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  1. #1
    GemQuest Moderator Gary Wassner's Avatar
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    Responsibility and Cause

    If we cause something to happen are we responsible for it? If we are responsible for something must we have caused it?

    What's the relationship between the two, cause and responsibility? How do you feel about it? It's an interesting ethical question and I wonder how seriously we consider these issues when we do things that impact other people.

  2. #2
    I can feel my nose wrinkling up.

    I think cause and reason are inevitably interrelated with one another. Although I'd have to look at specific cases rather than make a general statements that apply to everything, if we cause something to happen, we are usually responsible for it in one way or another, even if the major part of the responsibility is not our fault.

    If I take this to extremes, I could say we are responsible for everything we cause, even if it is only 1%. Say that I gave money to a beggar, who then used the money to buy a burger, which then gave him/her food poisoning, which then killed him/her because s/he didn't have enough money to see a doctor, then part of that would be my fault for giving money in the first place, since if I hadn't, s/he wouldn't have died. But there are actually many more causes and effects, and I obviously can't foresee all this, so my responsibility is close to negligible. Technically, I should forgive myself as I would not have given money if I had known this would happen, but then again, I tend to be harder on myself than on others.

    So going on to the next question, I don't think that being responsible for something means that one must necessarily have caused it. I could wreck a classroom and then my parents would be called in to hear about this. At first glance, it is not their fault since they are not directly responsible for this, and the older I get the more responsible for myself I have to be. We could argue again that if they hadn't given birth to me or if they had taught me better, this wouldn't have happened, but it's more complex than that. Nevertheless, even if they didn't cause it, they are morally and legally responsible for me, so will have to pay for damages and then discipline me.

    We should try and be as responsible as we can be, I suppose. This would involve thinking our actions -- or our inactions -- could affect other people. (E.g. if a factory worker sees a machine is loose, they should tell someone to get it fixed, rather than leave it alone and then someone get hurt later on.) We can't foresee everything, but we can guess and try to make as good a judgement as we can.

    Another part of responsibility involves forgiveness. Sometimes we make mistakes, like everyone does at some point or another. We don't always act in the best possible way. Although we can't change what we have done, we can try to make amends as best as we can. Trying to do something to make up for the past is also taking responsibility. Still, there are times when nothing we can do can make up for a mistake, so we've got to do our best not to let those permanent mistakes happen.

  3. #3

    Big Can O' Worms

    Are we morally responsible for everything we cause? I tend to think so, but someone could disagree on the grounds that even though they caused something bad to happen, they did nothing wrong and therefore are not morally responsible. (EX: telling the truth when this leads to harm to someone)

    Can we be morally responsible for something when we had no causal responsibility for bringing it about? I don't see how, unless you appeal to an overly narrow notion of cause.

  4. #4
    GemQuest Moderator Gary Wassner's Avatar
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    If someone were omniscient and could trace all of our actions into the future, I wonder what the results would be. We make choices each day, sometimes unthinking choices, and they all have results, they all cause other things to occur. But when you look at it that way, then it the concept of responsibility seems to slip away entirely. Where actually do we have responsibility? Is it enough that we didn't realize what we were doing to absolve us of responsibility? How do we define responsibility in reference to cause? How do we act accordingly?

    We assume so much in ethics. If we're responsible for everything we cause, then we're responsible for everything in a way. Then in effect we're responsible for nothing.

  5. #5
    If we're responsible for everything we cause, then we're responsible for everything in a way. Then in effect we're responsible for nothing
    But we can talk meaningfully about degrees of responsiblity.

  6. #6
    GemQuest Moderator Gary Wassner's Avatar
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    At what degree though should we be concerned? We need some clearer parameters. Peripheral responsibility may not be avoidable. Should we look at conscious choice as a criteria? Are we capable of understanding our choices clearly enough?

    We need to redefine responsibility as well. Maybe we need to narrow the gap between cause and effect.

  7. #7
    At what degree though should we be concerned?
    I think we should be very concerned about our impact on the world

    We need some clearer parameters. Peripheral responsibility may not be avoidable.
    To the extent that we are causally responsible for all sorts of things, this will, I think cancel out. If I send money to rebuild New Orleans, there are a lot of other causes that will suffer as a result of not getting my money, but that will be true no matter where I donate the money.

    Should we look at conscious choice as a criteria?
    Yes but not exclusively - people are IMO morally responsible for what happens as a result of ingnorance and inaction just as they are responsible for what they choose to do.

    Are we capable of understanding our choices clearly enough?
    Yes

    We need to redefine responsibility as well. Maybe we need to narrow the gap between cause and effect.
    I'm not sure what you mean, or how it would help.

  8. #8
    Goblin Princess Teresa Edgerton's Avatar
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    I don't think people are morally responsible for the unforeseeable consequences of their actions, so long as they act in good faith. There is, of course, a big difference between unforeseeable, and unforeseen.

    I believe our biggest responsibility is to be mindful of what we do, and when we do make a mistake to learn from it.

    A mistake, in this case, not to be interpreted in the sloppy modern sense of the word as something somebody did intentionally, knowing it was wrong or hurtful, but they're sorry now.

  9. #9
    Kiss my axe! kahnovitch's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Gary Wassner
    If we cause something to happen are we responsible for it? If we are responsible for something must we have caused it?
    There is always the question of in/direct causality.

    Is Jesus Christ responsible for the Crusades?

    You could answer yes or no with reasonable arguements.

    There are laws against "incitement to" and "conspiracy to" events, which could also be nothing more than an open discussion of ideas.

    What about Charles Manson? Is he a serial killer or just a talented manipulater?

  10. #10
    GemQuest Moderator Gary Wassner's Avatar
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    What I meant by narrowing the gap between cause and effect was that we need to better define, as you are all attempting to do now, what it means to cause something. Madeline talked about the unforseeable consequences of an action. That's one way to define responsibility and cause. But what constitutes unforseeable? Is it enough to be ignorant of what could happen? Do we need to examine the possible consequences in a formalized way in order to absolve ourselves of responsibilty? I know this may sound silly, but how often do you hear people say, "If only I hadn't..." or "I should have stopped him when...". We are attributing responsibility to ourselves for not acting. Lack of action can be as much of a cause as action.

    So is it knowledge of possibilities that makes the difference? We are not omniscient, so we can't know everything that could occur when we take a stand or fail to act. What is reasonable?


    And we can generalize too. We all know what's happening to the weather patterns. We all hear about global warming. Are we all responsible? And if we are responsible by knowing and not doing anything, are we causing it to happen?

    We can't fall back upon judeo/christian concepts of right and wrong here. A suicide bomber believes that he/she is doing what is right. Temporal sacrifice for the greater glory at the feet of god is a strong motivator. They cause the deaths of innocent people, but they do not believe that they are resonsible for those deaths.

    So how do we define the relationship between cause and responsibility? Is it an epistemological issue? A logical one? Or maybe an ontological one?

  11. #11
    Kiss my axe! kahnovitch's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Gary Wassner
    I know this may sound silly, but how often do you hear people say, "If only I hadn't..." or "I should have stopped him when...". We are attributing responsibility to ourselves for not acting. Lack of action can be as much of a cause as action.
    Yeah, but that's hindsight and it only has any relevence (if any at all)after the fact.
    I remember a scene in one of the Exorcist prequels where Father Merrin is given a chance to go back and re-live an episode in his life he had much regret over.
    Namely a Nazi Officer orders him to choose ten people to die, in order to save the lives of everyone else in the ghetto.
    With hindsight he swipes the officer's gun and blows the fecker's head off.
    Everyone (including Merrin) is then slaughtered under a hail of machine guns.

    My point being hindsight only tells of one possible outcome.

    Do we need to examine the possible consequences in a formalized way in order to absolve ourselves of responsibilty?
    I think we have to take into account some element of chaos theory like the classic "butterfly effect", but then that's a LOT of possible consequences to consider when you think of the random and cumulative factors within the concepts.

    Ultimately everything we do, from flushing the toilet. to giving a beggar some spare change, has unforseen circumstances and if we tried to fathom the implications of them all, I doubt we'd ever leave the house.

  12. #12
    How can you make a decision based on every single possibility you can think of? Everything we do would come under that category and we would never get around to doing anything, so busy would we be just pondering and considering how to act. We can't foresee everything that will happen. We can fathom, guess and predict, using our knowledge and logic, what might happen if we act in so and so a way, and weigh it up. We can try to make the best possible decisions we can at that moment in time. If we knew the outcomes of every action, we would obviously do what's most beneficial.

    In one way we are all responsible for everything that happens around us. (But if we say that, we could also say that no one is responsible for anything.) For things such as global warming, we can't say that 'we are not responsible for it all' because we all contribute to it in some small way. Our contribution and subsequent responsibility may seem negligible in our eyes, but when you add about six billion negligible contributions, it ends up a pretty big problem.

    No matter what we do to help solve one problem, there will always be another problem we could have solved and we can blame ourselves for every little thing we don't do. But I prefer to concentrate on what we can and do do. If I hadn't given a beggar some spare change, would he have had something to eat that night? Do you ever notice how people don't think about how they were responsible for good things too? It's like people enjoy feeling guilt. Sure, we can't save the world all on our own and there's always going to be problems, but we can do our best to fix what we can, and be aware that we are problems we could but haven't decided to fix for whatever reason. And we live with that.

  13. #13
    GemQuest Moderator Gary Wassner's Avatar
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    So what constitutes enough thought and enough anticipation to change the analysis from responsibility to unforseen? What are our moral obligations in this regard? Can we list clarify them in any sensible way?

    Once again I'm stumbling over words that we use every day. Responsibility! Cause! As soon as we start to analyze them, we realize how little we really understand what we mean when we use them.

  14. #14
    Kiss my axe! kahnovitch's Avatar
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    I honestly think most of us don't have the power to really significantly alter that much around us in the first place.
    In an every day situation I personally don't encounter that many potentially live changing decisions.
    Londoners are quite defensive and tend to keep to themselves (the natives at least). There is a lot of apathy and the general mantra seems to be, "I don't want to get involved."

    An a slight side note "My name is Earl" has been running over here in the UK for a few weeks now which deals with the same ideas as this thread.

  15. #15
    Quote Originally Posted by Gary Wassner
    So what constitutes enough thought and enough anticipation to change the analysis from responsibility to unforseen? What are our moral obligations in this regard? Can we list clarify them in any sensible way?
    If we could write out a clear list, I'm sure we would have done so. The problem with making a list is that there always seem to be exceptions to the rule, for me anyway, as I'm not the type to stick firmly to rules no matter what. Personally, there are no set rules as to what constitutes enough thought. Sometimes you have a lot of time to make a decision, sometimes you have to make snap decisions, and sometimes you can't think for too long or it will drag out and then you will have done nothing.

    All that is humanly possible to do is to consider the impact of your decision not only on yourself, but on other people -- the people that you know and the people that you don't know but you imagine may be affected, including emotionally.

    Talking to people whose opinions you respect helps when you make a momentous decision. But their opinions can only offer suggestions, not firm rules for what you are going to do. Ultimately the responsiblity of deciding falls on you. So you must be able to ask yourself if this is really the best thing you are doing for everyone involved, and if you can live with it, no matter what the consequences may be. Sometimes you can't make decisions that will make everyone happy. Again, most people would if they could. So you have to ask yourself if you, yourself, can cope with knowing the consequences of your decision for the rest of your life, and then make it.

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