Skip to main content

Moral Responsibility of Public Officials: The Problem of Many Hands

  • Dennis F. Thompson (a1)

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.

Hide All
Allison, Graham (1971). Essence of Decision. Boston: Little, Brown.
Altshuler, Alan A. (1977). “The Study of American Public Administration.” In Altshuler, Alan A. and Thomas, Norman C. (eds.), The Politics of the Federal Bureaucracy. New York: Harper and Row.
Anderson, Charles W. (1979). “The Place of Principles in Policy Analysis.” American Political Science Review 73:711–23.
Aristotle, (1963). Ethica Nicomachea. In Ross, W. D. (ed.), The Works of Aristotle. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Ashabranner, Brent (1971). A Moment in History. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.
Austin, J. L. (19561957). “A Plea for Excuses.” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 57: 130.
Bok, Sissela (1978). Lying. New York: Pantheon.
Congressional Quarterly (1975). Watergate. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly.
Donagan, Alan (1977). The Theory of Morality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Donovan, Robert J. (1977). Conflict and Crisis. New York: Norton.
Doty, Paul (1972). “Can Investigations Improve Scientific Advice? The Case of the ABM.” Minerva 10:280–94.
Edelman, Murray (1964). The Symbolic Uses of Politics. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Feinberg, Joel (1970). Doing and Deserving. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Fleishman, Joel, and Payne, Bruce (1980). Ethical Dilemmas and the Education of Policymakers. Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y.: Hastings Center.
Frankfurt, Harry G. (1971). “Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person.” Journal of Philosophy 68: 520.
French, Peter A., ed. (1972). Individual and Collective Responsibility. Cambridge, Mass.: Schenkman.
Fried, Charles (1978). Right and Wrong. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Friedlander, Saul (1969). Kurt Cerstein. New York: Knopf.
Gerth, H. H., and Mills, C. Wright (1958). From Max Weber. New York: Oxford University Press.
Glover, Jonathan (1970). Responsibility. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Hampshire, Stuart, ed. (1978). Public and Private Morality. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
Hart, H. L. A. (1968). Punishment and Responsibility. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hart, H. L. A., and Honoré, A. M. (1959). Causation in the Law. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press.
Heclo, Hugh (1978). “Issue Networks and the Executive Establishment.” In King, Anthony (ed.), The New American Political System. Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute.
Hill, Thomas E. (1979). “Symbolic Protest and Calculated Silence.” Philosophy and Public Affairs 9: 83102.
Hirschman, Albert O. (1970). Exit, Voice, and Loyalty. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Hobbes, Thomas (1962). Leviathan. New York: Collier.
Kant, Immanuel (1949). “On a Supposed Right to Lie from Altruistic Motives.” In Beck, L. W. (ed.), Critique of Practical Reason. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Kaufman, Herbert (1977). Red Tape. Washington, D.C.: Brookings.
Kissinger, Henry (1979a). “Letters.” Economist 272:67.
Kissinger, Henry (1979b). White House Years. Boston: Little, Brown.
Krasner, Stephen D. (1972). “Are Bureaucracies Important? (Or Allison in Wonderland).” Foreign Policy 7: 159–79.
Ladd, John (1970). “Morality and the Ideal of Rationality in Formal Organizations.” Monist 54: 488516.
Lipsky, Michael (1980). Street-Level Bureaucracy. New York: Russell Sage.
Lowi, Theodore J. (1979). The End of Liberalism, 2d ed. New York: W.W. Norton.
Lukas, J. Anthony (1977). Nightmare. New York: Bantam.
Martin, John Bartlow (1966). Overtaken by Events. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.
Muller, Robert J. (1967). Adlai Stevenson. New York: Harper and Row.
Nelson, William R., ed. (1968). The Politics of Science. New York: Oxford University Press.
Operations Research Society of America (1971). “Guidelines for the Practice of Operations Research.” Operations Research 19: 1123–58.
Pennock, J. Roland (1979). Democratic Political Theory. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Peters, Charles (1973). “The Culture of Bureaucracy.” Washington Monthly 5: 2224.
Rohr, John A. (1978). Ethics for Bureaucrats. New York and Basel: Dekker.
Rourke, Francis E., ed. (1978). Bureaucratic Power in National Politics, 3rd ed. Boston: Little, Brown.
Schlesinger, Arthur M. Jr. (1965). A Thousand Days. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin.
Sjoberg, Gideonet al. (1978). “Bureaucracy and the Lower Class.” In Rourke, Francis E. (ed.), Bureaucratic Power in National Politics. Boston: Little, Brown.
Stillman, Richard J. (1980). Public Administration: Concepts and Cases, 2d ed. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin.
Strawson, P. F. (1968). “Freedom and Resentment.” In Strawson, (ed.), Studies in the Philosophy of Thought and Action. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Thompson, Dennis (1981). “Excuses Officials Use: Moral Responsibility and the New York City Fiscal Crisis.” In Fleishman, Joelet al. (eds.). Ethics in Government. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, forthcoming.
Thompson, Victor (1961). Modern Organizations. New York: Random House.
Truman, Harry (1955). Memoirs, Vol. 1, Years of Decisions. New York: Doubleday.
U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (1971). In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Walsh, W. H. (1970). “Pride, Shame and Responsibility.” Philosophical Quarterly 20: 113.
Walzer, Michael (1973). “Political Action: The Problem of Dirty Hands.” Philosophy and Public Affairs 2: 160–80.
Walzer, Michael (1977). Just and Unjust Wars. New York: Basic Books.
Weisband, Edward, and Franck, Thomas M. (1976). Resignation in Protest. New York: Penguin Books.
Williams, Bernard (1973). “A Critique of Utilitarianism.” In Smart, J. J. C. and Williams, Bernard, Utilitarianism for and Against. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

American Political Science Review
  • ISSN: 0003-0554
  • EISSN: 1537-5943
  • URL: /core/journals/american-political-science-review
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed