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Responsibility for Consequences: Morality, Law and Causation - PHI00073M

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  • Department: Philosophy
  • Module co-ordinator: Dr. Christopher Jay
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: M
  • Academic year of delivery: 2021-22

Module summary

We care about the harms and benefits which are caused by our actions, and by our decisions and attitudes etc. But such outcomes are rarely if ever due only to our own actions. So, when and why ought we to be held liable or accountable for the outcomes which we contribute to bringing about? This module will explore those questions, and will investigate their relevance in law, politics, and at the intersection of technology and society.

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching period
A Spring Term 2021-22

Module aims

This module aims to explore philosophical issues of accountability and causation and how those issues arise in law, policy, and morality. The discussions will be primarily philosophical, but students will be introduced to aspects of tort law and debates in politics and technology studies, where those philosophical discussions promise to shed light (and where those extra-philosophical fields provide fecund material for philosophical reflection). So, as well as analytical and communication skills, students will need to develop some familiarity with debates in politics and law.

Module learning outcomes

By the end of this module students should be able to:

  • Report on some leading views about responsibility and accountability, and about different theories of partial or contributory causation.

  • Make reasoned judgments about attributions of responsibility for outcomes, and related issues such as the propriety of punishment and legal or financial accountability.

  • Understand the ways in which some philosophical issues interact with issues in law, politics and related fields.

Module content

Much ink is spilt in philosophy trying to answer questions about whether we are really responsible for our actions, and if so what makes us so, and whether it is reasonable to hold us morally accountable for them. This module will not address those questions, except in passing. Instead, it will look at another set of important questions about responsibility: In what ways, if any, are we responsible for the consequences of our actions and how should we understand that responsibility, especially since the consequences of our actions are only partially caused by us?

These questions are important for law as much as for morality, and we will look at some of the debates about causation and responsibility in the philosophy of tort law, as well as considering the legitimacy of the legal doctrine of strict liability (which holds individuals or corporations responsible for some harms caused by them, even when there is no negligence or fault involved). We will also consider the emerging issue of responsibility, both moral and legal, for the consequences of actions by AI systems and autonomous or quasi-autonomous systems, and the notorious doctrine of double effect.


Task Length % of module mark
Essay 4000 words
N/A 100

Special assessment rules


Additional assessment information

The formative essay plan is due on Monday, Week 10 of the Spring Term.

The summative essay is due on Monday, Week 1 of the Summer Term.


Task Length % of module mark
Essay 4000 words
N/A 100

Module feedback

Formative essay proposals/plans submitted on Monday Week 10 will be discussed in tutorials during Week 10, with feedback issued in those tutorials (including some written comments).

Summative work will be marked and feedback provided four weeks after submission.

Indicative reading

Reading might include:

Carolina Sartorio, ‘Causation and Responsibility’, Philosophy Compass 2:5 (2007)

Amy J. Sempinwall, ‘Corporate Moral Responsibility’, Philosophy Compass 11:1 (2016)

Alex Kaiserman, ‘“More of a Cause”: Recent Work on Degrees of Causation and Responsibility’, Philosophy Compass (2018)

Michael J. Zimmerman, ‘Sharing Responsibility’, American Philosophical Quarterly 22:2 (1985)

Carolina Sartorio, ‘How to be Responsible for Something Without Causing It’, Philosophical Perspectives 18 (2004)

David Enoch, ‘Being Responsible, Taking Responsibility, and Penumbral Agency’ in U. Heuer & G. Lang (eds.), Luck, Value and Commitment: Themes from the Ethics of Bernard Williams (Oxford: OUP, 2012)

Michael S. Moore, Causation and Responsibility: an Essay in Law, Morals, and Metaphysics (Oxford: OUP, 2009)

H. L. A. Hart and Tony Honoré, Causation in the Law (Oxford: OUP, [1959])

George Hull, ‘Product Safety and Liability’ in J. Winfield, G. Hull & G. Fried (eds.), Business Ethics (& Other Paradoxes) (Cape Town: Fairest Cape Press, 2014)

The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University is constantly exploring ways to enhance and improve its degree programmes and therefore reserves the right to make variations to the content and method of delivery of modules, and to discontinue modules, if such action is reasonably considered to be necessary by the University. Where appropriate, the University will notify and consult with affected students in advance about any changes that are required in line with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.