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Moral Responsibility of Public Officials: The Problem of Many Hands

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 August 2014

Dennis F. Thompson*
Princeton University


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.

Research Article
Copyright © American Political Science Association 1980

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