Having no serious academic background in moral philosophy, it seems to me that, for as long as this regrettable state lasts, my only useful contribution to a discussion on moral philosophy is the possibility of getting a discussion started without the constraints which would bedevil the academician. As such, I’m simply throwing out a few untutored thoughts here, to provoke further thought and discussion in others. If that happens, I may learn something.
If we perform an action which we think of as “good”, we are usually very happy to take responsibility for it. If, on the other hand, we perform an action of which we would ourselves disapprove, there is a natural human tendency to search diligently for some reason by which our responsibility for this action may be avoided.
In this latter case, we might explain that we had been physically coerced into doing something which we knew to be wrong. Most people would agree that coercive force, being force which an adult, much less a child, could not reasonably be expected to withstand, absolves the individual of such responsibility. However, If we can’t claim to have been the victim of physical coercion, we might say that someone else’s behaviour was so unreasonable or unbearable to us, that we temporarily lost control of our senses and did something for which we cannot be held responsible. Much shakier ground I think.
The legalistic view of responsibility is that any action we perform is our action, and therefore we are responsible for it. Having established our responsibility for something, the law seeks to mitigate this harsh position by taking into account extenuating circumstances if a penalty is to be imposed.
As outsiders, judging the actions of others, we are never going to see the whole picture. This has prompted the notion that God would have to be invented if God did not already exist. Someone or something has to have all the answers, as in the biblical omnipotent God; all seeing; mankind’s only true judge. In the absence of all relevant data, we cannot simply abrogate all judgments to God. Even if societies operate their legal system, not on the basis of moral responsibility, but simply as a means of regulating anti-social conduct, we as individuals would still be confronted by moral judgments of others’ actions in our daily lives. Unsatisfactory though it may be, we have to hold each other ultimately responsible for our actions, because the alternative is to allow the buck never to stop. Our responsibility for our actions may be limited, but our sheer subjectivity prevents us from being honest with ourselves. If faced with choice between being responsible for nothing we do, or for everything we do, choosing to take responsibility is the more honest and adult choice.
For ourselves, I think we are no better than outsiders at distinguishing the real power of others to make us act in particular ways, from our own wish to avoid responsibility for what we do.We are all shaped by previous damage or present stress. But to me, this is far too easily used as an excuse to be excusable. May our friends try to understand and show us mercy; but the buck ultimately stops with us.
Posted by: BritishReg