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Thompson: Moral responsibility of public officials

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Thompson. 1980. Moral responsibility of public officials: The problem of many hands. American Political Science Review 74 (Dec): 905-915.

In Brief

Question Addressed: It takes many public officials to formulate and implement government policy. How can we ascribe moral responsibility to these officials, given the complex causal chains involved?

Method: Thompson uses J.L. Austin's method of examining real-life excuses to illuminate our understanding of moral judgment. He cites several excuses used by American officials to deny their moral responsibility for some bad policy outcome, and then analyzes whether and in what circumstances they are compelling.

Competing Models of Responsibility

Hierarchical: "Responsibility for political outcomes falls on the person who stands highest in the (formal or informal) chain of authority" (906). Advocated by Max Weber. Cons: Chains of authority aren't realistic models of politics; it is wrong to hold principals morally responsible for the actions of their agents. Principals have imperfect control over agents. And the fact that politicians seem so willing to "accept full responsibility" when their agents screw up supports this--they know that accepting responsibility will cut short inquiry into who is at fault and help the problem blow over without necessarily hurting the president personally (since we all know it wasn't really the president's fault, apparently). See pg 1980.

Collective: Political processes are so complex that you can't pin blame on any one individual. Either every individual associated with the collectivity should be held equally responsible, or the collectivity itself should be charged. Cons: Can't account for distinctions that we normally use to apportion blame--for example, those who do protest a bad idea are usually seen as less responsible for the idea's implementation than those who do protest, even though all are part of the acting collective. Thus, this model allows for no degrees of responsibility. Similarly, it can be hard to get a big bureaucracy to act collectively to get something done; but rather than blame the "collective" (the bureaucracy) alone, we should look at individual bureaucrats' culpability. Thus, structural faults associated with collective action problems should be fixed rather than made into excuses.

Due to the weaknesses of these two responsibility models, Thompson advocates a third:

Personal: An official is morally responsible if (1) her actions/omissions are a cause of the outcome; and (2) these actions or omissions are not done in ignorance or under compulsion (908). By Thompson's own interpretation, this model presents a weak view of causation.

Causal Excuses

Alternative Cause: "If I hadn't done it, someone else would've." Though often true when discussing bureaucratic officials, this excluse falls apart unless modified. May be acceptable if the fault or the consequences to which the fault contributed are relatively harmless. Could be acceptable if mixed with a justification like "someone else would've done worse," as with Nazi Officer Gerstein who stayed on so that he could prevent somebody else from taking his place and doing even more bad things.

From Null Cause: "It's not my job." Can be acceptable if the nature of the office really is far removed from the causal chain, since complicity is not the same as responsibility. Novus actus interveniens cases (think political advisers) can be acceptable, but not automatically--these are cases where political advisors suggest a course of action, but they were not the ones who ultimately made the final decision. (Of course, the advisor's culpability depends on the advisor's degree of influence.)

Volitional Excuses: Pleas to Ignorance. "I didn't know" or "I did not foresee." Acceptable if within the limits of common sense; one must reasonably seek out information and recognize bureaucratic patterns, so intentionally avoiding to find out something doesn't absolve you--only genuine ignorance.

Constrained Action: "I was stuck between a rock and a hard place" or "I was under pressure from ________ to act in this way." Not usually very compelling on its own, but may lessen the degree to which we hold officials responsible.

Comments and Criticism

How can we use Thompson's analysis to analyze voting behavior? His discussion of causality is a poor fit to voting, since he employs a weak definition of causal responsibility that would hinge upon decisiveness (see the bottom of page 74). However, an interesting extension of his project would be to examine ways in which voters could be held responsible for electing politicians/parties who do horrible things.

Thompson does a better job showing that there is a "problem of many hands" than of resolving the problem. Thompson does not explain what it means for a person's actions to be the "cause" of the outcome.