Abstract Individuals are often causally inconsequential parts of highly consequential wholes. If each individual is (essentially) causally inconsequential, and what she does makes (virtually) no causal difference, we may be inclined to absolve each of (virtually all) causal responsibility for the consequences of what occurs as a result of the larger whole of which each is a part. But there is another form of responsibility – constitutive responsibility. Whatever the causal consequences may be, each individual constitutes part of that whole and each therefore bears responsibility of at least that sort for the whole. 1. Introduction Individuals are often causally inconsequential parts of highly consequential wholes. If each individual is (essentially) causally inconsequential, and what each does makes (virtually) no causal difference, we may be inclined to absolve each of (virtually any) causal responsibility for the consequences of what occurs as a result of the larger whole of which each is a part. But there is another form of responsibility – constitutive responsibility. Whatever the causal consequences may be, each individual nevertheless constitutes part of that whole, and each therefore bears responsibility of at least that sort for the whole. 2. Taking part, being part When taking part in something you become part of it. And being part of something, voluntarily and knowingly, makes you responsible for it in a certain sort of way.1 The responsibility in question is ‘constitutive responsibility’. Parts contribute constitutively to the whole. Constitutive contributions are importantly different from causal contributions.2 A lightning strike contributes causally to the bushfire. The lightning strike is one thing, the bushfire is another and the relationship between them is causal. A table’s four legs, in contrast, help to constitute the table. The legs are not separate from the table; they are part of it. Causal contributions are graded in a way that constitutive ones are not. One person’s causal contribution can be greater than another person’s to the same outcome. Constitutively, in contrast, all parts are on a par. They are all alike in being parts of the whole; they are all equal in that respect.3 Taking part in something can sometimes contribute causally to that thing’s existing as well. It would do so if, for example, that thing would not exist but for your contribution. Then you bear causal as well as constitutive responsibility for that thing of which you are voluntarily and knowingly a part. Linguistically, the difference is marked by the distinction between responsibility for ‘being part’ (constitutive responsibility) and responsibility for ‘doing your part’ or ‘the part you played’ (causal responsibility). Crucially, however, you can bear constitutive responsibility for something of which you are a part without bearing any causal responsibility for it whatsoever. Superfluous parts of something are still part of that thing. The substitute player who spent the entire game on the bench still constitutes part of the winning team, although he bears no causal responsibility for the team or its victory. He bears responsibility for helping to constitute the team even though he is causally superfluous. If you contribute both causally and constitutively to something, you definitely have more overall responsibility for it than does someone who contributed to it only in the latter way alone. But even if your contribution is exclusively constitutive, you nonetheless bear at least constitutive responsibility for the whole of which your contribution constitutes a part. You bear constitutive responsibility in the sense that you are liable to credit or blame for voluntarily and knowingly being a part of that whole. That is by parity to moral philosophy’s standard approach to causal responsibility, as liability to credit or blame for voluntarily and knowingly helping to cause something to exist or occur. Whether you are liable to credit or to blame, and how much, depends on the nature and actions of the whole of which you are part – on what it is and what it does. You are morally to credit for being, knowingly and voluntarily, part of a whole that you could and should have expected to be or to do good; you are morally to blame for being, knowingly and voluntarily, part of a whole that you could and should have expected to be or to do bad. We need to consider ‘what it is’, as well as ‘what it does’, because it can be appropriate to praise or blame a group (and people for being part of it) for what that group represents as well as for the activities that it undertakes. The Ku Klux Klan is morally objectionable on account of the racism that it represents, even if it (no longer) engages in lynching. Morally good or bad states of affairs can thus be associated both with the group’s being and the group’s doings. And people who are parts of those groups, voluntarily and knowingly, can be constitutively responsible for either (or of course both). When we take part in something, we become party to it and partners with all others who are also party to it. As in business, partnership liability is shared liability. Suppose you share responsibility with several others for constituting one and the same thing; then you all share the same constitutive responsibility for that thing that your actions constitutes.4 3. Constituting formally organized groups, activities and practices Sometimes the ‘wholes’ in question are formally organized groups. A membership organization may seem to be constituted by its members’ membership in it. In some purely formal sense, it is. But in lived experience, membership in a group consists much less in the signing of any membership register and much more in partaking in the ensemble of activities and practices that for all practical purposes define the group. Sometimes activities and practices are formally organized as well. ‘Taking part’ (and still more ‘playing a part’) are things that we often do in such organized social activities and practices. Playing a part in a stage production presupposes a script setting out roles for each participant to play. The same is true across a wide range of organized social activities and practices in which we take or play a part. Insofar as those organized social activities and practices have rules of composition (constitutions) of their own, it might likewise be thought that those – rather than anyone’s taking or playing a part under the rules thus laid down – are what constitutes those social activities and practices. If so, then it would not be the case that people make any constitutive contribution (or hence incur any constitutive responsibility) when taking or playing a part in social activities or practices of that sort. Or so it may seem. But for constitutions and other foundational rules to be in force requires that people act in accordance with them. It does so logically and not just causally: that those whom they purport to bind treat the rules as binding is just what it is for such rules to ‘be in force’. So when acting under and in accordance with the rules that formally constitute some organized group or social activity or practice, individuals are indeed taking or playing a part in that group or social activity or practice in such a way that effectively constitutes it. And once again they thereby acquire constitutive responsibility for it, in consequence. 4. The limits of constitutive responsibility When voluntarily and knowingly taking part in an ensemble of activities and practices, just as when voluntarily and knowingly being a part of a group or any other ‘whole’, your actions become part of them. That, once again, makes you responsible for contributing in a constitutive way to that ensemble of activities and practices. The credit or blame attached to that is, once again, calibrated according to what you could and should have known would occur in consequence of that ensemble of activities and practices. It follows that you are typically to credit or blame for actions that are ‘in character’ for the group constituted by that ensemble (because you could and should have expected them to occur), and you are typically neither to credit nor to blame for actions that are ‘out of character’ (not reasonably anticipatable). Where several people take part in the same ensemble of activities or practices, the actions of each contribute in a constitutive way to those activities or practices. Each therefore shares – and, on the above analysis, shares equally – constitutive responsibility for them. Social norms are an example of that. There need not be any intentional coordination among individuals in order for that to occur. There may sometimes be, as in the case of organized groups acting in pursuit of explicitly shared intentions. But there need not be. Everyone might be acting wholly independently of each other yet be taking part in the same activities and practices as one another.5 5. The difference between constitutive and causal responsibility Constitutive responsibility is, thus, often shared with others who make constitutive contributions to one and the same thing as you do. Consider the (wholly unorganized) group of people on the overcrowded bridge that collapses under their combined weight. Suppose (not all would: cf. Goldman 1974; Hart and Honoré 1985: Ch. 5; Moore 2009) that the correct way to attribute causal responsibility for the bridge’s collapse is to attribute it entirely to the last person to step onto the bridge, whereupon it collapsed. Even if that is the correct way to attribute causal responsibility, however, constitutive responsibility is clearly another matter. Each person on the bridge as it collapsed constitutes part of the group on the bridge. Assuming each stepped onto the bridge voluntarily and knowingly, each is constitutively responsible for being part of the group that caused the bridge to collapse. That is as true of the first person to step onto the bridge as the last. Indeed, the same would be true even of someone who stepped onto the bridge as it was already in the process of collapsing. Or, again, consider the case of a public funding drive to build a new hospital that will cost exactly £10M. Suppose that, for some reason, either more or less money than that would be of utterly no use. Yet suppose that the drive manages to raise £12M. On the (contested) theory of causal responsibility alluded to above, the person who contributed the ten-millionth pound to the drive would bear complete causal responsibility for the hospital’s being built. And even on more relaxed theories of causal responsibility, those who gave the extra £2M once the funding target had been met would be causally superfluous and bear no causal responsibility for the hospital’s being built. Still, each of the contributors, even those whose donations arrived after the target had been met, have taken part in the funding drive and constitute part of the group whose contributions funded the hospital. All of them are constitutively responsible, even if some (maybe many) of them are not causally responsible. 6. Implications What is the cash value of all this? People are often individually inconsequential parts of highly consequential wholes. If each individual is (essentially) inconsequential, and what she does makes (virtually) no causal difference, we may be inclined to absolve each of (virtually any) responsibility for the consequences of what occurs as a result of the larger whole of which each is a part. That might or might not be right, thinking in terms of causal responsibility. But it is dead wrong, thinking in terms of the sort of constitutive responsibility here elucidated.6 Funding This work was supported by the Australian Research Council's DP140101275. Footnotes 1 The responsibility here in view is moral responsibility, that is, responsibility that is associated with moral praise and blame. By ‘knowingly’ I mean ‘could and should have known’, not whether the agent actually knows. By ‘voluntarily’ I mean ‘could have done otherwise’. (Others might add ‘at reasonable cost’, but I would treat ‘unreasonable cost’ as an excusing condition rather than as rendering an action literally involuntary.) On the rationale for the voluntariness requirement see Yaffe 2012. 2 This distinction, familiar to metaphysicians, figures for example in Haslanger's (2012: 87 and passim) discussion of the ways in which some social constructions (of gender or race, for example) are causal while others are constitutive. 3 They are all equally parts of the whole at any one time. For a whole that persists over time, some parts may be enduringly part of it while other parts come and go; the former may in that respect play a greater constitutive role in and bear more constitutive responsibility for the whole, seen as an ongoing entity, despite the fact that each part is equally part of the whole at any one point in time. That may be relevant in assigning constitutive responsibilities for the past (for historical injustices, for example). In assigning present responsibilities, however, the point-in-time standard of equal constitutive responsibility is typically the more appropriate. 4 Previous writers on ‘collective responsibility’ clearly wrestle with the same issue, but none comes up with quite the same solution. Kutz (2000) talks about ‘participatory intentions’, and others about things like ‘we-intentions’ (Tuomela 2007; see similarly Bratman 2013; Gilbert 2013). But what I have in view here is more an intention ‘to be’ (a part) than ‘to do’ (participate), and an intention to be ‘a part’ (of some whole) rather than that any particular ‘we’ do something together. 5 This approach can thus more readily account for moral responsibility in large and hierarchical group settings than an approach like Gilbert's (2013) ‘plural subject’, for example. 6 This article benefited from comments from Christian Barry, Avery Kolers, Kai Spiekermann, Ana Tanasoca and the referees for this journal. References Bratman M. 2013. Shared Agency . Oxford: Oxford University Press. Gilbert M. 2013. Joint Commitment . New York: Oxford University Press. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Goldman A.I. 1974. On the measurement of power. Journal of Philosophy 71: 231– 52. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Hart H.L.A., Honoré T.. 1985. Causation in the Law , 2nd edn. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Haslanger S. 2012. Resisting Reality . New York: Oxford University Press. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Kutz C. 2000. Complicity . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Moore M.S. 2009. Causation and Responsibility . New York: Oxford University Press. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Tuomela R. 2007. The Philosophy of Sociality: The Shared Point of View . Oxford: Oxford University Press. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Yaffe G. 2012. The voluntary act requirement. In The Routledge Companion to the Philosophy of Law , ed. Marmor A., 174– 90. New York: Routledge. © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Analysis Trust. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Analysis – Oxford University Press
Published: Jan 1, 2018
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