make poor or even immoral choices? How can I, if it is possible, obtain better, more complete information? (Humans generally cannot foretell the future to know with certainty the future consequences of an action taken in the present.)

Always, I remember Jesus’ words: Go and sin no more. I wish life were as simple as that exhortation seems to suggest!

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