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Moral Responsibility of Public Officials: The Problem of Many Hands

Dennis F. Thompson
The American Political Science Review
Vol. 74, No. 4 (Dec., 1980), pp. 905-916
DOI: 10.2307/1954312
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1954312
Page Count: 12
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Moral Responsibility of Public Officials: The Problem of Many Hands
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Abstract

That many different officials contribute in many different ways to decisions and policies in the modern state makes it difficult to ascribe moral responsibility to any official. The usual responses to this problem--based on concepts of hierarchical and collective responsibility--distort the notion of responsibility. The idea of personal responsibility--based on causal and volitional criteria--constitutes a better approach to the problem of ascribing responsibility to public officials. Corresponding to each of these criteria are types of excuses that officials use in defending the decisions they make. An analysis of the conditions under which the excuses eliminate or mitigate responsibility provides a foundation for accountability in a democracy.

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