Take Responsibility

Wed, Jan 26

When making moral decisions, is it better to focus on the particulars of the case (like the names, histories, and motives of individuals involved) or to abstract to broader categories (like how much pleasure or suffering will result)?  How important is it to have good intentions rather than to be the cause of the best results? In this class period, we will consider what it means to intentionally take responsibility for a moral decision, looking at ideas from contemporary virtue ethicist Elizabeth Anscombe. We'll discuss the concepts of moral injury and apply Anscombe's theory to debates about the ethics of violence -- in particular looking at a case study of President Truman's decision to detonate atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And we will work on the skill of telling stories that uncover morally important intentions.

By the end of the session, you will:

  1. Understand the key differences between how consequentialists and virtue ethicists approach questions of personal responsibility
  2. Appreciate the role narrative, or telling "morally thick" stories, plays in Anscombe's theory of responsibility
  3. Practice telling your own morally thick stories about things you'd like to take responsibility for in the story of your life.


Read This:


Selections from Anscombe's "Intention" and "Mr. Truman's Degree" (Interactive Essay)

APPLICATION ARTICLE (Access on "Perusall" via Canvas):

The Sorrow and Shame of Accidental Killers (The New Yorker)

Do This:

Complete these steps before you come to class

  • Consider the following prompts (you may want to write responses to these in your journal or talk about them with a friend):
    • Reflect on an event in your life that you think was morally important. Think about how you usually tell that story, and ask yourself whether there are ways of telling that story that would allow you to take more responsibility for what happened. Is the new version of the story closer or further from the truth?
    • Many people have the feeling that it's okay to pull a lever that would switch a trolley from a track where it would kill five people to a track where it would kill one, but that it would be wrong to push someone onto a track in order to save five people from a runaway trolley. Do you? How do you explain this?

After you've finished today's reading, make sure you complete the reading quiz, which you can access through your section's Canvas page.

Watch This: