Sharing responsibility for a wrong.

There’s an argumentative pattern that I see a lot whenever someone is complaining about some unfair or unreasonable thing that the complainer could have avoided. It goes something like this:

A: “The cops really shouldn’t have arrested me for jaywalking.”
B: “It’s your responsibility, you knew it was against the law.”

But I think this is just a mistake: B’s statement is no answer to A. It’s possible to accept one’s own responsibility for X while still blaming someone else for putting you in the position where you were forced to X. Consider an inflammatory version of the same sort of pattern:

A: “He raped me!”
B: “You shouldn’t have dressed like a slut!”

Or a less inflammatory version:

B: “Get up off of that couch or I’m going to hit you.”
A: “Screw you.”
B: [slap!]
A: “You hit me!”
B: “You could have gotten up off of that couch. It’s your fault.”

Or even another, slightly absurd, hypothetical case from the law:

A: “The state just gave me a ten million dollar fine for speeding!”
B: “You shouldn’t have sped.”

The general structure of all of these arguments is that B treats A’s ability to causally intervene in a wrong done to her as tantamount to A’s responsibility for that wrong. B then takes another step and concludes (implicitly) that if A is responsible (or blameworthy) for the wrong, nobody else can be blameworthy — that the wrong is no wrong at all.

But both steps are wrong.

The first confuses causal responsibility with moral responsibility. If someone puts me in a position where I have to take some action or be harmed, the natural place to lay the blame for the harm is in the guy who puts you in that position in the first place (the answer is not always the same in the law — consider the contributory negligence rule in tort law — but, of course, legal responsibility and moral responsibility are often very different). Consider a slightly ridiculous example to illustrate this point. Suppose a very weak old lady starts beating me up with her umbrella. And suppose her bones are very brittle, such that any action I take to stop her (like, say, forcibly restraining her) will cause serious injury. We may assume that I have the causal power to put a stop to it, say, by pummeling her. But, presumably, I’m not blameworthy for not doing so. “you could have kicked her ass” is no answer to “that old lady beat me up!”

The second move confuses the question of A’s moral responsibility with the question of whether anyone else is blameworthy, and whether A has any right to complain. Suppose that a bartender ignores the fact that I’m extremely intoxicated and serves me more and more drinks. (There’s some related discussion of temptation/exploitation cases like this in a discussion on Public Reason between Matt Zwolinski and myself — it might be worth a read.) Then I drunkenly hurt myself and others. I’m obviously blameworthy for my drunken recklessness. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t also have cause for complaint against the bartender for selling me a bunch of drinks when he knew my judgment was impaired! It is possible for me to be blameworthy for something and for that blame to be fairly shared with someone else, even to the extent that I personally have cause for complaint against that other person for the consequences of my blameworthy action.

It may be, in the first example, that the police officer really isn’t blameworthy to arrest A for jaywalking. It may be right for the officer to be enforcing the jaywalking laws in such a zealous fashion. It may be generally right for cops to enforce even dumb laws, and generally wrong for people to disobey them. I happen to disagree with that proposition, but either way, an argument would be required. “You could have avoided it” is not enough.

(See also Hayek’s weird argument that the rule of law is equivalent to liberty because when law is public, predictable, etc., one can act to avoid legal sanction. To which the best possible answer might be “tell that to Rosa Parks.” I’m not even completely sure the rule of law is necessary for liberty — there’s at least arguably perfect liberty in an anarchy — but there are bits where Hayek goes so far as to assert that it’s sufficient, and that’s just crazy talk.)


2 Responses to “Sharing responsibility for a wrong.”

  1. Mike Says:


  2. ben Says:

    Still smarting about those parking tickets, huh? I have to say I have a hard time seeing you as a victim there, or how the logical possibility that more than one party might be to blame for the occurrence of something unjust bears, just by itself, on the ticketing cases. (My apologies if this post is not at all motivated by your parking tickets.)

    It might be possible to receive a speeding ticket of that magnitude in Finland, but you’d have to be pretty absurdly wealthy.

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