From Moral Responsibility: An Introduction by Matthew Talbert, published by Polity Press in 2016. Reproduced by permission. This excerpt is from Chapter One (“Responsibility, Moral Responsibility, and Free Will”).

When philosophers talk about “moral responsibility” they usually have in mind a relationship that can hold between people and the actions they perform, or between people and the consequences of their actions. We typically say that a person is “morally responsible for” an action or a consequence: we say, for example, “Clyde is morally responsible for robbing the bank” or “Clyde is morally responsible for the fact that the bank was robbed.” A person can also be morally responsible for not performing a certain action or for the consequences of failing to act in a certain way. Suppose that Clyde could have easily saved the life of a child drowning in a shallow pool but that he chose not to because he just didn’t care about saving the child’s life. In this case, if the child drowns, it would be natural to say that Clyde is morally responsible (and presumably blameworthy) for the child’s death.

Though we’ll encounter more detailed approaches in the next chapter, a good place to start is to think of an assertion such as “Clyde is morally responsible for robbing the bank” as attributing behavior to Clyde in a way that makes certain responses toward him appropriate. Since robbing banks is usually a morally bad thing to do, if Clyde is morally responsible for robbing a bank, then it is probably appropriate to make a negative moral assessment of Clyde and to blame him on account of his behavior. On the other hand, if Clyde were morally responsible for foiling a robbery or for saving a drowning child, then it would probably be appropriate to make a positive moral assessment of him and to praise him for his behavior. I say “probably,” because sometimes people perform actions that would ordinarily be praiseworthy, but they do so for reasons that don’t reflect well on them. Suppose, for example, that, as Bonnie was making her escape from a bank robbery, she paused to pull a drowning child from a fountain, but only because she wanted to use the child as a human shield. It would be odd to praise Bonnie for what she did even if we are glad that she did not let the child drown. […]

1.1 Varieties of Responsibility

An initial problem for attempts to characterize moral responsibility is that the words “responsible” and “responsibility” are used in several different ways in English. […]

  1. L. A. Hart, the great twentieth-century philosopher of law, illustrates the diversity of our talk about responsibility with the following vignette about a drunken sea captain and the fate of his ship:

As captain of the ship, X was responsible for the safety of his passengers and crew. But on his last voyage he got drunk every night and was responsible for the loss of the ship with all aboard. It was rumoured that he was insane, but the doctors considered that he was responsible for his actions. Throughout the voyage he behaved quite irresponsibly, and various incidents in his career showed that he was not a responsible person. He always maintained that the exceptional winter storms were responsible for the loss of the ship, but in the legal proceedings brought against him he was found criminally responsible for his negligent conduct, and in separate civil proceedings he was held legally responsible for the loss of life and property. He is still alive and he is morally responsible for the deaths of many women and children. (1968: 211)

Role Responsibility

Let’s give Hart’s captain the name “Jack.” Since Jack is captain of his ship, he has an important duty with respect to its passengers and crew – he is supposed to ensure their safety. We can express this thought by saying that a captain is “responsible for” the safety of his or her passengers and crew; we could also say that their safety is a captain’s “responsibility.” Here the word “responsibility” picks out a specific duty or obligation that captains have. A captain has this duty – this responsibility – simply because he or she occupies the role of captain. Similarly, in virtue of being a parent, a person acquires certain duties: a child is its parent’s responsibility and the parent is responsible for the child’s health, welfare, upbringing, and so on.

A good captain performs the duties associated with being a captain well and a good parent performs the duties associated with being a parent well. It is common to hear such people described as a “responsible captain” or a “responsible parent.” […] We also use this sense of “responsible” in a more general way: Captain Jack is not just an irresponsible captain; it’s also said that he “was not a responsible person.” In other words, he’s generally not the sort of person that you can rely on to fulfill his obligations.

Just as role-dependent duties are sometimes called “responsibilities,” we occasionally see the phrase “moral responsibility” used to refer to moral duties more generally. For example, in light of reports that retired National Football League players have an increased risk of dementia, a sportswriter recently wondered whether it is “morally responsible to enjoy this sport” (Ryan 2013). […] Generally, this is not how philosophers talk about moral responsibility: the focus is not on having moral responsibilities (in the sense of having obligations) but, rather, on whether we are morally responsible for the fact that we did, or did not, live up to our obligations.

Causal Responsibility

We also talk about responsibility in the context of assigning causal responsibility for various events and outcomes: we say that someone or something is responsible for an event because he, she, or it caused it to occur. […]


Causation is a complicated topic. This is illustrated by the fact that Jack’s behavior and the weather might both have had genuine roles to play in explaining why the ship sank. Let’s suppose that, even if there were unprecedented winter storms, the ship would not have sunk had Jack been sober and able to attend to his duties. When we have this fact in mind, it might be natural to say that Jack’s behavior caused the wreck. But let us also suppose that, even given Jack’s drunkenness, the ship would not have sunk if it had not encountered such bad storms – in other words, the captain’s drunkenness was not by itself enough to cause the wreck. It might seem now that the storm is partly to blame for the wreck after all. (Of course I am using “blame” here in a purely causal, non-moral sense – even if the weather did cause the ship to sink, it’s not a candidate for moral blame.) […]


We can say this much at least: in normal cases, we typically hold people morally responsible for actions and outcomes only if they played a direct or indirect causal role in bringing these things about. (Cases of omission present a difficulty here: Clyde may be morally responsible for a child’s death if he lets the child drown, but, if Clyde didn’t do anything, did he cause the child’s death?) However, causal responsibility is not enough for moral responsibility because a person can cause an outcome without being morally responsible for it. Suppose that you foolishly let your two-year-old sister play with your fancy (and delicate) new phone and that she drops it on the floor, cracking its glass screen. Your sister may bear at least partial causal responsibility for the damage done to your phone, but you should not hold her morally responsible for this outcome. This means that, while you might be upset or even angry that your phone was damaged, it would not be appropriate for you to respond to your sister with the sort of moral condemnation and moral anger that characterizes blame.

One might be tempted to say, “It’s not her fault,” on your sister’s behalf. However, in one way, this claim is false. After all, your sister is the one who dropped the phone, so it’s natural to say that she broke it. But talk of being “at fault” does not aim solely at picking out causes. Your sister broke your phone, but doing so was not her fault in the sense that she can’t be (morally) faulted for what she did. In other words, the fact that she broke your phone does not suggest or stem from a moral fault in her. And that’s why you don’t, or at least shouldn’t, blame you sister for breaking the phone. Things would be very different if your seventeen-year-old brother broke your new phone on purpose because he was angry that he had to make do with an older model. With your brother, moral condemnation and moral anger might be entirely appropriate. The reason for this is that your brother’s behavior has a kind of moral significance for you that your sister’s behavior cannot have, and this is because, among other things, your brother knew what he was doing and he acted on purpose when he broke your phone.


Capacity Responsibility and Moral Responsibility


This brings us to the portion of Hart’s story in which doctors are said to have found that Jack was “responsible for his actions.” What do doctors have to do with determining responsibility? The answer is that medical professionals, such as psychiatrists, are often asked (by courts, for example) to determine whether an individual had, at the time of a particular action, the capacity to deliberate about his behavior, to act on the basis of his deliberations, to understand the nature and likely consequences of his action, and so on. Agents who have these capacities – which Hart gathers under the title “capacity responsibility” – are sometimes described as responsible, or morally responsible, agents because they are, in a general way, morally and legally accountable for their behavior. In other words, when such people fall short of moral or legal standards, they are generally open to moral blame or legal punishment. Here we have come close to the heart of moral responsibility. We’ll focus on the psychological capacities required for moral responsibility at several points in subsequent chapters (particularly in chapter 4).

It seems, then, that moral responsibility is crucially underwritten by the possession of powers of understanding, reasoning, and control over one’s own conduct, and that those who lack these powers […] are not morally responsible for their behavior. But, again, why do these powers and capacities matter so much for moral responsibility? This is a question that will occupy much of our attention in what follows, but the basis for a partial answer was given above when I distinguished between the behavior of your seventeen-year-old brother and that of your two-year-old sister. Your brother’s behavior is likely to have a significance for you that your sister’s lacks because he grasps the nature of his actions and controls them in accordance with his judgments about how he has reason to behave. This makes your brother’s action morally offensive to you in a way that your sister’s is not, and it is therefore part of what makes your brother’s behavior attributable to him in the way required for moral responsibility – and for moral blameworthiness, in particular. Because your sister lacks many of the powers and capacities that your brother possesses, her behavior will tend not to have the kind of moral significance that’s relevant for blame, and that is why blaming her would be inappropriate.

Another result of your brother’s more sophisticated rational powers and control over his behavior is that he could have recognized and responded to reasons for not engaging in certain behaviors. In other words, your brother had it in his power to avoid his bad behavior, and we might think that this possibility of avoiding bad behavior is required for genuine blameworthiness. […]

Hart, H. L. A. (1968) “Postscript: Responsibility and Retribution,” in H. Hart, Punishment and Responsibility: Essays in the Philosophy of Law. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ryan, Chris (2013) “Chip Kelly and the Eagles Are Here to Make Football Fun Again,” September 10,

Featured image courtesy of Pixabay.

About The Author

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Matthew Talbert is an Associate Professor of Philosophy, and Chair of the Department of Philosophy, at West Virginia University. He has written a number of articles on free will, moral responsibility, and the moral psychology of psychopaths and war criminals. Moral Responsibility: An Introduction is his first book.