Lecture 5: Responsibility
Consider case 45 (p. 343) TV Antenna
Engineering firm designs antenna
Rigging company installing antenna has no engineers
Engineering firm refuses to consult when there is
a problem with installation
Antenna collapses killing seven men
Both a moral and legal notion
A notion you’ll need to deal with:
going to get sued!
A professional engineer or geoscientist shall:
2. have proper regard
in all his or her work for the safety, health and welfare of the public;
…6. undertake only such
work as he or she is competent to perform by virtue of his or her education,
training and experience;
Responsible to Whom?
APEGN Code identifies 3 distinct
entities to which engineers have professional responsibilities:
1. The Public
2. The Client
3. The Profession
3 Sources of Responsibility (p. 100)
Intentional Action – risk of harm is intentionally
Negligent Action – risk of harm is illegitimately
Reckless Action – risk of harm is willfully ignored
Omissions can also lead to responsibility and may
fall into any of the above categories
These categories apply both in morality and law
Responsibility without fault
Well established in American law
Primarily a legal notion, although may apply morally
E.g., holding the operator of a chemical plant
liable for any pollution resulting from the plant
Causal vs. Moral/Legal Responsibility
Responsibility as discussed so far is a
normative notion – it involves an evaluation
Causal responsibility = a purely descriptive sense of responsibility
E.g., ‘The heavy rain is responsible for the flooding.’
Confusing Causal Responsibility with Moral/Legal
Confusion about these two senses often arises
E.g., the debate about whether poverty was a cause
of Sept. 11
Explaining is not excusing
A person can be causally responsible for an event
without being morally or legally responsible
is Causal Responsibility?
‘The heavy rain is responsible for the flooding’
What do we mean here by ‘responsible’?
The ‘But-for’ Conception of Causal Responsibility
A perfectly natural way to think of causal responsibility
X was causally responsible for Y =
But for the occurrence of X, Y would not have happened
But for the heavy rain, the flooding would not have happened
Explosion of Causes
If we adopt the ‘but for’ definition of causal responsibility,
it follows that there’s no such thing as the single cause responsible
for a particular event
E.g., not just the rain but also the shape of the
land, the state of the sewer system, the previous rainfall,
E.g., not just the match, but the oxygen
An Alternative Definition of Causal Responsibility
The responsible cause of event X is the but-for cause that immediately preceded the event.
the bomb that is rigged to go off when the light switch is turned on.
Is the turning on of the light switch really the
cause of the explosion?
What about putting the bomb there?
Be Clear About Causal Responsibility
In purely casual terms, it’s
usually a mistake to look for the cause of an event.
Talk of the cause
smuggles in some evaluation of the event.
i.e., it’s no longer purely descriptive talk
What is moral responsibility?
“holds that engineers
have a duty to conform to the standard operating procedures of their profession
and to fulfill the basic duties of their job as defined by the terms of their
This is sometimes how the law conceives of responsibility.
E.g., the Tar Ponds
Focussed on whether the individual is in trouble
The Problem with Minimal Responsibility
Too limited a conception of responsibility
What if the standard procedures are flawed?
An extreme example
the Nazi defence
‘I was just following orders’
that engineers have a duty to conform to “a standard of reasonableness as
seen by a normal, prudent non-professional.” (103)
Expects engineers to be able
to perform the tasks in which they claim to be competent reasonably well
(i.e., not perfectly). (103)
Reasonable Care vs. Minimal Responsibility
More stringent than the minimal conception in that
the standard operating procedures of a profession may not keep pace with
e.g., data security
Generally, this is the operative legal standard
maintaining the standards that a reasonable and prudent practitioner
would maintain, in the circumstances
“above and beyond the
call of duty” (104)
E.g., Engineers working on the Chernobyl cleanup
underreporting their exposure to radiation in order to stay on the project
(Case 1, p. 287)
E.g., donating your sevices
to a charitable organization
While the text calls this a form of responsibility,
this is really a matter of doing more than is your responsibility.
Taking on extra responsibility = acting as though
something is your responsibility even though it isn’t
This can turn something into your responsibility
E.g., once you donate your services to a charitable
organization, you may become responsible for the quality of your work
Some say responsibility is the central notion in morality and law
Only those who are capable of being responsible are full agents
Compare: animals, children, the mentally incompetent
No responsibility, no morality?