Lecture 5: Responsibility


Consider case 45 (p. 343) TV Antenna


Engineering firm designs antenna


Rigging company installing antenna has no engineers on staff


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:


 someone here’s 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 inflicted


Negligent Action – risk of harm is illegitimately ignored


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


Strict Liability


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 Responsibility


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



What 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


An 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.


But: Consider 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



Moral/Legal Responsibility


What is moral responsibility?


3 Conceptions


Minimal Responsibility

Reasonable Care

Good Works


Minimal 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 employment”(101)


This is sometimes how the law conceives of responsibility. 


E.g., the Tar Ponds


Focussed on whether the individual is in trouble or not.  



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’



Reasonable Care


holds 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 the times


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


Good Works


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 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




A Last Thought


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?