Part 1: Agency, Power and Responsibility

Section 2: Three degrees to which we are responsible for things


  1. We are responsible for things that we cause

There are three ways to describe the degree to we are responsible for the results of our actions. The first of which is our causal responsibility.

  • We are responsible according to our power. There are some things that we could said to be ‘responsible for’ in the simple sense that we caused them, whether we intended to or not. You could say we are responsible for our miniscule gravitational pull in this simplest sense, or responsible for the sound we make when we sneeze, or responsible for the unintended consequences of our words, or responsible for an amazing basketball shot achieved by total fluke, or a terrible accident that we were involved in.
  • All of these things were caused by our body, words or actions. This is what we could call ‘causal responsibility’. At times certain rights or duties might arise from things caused in this way: I might still claim any profit that comes from things (or be held liable for things) caused in this unintentional way.
  • But there are two limits to this responsibility: Firstly, I am only responsible to the extent I was the cause. The effects of my actions might be magnified by accidental/providential factors, or by the contributions of other people and forces, well beyond my contribution.
  • Secondly, I am responsible to a lesser extent if I did not intend or forsee the effect. I am less worthy of credit and praise, and less culpable of wrongdoing because of the unintended nature of my influence.


  1. We are responsible according to our deliberate agency

The second way to describe our responsibility is according to our deliberation intentions.

  • But it is something more significant to say we are responsible according to our deliberate intention and our ability. This is the broadest kind of moral responsibility. It means we are to be credited with having done this or that, whether that thing was right, wrong or somewhat more morally neutral.
  • Likewise, I may deliberately contribute to causing something or producing something. And because I made this thing take place I can receive credit or profit from it or blame or punishment for it in one way or another. Several things qualify the degree to which I am responsible for things in this category.
  • Firstly, not everything I might choose to do is a moral duty (the final category) and so I am not accountable for my neglect or failure to do something or failure cause something that I was not bound to do it in the first place. I am not obliged to give to the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra and so I am not accountable for my failure to do so.
  • Secondly, I am responsible for my actions, separate from the intended result. I can take credit for trying hard, or performing well, even if the intended result didn’t come about. Likewise, I can be criticised for a lacklustre performance in managing a project, even if the end result was largely unaffected by my failure.
  • Thirdly, I am only responsible for my performance and for the end result to the degree to which I actually contributed towards it. If I preach someone else’s sermon, I am only responsible for the choice of the sermon and the delivery of the sermon, not the content itself. Or success in business, for example, is a combination of hard work and luck. So then, my claim of responsibility for business success should only be in proportion to how much hard work contributed to my success.
  • Fourthly, my responsibility is qualified by my deliberate intention. Good actions or results might be produced by bad motives or simply by ignorance. To succeed as something out of envy is less admirable than to succeed at something with pure motives. To attempt to do something impossible because of foolishness is worth of criticism.


  1. We are responsible according to our duty

Thirdly, explicit duty and legitimate authority makes us responsible in a different way again.

  • A narrower form of responsibility still is responsibility according to duty. In the case of a moral command, or a duty created by a contract, relationship or circumstance of some kind, I am bound to say certain words or perform certain actions and even foster certain attitudes and patterns of thought. Moral duties bring with them extra burdens of accountability than the other forms of responsibility.
  • In the case of moral duties, I am not only responsible for what I actually do, but also accountable for my failure to fulfil my obligations. In this sense a duty is different to other kinds of optional and non-binding actions.
  • Also, I can properly be held responsible for moral duties that I am unable to successfully fulfil because of my sinful nature and human limitation. Humans in slavery to sin are still accountable for their failure to believe in God’s one and only Son. Both partners to a marriage contract are still responsible for every minor failure to love the other consistently, even though their sinfulness made some failure inevitable.
  • Despite this reality, it remains true that something can only be a moral duty for someone it they have the power to fulfil the kind of thing it is, even if their will is unable and unwilling to choose to do this particular thing because of their fallen state. Human beings are responsible to trust and obey God in all things, and were created to be able to trust and obey God, even though sin has made this impossible for us in our current state. By contrast, we cannot be held morally responsible for not feeding the entire population of the planet.
  • I am responsible for the outcomes towards which my moral duties aim only in proportion to my ability to bring about these results. Most moral duties seek to cause a good outcome of some kind in the world: to give money which relieves someone’s physical need, to discipline children so that they will live in a wise way, to excommunicate an unrepentant Christian so that they might come to repentance, to preach the gospel so that people will believe. But although my words or actions are instrumental in these goals being achieved, I am only responsible for these outcomes to the degree to which my action is able to cause them.
  • All moral duties are also measured by intention and motivation, so that a good action that produces a good result might still be deserving of some condemnation if it was performed in bad faith.



Xian Reflections is written by Mikey Lynch.

Mikey graduated from the University of Tasmania with a Bachelor of Arts in 2002. In 2000 he became one of the founding leaders of Crossroads Presbyterian Church where he was the lead pastor for 7 years from 2003.

Mikey now works as the Campus Director of the University Fellowship of Christians, University of Tasmania, Hobart. Mikey is the chairman of The Vision 100 Network (Tasmania) and a founding director of Geneva Push (national) – both church planting networks. He is also a chaplain at Jane Franklin Hall and the chairman of New Front Door: the Church IT Guild.

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