Nobody’s Fault

During the nineteenth century, courts within the United States began to move towards a system of liability based on “negligence.” Rather than being liable for all damaging actions that people caused to their victims, people would now often be liable only for damage or injury that they caused while not behaving in a way that was sufficiently careful and appropriate for the activity in question.  Some historians attempting to explain why this shift to negligence liability solidified during the nineteenth century have pointed to the needs of the dawning industrial world: industry and modernization would be impeded if people were liable for all the injuries their dangerous new machines, factories, and pursuits would foreseeably inflict in this busy new world.  So in order not to impede the development of these new activities, we would now often just be liable for the harm that we negligently caused, accepting as a price of modernity that some of our actions would result in harm that society would choose to not hold us responsible for at the expense of those we hurt.  Whether or not this thesis is accurate, its core idea that people would be liable for the consequences of some of their actions and not for others should be interesting to Mormons who put “agency” at the center of our theology.

Mormonism, with its 19th century roots, takes as its main story the idea that an individual through the exercise of his agency has the ability to become like God.  We make good and bad choices for which we can be held accountable.   Without a belief that people are accountable moral agents, Mormonism is basically unthinkable.

But the question is, is our sense of who we are and who we have the potential to be, predicated not only on our ability to choose to be responsible for some actions, but also on the fact that we have opted not to see ourselves as responsible for or connected to all the consequences of our actions?  For example, we might eat meat, buy clothes produced in factories that are bad for workers and for the environment, or have caused by our voting a war, but we have opted (at least until recently) not to morally hold ourselves personally responsible for the death of animals, poor treatment of workers, or war.  In other words, does a modern belief in the individual require both that we believe in our agency and disassociate from some of the extended consequences of our agency?  And, more Mormonly, do religions like Mormonism acknowledge that we must disassociate ourselves sometimes from the consequences our actions produce through mechanisms like praying for God’s intervention or forgiveness?

Comments

  1. This is a good question. When I was drafted into the army and sent to Viet Nam I wrestled with questions of this nature. As I talked with other Latter Day Saints I learned that the primary responsibility of what we were called upon to do rested with our country’s leaders. Some of the men even had that declared in their patriarchal blessings.

    Of course, each solider had an individual responsibility to be wise in how they conducted themselves in war. For some, military power was intoxicating and they were cruel when they didn’t need to be. Most however, conducted themselves above reproach.

    My point is that there are levels of responsibility, primary and secondary. When I buy a hamburger or and item of clothing the assumption is that the producers of these products are responsible business people. Unless I know otherwise then how can I be accountable? If I have creditable information that something is wrong with a producer of goods then I should investigate and act accordingly.

  2. The atonement takes into account all of this. As we learn more about our ignorance, then we become more responsible for our actions. It is our repentance that will allow God to claim mercy on us. It’s a little hard to repent of something where we don’t have any knowledge of it.

  3. I think people should be responsible for consequences of their actions or beliefs that are forseeable and do cause harm. But many consequences are unforseeable. Many times you may still be legally responsible, not not morally. (Or the other way around).
    Mormonism also provides ways to lift responsibility by repentance, grace, or mercy.

  4. StillConfused says:

    ” For example, we might eat meat, buy clothes produced in factories that are bad for workers and for the environment, or have caused by our voting a war, but we have opted (at least until recently) not to morally hold ourselves personally responsible for the death of animals, poor treatment of workers, or war” This statement presumes that I agree with your premise that the foregoing items are sins. I do not. Hence, I do not have any of the concerns that you express. If on the other hand, you feel that these items are sins, then you are responsible for acting outside of your belief system. However, your belief system does not control my belief system. Hence, your feeling of what constitutes sin, outside of the auspices of official doctrinal proclimations, is only valid against you.. not me.

  5. This is a thought-provoking post. Continuing your negligence analogy, with regards to war, factory conditions, etc., I’m seeing the potential for a proximate cause issue. (I haven’t fully thought the idea through, though.) While we can be held responsible for the direct and reasonably foreseeable causes of our actions, can we really be held responsible for the actions of others that we have little to no control over?

  6. Ignoring the accuracy of the legal history regarding strict liability and negligence, this post raises an interesting but ultimately misguided question. Negligence is a civil liability concept, separate from criminal liability. In most cases, the purpose of awarding damages based on liability for negligence in civil cases is not to punish morally culpable behavior but to make an injured person whole. An injury caused by neligence is usually not intentional–such an act would constitute an intentional tort, and could lead to punitive damages.

    Furthermore, as noted by other commenters, liability based on negligence usually requires that a reasonable person could have foreseen the injury at the time of the negligent action. I think your voting leading to war example would not generally meet the standard for negligence.

    Criminal law generally requires the simultaneous presence of both a guilty act and a guilty mind. If the guilty mental state is not present at the time of the guilty act, no crime has been completed. To the extent that repentance is about changing the heart and becoming more godlike, I think this criminal law principle is more closely analogous to sin and repentance. If your heart is not wrong (no guilty mind), it seems to me
    there is no sin to repent of, even if your actions are guilty.

    Negligence doesn’t require a guilty mental state because negligence doesn’t imply a negative moral judgment–it merely compensates those who have suffered an unintentional injury.

  7. Peter LLC says:

    4: …your belief system does not control my belief system. Hence, your feeling of what constitutes sin, outside of the auspices of official doctrinal proclimations, is only valid against you.. not me.

    6: If your heart is not wrong (no guilty mind), it seems to me
    there is no sin to repent of, even if your actions are guilty.

    Resulting in what the Beastie Boys termed a “license to ill.”

  8. We blame Hitler for the deaths of gazillions. Surely we can blame Kennedy and Johnson for the deaths of millions of Vietnamese, and surely we can blame Bush for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. When it comes to liability, we humans tend to say that our enemy gets the blame for the most things while we ourselves should only be blamed for the littlest of things, because that is only fair. Is Truman going to have to deal with the fact that his decision to drop the nuclear bombs on civilian targets is going to have hundreds of thousands of innocent Japanese screaming for his head in the afterlife? The blood of the innocent cry out, we are told. Judgment Day is gonna be one messy day, and I get the feeling nobody is gonna be happy that day.

  9. Heh. I like Keri’s though about proximate (or even intervening!) causes. But I wonder: are unforeseen consequences really part of agency? All actions have unexpected results, but I’m not sure that I agree with the premise that they factor into agency. A lot of life is learning to make decisions with imperfect information. I have always considered agency to focus on the actor’s knowledge and perspective at the time of the decision.

    Let me also say that, for all their virtues, I’m glad that we will not all be judged before the Bar of God according to Anglo-American legal principles.

  10. #6″ There is plenty of blame in Tort Law. Such as failing to meet the Resaonable Man standard, or failing the test of Foreseeable. You can also be vicariously liable for the acts of others.
    There is also plenty of punishing in Tort settlement under General Damages.

  11. Bob, either you misunderstand legal principles or you are using legal terms imprecisely.

    Vicarious liability isn’t easily established, and usually requires some relationship of authority or control over the person who
    committed the tort.

    Some conduct may be both negligent and morally blameworthy, but the conduct is neither blameworthy because it is negligent nor is such conduct negligent because it is blameworthy.

    I don’t understand your point about general damages in settlement. Damages result from trial, while settlements occur outside of court. Punitive damages punish bad conduct, while damages are awarded to compensate someone for injury, even injury resulting from wholly innocent conduct. Plus, some people, because of lack of intelligence or common sense, cannot conform their conduct to the standard of a reasonable person. This is not morally blameworthy, and certainly not sinful, buy such people are still liable for injury caused by their negligent acts. The bottom line in negligence is that sometimes accidents happen, and just because someone got hurt doesn’t imply that the person who caused the injury is morally culpable or has sinned.

    I also fail to understand the relationship between moral blame and “failing the test of Foreseeable.”

    The interesting question in my mind is what constitutes
    a guilty heart or mind for purposes of sin and penitence.

  12. #11; I do not wish to talk pass each other or highjack the post. Maybe our backgrounds, venues, or understanings of the law are just different.
    I just see ‘Duty’, (as in Tort Law), a moral issue and not just a legal one.

  13. “we might eat meat, buy clothes produced in factories that are bad for workers and for the environment, or have caused by our voting a war”
    Like StillConfused, I picked up on the odd set of possible “sins” you’ve posted. You are definitely advertising your political/social beliefs in this post even though this post is not about that. You could have listed things and their corresponding lack of responsibility for morality like taxation (stealing something from someone) or upholding civil rights (letting criminals go on technicalities and allowing them to reoffend and harm others).
    Thought-provoking post, but the narrow focus of that list kind of distracted me.

  14. #13: Following these Blogs, it seems that shopping at Walmart is the favored example of a lack of political/social moral responsibility to our fellow man (?)

  15. StillConfused says:

    I love Walmart. That is my favorite place to shop. I do my best to get everything I need there… from groceries, to clothes, to electronics, to fitness stuff. I love having more money after shopping to utilize in the ways that I think best serve me, my family and my community.

  16. Bob, I don’t think you’re reading notions of duty in tort correctly. IAAL.

  17. #16: Yes Steve, you are a Lawyer (IAAL). I am not. But I am someone who settled thousands of litigated Tort cases over 30 years. I know Tort Law, I know BAJI, I know CACI. I know how a jury looks at Tort ‘Duty’.. when it considers in the back room.

  18. Take that Steve-o! BAM!!

  19. lol. bob, if you’re not a lawyer but you’ve settled thousands of litigated tort cases…. you’re either an extremely litigious plaintiff or an extremely negligent defendant! In any event, knowing how a jury looks at “Tort Duty” sounds like an extremely useful skill. Just not for purposes of the present discussion.

  20. #19: I guess I misread the post as a question of political/social moral responsibility to our fellow man? To me that’s ‘duty’.
    I was not the plaintiff or the defendant. I was a guy given thousands of litigated files to bring to an end or trial as I saw best.

  21. Natalie K. says:

    Natalie B, maybe it’s the name, but I’ve gotta tell ya, you’re my favorite. :) I’m mostly a lurker here, but your posts generally blow me away, and I often find myself agreeing with you emphatically.

    I mean, you write about feminism often, and now bring up societal neglect for the livelihood of workers/animals, etc? We need to be friends. :)

    Don’t usually have time for a thoughtful response, unfortunately.

  22. Natalie K. says:

    Wait, StillConfused #4. You said:

    “This statement presumes that I agree with your premise that the foregoing items are sins. I do not. Hence, I do not have any of the concerns that you express.”

    ….. You don’t think mistreatment of workers is a sin?

    ………

    :(

    Now we workers aren’t even human beings?

  23. Terrakota says:

    Does a modern belief in the individual require both that we believe in our agency and disassociate from some of the extended consequences of our agency

    There are ordinary people, who would justify themselves in doing anything that is permitted from the legal or religious standpoint. And there are great people, who would not.

    When my husband and I were sealed in SLC Temple, we met a man there who heard us speak Russian and started a conversation. It turned out to be that was from Germany. During the World War II he refused to join the nazi army and was put in the German concentration camp. It was horrible, he said. Then, towards the end of the war, they said that they will shoot him if he will not join the army. So, he joined it, and surrendered to the Russian army during the very first battle, because he did not want to kill people. So, he was then put to the Russian concentration camp – Gulag. It was even worst, he said. He spent 7 years in the camps, treated worst than an animal.

    When we met him, he held no malice towards us, Russians, was a very happy and joyful man. He would have been justified for obeying his country laws and killing people, but he chose a better way. He is great, in my eyes.

  24. Natalie K. —
    I don’t think that is what StillConfused is saying. Rather, I think the point is that “mistreatment” of workers is a very subjectively defined term. Does the factory worker feel mistreated? Or are we defining mistreatment I terms of what we rich fat Americans would be willing to work for? I know many people who feel that any wage less than a “living” wage is mistreatment–is that a sin then? What if the alternative to a low wage is no job at all, because the laborer doesn’t produce much incremental value? Is any employer who doesn’t provide health insurance sinning?

    I don’t need you to answer these questions–my point is that unless you first define what you personally mean by “mistreatment” then your question comes across as a smugly stated strawman.

  25. Karl Marx says:

    Scott says:

    “What if the alternative to a low wage is no job at all, because the laborer doesn’t produce much incremental value?”

    There you go again with your capitalist idea that not all laborers are created equally, and should be be excluded with equal ownership of capital. If it were not for us laborers, your production would have no value at all. Because the laborer merely exists is a testament to his/her infinite value and should be paid eleventy-billion percent the value of the capital he/she uses to fatten your Bourgeois self.

  26. Karl–

    Oh.

  27. “does a modern belief in the individual require both that we believe in our agency and disassociate from some of the extended consequences of our agency?”

    I don’t see any reason for disassociation. We are responsible, both morally and legally only for the natural and forseeable consequences of our actions. If we eat meat, then the death of animals is a natural consequence of that, so if you object to that, you should not eat meat. The other examples you give, howwever, do not seem like the natural consequence of buying products or voting.

    “And, more Mormonly, do religions like Mormonism acknowledge that we must disassociate ourselves sometimes from the consequences our actions produce through mechanisms like praying for God’s intervention or forgiveness?”

    I’m not sure what this question is asking. Are you asking whether we are responsible for the consequences of our prayers for divine intervention?

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