Accountability and Intention

It is a commonplace that people should be judged on the consequences of their actions. The drunk driver who causes injury to another driver, the dictator who oppresses his people, the thief ready to be sentenced by the court are all examples where we shake our heads and say that people should be held accountable for the things that they do. But, is this always the case? And, more significantly, is this the best way to look at the matter?

It is especially when this issue is looked at in the context of political debate that the flaws begin to become apparent. It is typical of political debate in the UK at the moment that the Conservatives point out something that the previous, Labour, government did which has had some bad consequences. The go on to say that this example shows that voters should not vote for Labour next time. They say that they opposed this Labour policy at the time and this shows that they were right and Labour were wrong. In all democracies this game is played by all political groups all the time but the argument is fallacious.

Let us take an abstract example. Suppose that there is a chief of a poor village somewhere in a remote corner of the world. The chief is contacted by a government official who tells him that the village’s maize crop must be destroyed because there is a disease that has become prevalent in the area which attacks maize crops and makes them poisonous. The chief commands that the maize crop be destroyed but the local witch doctor says that it must not be done because it will offend the local gods who will be angry. The crop is destroyed but the food cannot be replaced because all the surrounding villages have done the same and the price of maize and all it substitutes has gone through the roof. The chief is blamed for the resulting hunger and the witch doctor claims that he was right because he had told them that there would be bad consequences.

I would suggest that the chief is not at fault because he acted for the best in the light of the information and understanding that he had at the time he made the decision. I would also suggest that the witch doctor should not be given any credit because he gave no good reason for the alternative course of action, which might also have had bad consequences in any case.

A prime example of this situation from recent history is the House of Commons debate on the Iraq on 18th March 2003 just prior to the invasion. The Liberal-Democrats have gained a good deal of prestige in the popular imagination because they opposed the invasion of Iraq at that time. And yet, their arguments were poorly constructed and unconvincing.

At an organisational level we find that so often people are reluctant to make decisions because they are afraid of being blamed if the decision has some negative outcome. As soon as you do something you can be criticised for it whereas not making a decision can be presented as appropriate caution. The prevalence of this kind of ‘blame culture’ has a bad effect on individual organisations and on society at large.

So, perhaps we should be more inclined to judge people on their intentions seen in the light of what they knew at the time rather than on the consequences of their actions. Is the drunk driver who causes no accident really any better than the one who causes a fatal accident? And, is the politician who makes a major decision which causes some harm really any worse than the other politician who opposes him just because it is his job to do so?

3 thoughts on “Accountability and Intention

  1. I agree ..brave politicians don’t shy away from making difficult decisions they believe in because they might be judged harshly for them in the future, weak ones sit on the fence or just take the populist stance. Nowhere is there a better example of the former kind than Tony Blair and look what’s happened to him. Opposing a war is always going to be easier (and more popular) than taking your country into one when your own country is not being directly attacked, a fact he was very much aware of at the time

  2. “I would also suggest that the witch doctor should not be given any credit because he gave no good reason for the alternative course of action”

    Substituting for this a statement of popular ethical objections to a proposal – not necessarily supported by science, utility or self interest – I suggest the objection of the witch doctor would not be so easily dismissed.

    For example, should we judge the 18th century slave trade with regard to the prevailing morals of the time, or an absolute standard of ethics? Should objections to slavery at the time to be ignored if they were not able to suggest an alternative source of labour for plantations? Or, should they be accepted as a moral statements – even if religious principles are invoked?

    Will future generations, possibly suffering from the effects of climate change, judge us on what we should have been aware of in the end of the 20th century, or forgive us for our ignorance and pressing need to have cars and power stations?

    • It is a very good question as to whether moral principles can be absolute accross time and culture or relative to the society in which they are applied. Even if religious principles are invoked, history shows that there has been a good deal of relativism. For example, Christians thought that public executions were perfectly normal and acceptable up until the early nineteenth century. I come down on the side of relativism. I don’t believe that there are human rights in the abstract, for example, but only ones which society decides to grant. I do think, though, that there are a priori ethical principles which can be deduced from the human condition of being a social animal, like ‘do as you would be done by’, for example. In objective terms, slavery came into question when the steam engine was invented and became untenable when the petrol engine was invented. Morality has always follwed economics rather than vice versa.

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