2017 Abstracts Stage 2

Can agents be considered accountable for their actions when following the orders of an authoritative figure?

Sophie Eleanor Rutterford Bean, 2017, Stage 2

This project discusses the impact of authority on moral responsibility, and whether the autonomy and free will of an agent is required in order to enforce responsibility and punishment.

While Nietzsche sceptically denounced the genealogy of morality as an institution which instils guilt and punishment, he relented to admit that despite its insufferable origins, morality is nevertheless invaluable in understanding cultures and ideologies. The doctrines of John Martin Fischer conversely maintained the position that an agent must necessarily be morally responsible for the actions they committed, even under circumstances wherein the agent may feel as though their judgement was clouded by the coercive force of an authoritative figure, which made it seem as though the actions were not the agent’s own.

Nevertheless, it has been recognised in case studies spanning over the last 100 years, such as The Nuremberg Trials of 1945-46, the 1963 Milgram Behavioural Study of Obedience and the 1971 Zimbardo Stanford Prison Experiment, that there is always an alternative possibility to the course of action taken by an agent, and that the action is always necessarily an agent’s own. In such case studies which discuss the impact of authority, other questions have been raised as to whether passivity in these examples is the true evil, or whether there lies within mankind an innate capacity for evil and sinister acts which inflict harm upon his fellow man.

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