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    Moral Responsibility and Ignorance*

    MichaelJ. Zimmerman


    Doris has just driven her car into a tree. She's unconscious, slumped over the steering wheel. Perry comes upon the scene. He's shocked at what he finds. He looks around to see if anyone can help, but there's no one else there. He's wondering whether he should try to find a phone to call for aid, but visions of wrecked cars catching fire and exploding into roiling balls of flame fill his mind, and he feels that he must rescue the driver now or else she'll surely die. So, with consider- able trepidation, Perry rushes in and quickly drags Doris free from the wreck, thinking that at any moment both he and she might get caught in the explosion. At last, when he judges that they are far enough away from the car, he collapses, exhausted, onto the ground, with Doris lying in his arms. As it happens, the car does not explode. Within a couple of minutes, Perry hears sirens wailing. Soon after, some emergency vehicles screech to a halt. Paramedics jump out. They run over to Perry and Doris. Perry tells them what happened. The paramedics take a look at Doris, and they arrive at a chilling conclu- sion: Perry has paralyzed Doris.

    Is Perry morally responsible for what he has done? (Here, and henceforth, by "morally responsible" I shall mean "morally culpable," for other types of moral responsibility will not be at issue. Also, I shall omit the qualifier "moral(ly)," although it will always be implicit.) That depends. One thing it depends on is whether Perry acted freely in paralyzing Doris. There are some who deny that freedom is a prerequi- site of responsibility but, while this view deserves attention, I shall not attend to it here. 1 It is surely very plausible to assume, as indeed the vast

    * My thanks to Terry McConnell, Jim Montmarquet, the members of the Research Triangle Ethics Circle, and the editors of Ethics for astute comments on earlier drafts.

    1. See Robert M. Adams, "Involuntary Sins," Philosophical Review 94 (1985): 3-31; and Eugene Schlossberger, Moral Responsibility and Persons (Philadelphia: Temple Uni-

    Ethics 107 (April 1997): 410-426 X 1997 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. 0014-1704/97/0703-0001$01.00


    IRStud Typewritten Text Zimmerman, Michael J. “Moral Responsibility and Ignorance,” Ethics, 107 (1997): 410-426 Made available courtesy of University of Chicago Press:

  • Zimmerman Moral Responsibility and Ignorance 411

    majority of people do appear to assume, that responsibility requires a sort of freedom (voluntariness, control), a sort that people are natu- rally understood to manifest in their everyday actions but which au- tomata, for instance, do not. (I hope I may be forgiven if I do not try to render this extremely familiar but also extremely complex notion more precisely here.) Moreover, it would be pretty surprising if Perry lacked such freedom when attempting to rescue Doris.

    (In saying that responsibility requires freedom, I do not mean that to be responsible for doing some act one must have acted freely at the time of doing it. While this may be true of Perry, it is not true of all responsible agents. After all-this is the stock example-a drunk driver may be responsible for the accident that he [or she] has caused, even though he was completely out of control at the time. But if he is, this is because he is responsible for being out of control, and this requires that, somewhere back down the line, he had been free to do other than he did. Freedom is thus what may be called a root require- ment of responsibility; if not directly free with respect to his having an accident, the drunk driver was at least indirectly free with respect to this.)

    But, while freedom is necessary for responsibility, it alone does not suffice for responsibility. Some other condition, presumably men- tal, must also be satisfied. (Little children, we may assume, typically act freely when they do what they do, but they lack the mental capacity to be responsible for what they do.) If Perry had intended to paralyze Doris, then, most would say (and I would be inclined to agree), he is to blame-that is, he is culpable-for doing so. But, of course, this was not his intention; on the contrary, his intention was to save Doris. In fact, he was quite ignorant of the risk of paralysis, and he's devas- tated by the outcome. Under these conditions, most would say (and I would again be inclined to agree) that Perry is not to blame for para- lyzing Doris, unless he is to blame for his ignorance.

    Where I would differ with most people, however, is in the assess- ment of what it takes for agents such as Perry to be culpable for their ignorance and, hence, for acting in ignorance. Most people would say, I believe, that the conditions for culpable ignorance are fairly easily and frequently satisfied, whereas I would say that the conditions are pretty restrictive and that therefore culpable ignorance occurs less frequently, perhaps far less frequently, than is commonly supposed. In this article I shall attempt to defend this view.2

    versity Press, 1992). Their views are discussed in my "Responsibility regarding the Unthinkable," Midwest Studies in Philosophy 20 (1995): 204-23, sec. 2.4.

    2. What follows builds on remarks given in my "Negligence and Moral Responsibil- ity," Nouls 20 (1986): 199-218, and An Essay on Moral Responsibility (Totowa, N.J.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1988), secs. 4.1 and 4.2. It also constitutes a reply to criticisms

  • 412 Ethics April 1997


    Ignorance is ignorance of facts. It is the failure to know the truth. This can come about only by way of a failure justifiably to believe the truth. Such failure can itself come about in one of two ways: either by way of a failure to believe the truth or by way of believing the truth but without justification. It is not clear to me that the second of these can be properly said to constitute ignorance. Had Perry believed, truly but withoutjustification, that he ran the risk of paralyzing Doris, would it be correct to say that he was ignorant of this risk? Whether or not it would be correct to say this, the issue can be side-stepped here. For if Perry did have this belief but paid no heed to it and proceeded to pull Doris free from the wreck anyway, we would be disinclined to excuse him. It is only when ignorance of P is due to the failure to believe P that we excuse a person's acting in ignorance of P. Hence- forth, when I speak of ignorance, I shall mean ignorance that is consti- tuted by failure of belief.

    But ignorance of what, precisely? I have mentioned Perry's igno- rance of the risk of paralyzing Doris, but this is in fact only an indica- tion of the ignorance that is directly relevant to his having an excuse. The ignorance that is directly relevant is his ignorance of his doing something morally wrong (or, at least, of his running an undue risk of doing something morally wrong-and running such a risk is itself a form of wrongdoing). For suppose that he had been unaware of the risk of paralysis but nonetheless believed he was acting wrongly; then he would not have an excuse for his action after all. (I am talking of wrongdoing all things considered, and not merely prima facie.) Or suppose that he had been aware of the risk of paralysis but nonetheless did not believe that he was acting wrongly (he thought the risk was worth taking); then he would have an excuse for his action (as long as his ignorance concerning wrongdoing was not itself culpable). It is because it is likely (but not certain) that Perry's ignorance of the risk of paralysis brought with it an ignorance concerning wrongdoing that I said in the last section that I was inclined (but did not say that I was committed) to the view that he is not to blame for paralyzing Doris, unless he is to blame for his ignorance of the risk of paralysis.


    The claim that Perry is to blame for paralyzing Doris only if he is to blame for his ignorance may appear to be plausibly supplemented with the claim that, under the circumstances, he is to blame for para- lyzing her if he is to blame for his ignorance. This latter claim is

    made in Steven Sverdlik, "Pure Negligence," American Philosophical Quarterly 30 (1993): 137-49, sec. 2.

  • Zimmerman Moral Responsibility and Ignorance 413

    important, and I shall discuss it in Section IV. But at the moment it is only the former claim that is at issue. For, once it is granted, we are forced to ask: How could it be that Perry is to blame for his ignorance?

    There is what may seem to be an easy answer to this question. (It is certainly a very common answer.) Perry didn't "know better" than to drag Doris free from the wreck; that's what his ignorance consisted in. But if he ought to have "known better"-if he ought to have known that he was thereby doing wrong- then he is to blame for not knowing better and, hence, to blame for the action (and its consequences) that he performed in this state of ignorance.

    I think this easy answer is mistaken. We must ask what is meant by saying that Perry ought to have known better. What type of "ought" is this? There are two main possibilities.

    The first possibility is that "ought" is here intended to express an ideal. (This is sometimes called the "ought-to-be.") But if this is what is meant, then the claim that in general one is responsible for no


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