The concept of responsibility in the ethics of self-defense and war


The focus of this paper is an influential family of views in the ethics of self-defense and war: views that ground the agent’s liability to be attacked in self-defense in the agent’s moral responsibility for the threat posed (“Responsibility Views”). I critically examine the concept of responsibility employed by such views, by looking at potential connections with the contemporary literature on moral responsibility. I start by uncovering some of the key assumptions that Responsibility Views make about the relevant concept of responsibility, and by scrutinizing those assumptions under the lens of more general theorizing about responsibility. I identify an important conflict that arises at that point. The problem is that the concept presupposed by Responsibility Views is in tension with the standard way of understanding the connection between the neutral and non-neutral forms of moral responsibility. I draw attention to a particular strategy that could be used to address this challenge, but I also identify some important obstacles that stand in the way.

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  1. 1.

    See the overview of this literature in Doggett (2011). Doggett identifies the appeal to agency (the agency of those whom you would harm in self-defense) as one of the most important developments in the contemporary self-defense literature.

  2. 2.

    Or, at least, for the appearance of a threat. For simplicity’s sake, here I’ll focus on actual-threat cases.

  3. 3.

    See McMahan 2009, chapter 4. In light of this, Lazar (2010) calls culpability cases “maximal responsibility” cases, and non-culpable responsibility cases “minimal responsibility” cases (sometimes he uses “agent-responsibility” instead of “minimal responsibility”; see Lazar 2009, 2010). I’ll also use “plain” responsibility to refer to this kind of responsibility. Although this scalar model of responsibility and culpability has been highly influential, some would disagree with its central tenet (see, e.g., Tadros 2018).

  4. 4.

    What McMahan seems to have in mind is that it’s common knowledge that driving a car at a certain speed increases the probability that one will pose a threat to someone, even it is by some small magnitude, whereas making a phone call doesn’t. I’ll go along with these assumptions here.

  5. 5.

    On the other hand, Hosein (2017) aims to develop a version of the responsibility view that avoids these counterintuitive implications. On his view, non-responsible threats can be liable, but their lack of responsibility results in their being liable to lesser harms than other threats.

  6. 6.

    See, e.g., Lazar (2009, 2010), and the replies to McMahan by Haque, Wallerstein, Ferzan, and Tadros in Robinson et al. (2009, chapter 18). Kaufman’s reply to McMahan (Kaufman 2009) is an exception in that he suggests that more would have to be said about the relevant concept of responsibility (and, in particular, about how it differs from culpability) before one can give a full assessment of McMahan’s responsibility view.

  7. 7.

    The focus is usually on moral responsibility as a form of accountability—that is to say, a notion of responsibility in light of which we can be held to account for what we do. Sometimes this is distinguished from attributability—a notion of responsibility in light of which our behavior can be attributed to us in that it reflects certain morally significant features of our character, such as our virtues and vices. (For a discussion of this distinction, see Watson 1996.) I’ll set attributability aside here, since it’s arguably not the form of responsibility at stake in these debates. For example, the conscientious driver is not responsible for her threatening behavior in a sense that is revelatory of any moral vices on her part. Still, the thought is that she can be held to account given that she acted with an understanding of the risk involved.

  8. 8.

    For example, Fischer and Ravizza (1998: 8, n. 11) mention the example of raising your hand on one occasion where this doesn’t have any moral implications whatsoever.

  9. 9.

    In other words, the thought is that we can be responsible for what we do to the extent that, in acting in any of those morally neutral ways, we’re still responding to moral reasons, or to the absence thereof (for a discussion of the role played by absences of reasons in our moral responsibility, see Sartorio 2016).

  10. 10.

    This is sometimes called “the objective view” of blameworthiness (a similar claim is made about praiseworthiness). Some proponents of the objective view include Copp (1997), Smith (1983), Wallace (1994), and Widerker (1991). McKenna (2012: 14) identifies it as the most commonly accepted view. Even those who reject it (proponents of “subjective views” of blameworthiness) tend to see themselves as arguing against tradition, and refer to the target of their attack as a widespread, initially appealing, and highly intuitive view (see, e.g., Capes 2012; Haji 1998: 141, and Khoury 2011). To keep things as simple as possible, I won’t be concerned with subjective views in this paper. But it’s important to note that at least some subjective views have trouble accommodating the conscientious driver case. For example, Zimmerman’s view, which allows for neutral responsibility judgments, entails that the conscientious driver is culpable for posing a threat, at least to some degree, given her belief that she was taking a moral risk by driving the car (see Zimmerman 1988: 49 and 61–62). On the other hand, other subjective views that ground blameworthiness in expressions of an objectionable quality of will or the negative reactive attitudes they elicit (e.g., Capes 2012) entail that the conscientious driver isn’t blameworthy, but it’s harder to motivate, within the framework of such views, a neutral concept of responsibility that could distinguish between the conscientious driver and the cell phone user.

  11. 11.

    We could also be morally responsible (without being blameworthy) for bad outcomes that are the result of behaviors that aren’t wrong. For example, if you are in a trolley problem situation and you switch the trolley that was going to kill five towards one, you are arguably responsible for the one person’s death without being blameworthy for it. For discussion of this issue, see Sartorio Forthcoming.

  12. 12.

    Pereboom argues that those manipulated agents are not responsible, and, on that basis, that causally determined agents are also not responsible.

  13. 13.

    One thing that he couldn’t plausibly say is that the manipulated agents are not blameworthy simply because it would be inappropriate for most of us (non-manipulated agents) to blame them. For recall that we’re assuming that there is an important distinction between agents being blameworthy and others having the relevant standing to blame them. For a discussion on this distinction as it bears on the responsibility of manipulated agents, see King (2015).

  14. 14.

    See, e.g., Björnnson (2017), Coates and Swenson (2013), Nelkin (2016), Guerrero (2017), Tierney (2019), Usher (2020), and Kaiserman (Forthcoming). An important challenge that arises for such views is that, if one wants to offer a comprehensive view of responsibility as a scalar notion, there are different dimensions that bear on an agent’s responsibility and that would have to be weighed against each other: how much control the agent had, how much the agent knew, how good/bad the agent’s intention was, etc.

  15. 15.

    The behavior is wrongful but not, of course, blameworthy (it is wrongful for the driver to act in a way that poses a threat, even if she’s completely blameless for that behavior). Recall that we’re assuming an objectivist account of wrongness (see Sect. 3 above).

  16. 16.

    At this point, responsibility theorists could think of proposing an interpretation of the Standard View according to which blameworthiness for an outcome doesn’t just require responsibility for the wrongful behavior but blameworthiness for the wrongful behavior. On that basis, they could note that it doesn’t follow from the Standard View that the driver is blameworthy for the threat, because she’s not blameworthy for that wrongful behavior. But this won’t work as a response, because the Standard View would in fact entail that she is blameworthy for the wrongful behavior (given that we’re assuming that she is responsible for it). So, this move would just push the problem back instead of eliminating it.

  17. 17.

    This is how cases of negligence are typically accommodated within a theory of responsibility. (For further discussion, see, e.g., the contributions in Robichaud and Wieland (2017).) By assumption, the conscientious driver wasn’t acting negligently when she posed the threat.

  18. 18.

    In contrast, note that the cases of neutral responsibility we examined before (in Sect. 3) are different in that in those cases the agents arguably meet the epistemic condition for responsibility. For example, typically, when acting in morally neutral ways, you’re reasonably aware that you’re not harming anybody or violating anybody’s rights by acting in those ways.

  19. 19.

    Recall that we’re assuming, with McMahan, that it’s reasonable to believe that driving a car increases the risk of posing a threat to others, even if it’s by some small magnitude, whereas it’s not reasonable to believe this about making a phone call, and that the agents were aware of all of that. See note 4 above.

  20. 20.

    On the other hand, if one attempted to revise the Standard View by appealing to differences in kind (not mere differences in degree), that would result in a more radical departure from the original version, which would be harder to motivate. (Of course, I’m not saying that this is impossible, just harder to do. Thanks to Helen Frowe for discussion.)

  21. 21.

    Once again, it’s important to bear in mind that the relevant concept of responsibility is moral: proponents of the Responsibility View want to claim that the conscientious driver is morally responsible for the wrongful threat she poses, despite not being blameworthy for it to any degree. But, on the face of it, it’s not at all obvious how this claim could be motivated as a claim about moral responsibility in particular. (In contrast, I can be legally responsible for wrongful acts done by my underage children without being blameworthy for them. But it’s not at all obvious how I can be morally responsible for them if I’m not blameworthy to any degree.).


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Thanks to Tyler Doggett, Helen Frowe, Massimo Renzo, the participants at the Conversations on War workshop (Perast, 2019), and two anonymous referees. Special thanks to Helen and Massimo for organizing the workshop and putting together this special issue. This paper was written as part of the Conversations on War workshop series (co-hosted by the Stockholm Centre for the Ethics of War and Peace, Stockholm University and the Yeoh Tiong Lay Centre for Politics, Philosophy and Law, King’s College, London).

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Correspondence to Carolina Sartorio.

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Sartorio, C. The concept of responsibility in the ethics of self-defense and war. Philos Stud (2021).

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  • moral responsibility
  • defensive harm
  • self-defense
  • ethics of war
  • blameworthiness
  • liability