Most legal systems recognise offences of ‘strict liability’. These are offences which are defined in such a way that they can be committed regardless of whether the perpetrator shows any ‘faulty’ intentions or character traits. A case in point is that of plagiarism – or, to give it its proper legal name, breach of copyright: a person breaches copyright if they pass off the words of another as their own regardless of whether they do so intentionally or knowingly.
Although it is primarily a legal term, it is interesting to speculate on whether there is anything akin to strict liability in the moral realm. Nagel, in his classic article on moral luck, is sceptical, remarking that strict liability ‘may have its legal uses’ but seems ‘irrational as a moral position’. Presumably what he means by this is that a person (such as the unwitting plagiariser) cannot be subject to moral criticism on the basis of their ‘external’ conduct alone – what always matters are their intentions, motives and traits of character.
However, I wonder whether this is an oversimplification. To be sure, in the vast majority of cases, what matters are intentions, motives and traits of character, but couldn’t there be some exceptions where external conduct alone is sufficient to warrant moral blame?
To focus attention on this possibility, imagine that I have promised to be present at your daughter’s christening. Knowing how important this is to you, I have given a cast-iron guarantee that I will attend. Unfortunately, on the day itself, my car breaks down en route to the ceremony, meaning that I don’t make it in time. This isn’t due to negligence or bad planning on my part; it’s just that sometimes the best laid schemes of mice and men go awry.
To my mind, it isn’t outlandish to suggest that I am morally blameworthy in this case. Of course, I haven’t disclosed a character flaw or bad intention, nor have I been negligent in my planning. Nonetheless, I have failed to keep a promise and, by implication, I have failed to fulfil a moral obligation, and normally the non-fulfilment of obligations is taken to be good grounds for moral criticism.
It therefore seems plausible to me to suppose that there is at least one form of strict liability in morality – namely, the strict liability that is associated with promise-keeping.
I wonder what readers think. Do you share my response to the promising example, and, if so, do you think that this yields any insights into broader topics in philosophy, such as the nature of moral appraisal and the problem of free will and moral responsibility?