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Moore on Causing, Acting, and Complicity, 18 Legal Theory 437 (2012)


Michael Moore’s sweeping, insightful and startlingly learned book, Causation and Responsibility, concerns, as the title suggests, a large number of questions—one might even say every question—that might be asked about the relation between causation and responsibility and the relevance of that relation to legal practices and their justification. One set of questions that Moore discusses in many different places in the book concerns the relationship between doing, or being active, and causing. The notion of activity is crucial to ordinary moral thought. Consider an example: In the November 1976 issue, then Governor Jimmy Carter told Playboy magazine that although he had never been unfaithful to his wife, Rosalind, he had sinned in his heart in that respect. Rosalind Carter and the American public, who elected him President not long after, not to mention the readers of Playboy, seem to have had little trouble forgiving him. Sins of the heart just aren’t the same as sins of the body. But why not? What justifies the moral line we routinely draw between what we think and what we do? On one appealing view, the distinction in responsibility between thoughts and actions is an instance of the more general distinction in responsibility between things with respect to which we are passive—things that just happen to us—and things with respect to which we are active—things we do. Carter’s lustful musings, on this view, are not something for which he is to be held responsible precisely because they just happened to him, as they do to many a faithful, but aching, spouse. Had he acted on them, that would have been a different matter. This view has the added advantage of explaining why some thoughts, such as choices and plans, are less clearly, if at all, things for which we are not rightly held responsible. Those thoughts, in contrast to many, are, we might say, things that we do. We choose; our choices do not merely come upon us in the way that our desires do. And that is why choices, in contrast to our feelings of lust, are things for which we are rightly held responsible.

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