The Christmas Office Party

God knows why, but I’m still pondering issues of consent (though why what follows is relevant in this respect might not be immediately clear). Here’s another thought experiment.

It’s the evening of the Christmas office party. You know that you’re going to be drinking, and you know that this will inevitably impair your judgement, so you leave your car at home and travel to the venue by public transport. It is relevant here that part of your thinking in doing so is not wanting to risk the possibility that at the end of the evening in a moment of alcoholic induced madness you’ll attempt to drive yourself home.

The evening is a blast, and you drink a lot, which would not be a problem, except your partner shows up at the party, and hands you the keys to your car, saying they’d had to borrow it because their own car wouldn’t start, and that your car is in the parking lot outside. Your partner then rushes off to catch a bus to the airport for an overnight flight.

At this point, you’ve easily drunk enough so that your judgement is significantly impaired. It’s a cold night, you don’t fancy waiting around to catch a cab, plus your car is just outside the front door, so you decide to drive home.

Unfortunately, on your way home, a child steps in front of your car, you’re not able to stop in time (partly because your reactions are impaired by the alcohol you’ve consumed), and you run the child down.

These things are true:

a) You are not blasé about the dangers of drink driving. Your sober self would judge drink driving – regardless of its outcome – to be a significant wrong;

b) If it had been possible for your sober self to make a judgement on behalf of your drunk self then you would never have got into the car;

c) At the point at which you were given your keys, and told your car was just outside, you were already a long way past the point at which your judgement was significant impaired.

The question is – in this situation are you morally culpable for driving under the influence and (therefore) the accident?

Okay, my hunch is that people will say that “Yes, I am culpable”, but… I’m not sure that this judgement will make much sense without invoking some sort of “ideal-type” rational actor who given the same level of intoxication would not have made the decision to drive home.

Over to you. (If you’re not too busy doing Christmas-type things.)

Leave a comment ?


  1. Free will is an illusion. God planned everything in the beginning. Ban cars. 👿

  2. Unfortunately you’ve posited an “ideal-type” IRrational actor.

    That being said, my partner must be considered at least partially culpable as it must have been clear at the point that the keys were handed over that I was (a) in no fit state to drive, and (b) suffering impaired judgement.

    On the other hand, if you’ve ever been in such a state, you would know that you are perfectly capable of rational thought. The real problem that leads to people drink-driving is impulsivity. So, if I was being handed keys to my car, with no imminent need or desire to go home, and having gone to some trouble previously to avoid such temptation, then I’d have no trouble in handing the keys back to my partner, or to a responsible friend.

    So, yes, I would consider myself culpable.

  3. No Mark, the problem is that the only thing that can stop a bad drink-driver from running over children is a good drink-driver.

  4. It seems to me that once you make the decision to get drunk, you accept all the responsibilities that go with this immature and childish act.

    Every animal that can get high, does so, but we rational animals have the ability to choose.

    You obviously have more than a modicum of intelligence, and you know right from wrong. Your decision to abuse drugs of any kind is not rational, it is a sophomoric excuse for poor choices, and you should be held fully accountable.

    I drink, and I take medications that impair my reaction times. I would never think of taking out a 3000 lb hunk of steel and plastic on the road,endangering the public.

    On the rare occasions where I actually go to a party, I limit myself to one or two drinks during the evening, and fill in the spaces with diet ginger ale.

    I don’t like drunks, they paw at each other and become totally inappropriate, oftentimes ending up together, and regretting it afterwards.

    Somethings cannot be forgotten, nor can the hurt done to a spouse, fellow employee, or an innocent bystander.

    Maybe I am being too hard on this topic. Think I will finish off the evening with a good bourbon, before my blazing fireplace……

  5. Yes, both the actor and his partner are culpable. However, having previously planned not to drive and evidenced an awareness of what the real risks of impairment were, I’d say the actor is even more culpable than if he’d driven the car to the party himself. He counted there was a possibility of impaired driving and then disregarded his own counsel. Was his judgment impaired? Surely. But he is still responsible even though he had the bad moral luck of a partner borrowing his car. I can’t help but think of this little gem from Homer Simpson: “I’m in no condition to drive…wait! I shouldn’t listen to myself, I’m drunk!”

  6. So are we saying that impaired judgement, entered into deliberately, is in and of itself morally problematic (with the thought being that this is the case because it necessarily comes with risks)?

    I’m not sure it’s possible to argue that there was something peculiarly risky about our driver’s case, because actually that particular circumstance was pretty unlikely (it doesn’t seem they were peculiarly casual about the risk).

  7. I don’t think that the person should be to blame at all. It seems like a textbook case of ‘moral luck’ (discussed by Nagel and Williams). Most of the time good intentions lead to good outcomes, but occasionally something out of the ordinary happens and something bad will happen instead. This is just an unfortunate fact of life. It does not mean that the whole method of deciding upon a course of action needs to be reworked. The person in the scenario had no reason to believe that they would be driving that evening and they made their decision to drink based on a rational judgement that would (in all but exceptional circumstances) be a very good rational judgement.

    It’s unfortunate that something terrible happened, but i’m reluctant to ‘blame’ anyone. If anyone is to blame it’s probably the friends that witnessed the drunkard attempt to drive away and allowed it to happen.

  8. I agree with Andrew to a limited extent. The actual consequences are irrelevant to determining the culpability of the actor. What matters is the state of mind of person when they got into the car.

    Clearly being drunk impairs an individual’s ability to reason. However, as long as it were still foreseeable to the actor that their decision to drive would create an unreasonable risk to others then they are culpable as soon as they decide to get behind the wheel.

    I can imagine circumstances where a drunk driver could be more culpable e.g. driving through a crowded street as opposed to an apparently deserted one. But that’s as far as they foresee that they’ll be creating an even more unreasonable risk to others.

    If someone gets behind the wheel in a state of drunken automatism then I do not see how there could be any culpability since they have no awareness of what they’re doing. That is unless they somehow planned to get to such a state knowing that they would end up driving.

    In any event the best rule is don’t drive your car to the Christmas party if you’re going to have more than a couple of drinks there.

  9. How (when sober) can x judge drink-driving to be a (morally) ‘significant wrong’ but (when sober) consistently think that she was *not* morally culpable for having driven whilst under the influence?

    Can there be cases where a ‘system fails’ and something is reasonably thought of as a (morally) significant wrong but one for which nobody is individually morally culpable? And would x be able to reasonably think this is a case like that?

    [Deciding whether the partner (y) is morally culpable seems to depend on factors left unstipulated – did y know why x left the keys or otherwise have good reason to think the drunken x might choose to drive?].

    I can see how x might think that for an agent to make a sober decision to drink then drive home later is a ‘significant wrong’ or that not taking efforts to avoid the risk of impulsively deciding whilst drunk to drink-drive is such a wrong but that impulsively deciding, whilst drunk, to drink-drive is not.

    In that case she doesn’t really view drink-driving (regardless of outcome) as a significant wrong as such though.

  10. @Jim

    How (when sober) can x judge drink-driving to be a (morally) ‘significant wrong’ but (when sober) consistently think that she was *not* morally culpable for having driven whilst under the influence?

    I don’t think there’s a problem here in principle. For example, you get drunk, somebody turns up with a large gun, points it at you, tells you to drive to a bank robbery, else he’s going to execute you and all your children.

    Hard to think that you’d be morally culpable in this situation for your drink driving.

  11. Hi Jeremy,

    No, I don’t think you’d be morally culpable for drink-driving in that situation but you also wouldn’t be committing a significant wrong.

    [Some might think it works the other way too – whilst under the influence’ you drive for very good reason (to get a friend to hospital when there’s no other option) so aren’t doing a significant wrong but you are morally culpable for the accident on the way.]

    I wasn’t really trying to affirm there was an inconsistency, just thinking out loud about how moral culpability for an act and wrongness of an act might not always connect up.

  12. moral culpability for an act and wrongness of an act might not always connect up.

    That’s a very interesting question. I tend to think of it in terms of historical wrongs such as slavery (i.e., in the Ancient World), where I don’t think it is particularly counter-intuitive to suppose that people were not culpable, although it was clearly wrong.

  13. Could someone explain a bit more fully the difference between “commiting wrong” and “being morally culpable”?

    Thank you.

  14. “[…] impaired judgement, entered into deliberately, is in and of itself morally problematic […]”
    That is the Buddhist view of the matter, I believe. There is a specific precept (#4) that warns against using intoxicants, and there are stories about how violation of this may lead to the violation of the other precepts.
    The partner in your story should have known better too.

  15. I have been to more office Christmas parties than I care to remember. All of them loathsome experiences. Drunkenness ruled, gluttony, lechery, and downright stupidity. I saw what were normally decent intelligent people turned to morons. I drove my car to the parties and from them with no more than one alcoholic drink inside me. As a senior member of the staff I was responsible for the safety and well being of my subordinates. At times this varied from seeing them safely off the premises to giving lifts home to young females who were no longer responsible for their own safety, and where it existed virginity. My car was one time tarnished with vomit. I have never understood why one has to poison oneself with alcohol to enjoy oneself. I do not think I was unapproachable nor in good humour at the above mentioned parties I do not recollect any complaints in that direction and was certainly never regarded as Straightlaced. Shortly after leaving the Company I learned that further Christmas parties were sensibly banned. There were many good reasons for so doing. I additionally saw much drunkenness in the Army. People becoming ill disciplined, unruly, pugnacious actually rolling on the ground in their own vomit. Again it often fell to me to somehow get such people safely to bed and out of mischief. That was in fact easier than bringing charges against them.
    So the man who knocked down the child. Well certainly legally culpable, morally, yes I think. He intended to intoxicate himself with alcohol but sensibly took precautions not to drive. Were I defending this man for his actions I can presently see no way of pleading that he was NOT morally culpable surely so to do would make a nonsense of all we understand by moral behaviour i.e. you can get drunk and get away with anything, even murder. Yes his good intentions were forestalled by a thoughtless partner who must surely bear some responsibility. The fact he could drive at all and chose so to do, must indicate he still had some ability to make judgements. Whilst we continue to look upon public drunkenness as a reason for excuse, funny, and acceptable, harmless and a sign of being a “Big I am” these problems will continue. In fact damaging the brain with excess of alcohol is generally harmful to oneself, and others. It is a pity it cannot be regarded in the same way as tobacco smoking has become.

  16. Scenario 2: Instead of driving home, you have sex with your coworker. Your sober self would not have done so, and would have considered it a moral wrong to do so (perhaps because you have a partner). Had your sober self been permitted to make this decision, you would not have had sex with this coworker.

    Scenario 3: The same, except your coworker is similarly intoxicated, and your coworker’s sober self regards sex with you similarly.

    For myself, the question isn’t that hard, in a weird kind of way. I don’t care much about “just desserts” in the usual sense. Would blaming (and presumably punishing, whether legally or through social onus) you influence future sober selves of you and of others to take what steps they can to avoid these incidents? Is your suffering in the process worth it? Are there any externalities this analysis is missing?

    I’m more and more growing to think that social opprobrium is necessary for the operation of a worthwhile society, BUT, that actually believing in the premises on which social opprobrium is based is counter productive to good moral reasoning.

  17. @Patrick – Yes, that’s the connection to issues of consent.

  18. Jeremy.

    What you say about slavery has some plausibility though I can also see why somebody might prefer to restrict themselves to saying it was bad.

    It seems interesting to wonder what your drink-driver needs to hold in order to think her driving was a significant wrong but one she (and nobody else) was culpable for – it seems useful to think about what talk of (moral) wrongness and assignation of ‘moral culpability’ commits one to and how these things might come apart. And I think your thought experiment invites thought about that (as well as reports regarding intuitions).

    Hi Amos,

    The difference between “committing wrong” and “being morally culpable” is amongst the things I’m pondering about and I think you’re right to wonder about it too…

  19. @Jim – Sure, it’s a complex question (because, of course, the notion of moral wrongness seems to involve the idea of culpability).

    The issue is raised by my thought experiment. But actually, I really only meant that all other things being equal our driver would judge drink driving to be a significant wrong. I’m not saying that they would make the judgement that drink driving is necessarily a moral wrong (so I’m not ruling out the possibility that they would think not only are they not culpable in the situation I describe, but also that they’ve done nothing wrong).

  20. A very similar situation recently happened in a far-flung region of a northern vastness. A Member of the House spoke at a race-based meeting of some constituents. In brief, he queried the need for more stringent regulations on driving under the influence. At the meeting he bought one beer. Early next morning he was stopped by some constabulls; he refused to take the breath-test; and has been put up on charges. In the meanwhile he has lost his seat in the government cockup.

    I suss after his speech womeone fed the Member beer after beer while another womeone knew someone who knew someone at the local constabulary. They were in wait for poor old Peter.

    Do you suppose that Peter will claim innocence on grounds that his beer-buyer is culpable? Mygawd, Aesop couldn’t make this stuff up but shit happens, eh?

  21. I’m not ruling out the possibility that they would think not only are they not culpable in the situation I describe, but also that they’ve done nothing wrong.


    Yes that would have been the charitable way to interpret you. I can get stuck on details and go off on tangents without actually meaning to be uncharitable.

    I’m initially inclined to think your drunk-driver needs to think there was no moral wrong in this case in order to think there was no moral culpability (though in other situations perhaps moral wrongness and moral culpability might exist without the other). But it would be interesting to see arguments that deny the culpability but maintain the wrongness (or vice versa).

    Interesting thought experiment in any case.

  22. Pretty much the same, but I make a distinction.

    If I choose to get drunk and kill someone, I commit a wrong. I am clearly wrong, it is a primary wrong.

    If I convince someone else to do the same, I am still clearly wrong, and certainly share in the guilt.

    In both cases, you are morally culpable. The term is generally found in moral theology, or books on moral behavior.

  23. Could someone explain a bit more fully the difference between “committing wrong” and “being morally culpable”?

    I’m still pondering about this Amos…

    Committing moral wrong seems to require an agent doing a wrong thing and, prima facie, this seems to need an agent who is morally culpable/responsible for that wrong.

    But being morally wronged perhaps doesn’t require a morally culpable individual ‘wrong-doer’ only a person (or other bearer of rights) at the receiving end of harm and (in order that it’s not mere misfortune) some amount of regrettable human (in)action – a failing in ‘the system’ perhaps with no individual being guilty of committing a moral wrong.

    So perhaps an event can be a significant (moral) wrong without any individual committing a moral wrong and being culpable (responsible) for it.

    It might also seem to some that there can be no moral wrongness – only harm – but still moral culpability. Some might say you weren’t committing wrong by driving under the influence if, say, there’s a life-threatening medical emergency situation and there’s no other option but letting somebody die. That would mean drink-driving is only a prima facie wrong (as rule it’s wrong to drive whilst drunk but there are exceptions).

    But it seems one might hold all this but think that if there’s a fatal accident on the way the driver is morally culpable for it. You knew the risks and decided to take them and though you’re actions weren’t morally wrong if you plough into a group of schoolchildren on the way to the hospital you ought to be punished.

    (That said, moral luck has already been mentioned upstream and one might consider the possibility of moral tragedy – whether the well-intending but drunk person had or had not attempted to get the dying man to hospital what he did would have been morally wrong,)

    I doubt this helps.

  24. Is there anything such as luck? Sounds superstitious, like reading the horoscopes, or seeing a palm reader, or walking under a ladder.

    It might be interesting to see where philosophy fits in with this.

  25. Tim,

    I don’t think we need to be spooky realists about ‘luck’ to give the notion of ‘moral luck’ some plausibility or to at least to see as present in actual everyday moral practice. We just need there to circumstances outside an agent’s control and the habit of judging on the basis of things partly outside an agent’s full control.

    If we judge a murderer as morally worse than an unsuccessful would-be murderer then we’ve signed up to the idea of moral luck.

    The same goes if we harshly judge an agent who may have led a very different – admirable- life under a different situation and who did not choose their situation. And if we judge somebody for the character traits (and the acts that follow from then) it seems we’re judging them for things outside their full control too.

    Here, spooky free-will raises its superstitious head of course.

  26. It seems to me that if someone is wronged, then someone wronged them and that the person who wronged them is morally culpable.

    Let’s say that my girl-friend, M, was wronged by me 25 years ago without my intending to, without my being aware that I was wronging her, then I committed a wrong and I am morally culpable of the wrong I did, because I am responsible for being aware of whether I wrong people or not.

    Now, the thing about the Greeks wronging their slaves is that we sense (or at least I sense) that the Greek should have been aware that they were wronging their slaves and hence, are morally culpable for wronging their slaves.

    Aristotle’s defense of slavery in the Politics is totally lame and unworthy of Aristotle. Plato does not include slavery in his Republic; I’ve never made it far enough into the Laws to know if slavery is there. Plato, whose sense of justice is less conventionally determined than Aristotle, has a weak version of women’s rights in the Republic too.

    So I get the idea that some Greeks or some Athenians at least sense that slavery is wrong, just as Plato senses that women are the equal of men.

    And if some Greeks sensed that slavery was wrong or least felt very uneasy about rationalizing slavery in the lame way that Aristotle does, then the Greeks are morally culpable for slavery.

    For example, I don’t think that slavery under the Pharoahs was wrong, simply because I doubt that anybody in ancient Egypt sensed that it was.
    The issue of the wrongness of slavery under the Pharoahs does not arise for me.

    Would anyone worry about whether slavery in some paleolithic civilization is wrong?

  27. I see the truth of some of what you say.

    However, culpability is a matter of degree, not a mere black and white issue.

    I would further differentiate between objective and subjective culpability.

    The difference is that since you did not know you had been morally culpable for a poor decision, you may have a very slight objective culpability (possibly no subjective culpability for the act). You will see why I differentiate between the act and decision to do the act shortly. However, that act of yous is almost tantamount to a mistake, although not quite. Your culpability mostly resides in your decision to make a poor decision, not in getting your girlfriend pregnant, or giving her an std, for example.

    If you were aware of your faux pas, and chose to run from your responsibility, then you would be culpable of subjective culpability to a very high degree, since you were aware, and consented. to the behavior.

    There are degrees of responsibility, and your consent and knowledge of the wrong is essential to the amount of culpability.

    You even have an amount of culpability for the knowledge of what wrong you are choosing to do.

    If you should have known better, were intelligent at least minimally, you have a corresponding responsibility to find out what was wrong with what you were doing. So you could have some culpability for refusing to find out about what you were about to do.

    After all, humans are more than two dogs at a fire hydrant.

    Many wrongs are severe in the objective sense, like the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, civilian Centers. The military participants (pilots, flight crew, generals carrying out orders lawfully given) were not nearly as responsible or culpable, as were the decision-makers, who would have had large amounts of subjective culpability by choosing to destroy civilians instead of focusing on military targets.

    The entire history of mankind used to be replete with slavery, it was an accepted custom, and not viewed as wrong. All civilizations did it, and it was an acceptable thing to do. When people understood that it was wrong, they instituted a middle-of-the-road slavery called serfdom.

    Nowadays, banks and mortgage companies have us in virtual slavery, through usurious interest rates.

    Taking the lead of Augustine of Hippo, (St. Augustine, Doctor of the Church), who tells us to never expect perfection in our leaders. ALL of us will fall short, ever since the Garden. That thought helped me deal with Bill Clinton, several years ago.

  28. J, while reasoning about this case might involve comparison to some idealized rational actor, I don’t think this case invokes the bad kind of idealized rational actor. I would need to hear more about what you think makes for a good or bad “ideal-type rational actor” before I could comment.

  29. @Ben – I think my worry with the ideal rational actor thing is that it will turn out to be the case by definition that the judgement of such an actor cannot be impaired so that they’d make the same decision as my driver. I guess I’m not sure how useful such a “benchmark” would be in terms of shedding light on the moral complexity of this case (though I can’t say I had given it any thought until yesterday while sitting in Second Cup!).

  30. Given that getting drunk generally increases the risk of bad or regrettable acts I can see why some might want to hold the agent who knows that but still sets out with the intention of (possibly) getting drunk morally culpable for any unforeseeable harm they cause whilst in that state.

    The actual circumstance were unlikely, reasonably unforeseen and the sober agent took all reasonable steps (bar not drinking) to avoid ending up making that particular bad decision whilst ‘judgmentally-impaired’. But, they chose, in sobriety, to increase the risk that they would do *something* regrettable – and they seemed aware that they personally might be inclined to do *something* bad whilst drunk – even though they could not have foreseen that they would end up being in a position to do that particular act.

    I’m not personally inclined to think that impaired judgement, entered into deliberately, is, in and of itself immoral – to me it just seems a bit ‘other-worldly’ to judge people harshly for getting drunk.

    But I can understand why some might think particular agents should ‘know better’ than to set out with the intention of (possibly) getting drunk knowing there’s a risk they personally might do *something* bad in an impulsive moment of drunken madness.

  31. If you foresee the real possibility that in a moment of alcoholic induced madness you’d have sex with somebody you shouldn’t if you only have the opportunity is it enough to take every reasonable precaution to avoid having the opportunity to avoid moral culpability for doing so?

    Are you morally culpable for having illicit sex whilst drunk in the unlikely and unforeseeable circumstance that your very drunk, lustful and married ex-partner turns up late on at the bachelor party to which you’d intentionally only invited friends of a gender you don’t feel attracted to?

  32. @Jim – It’s the second of those scenarios that I’m particularly interested in; namely, if you’ve got drunk in a situation where the possibility of a sexual encounter is genuinely very low, if you’re sufficiently intoxicated so that you cannot properly judge whether another person is too intoxicated to give genuine consent, if you’ve managed to get involved in an unexpected drunken embrace with the other drunk person…

    I’m sure you can figure out how it plays out, etc…

  33. I’m slow but sometimes I catch on in the end 😛

  34. J, I don’t think we need to appeal to any idealized rational actor. When I decide to temporarily and reversibly impair my own judgment, I — imperfect and non-idealized me — take responsibility for the act of turning into an impaired version of myself.

    If I understand what’s going on here, the puzzle is more like this. Intuitively, I do think that I (sober me) am responsible for the actions of my non-rational impaired self. It would be rational to feel guilty for the act of my impaired self. However, technically, since drunk me is the one who did the deed, then if we think that you have to take responsibility only for what you have done, sober me should not be held responsible for the actions of drunk me. That’s not a difference between the ideal and the real, but between the normal and the drunk. Is that right?

    Anyway, supposing I got that right, here would be my response. (Cursor over and select the text to reveal.) I think there is potentially an ambiguity which is making things difficult, here. So let me make a distinction between two kinds of culpability (or responsibility for wrongs), which I’ll call “private” and “public” responsibility. Private culpability involves internal recognition of the wrong done, the verdict of the rational conscience, typically manifesting in feelings of guilt in connection to these wrongs. Public culpability involves a justifiable attribution of wrongdoing to an agent. If children, non-human animals, the impaired, and the insane perform terrible acts, and they may not be privately responsible for what they do, but they may be held publicly responsible. The distinctive manifestation of being held publicly culpable is a sense of alienation, of being distrusted, or Othered. When a person is both privately and publicly culpable, the typical manifestation is shame.

    Armed with that distinction, there are three reasons which might cause us to think that we are culpable in this situation.

    1. It is unlikely that there is any deep difference between Sober Me and Drunk Me. Sober Me and Drunk Me are tied by way of sharing the same body, after all. That’s not nothing.
    2. Even if there were a deep metaphysical difference between Sober Me and Drunk Me, there is no doubt that I am privately responsible for becoming reversibly and voluntarily impaired. The fact is, I was the one who chose to drink. And there is nothing in the above that stops me from being held publicly responsible for that relationship between Sober Me and Drunk Me. It is at least possible for the community to rationally adopt a defensive position and say: “starry eyed metaphysics be damned, somebody or other did the wrong thing, and that wrong thing was done by the guy who wears your skin”.
    3. Common sense morality tells us that people can be privately responsible for things that they did not do. We feel that parents are privately responsible for acts performed by their children, for example, or that bystanders are each personally responsible for calling the police when they know a crime is happening. (Perhaps common sense morality is wrong. Actually, it probably is, in some important ways; we don’t want to hold everybody strictly liable for everything all the time. But I don’t think it can be entirely wrong, and this case seems to be one of those where it looks right.)

    So those are reasons for thinking that we are culpable for the actions of our drunk double. I do not find the above three reasons entirely convincing, even when put together — they just sort of float at the surface of the issue. But I think when put together they are at least sufficient reason to believe that I am culpable in some sense or other. That is maybe enough for present purposes.

  35. The question is – in this situation are you morally culpable for driving under the influence and (therefore) the accident?

    If we are going to examine the moral worth of every decision we make in life we are going to be severely inhibited. It is pretty certain that this does not occur in fact I am sure there are some for whom moral behaviour is a closed book. That does not mean they are of necessity a bad person the judgements they make can be in the main sound and harmless they just never examine the moral worth of them.
    In a case as has been posed, we are presumably intended to suspend our day to day often careless but harmless decisions, and regard the human actions in accordance with philosophical rigour, which is not always in accordance with how we may behave on the busy shop floor of life.
    The man in question did whilst in a state of sobriety make a decision to get drunk privately and then expose himself to the public domain. At that stage he would be aware that as a drunk at large he was a danger to himself and to others, whether he drove or not, and that he would be morally culpable for his actions having its origin in the original decision to get drunk.
    Assume the man’s partner had not made the car available to him he could still have by virtue of being drunk, have been a danger. For instance because of of his drunken gait in the street, he could well have stumbled in to another person knocking them into road and path of an oncoming vehicle. Crossing the road with severe impairment of judgement he could cause a traffic pile up with consequent damage to vehicles and occupants. Falling down in a near drunken stupor he could well need emergency services which otherwise could be in attendance at a more worthy cause. He could hitch a lift back home by a sober person some cab drivers will not accept drunks. Having had the experience of drunks in my own car I can confirm driving with them does increase the possibility of an accident, not to speak of pollution of my car with vomit. So whether he knocks down the child or not he can still by virtue of being drunk in public be a danger and that he knew when he in sobriety, made the decision to get drunk. He made that decision with all the knowledge of what can happen when drunk in public. In view of the foregoing I consider him morally culpable.

  36. There should always be a place for morality to be considered, if this isn’t one of them, then we should just join the dogs, and unreasoning animals.

    Then you would be free to do whatever “floats your boat.”

    Which one of the Greek philosophers made the observation that without moral constraints, we become enslaved to our passions.

    It always seemed amazing how we as reasoning animals, are willing to make concessions and exceptions for our own bad behavior. Me too, unfortunately.

  37. Jeremy, as you may know, this sort of question has been of considerable interest to the criminal law as well as to philosophers. For reasons of public policy more than sound philosophy, UK law (and that of most other jurisdictions) has decided to impose strict liability on those who drive while over the limit; essentially, it doesn’t much matter whether you set off with the best of intentions, but found that first drink impaired your subsequent reasoning/self-control. To say otherwise would be to allow being drunk to be a defence for doing things while drunk, which would make a nonsense of that part of the law.

    What this essentially means is that the law requires us either to avoid drunkenness altogether, or to take steps to insulate ourselves from the effects of poor decision-making while drunk (leaving the car at home, or giving the car keys to a friend with strict instructions not to give them back even if asked.)

    Drunk driving, though, is a bit sui generis in that regard. For some other crimes, intoxication can indeed provide a defence; English law draws an important, though murky, distinction between crimes of ‘specific’ and ‘basic’ intent in this regard.

    An area you may find interesting is where someone is not so intoxicated as to be insensible, but intoxicated enough to have had their inhibitions lowered, to the extent that they commit a crime they would not otherwise have committed. I would recommend having a look at R v Kingston [1994] 3 WLR 519, where the Court of Appeal and the House of Lords took two very different approaches to the question of culpability in such a case. (Admittedly, the case involved involuntary intoxication, which complicates things considerably, but the discussion is still, I think, interesting.)

    If we’re talking purely about ethics, though, I may take issue with this:

    ‘The question is – in this situation are you morally culpable for driving under the influence and (therefore) the accident?’

    The latter doesn’t necessarily follow from the former. We may attribute a degree of intentionality – and therefore, culpability – to the driving, but none at all to hitting the child, which was simply an accident. Indeed, there is surely a strong moral case for treating all instances of drunk driving in the same way, regardless of whether the drunk driver (and, of course, his potential victims) is lucky or unlucky during his journey.

  38. @Don,

    ‘At that stage he would be aware that as a drunk at large he was a danger to himself and to others, whether he drove or not,’

    If I may say so, you appear to have a rather binary attitude to drinking, wherein one is either sober or rolling around giggling in one’s own vomit. In fact, there is a whole spectrum of states in between. Some of these involve being relatively in control, but perhaps too impaired safely to drive. Some involve a certain suspension of inhibitions, while still remaining reasonably co-ordinated and articulate.

    It is quite possible to be too drunk to drive without turning oneself into a sort of human bomb, blundering down the street trampling people underfoot a la Mr Hyde. The question – for both law and, I think, ethics – is whether harm to others is a reasonably foreseeable occurrence. Given the reaction times required when driving at even modest speeds, and the severity of harm that often follows from even minor misjudgments, I think it is reasonable to maintain legal and social sanctions against drunk driving. But the mere fact of being intoxicated in public does not present any risks of equivalent magnitude, either in the sense of likelihood or severity of consequences. Yes, it is possible that you may stagger into someone who in turn stumbles in front of a car. But really, is that a sufficiently common happening to render it reasonably foreseeable?

  39. Colin- in the US, public intoxication is a crime precisely because that sort of harm, in a broad sense, is foreseeable. Drunks do stupid stuff that hurts others.

    It’s not so important, but while I’m at it, the general US rule isn’t one of strict liability. We just don’t permit voluntary intoxication as a defense against the presumption that you intend the natural results of your actions unless the intoxication makes you incapable of volition actions. Is the UK literally strict liability on paper, or are you connecting the dots on the logical implications of the policy?

  40. Patrick – my understanding is that, in the USA, the legality of being drunk in public varies from state to state. Is that not so? I would also surmise that the reasoning behind such laws varies considerably, and takes account of public nuisance as well as actual hazard.

    In any event, it is surely true that the level of intoxication that would trigger a driving offence is considerably lower than that which would trigger an offence of public intoxication. Being staggering around, falling over drunk would get you picked up by the police almost anywhere (though the legal consequences thereafter may vary), but being inebriated to the extent that I envisaged above – inhibitions lowered, judgment somewhat impaired, but co-ordination still good enough to walk home in a straight line, though possibly not to drive – is surely not enough to invoke criminal consequences.

    So in Jeremy’s hypothetical example, the actor may have been unsafe to drive, and even in a state wherein his judgment was impaired, but not so far gone as to fall foul of public intoxication laws, or to present a generalised hazard to the public at large. It’s also possible that such a person could retain sufficient cognitive faculties as to be (held) responsible for any ostensibly criminal acts.

    The ban on driving over the limit is indeed strict liability in the UK (where I used to live) – q.v. Road Traffic Act 1988. For most other offences, the role of intoxication is trickier, depending a good deal on the offence in question. Here in New Zealand (where I live now), the position is that intoxication can be taken to negative mens rea, whether or not the intoxicating substance was voluntarily ingested.

  41. Here’s another situation that might complicate the picture. Imagine that instead of intending to get drunk at the party, you drove to the party intending to stay sober, but inadvertently and through no fault of your own, became intoxicated because someone else spiked the punch (presuming of course, that because of the way the punch tasted, the alcohol was perfectly disguised and you could not have known you were getting drunk while it happened). If you then drove home and killed the same child, would you be responsible?

    I think that this sort of question sheds some light on whether those who think that our hypothetical partygoer committed a moral wrong think that the wrong came from drinking in the first place or whether it was the decision they made once they were drunk.

  42. Jacob A.

    I’d say that if a person was impaired without her knowledge and the nature of the impairment was such that the person did not realize it, then the person would not be morally accountable. After all, the person would have no reason to think that they presented any danger to others and hence could not be faulted for acting as they would if they were, in fact, not impaired.

    To use an analogy, if I knew I had a deadly communicable disease and acted to expose people, then I would be doing wrong. If I was injected with the disease when I thought I was getting a tetanus shot and had no idea at all I was infected, then my going about my usual business would be not be morally wrong. I would have no reason to believe that I should act otherwise.

    Naturally, if I became aware of my impairment or my diseased state, I would be morally responsible for harms that I did stemming from these states (assuming I could act in a way to prevent the harm from occurring). That is, once I know, then I become accountable for the relevant actions.

  43. Re Colin Cavaghan Dec 27th
    Basically I am in agreement with what you say in so far as it applies to the way we generally live our lives, and drunkenness is never construed in, as you say, a binary way. For this reason I pointed out in my opening words that I would suspend our every day decisions and opinions and try to develop an argument in isolation to these. This entailed taking the line that a person is either drunk or not drunk, for the simple fact that we have been asked by Jeremy whether or not there is moral culpability. So one is culpable or not culpable, and one is drunk or not drunk, there are no degrees of culpability, and none of drunkenness To try to develop an argument which embraces all the degrees of drunkenness would be so far as I can see very difficult.
    It seemed to me that to try to argue that the man was not culpable and maybe just a victim of circumstance would be at once very difficult and in itself in the light of all the circumstances, not a moral line to take. Intuitively for what that is worth, I also felt, he was morally culpable.
    Thus sober, he decided to get drunk, therefore all actions taken by him whatever they might have been whilst under the influence of alcohol he was answerable for. Coming back to the real world were we to try to predict all that may befall us after a drink or, say, anything else we may do, or utter,ife would be intolerable, which is why we tend to tolerate our own and others’ shortcomings. However the fact remains he decided to get drunk, things did not quite turn out as he had planned, which was not his fault, but nevertheless he was involved in a drunk driving accident which was presumably illegal, and in my opinion, also invoked moral culpability on his head.

  44. ‘Thus sober, he decided to get drunk, therefore all actions taken by him whatever they might have been whilst under the influence of alcohol he was answerable for.’

    I have some sympathy for that view. Certainly, I hate to hear people who routinely use drunkenness as an excuse for dreadful behaviour; if you know or strongly suspect that you will behave very badly when drunk … don’t get drunk.

    But in Jeremy’s example, I had taken anticipatory steps to ensure that my impaired judgment while drunk didn’t lead me into dangerous conduct. I’d left my car at home. What happens thereafter – my partner bringing the car to the office party, and handing me the keys – strikes me as beyond the realms of reasonable foreseeability (assuming, of course, that she isn’t in the habit of so doing.) IMO, that, at very least, substantially mitigates my culpability for the drunk driving.

  45. I think Colin’s point is the key here. It’s whether the “defensive” anticipatory steps are reasonably construed as being sufficient given that (a) intoxication in and of itself is not a wrong (arguably); (b) intoxication can lead a person into dangerous conduct.

    So, for example, I don’t accept Mike’s point above the simply being aware that one is in an impaired state makes a person accountable. Taking his deadly disease analogy, I’d want to argue that if the disease also messed up a person’s thinking patterns, then it’s entirely possible they’d be (a) aware they had the disease; and (b) not morally responsible for the actions they took while suffering from its effects.

  46. The accident was a result of being drunk. The person in question was wise enough to take precautions against one contingency which might arise, and one could hardly expect him to do the impossible, that is, cover all contingencies which may arise whilst drunk. However assuming that the person in question was of a reasoning nature one could ask him whilst in his state of sobriety if he is prepared to accept moral culpability arising from any event initiated by himself when drunk e.g. given the opportunity, a decision to drive when drunk. I suspect his reply would be in the affirmative. One might, assuming the circumstances, ask oneself the same question, and perhaps with some interest consider one’s reply.

  47. I’m on board with (a) and I think (b) is insufficient to make drunkenness an indulgence too hazardous to others to be morally permissible generally (though that may be true for some individuals on account of their past behaviour).

    Awareness of the general fact that intoxication increases the probability of a person engaging in conduct that is harmful to others might be thought to recommend certain precautions – taking anticipatory steps to avoid opportunity to endanger others certainly seems both prudent and laudable on the part of x. But I wonder whether the “defensive” anticipatory steps are *necessary* to avoid moral culpability.

    If y, drunk or sober, thinks drink-driving a significant wrong, regularly drives to the pub to get drunk and consistently gets a taxi home but in an ‘out of character’ (for her drunken self) impulsive ‘moment of madness’ drives home one night I don’t know that her case is obviously different in a morally significant way to that in the thought experiment. I can see how having the impulsive desire to drive whilst drunk could be as subjectively unforeseeable to sober y as having the opportunity to do so was to sober x.

    The obvious difference between the two cases is that in the case of x driving whilst drunk is genuinely very improbable (due to improbability of opportunity) whilst objectively the case of y is not such a very improbable type of event. But if we are going to find y more blameworthy than x it seems we have to rest not just on statistical probability of outcome but on some notion of what they ‘ought’ to have known and inferred whilst sober i.e. that drunk people generally have an increased risk of doing something impulsive and ‘out of character’ that harms, or risks harm, to others and that they – despite past personal experience – are at risk of doing so.

    This is defensible but then, it seems to me, that it is also defensible to say that an agent can only be expected to take precautions against what they actually foresee themselves as capable of doing. I don’t think, on the basis of knowing that there’s a link between drunkenness and domestic violence, that an experienced agent should be thought obliged to make efforts to avoid the possibility of encountering their partner whilst drunk. And I can see y, not unreasonably, as viewing driving whilst drunk as no more likely in their own case than assaulting their partner.

    In any case, if x is not to be faulted for getting in the drunken state and if that state is comparable to that of somebody suffering a disease or injury where we would naturally be inclined to say they weren’t responsible for their actions, it seem to follow that we should not regard x as morally culpable for their drink-driving (the actual outcome of their driving doesn’t seem to me to be morally pertinent regardless). I think one can buttress that conclusion if x as viewed as not setting out intending or foreseeing that they would get *that* incapable, and by recognising tht as somebody drinks they become increasingly less responsible for their decisions to drink more and what they do in their increasingly intoxicated state.

  48. Jim:

    Maybe I’m missing something here, but I think that I am responsible (I don’t like the phrase
    “morally culpable”) for knowing what I will do when I’m drunk or angry or very tired or

    That’s what being an adult is about: knowing myself and my repertory of habits and reactions.

    Now, I suppose you can imagine a thought experiment where a UFO from Mars appears and offers me a billion dollars if I stand on my head while singing Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, but outside of fantastic imagined situations, I am responsible for knowing how I react.

    If I don’t know, then I am responsible for spending more time getting to know myself, as the Delphic Oracle suggests.

    As I said above, I’m not at all sure what the phrase “morally culpable” means and I never use it to understand myself and the world I live in, but I do think in terms of responsibility.

    I think that the adult person who gets drunk is responsible for getting drunk and for dealing with the possible real life situations which may arise, such as their partner handing them the car keys.

    Another example: while it is extremely improbable that I will be assaulted and robbed while walking home drunk on any given night, I am responsible for anticipating that I may be assaulted and robbed and for avoiding situations and certain street corners, where my chances of being robbed are increased, as well as, say, carrying less cash with me, not taking my expensive notebook with me, etc.

  49. Re Swallerstein. Dec.

  50. Hi Amos (& Don)

    If somebody’s missing something it will most likely be me (:

    Beyond the claim that (1) intoxication, in and of itself, is not a wrong and the claim that (2) drunkenness is not an indulgence too hazardous to others to be morally impermissible in general, claims I personally find plausible but which I think Don might (not unreasonably) dispute, I am very much in the realm of speculation about the connection between (what to me are) plausible premises and counter-intuitive conclusions rather than assertion as to what is or is not wrong.

    In the final paragraph, I’m thinking that “x is not to be faulted for getting in the drunken state” follows from (1) and (2). And I’m thinking if that drunken state is sufficiently extreme such that drunken x has no capacity to make responsible judgements then it seems to follow that we should not regard x as morally responsible for driving whilst drunk. If that’s an informally ‘valid’ form of reasoning then Don may well take this as an informal reductio – the conclusion being so absurd as to show the premises must be faulty (of course if the reasoning is wrong – and mine usually is – then I’d be happy to see it spelt out where I’ve gone wrong).

    The most part of what I was thinking about was whether the “defensive” anticipatory steps are *necessary* to avoid moral responsibility in Jeremy’s scenario *assuming it can be avoided* and whether, and why, the acts of x any y are not morally equivalent. Don could hold them to be equivalent but equally wrong or different in degree but both wrong. What interests me is not to argue that they are equivalent and that neither is morally wrong but to wonder whether and why they ought not to be thought of as morally equivalent. I think one can plausibly argue that they are not equivalent but I don’t think it’s obvious that they are not.

    I’ll try to reply more directly to you Amos shortly.

  51. Hi Amos,

    I don’t think you are morally responsible for being robbed if you fail to avoid certain situations and street corners – that’s only a matter of prudence. Being prudent might be viewed as ethically virtuous but I don’t know that we would want to put moral blame on the victims of crime who would have avoided or mitigated harm to themselves had they only been more prudent. So, I don’t know that your last example is exactly to the point.

    “I think that I am responsible …for knowing what I will do when I’m drunk… That’s what being an adult is about: knowing myself and my repertory of habits and reactions… outside of fantastic imagined situations, I am responsible for knowing how I [will] react. If I don’t know, then I am responsible for spending more time getting to know myself”

    Holding that seems broadly consistent with holding that y could not be expected to foresee that they personally would have the desire to drive after drinking. It seems y might have fulfilled the responsibility to know what they are likely to do, in so far as that is possible, but still (like sober people do) end up doing something subjectively unforeseeable and entirely out of character. I don’t think we can *know* what we would do even in non-fantastic imagined situations – we often surprise ourselves by acting far better or far worse than we would have hoped.

    “I think that the adult person who gets drunk is responsible for getting drunk and for dealing with the possible real life situations which may arise…”

    I certainly think that’s the intuitive position.

    To some extent perhaps we can extend some kind of responsibility without assigning moral blame. I think I can consistently want x to be held liable for criminal punishment for the drink-driving (for the purposes of deterrence) but still refrain from assigning moral blame upon her as such.

    I would be inclined to want an agent to retain civil liability to compensate for any actual harms caused by her actions whilst drunk – whether that’s really consistent with not holding an agent morally responsible (in anything but an error-theorist account where there is no ‘moral’ responsibility at all) I don’t know.

    A lot depends on just what we mean by moral responsibility/culpability. And, of course, whether one thinks such talk is actually helpful, this being a point I’m rather unsure about.

  52. Jim:

    I don’t draw a line between “moral” responsibility and responsibility, so I just think that I am responsible for being prudent in situations where I could be robbed.

    However, I think that my big difference with you is in your premise that intoxication (being drunk) is morally permissible.

    I would not speak of “moral permissibility” myself, but I’m going to accept your vocabulary to continue with the conversation.

    I think that what is ok is drinking the appropriate amount for the situation which I face and live in.

    Let’s say I’m the only doctor in an isolated country town and very infrequently, say, once every 5 or 10 years, I face a life or death medical emergency in which in order to save lives I have to react before I can sober up if drunk.

    I (as that doctor) will never drink more than a cup or two, because of the possibility, however unlikely, that I will have to deal with said emergency.

    When my son lived with me and his mother was out of the country, he felt abandoned and went through a tough time. During that period, while I could drink more than a cup or two, I could not get totally drunk, because I always had to be attentive to my son’s moods and needs.

    Even now, there are people who depend on me (psychologically) and I always have to be able to respond fairly rapidly and rationally to their needs, which means that I avoid extreme states of intoxication.

    Now, if I had a partner who was likely to hand me the car keys whether I was drunk or not, I am responsible for knowing that they do things like that and therefore, for moderating my alcohol consumption.

    We chose our partners and we should chose them with our eyes open. If we don’t chose them with our eyes open, we are responsible for closing our eyes and in any case, our eyes will be opened, whether we like it or not, sooner or later.

  53. I don’t know about moral vocabulary either but …

    There may well be situations where it would be irresponsible to get drunk, as you suggest, but I think you need to argue something stronger, namely, that getting drunk is always irresponsible to dispute my premise which is better understood as the claim that it’s not always wrong to get drunk.

    I think it’s perfectly possible to plausibly argue for that.

    What I’m not at all convinced about is the idea that I have a responsibility to foresee whether my partner would ever find cause to hand me the car keys whilst I’m drunk or not.

  54. Jim:

    I myself am trying to understand responsibility talk.

    I’m trying out an extreme interpretation of what I take to be Sartre’s position about responsibility, as expressed in Being and Nothingness.

    Sartre, as you know, planned to write a book on ethics, but never did, yet I can think of few who are more ethically obsessed and hard on themselves than Sartre is.

    I take Sartre’s position to be that I am responsible (he does not differentiate between ethical and non-ethical responsibility) for everything in my life, except biological datum
    (facticity) and the social-historical world (situation).

    There are no excuses, Sartre says.

    I think that comes from the Stoics in some way.

    I’m simply trying out Sartre’s position, as I understand it, since I am far from an expert on Sartre.

    By the way, in response to your previous comment, I for one am a very boring and foreseeable person in my behavior. It’s been years since I’ve done anything surprising, although I constantly surprise myself as to my changing tastes and opinions.

  55. It seems to me that in private one can do almost anything one desires provided it does not leak out into the public domain. You can do these things with others similarly minded, if you wish, provided it remains private. I see no reason why one cannot get as drunk as they wish in private, engage in orgies, or perform Satanic rights. Moral culpability becomes apparent and a problem if and when, there is a leak from the private to the public. The question now occurs to me is there anything we can do in private and remains thus contained, which is immoral?
    Swallerstein has recently brought up the views of Sartre in these discussions. I had completely forgotten him but so far as I remember he presents an aspect which is well worth considering. I found him quite persuading some years ago and must refresh my memory.

  56. Hello Don Bird:

    As I said above, I’m not a Sartre scholar and so I may be reading my own ideas into him, but anyway…..

    Sartre says there are no excuses.

    That is, I am responsible for my life, with the exception of my facticity (my body, my genes, the laws of physics, etc.) and my situation (when I was born, in what society, the social situation, etc.).

    However, I am responsible for how I chose to live or face my facticity and my situation and in that sense, there are no excuses.

    For example, tonight is New Years Eve and there are lots of celebrations with alcohol. I did not chose that, but I can chose whether to celebrate, whether to drink, how much to drink if I do, with whom to celebrate.

    I cannot claim that I drink too much because my friends do, since I chose my friends and I can say “no”.

    Claiming that saying “no” signifies that I will be seen as “boring” or “square” is no excuse either, since I am responsible for being aware of the possible effects of my actions and facing them.

    Claiming that my situation or my facticity force me or lead me to drink when I chose to drink is what Sartre calls “bad faith”, that is, blaming my facticity or my situation when actually, I chose how to live or face my facticity and situation.

    Similarly, my facticity dictates how much alcohol makes me drunk and the facticity of the world in general determines the basic physiological effects of drinking alcohol on the human body, but I chose to drink.

    That my partner may hand me the car keys when I am drunk is my situation, but dealing with that situation or anticipating that it may occur is my responsibility.

    That I was not aware that my partner might hand me the car keys is not an excuse, since I am responsible for being aware of human nature and for knowing my partner well.

    I am not responsible for my partner handing me the car keys, but I am responsible for my behavior once they have handed me the keys.

    Knowing that my partner is the kind of person who may hand me the car keys when I am drunk and that I am the kind of person who when drunk will insist on driving if I have the car keys should lead me to drink less or to ask friends to be prepared to force me to take a taxi, whatever may occur, etc.

    Sartre does not frame the question of responsibility in conventional moral terms (good vs. evil), but he clearly does seem to think (as I do) that being lucid about one’s responsibilities and not trying to pretend that one is not responsible when one is is a virtue.

    Perhaps for Sartre it is the chief virtue.

    In any case, have a great new year.

  57. A happy new year to you too Amos & all,


  58. A great new year for you too, Jim.

  59. Thanks Amos for your trouble. Yes Bad Faith that’s the stuff.I have not read Sartre for many years not since his “Being and Nothingness” all but unhinged my simple mind. Happy new year to you and everybody else. I think I shall go and watch the festivities and fireworks on TV now.

  60. I’d come come across a short sketch for an argument by philosopher Gideon Rosen that some form of skepticism about moral responsibility is warranted. Just thought it might interest some.

    His thoughts are developed further in a published essay I haven’t yet had to time to attend to.

  61. Jim:

    The whole thing about responsibility confuses me.

    Let’s see: the educational system in Chile (where I live) is very unjust: the wealthy pay for a better education, while the poor and lower middle class get a lower quality education, thus limiting their access to good jobs and to culture, for example, to learning the critical reasoning skills that allow one to participate in conversations like this one.

    Now, it seems to me that on many levels I am responsible for the kind of society I live in.

    With reference to the educational system, I can vote for candidates who seem likely to make it more egalitarian, I can join student protesters against the unjust educational system and in favor of free quality education for everyone, I can send my children to public schools and as a parent, try to organize other parents to work for change.

    If I don’t do the above things (or others tending towards the same ends), I accept business as usual in the educational system.

    Now, do I have some kind of moral responsibility to change the educational system?

    No, I don’t think so.

    It just is the case as far as I can see that my actions or inactions regarding the educational system are a factor in changing it or it not changing and that I am responsible for that, not morally responsible, but descriptively responsible just as I am descriptively responsible for whether my kitchen is clean or not.

    Once again, I have no moral responsibility to clean my kitchen, but if it is dirty, that is my responsibility.

  62. Amos,

    In the same sense as you talk of being responsible for the state of your society or whether your kitchen is clean, I might say the wind was responsible for my fence falling down.

    That you can decide what you do in a way the wind can’t doesn’t seem to matter if all you mean to do when you talk of responsibility is to talk of causal connections.

    In order to deny that you have some kind of moral responsibility to change the educational system, it seems you must have some grasp of the notion of moral responsibility to start with.

    So, I suppose the question I’d ask is what that notion is.

  63. Jim:

    The wind can’t be responsible since it can’t be irresponsible.

    I can be irresponsible about the kitchen.

    Being responsible seems to involve the possibility of being irresponsible.

    Maybe that that is a moral notion.

    I’ll think about it and try to write more later.

  64. Hi Amos,

    Hmm, saying the wind was responsible for my fence falling down is probably a misuse of words really.

    The point, I suppose, was that it seemed all you meant by ‘responsible for’ was ‘caused by’.

    You saying “being responsible seems to involve the possibility of being irresponsible” suggests what might be (part of) the cause of the confusion -‘responsible’ can be used in different senses.

    One might say Bob was acting responsibly by driving at a modest speed through the village whilst Jack was being irresponsible when he drove at high speed down the high street – the latter was being reckless, the former was being prudent. Some kind of normativity seems to be embedded in talk of this kind as you note.

    One might also say Jack was responsible for the accident caused by his driving at high speed – this is partly a claim about causality (or presumes a claim about causality) – but for his fast driving, the accident wouldn’t have occurred. But that’s not all we’re claiming and the opposite of ‘responsible’ in this sense wouldn’t be ‘irresponsible’ but ‘not responsible’.

    If the accident involved prudent Bob and reckless Jack we’d say Bob was not responsible for the accident (although it would never have occurred but for his driving through the village so he’s causally connected to the happening of accident) and that reckless Jack was responsible for the accident. What we are doing in this case is assigning blame – saying Bob isn’t blameworthy, Jack is.

    When all we are talking about is bad or wrong acts it is okay to use ‘morally responsible’ as if it were equivalent to ‘morally culpable’ – to say Jack was morally responsible for the accident is just to say he was morally culpable – blameworthy – for it. And that’s probably how we usually use ‘morally responsible’ – to assign blame.

    In fact though an agent can be morally responsible for a good act – if he is praiseworthy for an action then he is morally responsible for an action. Suppose Bill rushes into the burning building and kicks down his neighbours’ door thereby letting the children escape. If he did this intending to save the children he is morally responsible for saving the children and deserves credit. If he didn’t know (or care) that the children were there but only did this to get into the apartment and save the wallet he’d left there then he isn’t morally responsible for saving the children – he deserves no praise – it’s only the case that he caused them to escape as a side-effect of a self-regarding act.

    (One might, I suppose, still say that Bill was responsible for the children surviving the fire without wildly misusing language but here we’d only be talking about what he happened to cause by acting as he did).

    This suggests to me that we might be as well using the phrase ‘morally culpable’ – noting that, one way in which you might be morally culpable for something bad is by acting irresponsibly i.e. by being reckless or negligent.

  65. Hello Jim,

    You’re right about “irresponsible”. Let’s just use “responsible” or “not responsible”.

    Yes, “responsible” is normative, as I use it, but not morally normative in the usual sense.

    First of all, I see no difference between “I am responsible for helping for neighbors” and “I am responsible for putting an anti-virus in my computer”.

    Both are responsibilities which I take on, given my situation, but one of them (helping my neighbors) isn’t specifically “moral”.

    The thing is that I don’t blame people for not helping others or for driving drunk or for paying private schools for their children and opposing free quality public education for lower income children. Nor do I credit people or myself for
    doing something for free quality public education.

    In general, I don’t blame others.

    At times I blame myself, but not for “moral” issues per se, but for being blind, unaware stupid or cowardly.

    I guess that you could say that I have my own ethical system in which blindness, lack of awareness, stupidity and cowardice are the worst sins (for me).

    However, I don’t see them as sins in others.

    I tend to either accept others as they are or avoid them, but I don’t blame them.

    I also don’t have any sense of moral obligation, which seems part of the normal sense of the word

    There are some obligations which I take on as an implicit or explicit contract with others and there are others which I’ve taken on with myself, but I decide which obligations I have.

    Now, you might say that my sense that I should fulfil my obligations is a moral sense, even if the obligations which I take on are not especially moral.

    That’s probably true.

  66. Do you think without a moral sense of obligation, that this allows you more “leeway” to engage in any acts that the majority of the populace finds objectionable.

    I am not saying you do, but I would like to know if you feel “free” to consider options that many others would not.

  67. Tim R. Ford

    Yes, I probably feel free to do some things that some people don’t feel free to do.

    Of course, lots of people do things that they feel are bad or wrong and then feel guilty about it later, so I’m not sure that my life is any more wrong (by conventional standards) than that of someone who believes that the 10 commandments are the moral law, but who gives in to the temptations of Satan.

    In any case, if I did at lot of bad things (in conventional terms), I’d hardly brag about it online.

  68. Hello Amos,

    I think if you say ‘there are no excuses’ and I suggest ‘there are always excuses’ we might be talking past each other.

    Like you I tend (when calm) to blame myself rather than others but I do ‘feel’ I have duties, that there are things I ought to do and that I didn’t choose all my obligations. And I do ‘feel’ what is prudent (self-regarding) is different in kind from what is ‘moral’ (concerned with others).

    I’d associate you more with ‘ethics’ than ‘morality’ – more Aristotle and virtue than Kant and laws.

    Me, I’m just perpetually confused.

    I’ll go away and think about all this some more.

  69. Well, everybody does wrong, could perhaps the real test is the initial resolve not to transgress the moral standards, even though we all fail.

    Having raised 9 children (1 wife), that it takes a lifetime to teach the morals to children, but only about ten minutes to learn the immoral.

    Now does that seem fair to you?

  70. I find moral behaviour and moral codes and all that these things entail extremely difficult to accommodate, if I do that at all in my life. I seem to know what is best to do and what is not best to do. So far as education goes as it is described in Chile I would not be bothered by rich people sending their children to the best schools, which I would do were I rich. I would be bothered if my lack of money entailed my children not getting a good education and I would take steps somehow to remedy that. The fact that children of the poor and lower middle class get lower quality education is to my mind a situation which needs urgent attention. As I am not a politician or social worker I do not have the skills to intervene personally in such a problem, (which incidentally has huge social and cultural ramifications) and to a large extent do not see it very high on my list of things which is best to do. However were I to be confronted with something I could do to remedy the situation, I would feel the onus upon me to participate. The limits of my participation would be subject to other matters in my life and I could never become involved in flogging a dead horse, unless I had a sure remedy to revive it. Do I rate as a selfish person? Probably yes, decisions I make include thoughts about my own welfare. Moral worth and moral responsibility I find difficult to take on board. Academically, I found Ethics interesting but not a patch on the Philosophy of mind and the Philosophy of science. The only ethical system which seemed to make any sense to me was Aristotle’s Virtue ethics, the virtuous man. The responsibility to keep my kitchen clean is of an entirely practical nature it will become a problem only if it becomes so polluted and disgusting that it becomes a heath hazard to others who may well break in and sanitise it, which for them could be the best thing to do notwithstanding my objections.

  71. Health Hazard not Heath Hazard forgot to preview

  72. Hello Jim (and others participating in this conversation):

    The Sartrean theory of responsibility, as I sketched it above, just doesn’t work in real life situations.

    It’s too simplistic.

    (It may work very well from the table of a café on the Rive Gauche.)

    Probably, there is no simple solution nor rule nor principle.

    Which brings us back to what Don Bird (and others) have suggested: Aristotelian virtue ethics.

  73. Hi Amos, Don et al

    Sartre’s notion of ‘responsibility’ and of us being ‘condemned to be [radically] free’ – is perhaps only fairly thought of as part of the groundwork upon which one might construct an existentialist ethics (as Sartre planned to do). So it may be that it’s not that the ideas are too simplistic but that they’re not of themselves enough to do the work you want ethically-speaking. I know he sketched out some ideas that were posthumously published as ‘Notebooks on an Ethics’ (derived from lectures I believe). I’ll see if I can track down some of it if it’s not a book you’ve read. (I haven’t read it myself but I know I’ve come across parts of it online).

    As I said, I think Aristotelian virtue ethics seems, to me, to be a better ‘fit’ with you than any of the main competing theories – certainly you’ve never come across as a prospective utilitarian or a Kantian to me. But I doubt that Aristotle will be enough for you -I suspect both Nietzsche and Sartre would play a part in any theory you found nearest to capturing as much of the truth – or what is useful – as a single ethical theory can. I doubt any one theory will prove entirely satisfying.

  74. Hello Jim:

    You have a good eye. Aristotle, Nietzsche and Sartre are my basic philosophical guides.

    Notebooks on Ethics are notes, not lectures and they are not easy going. I’ve glanced at them, but never got very far.

    However, it would be a great thing if we could look at them together (with anyone else who wants to).

    The book is in the French cultural center library here and I would go to take it out around the middle of January so that I could have it during the whole summer vacation (February), thus having more time to look at it.

    So I would be ready to begin in about 10 days or so, if you’re interested.

    I find it easier to concentrate on a physical book than I do on something online and this is a book which calls for concentration.

    There’s a bit of Heidegger, some Hegel, some Kant there, as I recall.

  75. hi Amos,

    The idea of taking a philosophy essay or some such and working through it in discussion with the likes of Don and yourself does have some appeal.

    But, realistically, trying to work through Sartre’s Notebook would be overly ambitious for me. I’ve read little Sartre and forgotten most of it. And more generally I’m quite limited in what I’m able to do in terms of serious philosophical reading, thinking and writing these days.

    My curiosity’s sufficiently piqued that I’ll have a look at some excerpts and introductory remarks on Sartre and responsibility/ethics but I really don’t think I’ll progress any further than that. I’m having a look at Stephen Priest’s ‘Basic Writings’ just now. I daresay it shouldn’t be but the book can be found here:

    In Chapter 10 ‘On Responsibility’ before presenting excerpts from Being & Nothingness and the Notebook he claims that:

    “Responsibility for Sartre includes another, crucial, dimension. In choosing for myself I am implicitly choosing for others. By joining a trade union, by joining the communist party, by getting married, by becoming a Christian, by fighting in the French resistance, by anything I do, I am implicitly prescribing the same course of action to the rest of humanity. To put it another way, all my actions are recommendations. By acting I set an example for all similarly placed others to follow. I am obliged at every instant to perform actions which are examples….

    He goes on to suggest that “Sartre emerges as a moral objectivist despite his rejection of theological premises for ethics. His moral philosophy is in many ways a humanistic transformation of Christian ethics. To take one conspicuous example, instead of being responsible before God a person is responsible before humanity. Instead of God watching our every action everything happens to each person as though the whole human race was watching what they are doing. Sartre’s humanity, like Christian humanity, is a fallen humanity, but Sartre’s Fall is a secular Fall. We are not fallen from any perfect natural state; we fall short of our own possibilities of acting freely and responsibly. To admit this freedom is to become committed (engagé).”


  76. As a determinist, I must say the man had no choice, however for the sake of arguement the fault (morally) belongs to many people, your partner for leaving you drunk with cars keys, yourself for not controlling yourself and your friends for letting you leave like that! Oh and the child for not looking when crossing the street! ahhh yes but then it is faulty parental education! oh oh and that could mean it is the childs parents fault! ergo determinism!!

  77. Hello Jim:

    I don’t see Sartre as a moral objectivist. He explicit states here (Existentialism is a Humanism) that each person choses his values.

    Now Jean Paul Sartre, the man, was a very responsible person (in the everyday sense of the phrase) and thus, advocated setting examples for others, which seems rather Kantian to me.

    However, he has no way to get from his extreme moral subjectivism to an objective ethics of responsibility, which, I imagine, is why he never completed his work on ethics.

    As a matter of fact, if each choses his values and if one choses them authentically (not in bad faith), that is, honestly facing one’s situation and facticity, why not chose an ethics of egoism?

    Sartre the philosopher has no answer to that question, even though Sartre the man rejects ethical egoism.

    When I first got internet, I joined an online group on existentialism and I was surprised to see that the other members were almost all ethical egoists of the Ayn Rand school.

    However, that makes sense, although Sartre’s politics were worlds apart from Ayn Rand, as are mine.

    Almost at the end of Being and Nothingness Sartre writes: Thus it amounts to the same thing whether one gets drunk alone or is a leader of nations. If one of these activities is superior to the other, this will not be because of its real goal but because of the real consciousness which it possesses of its ideal goal”.

    Sartre the philosopher never is intellectually able to transcend the above problem.

    In any case, it would be great to be able to discuss some great work of philosophy with you and Don Bird.

    You mention Aristotle and Nietzsche above. I have Aristotle’s Ethics and most of Nietzsche’s published works. Either would be fine for me.

  78. Re Swallerstein

    I cannot find Notebooks for an Ethics in my university Library and it costs the best part of £90.00 on Amazon. Personally Ethics is not my main philosophical interest although I try to answer as sensibly as I am able to problems which are posed on the site but I often think O dear yet another Ethics or Political problem. I think Jim suggested I read Ayan Rand’s ‘Atlas Shrugged’ some while ago. I have just pulled it out, and the bookmark still stands at page 75 and there are 1168 pages in all. I cannot speak with much authority on matters Ethical or Political but I see putting my mind to problems therein as a good mental exercise in making judgements in the absence of depth of reading in such matters. I suppose my knowledge ends at BA level with little or no further development. Not so the case with Science, Ontology, Epistemology, Biology, Evolution, Psychology, I know my way around these much better. My MA dissertation on Thought and the non linguistic animal was a worry, as I could easily have strayed from a philosophical stance to one of pure science. It came out OK in the end. My desk is presently laden with stuff to read but none of it Ethical or Political. Currently doing some revision an Kant and his categories but only in so far as its application to what there is, or might be, is concerned and how may it be construed. So yes if you feel inclined to ask my opinion on ethical or political problems I am ready to comment but possibly not to engage in protracted discussion on a theme, which lies outside my main interests; and I am not bad on problem solving when it comes to human and animal behaviour.
    Let me say that it is always a pleasure to read your contributions to this site. Their lucidity, depth of understanding, questioning, and knowledge, is outstanding.

  79. Don Bird:

    Thank you very much for your encouraging words about my contributions to this site.

    I find your contributions to discussion on ethics
    quite worthwhile in spite of your disclaimers.

    Ethics, unlike, say, epistemology, is a subject upon which everyone might give some thought, since we all live among our fellow men and want, as Aristotle points out, to have a good life.

    As to reading tastes, I’ve never read Ayn Rand myself, but my tastes do read run towards other sections of the bookstore than yours, to ethics and to politics or social issues.

    That we have different reading tastes not only facilitates a diversity of inputs to this blog, but also assures that we are not likely to fight over the last copy of a book in a bookshop.

  80. I think Jim suggested I read Ayan Rand’s ‘Atlas Shrugged’ some while ago….


    Good lord sir, I’m innocent on that score.

    I did recommend the film ‘Being There’ which was, I believe, a more profitable investment om your part.

  81. Hi Amos,

    The ‘hmm’ was a sound of uncertainty – ‘objectivist’ didn’t strike me as the right word. But Priest’s not a dim chap and is certainly aware that we choose our own values in Sartre’s conception.

    As I say, I’m really not familiar with Sartre. Of course I have come across the famous line that “it amounts to the same thing whether one gets drunk alone or is a leader of nations” – a favourite for atheist-bashing theists and those who’d adopt a pose of nilhism.

    But what’s interesting to me is that it’s immediately followed by a line that allows for one of these activities to be superior to the other on account, not of its “real goal”, but “the real consciousness which it possesses of its ideal goal.” What that actually amounts to I don’t know.

    Sartre places an ethical value on acting ‘authentically’, as you note, and endorses some kind of Kant-like ‘universality criterion’. That much I seem to have gathered. How far you can get with that I don’t know – whether you can condemn ‘authentic’ Nazis (or claim it a contradiction in terms) I really don’t know. A universality criterion sounds like the kind of thing that might help one wave off simplistic ethical egoism. Whether Sartre has ‘systematic’ resources to argue against an authentic believer in Rand’s slightly more sophisticated ‘rational egoism’ (which has Nietzschean and Aristotelian influences in it) again I don’t know.

    I know there are scholars who try to reconstruct an ethics from various parts of Sartre’s oeuvre. I’ve been looking at the sample introductory chapter to a book intended to do that here:

    These days I only really dip into books and articles, I find proper focused reading hard to do, my attention keeps wandering off. I blame sobriety.

    Btw I’d like to echo Don’s remarks, your a great person to have on this site.

  82. Yafil Mubarak Carmona

    I do not even remember where my words are LOL! But yes determinsim is the way and nothing is anyones fault, but have in mind that when you are aware of the determination of everything this gives you the excuse to try and determine things the way you want. Ergo want good grades? By studying a lot you could try to determine that future even it is already determined. Am i making any sense??

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