Responsibility for Intentions or Outcomes?

DiceBy Claire Creffield


The awful truth is that the degree to which we are blamed for relatively minor wrongdoings often depends not on the wrongdoings themselves, but on chance outcomes they may have contributed to.

For example, look at a recent speedboating accident in Britain, apparently caused by negligence. A family was thrown from their boat, which then plowed into them, killing the father and one daughter, and severely injuring the mother and one other child. The deaths and injuries might have been avoided if the boat’s driver had used a “kill cord,” a standard safety feature designed to cut the boat’s engine as soon as the driver falls overboard. It is quite common for people to fail to use these kill cords properly, but most of them are lucky and nothing tragic happens. On this occasion, they were unlucky. The fact that it was a chance event that led to the family being thrown from the boat does not protect the driver from being somewhat morally accountable for two deaths and for the life-changing disabilities of two of the survivors. One natural response to this story is to feel deep compassion for whoever was driving. We hope that it was the deceased father and not the surviving mother, so that she is spared from a lifetime of self-reproach. This compassion, as much as any harshness felt toward the driver, shows that we accept that a relatively small wrongdoing, combined with a stroke of terrible luck, can generate terrible guilt.

Similar thinking appeared around a recent case in the National Hockey League, where a hard but unexceptional and arguably legal hit led to a player landing face-down on the ice, losing consciousness, and breaking his face in several places. For many observers, the grievousness of the injury meant that the perpetrator had to be blamed, even if he hadn’t done anything especially wrong. “The consequences of the hit, to many, somehow had to matter,” wrote one journalist. “This is about [the injured player]’s injuries, they understood—somehow, ultimately—not just about the rules.”

Isn’t it the same when a host of chance events come together to make one imperfectly-parented child a killer and another imperfectly-parented child a well-adjusted adult? When deciding whether to have children, many people think about what mark their child might leave on the world. But they might not consider that they will have limited control over their children’s behavior, yet could very well share the guilt for anything those children do wrong. If we decide to have a child knowing that we are certain to be imperfect parents, we are a little like a person who decides to drive a speedboat without the kill cord in place. We rely on good luck to save us from terrible blame.

Continue to full article . . .

Picture: Ana (Flickr: Luck.) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

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