The fallacy of finite responsibility

It’s gedankenexperiment time!

Suppose mafioso A pays hitman B to kill politician C. Is B any less a murderer than if he’d committed the crime off his own back? Obviously not: he’s 100% guilty. But does it follow that A is not responsible for the killing? Again, clearly not: it was his actions and his intentions which led to the politician’s death, 100%. But what if A decided to kill C because of informant D, who tipped him off about C’s planned crack-down on organised crime. Then doesn’t D also deserve some blame for C’s death? And if so, does that lessen the guilt of either A or B? Again, and of course, no.

In principle there’s no limit to the number of people who can be responsible for the same crime: suppose a man is strapped into an electric chair, and a group of people each have a green and a red button in front of them. If all of them press the red button, then the man fries, but if even one of them presses the green button then he goes free. The experiment is performed, and the man dies. Now isn’t each and every button-presser responsible for his death? And does the size of the group make any difference whatsoever?

Of course the psychology doesn’t work that way: if the group is a thousand strong, the amount of guilt that each button-presser feels may well be lower than if the group consisted of just one person. But psychology’s a poor indicator of responsibility: people can feel terrible guilt for events which are completely beyond their control. I’d say that under any decent moral or legal system, every member of the group should be judged a murderer.

The point of all this is to dispel the fallacy that for a given event, there is a fixed, finite amount of responsibility which must be divided up cake-like between the parties involved. This results in bogus arguments along the lines of: “Well if you think that apparently decent person 1 shares some of the responsibility for this atrocity, then you must think that evil bastard 2 is less than fully responsible for their actions. You ****ing ****er&%!?!!”. It’s rubbish: some tragedies are no-one’s fault at all, others require contributions from lots of individuals, some essential to the outcome, others acting to ratchet up the likelihood of disaster.

A couple of examples of this in action: many people (including me) believe that the War in Iraq significantly increased the risk of terrorist attacks against in the UK, and therefore lay some blame for the 7/7 bombings at the door of the government. Does that mean that we think that the bombers themselves are anything less than 100% responsible for their dreadful actions? Are we moral determinists offering excuses for terror? Of course not.

Secondly, rape: it’s obvious that through her behaviour, a woman can put herself at a greater or lesser risk of being raped. To take an extreme example, if she chooses to spend the night blind drunk, on her own with a known sex-offender, in his bedroom, dressed only in her underwear, then no-one sane could disagree that she was putting herself at a huge risk. (Even under these circumstances I wouldn’t want to say that it was her fault that she was raped, just on compassionate grounds.) So to suggest that women should avoid taking wreckless risks, and take sensible steps to ensure their safety, is only common sense. But is any of this to diminish, even slightly, the responsibility of any man who commits this horrible crime? No, not for a second.

  1. pdf said:

    It’s always about the rape with you, isn’t it Larry? I reckon that feminist was right, and that your cesspit of a mind is filled with evil sick rape fantasies. Not that there’s anything wrong with that…

  2. Larry old bean, what make you of the Felony Murder thingy they have in certain parts of the US.

  3. joe said:

    hmmm kinda… but you may be making the mistake of treating rape like, say, a mugging; something where someone jumps out of the bushes and springs on you. in such circumstances, you’re quite right, the victim could bear some responsibility for, e.g., not walking the dark way back, not carrying a suitcase full of cash etc.

    but not all rape is like that; much (most?) of it happens at the hands of someone known to the victim. in those circumstances, there is probably some level of trust there already, which the rapist abuses, it’s more like a violent con trick than a robbery.

    that’s why it’s such a terrible crime, you can look after yourself all you want but you can’t spend your life trusting nobody.

    good post though – made me think about it.

  4. PDF – yes. I mean, no. I mean, shove it up your arse.

    Ill Man – let me get back to you once I’ve found out what the Felony Murder thingy is…

    Joe – I meant to focus on those situations where the woman has put herself at risk. I appreciate that many/most rapes don’t fit that pattern – with regard to those, I entirely agree with you that “that’s why it’s such a terrible crime, you can look after yourself all you want but you can’t spend your life trusting nobody”.

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  6. James R MacLean said:

    Felony murder is a murder committed in the commission of some other criminal act, e.g., robbing a store (or perpetrating a rape). Not all homicides committed under US legal jurisdiction are “murder”; some may be classed as “involuntary manslaughter” or “involuntary manslaughter.” In addition, the various state legal codes distinguish between “second degree” (“murder 2″) and “first degree” murder (“murder 1″).

    The distinction between the two classes of homicide, “murder” and “manslaughter,” may be simplistically rendered as “intent to kill.” For example, if you fire a gun at someone whom you believe is attacking your child, this would probably be prosecuted as voluntary manslaughter (assuming the target died). If you were merely negligent, and this led to a death, that would be involuntary manslaughter.

    “Murder 2″ was defined by murder (taking of life with intent to kill) that was NOT “murder 1.” Murder 1, in turn, was a murder that involved lying in wait, use of poison or bombs, or other incontrovertible evidence of murderous aforethought.
    In the 1970’s the Supreme Court required adjustment of these definitions. This led to two subtly different legal definitions and sentencing schedules for the respective crimes.

    “Felony murder” is actually a term from English common law; the hanging of Derek Bentley in the UK involved a lad whose companion, Chris Craig actually was the one who killed Officer Miles (Let Him Have It). The application works something like this: suppose we all agree to rob a bank. I plan most of the robbery, so that theoretically we evade (rather than kill) the police. During the commission of the robbery, someone in the gang kills a security guard. This becomes a felony murder and we all are liable for the death of the guard. Indeed, depending on the exact nature of the crime, I might well have a greater degree of culpability than the triggerman.

    In the case of Mr. Bentley, there was a controversy as to whether he actually told Craig to “let him have it [i.e., the gun].” Urging one’s confederates to capitulate rather than kill would probably absolve one of much of the guilt. However, as with the closely related crime of conspiracy, it is not necessary to be present at the scene of the homicide to be criminally liable in felony murder.

  7. James R MacLean said:

    Felony murder was disallowed in the UK in 1957. Typically, additions to the felony murder/conspiracy statutes in US states have tended in the opposite direction, towards expediting the prosecution of a larger number of potential suspects. The most obvious example of this is RICO, an act passed in the 1970’s IIRC that was designed to facillitate prosecutions in mafia cases.

  8. Clarice said:

    I think the rape point is slightly different, as commenters have pointed out, though I’m not entirely convinced.

    “Responsibility”, as you seem to define it, is based upon the causal power of people’s actions, or omissions (not all of which causality is accessible to our knowledge). It is not controversial (though it is necessary, it would seem), to acknowledge multiple causality, and even indirect causality in attributing responsibility for events. Crucially though, it is a moot point I guess as to how far you want to take this – if I murder someone, is my great-grandmother responsible, for giving birth to my grandmother, who gave birth to my mother, without all of whom, I would not have been around to commit the crime?

    In attributing causality to events, a certain amount of counter-factual reasoning is involved. To take this to an extreme, when a woman is raped, it may well be true to say that she probably wouldn’t have been raped had she not got drunk, had she stayed at home, had she not gone to that person’s house, and so on. This kind of thinking is exactly the reason why many people, as you say, feel (and apportion) guilt or blame for things which actually were beyond the person’s control and for which they therefore cannot be held even partially or indirectly responsible, and even if they could, their actions were perfectly justifiable in the broader context (maybe by avoiding an even worse outcome, or by simply carrying out their fundamental liberties as citizens). In theory, you could apply your point about rapees to the victims of any crime, even victims of the 7/7 bombings. In the latter case, that would be, to my mind, abominable and ridiculous.

    So the point I’m making, which I feel applies beyond the rape scenario, but is particularly apropos in that case, is that if going about my private business, or seeking solitude, or walking down the street, or being blind drunk, or wearing underwear, or trusting a man not to rape you constitute “wreckless risks” (sic), then I do fear that my fundamental liberties are being encroached in an unacceptable way, by everyone who follows the “reckless risk” line of thought.

    Then again, just to be “topical”, there is also the question of prostitutes in suffolk continuing to work when there’s a serial prostitiute-killer at large…

  9. aidan said:

    I’m going to digress a bit but I do think most of this stuff is bollocks.

    I preferred the old … take your chances/shit happens era.

    There is so much angst these sensitive days around who-did-what-to-who and a compulsive need to off-load blame rather be seen as … God forbid … a failure or worse yet a rapist.

    The “she made me do it” defense is bs because even if a woman is lying stark naked and spread, the decision to jump her is – difficult though this may be for some people to grasp – a choice. It’s like people suing McDonalds because they’re fat, or suing Rothmans because they have lung cancer. They took their chances and came up on the losing end – tough.

    There is more honor in battling your demons, than suing some former nanny or teacher who you believe touched you up after being nudged in that direction by a shrink eager to milk you for a few dollars more.

    The reason it’s almost always bollocks is because 9 times out of 10 the demons have more to do with being shafted by the boss, or some other real life reverse. Suddenly though there have to be profound and enigmatic “reasons” other than the truth that you simply cocked up.

    It’s the poor old me syndrome – and I’m tired of the endless refrain.

  10. Clarice said:

    To be fair, I don’t think suing MacDonalds because you’re fat is the same a suing a tobacco company. The latter is more like suing a heroine dealer, and many governments seem fairly happy to do that.

    Tobacco is very well-known to be addictive, whereas McDonalds is not. Although I did hear Billy Connolly say that he reckons they put something addictive in their burgers.

    I don’t think that many people actually *intend* or choose to become addicted to cigarettes, any more than heroine addicts do.

    I take your general point though.

  11. Aidan, did you even read my post?

    The “she made me do it” defense is bs

    Yes, I agree. That’s why I said “But is any of this to diminish, even slightly, the responsibility of any man who commits this horrible crime? No, not for a second.”

    Clarice, thanks for your comments – I’ll get back to you at greater length when I have more time, but…

    “I do fear that my fundamental liberties are being encroached in an unacceptable way”

    By whom? What have I said in my post which suggests the curtailment of your right to do anything you want?

  12. aidan said:

    I did Larry.

    I went off on a bit of a tangent – but I took your point.

  13. aidan said:

    Hang on though Clarice – the analogy doesn’t work because heroin is illegal.

    In order to purchase heroin, the user has make a conscious decision to break the law, whereas cigs are readily available.

    Anyone attempting to argue these days that they aren’t aware of the carcinogenic properties of tobacco would have to be either illiterate, blind or possibly both. Not being allowed to smoke in places like cafes and pubs, should even tip the learning disabled off that there might be something nasty about the habit worth looking into.

    Great post Larry. I was actually agreeing.

  14. Aidan – thanks, and sorry for the venomous response, I guess I misconstrued your earlier comment.

    Clarice – Firstly, my post was not about rape except as an example, and when it was about rape, it was only about those rapes where the woman has put herself at serious risk through her behaviour. So you’re quite right that similar reasoning would apply to other crimes (e.g people who leave their cars unlocked.)

    I’ll tell you why I mentioned it. I heard on the radio the other morning a discussion about teenage girls who are raped after getting incredibly drunk with a bunch of boys they don’t know very well. A man who worked as a health-care worker in night-clubs was trying to make the point that through this behaviour they are (perhaps unwittingly) taking a great personal risk. His purpose was not to blame the victims, let alone make excuses for the rapists, but simply to help make the public aware of the reality of what is going on. It struck me as a useful public service.

    But he was shouted down by another guest, who accused him of making excuses for rapists, and all the rest of it. My point – and the whole point of this post – is that he was doing no such thing.

    See I think there’s a disconnection between you, who are talking about what women (or people generally) *should* be able to do in an *ideal* world, and the health-care bloke who was giving out advice (not orders, by the way, no infringements of anyone’s liberty) on what’s *sensible* behaviour in this *very imperfect* world.

    But there is no contradiction: of course women should be able to do whatever they like without getting raped, and everyone should be in favour of working towards a world where that’s true. But in the mean time, it’s also important to give good advice to people trying to make their way in the world as it currently is.

  15. cirdan said:

    As someone has pointed out above, you’re confusing moral and causal responsibility. That someone was part of the chain of causes that led to an event makes them causally responsible for the event, but needn’t make them morally responsible. The distinction is already implicit in your final example when you say that you don’t want to attribute fault to the unwise woman.

  16. Cirdan, I don’t think I am. I was concentrating on people whose causal contribution to the tragedy was (or at least should have been) foreseeable. The example of my great great grandmother being in any sense “responsible” for my crimes doesn’t fit this pattern, so I reject the analogy.

    I was clear that I didn’t want to tell the unwise woman that it was her fault she was raped on compassionate, not philosophical, grounds.