by Dr. Jan Garrett

This page was last revised August 11, 2003.

First, let us clarify some terms. A person is responsible for an action if the person is the source of the action, the person was aware, or could reasonably be required to be aware, of the relevant features of the situation in which she was acting, and the person was free to do the action or refrain from doing the action. (See point "e" below for a further qualification.) To put the matter in a simplified form, responsibility assumes awareness and freedom.

Responsibility in this sense means that the person is blameworthy (if the action is incorrect) or praiseworthy (if the action is morally correct). To the extent that a person is blameworthy for an action, the person has a duty to apologize, accept punishment, and/or make reparations.

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Sometimes responsibility involves membership or leadership of an organization. Organizations typically have an internal political structure that assigns powers and responsibilities to its governing council (also called names like executive committee, board of directors, Congress) or supreme executive.

A leadership body is often elected by its members (in the case of a corporation, the board of directors is typically elected by the stockholders with the largest groups of shares). The executive group then in turn makes rules that determine the behavior of the members themselves.

This kind of structure causes responsibility for wrongdoing to be reassigned in several ways.

One result is that a rank-and-file individual who commits a wrongdoing may not be the only blameworthy person involved. In fact his blameworthiness may be considerably diminished if the "burden of guilt" belongs mostly elsewhere.

a. If persons are ordered to do a blameworthy act by a superior within the organization, then the superior and the members of (or group within) the organization who gave the superior his or her authority may be blameworthy too.

b. If persons who did a blameworthy act felt strongly pressured or compelled to do it because they were subordinates to a governing council and thus supposed to follow rules imposed by the council, then they bear less blame than they would ordinarily bear and the council itself is blameworthy.

c. In turn the members who elected the governing council bear responsibility for choosing them. Under these circumstances, we would say that the organization as such is responsible but the burden of the responsibility should be shared, with individuals in the leadership position bearing proportionally more than rank and file members. They are often more responsible because they are in a better position to know or learn the relevant facts and, because of their position in the organization, greater ability than nonleaders to set a different policy.

d. If the problematic rule had been adopted by a previous governing council (which had been replaced, say, with new members after a recent regular election), then the new governing council still bears considerable responsibility if it had the opportunity to reconsider the rule and it failed to do so.

e. Subordinates who follow morally wrong orders or rules demanding a morally wrong action are not entirely blame-free if (1) they were capable of discovering the morally relevant aspects of their action and (2) they were free to act otherwise in the situation, even if it may have cost them something in comfort, income, group approval, and the like.

("Capable of discovering" in condition [1] means their rational abilities were not severely impaired and a reasonable person in their situation could have discovered, etc. In other words, the fact that a person was ignorant of a morally relevant fact does not automatically mean that she was incapable of discovering it. Deliberate ignorance does not excuse.)