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November 06, 2007


Luis Enrique

I'm not sure that being foreseeable matters for responsibility. Terrorists can foresee that innocent people will be harmed as part of the police's efforts to stop them, as can the Israeli state foresee suicide bombers.

Doesn't it have more to do with there being a space where the police or bombers might have done otherwise?

If you view the world as a chain of cause and effect, then none of us are responsible for anything and the notion of responsibility becomes meaningless. You have to introduce breaks in the chain where individual actors take on responsibility for the next move. Isn't it that break that means Osman is not responsible for de Menezes death, in the sense you mean?

But things are messy - we might also want to define another category of responsibility in which Israel is responsible for suicide bombers (the same sense in which suicide bombers are responsible for the Israeli occupation of the West Bank etc.).

God knows I am no moral philosopher, but I have dabbled, and so far I have come across no single coherent framework for capturing causality, moral responsibility, etc. etc. I do not know that we ought to expect there to be one. For example, sometimes I want to evaluate actions according to their (probable) consequences, but that doesn't work when I encounter 'if I wasn't selling drugs somebody else would be' arguments - so I need another way of looking at things, one that might not be consistent with the first. What I mean is that perhaps the secret is to be happy to apply inconsistent notions of causality / responsibility etc. so long as they applied in the right setting for the right purpose.

The notion of causality Aaronovitch employs is good for certain purposes only - not necessarily assessing who is to blame. It might be that both Osman's actions and the foundation of the state of Israel are the best candidates for the causes of de Menezes death and the existence of suicide bombers respectively, in the 'remove x and see if y still happens sense, but that this sense of 'cause' has no bearing on 'blame'. Or something.

Luis Enrique

Nope, my break in the chain argument doesn't cut it either, because it always absolves the first actor of responsibility for the response of the second actor, even if that response was obviously going to follow. So I could falsify reports of a pedophile living down the road, and then claim no responsibly for the subsequent lynching of an innocent man because those thugs didn't have to do it.

hmm, tricky stuff this philosophising.

John M

Actually, in a traditional firing squad only one man had a blank, but nobody knew which one. Otherwise you would have to make sure you gave the live round to a pretty good marksman.


"Actually, in a traditional firing squad only one man had a blank, but nobody knew which one."

Not so, AFAIK. The one with the blank would know because there would be no recoil on firing. I think that rumour got put about because soldiers didn't like being in firing squads and tended to fire wide...unless they thought that it didn't matter because they may be firing a blank.

On topic, well spotted with Aaro though...

Job Maker

A Nit:

RE: "The one with the blank...."
This is not true. A blank has a case (the brass or paper, a powder charge which is the explosive, but no bullet (lead). The round explodes like any other. There is plenty of recoil. It simply shoots paper and gas rather than lead.

Jon Heath

From a legal perspective, a couple of comments spring to mind. In criminal law, a person's actions will be held to be a legal cause of an event if (a) the person's actions were a factual cause (the counterfactual test) and (b) the person's actions were culpable Chris's 'responsibility' element). Osman's actions pretty clearly satisfy both limbs of that test. However, the chain of causation will be broken by the 'free, deliberate and informed' actions of third parties, so the question hinges on whether the actions of the police could be so described. In my opinion they could, and therefore Osman was not legally responsible, though it's worth noting that in a case (R v Pagett) where the police shot a hostage, their actions were held to be 'involuntary' and the hostage-taker was convicted of murder.

Luis: I don't understand why you think your paedophile example works as a reductio against your initial theory. It would be grossly unfair to hold you responsible for the freely chosen and unlawful actions of others. (Although you would be liable in the tort of defamation).

Luis Enrique


v interesting comment. I was going to ask if anybody knew any accessible books on this sort of topic, because it's something I think about a lot but have no real clue about - I hadn't thought of considering the legal perspective. Seems pretty sensible.

Yes the pedophile example was not well thought out - I was looking for an example where somebody could do something that any idiot could foresee would lead to a 'bad' response from others, where the "they didn't have to do it" would be a lame excuse.


Job Maker

Have you ever actually fired a blank round? And have you fired similar calibre live rounds? If the answer is yes, you'll know that the difference is substantial and discernible to the least aware person you could imagine. The recoil from a blank is is so small as to be non-existent. I know: I've fired thousands of both types.


Odd, isn't it, how easily writers such as Aaronovitch opt for an exculpatory form of determinism in cases like these, as if the problem of 'dirty hands' didn't exist?

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