Tyler Clementi, a student at Rutgers, committed suicide after his roommate Dharun Ravi and another student, Molly Wei, allegedly posted a video of Clementi’s sexual encounter with another male.
Ravi and Lei have been charged with invasion of privacy and not with Clementi’s death. From a legal standpoint, this is to be expected. After all, establishing a legal causal link between the release of the video and his death would be rather difficult.
My main interest in the matter is not the legal aspect of the case, but rather the moral aspect. That is, the degree to which Ravi and Lei might be morally responsible for Clementi’s death. I am qualifying this because Ravi and Lei have not been convicted and hence they are merely accused of the crime at this point. This is an example of the broader matter of the responsibility a person has for actions that others take based on his own actions. In the specific case at hand, the problem is determining to what degree those involved in the distribution of the video are responsible for Clementi’s death.
While the matter of legal responsibility is distinct from that of ethical responsibility, the legal theory of causation does have some use here. I am, obviously enough, availing myself of the notion of conditio sine qua non (“a condition without which nothing”) as developed by H.L.A. Hart and A.M. Honore.
Roughly put, this is the “but for” view of causation. X can be seen as the cause of Y if Y would not have happened but for X. This seems like a reasonable place to begin for moral responsibility. After all, if someone would not have died but for my actions (that is, if I had not done X, then the person would still be alive) then there seems to be an intuitive plausible reason that I am responsible for the person’s death.
If Wei and Ravi did, in fact, post the video in question and Clementi did, in fact, kill himself because of the video being posted, then it seems likely that Cleminiti would be alive today but for the posting. As such, Wei and Ravi would thus seem to be (potentially) responsible for his death and thus morally culpable.
However, there are clearly degrees of culpability. While the video being posted might have been a causal factor in the suicide, the causal link is far weaker than it would have been if, say, the accused had pushed Clementi off the bridge. Also, merely playing a causal role is not enough to ground moral (or legal) accountability. To use an obvious example, the video could not have been made without cameras. However, to hold the maker of the cameras responsible would be absurd. What is needed is, obviously enough, a degree and kind of causal role that grounds moral responsibility
One obvious reason as to why the accused have only a degree of culpability is that suicide is a matter of choice. While this choice was probably influenced by the release of the video, Clementi would not be dead if he had not decided to kill himself(assuming he did so). This would certainly seem to reduce the moral responsibility of the the two people who allegedly posted the video. In contrast, if the two people had pushed him from the bridge against his will, then he would have no morally significant causal role in his own death and the moral responsibility would be fully upon them.
It might be argued that the two people who allegedly posted the video should have known what was going to happen and hence this makes them more responsible for the death. However, this seems implausible. It is reasonable to expect that a person would be outraged by such a posting or perhaps even horribly embarrassed. As such, they can be accused of invading his privacy and even with acting with an intent to create emotional harm. However, since suicide is not a likely reaction to such an action, those who posted it cannot be reasonably expected to have believed that Clementi would kill himself.
To use an analogy, while people should not throw snowballs at other people, a person who throws one generally cannot be taken as throwing the snowball with an intent to kill. After all, snowballs generally do not do that. Naturally, the snowball analogy is not a perfect fit-if someone is killed by a thrown snowball, then the causal connection in the death is much stronger than in the case of a video that allegedly contributed to a suicide.
Of course, if the accused did know that Clementi was likely to respond by committing suicide, then the matter changes. To use the snowball analogy, if someone throws a snowball at someone who is likely to die from being hit by one, then they can be reasonably regarded as intending to cause the person’s death-or at least not being overly concerned with that possibility. Of course, this analogy breaks at a certain point-after all, suicide is a chosen behavior and dying when hit with a snowball is not. As such, even if the accused did know that Clementi was likely to kill himself, his death would still be ultimately a matter of his own choice. This factor of choice seems to be rather morally significant in the matter at hand.
Overall, it seems clear that creating and posting such a video was wrong. However, it also seems clear that the moral culpability of the accused is very limited in regards to the suicide. At most, the actions of the accused could be seen as a contributory cause in regards to the motivation to commit suicide.