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Being Morally Responsible – Simple Answers For People, Organizations, And AI

It’s easy to know when someone is to blame for a bad situation. But what does it mean to be morally responsible? This article provides simple answers to 8 tough questions about moral responsibility. Specifically, answers to questions of moral responsibilities concerning people, organizations, and even Artificial Intelligence (AI).

1. What Is Moral Responsibility? – A Baseline Definition.

Understanding moral responsibility can be complicated, but it doesn’t have to be! Let’s start by defining the terms moral responsibility and moral competence. So having a baseline understanding of these terms will help us provide easy answers to tough questions.

“Shall we not, like archers who have a mark to aim at, be more likely to hit upon what is right?”

Moral Responsibility Definition.

“In philosophy, moral responsibility is the status of morally deserving praise, blame, reward, or punishment for an act or omission in accordance with one’s moral obligations.”

Moral Competence

“… the ability to solve problems and conflicts on the basis of moral orientations through thinking and discussion, instead of through violence, deceit, or bowing down to others.”

George Lind
Conditions For Moral Responsibility.

I picked these two definitions as they are concise and spell out the basics in regard to being morally responsible. Namely, for someone to be morally responsible, at least four things need to occur. This includes: 

  1. Bad Event Occurs. This would be an act or omission. 
  2. Free Will And Power To Take Action. A person or entity has the power and freedom of action to affect the outcome. Also, with freedom of action comes responsibility.
  3. Relevant Moral Code. A moral code or “obligation” exists
  4. Knowledge Of Moral Responsibility. The agent and / or accuser has knowledge (moral orientation) of the moral obligation.

 By focusing on these 4 elements, we can keep the 8 answers below to moral responsibility simple. 

Aristotle ponders the virtues of AI and morally responsible
Aristotle Ponders The Virtues Of AI

The rest of this article will pose questions and provide answers about being morally responsible. Additionally, other key terms will be referenced that are an integral component of understanding moral responsibilities within the world we live in today. Specifically, these terms include free will, responsibility, social norms, obligations of knowing moral codes, organization’s role in regard to moral responsibilities, and lastly where artificial intelligence (AI) stands in regard to moral responsibilities

“Aristotle developed his theory of moral responsibility mainly in part III of the Nicomachean Ethics, where he claims we are held responsible for our voluntary actions and thus liable to either praise or blame, whereas for our involuntary actions we may be liable to either pardon or pity.”

Andre Santos Campos

2. Is Being Responsible The Same As Being Morally Responsible?

Being responsible is not the same thing as being morally responsible. Being responsible involves being accountable for one’s actions and taking responsibility for the consequences. In particular, this includes taking responsibility for unforeseen events that are out of your control (if they happen).

On the other hand, being morally responsible involves making decisions and taking actions based on an individual’s moral code. So it involves making decisions that are right and just, and it is not just totally focused on the outcome. For example, if you are leading a project and an unforeseen event occurs like a hurricane, you are responsible, but you are not morally responsible. For a more expanded discussion, see Philosophical Disquistions’ Taking Responsibility Vs Being Morally Responsible.

3. If You Break A Social Norm, Are You Morally Responsible?

“How can a man know what is good or best for him, and yet chronically fail to act upon his knowledge?”


Breaking a social norm may not always be morally wrong, as it can depend on the context. Specifically, depending on which moral code you follow will determine your perception of whether a person is morally responsible or not. As an example, you may think that some social norms may be outdated or oppressive. Thus, breaking them may not be morally wrong to you. However, breaking a social norm can often have consequences for those around us. Therefore, it is important to consider the moral implications of our actions and the potential consequences of our choices. For a further explanation, see Citizendium’s Moral Responsibility.

4. So If You Have Free Will, Are You Morally Responsible For Your Actions And Visa Versa?

“But what matters for questions of virtue and vice is whether your acts are not merely voluntary but also chosen.”


The key thing on any discussion of free will and moral responsibility is that if you do have free will then with it comes responsibility. However, you having free will does not necessary mean you are morally responsible. Specifically, being morally responsible does not happen if there is no moral code in the equation. Another way to say this is that free will is a prerequisite to being morally responsible, but it is not an absolute. For a detail explanation on free will, see Information Philosopher’s Moral Responsibility.

5. If Something Bad Happened And You Have The Power To Act, Are You Morally Responsible?

“Virtue lies in our power, and similarly so does vice; because where it is in our power to act, it is also in our power not to act…”


If something bad happens and you have the power to act, you are morally responsible to take action. As an example, most parent’s moral code would judge a child smacking a playmate as “bad”. Further as the parent has the power to act, they are morally responsible to take action to deter this type of behavior. Also, your moral responsibility is amplified if you are in a position of power or influence. This is because if you have power, you are in a better position to affect change and help those affected by the situation. 

6. Do You Have A Moral Responsibility If You Did Not Know Any Better?

“We punish a man for his ignorance if he is thought to be responsible for his ignorance.”


Knowledge is a key factor in moral responsibility. In most cases, if you do not have the knowledge to understand the consequences of your choices and subsequent actions, you cannot be held morally responsible. 

However, there is a caveat. For example, what about a dentist when something “bad” happens to the patient during a dental procedure. In addition, this dentist had no knowledge that this particular “bad” outcome could happen. So in this example, can the dentist be held morally responsible?  The answer is – it depends. The big question is it reasonable to expect that this dentist would have had the professional knowledge to avoid the bad outcome. If the answer is yes, then the dentist is morally responsible.

7. Can An Organization Be Morally Responsible For Its Actions?

“Corporation: An ingenious device for obtaining profit without individual responsibility.”

Ambrose Bierce

Organizations do have responsibilities and can be held both legally and morally responsible for their actions. The whole area of organizational moral responsibility is quite murky. There are many questions, different viewpoints, changing norms, and complex situations to consider.

Key questions include: what are the moral responsibilities of individuals within the organizations, what is considered an organization, and what “bad” acts can be attributed to an organization. For instance, organizations are not just corporations, but can be anything from a government body to a criminal gang. Also in regard to “bad” organization outcomes, these can be anything from a war, toxic wast spill, financial waste to world hunger. Here are some scenarios to consider in regard to moral responsibilities and organizations:

  1. Organization And Select Individuals Are Morally Responsible. An organization can be morally responsible even though not all their members are at fault. Example of this would be where all the top leaders of a company were knowingly selling defective products, but most employees were not aware of the issue.
  2. Organization And All Members Are Morally Responsible. Both the organization and all member are morally responsible. Example would be the Nazi SS where most of the world have condemned both the organization and its all members.
  3. Select Individuals Are Morally Responsible, But Not The Organization. For example, select individuals in a government were taking bribes to let lucrative government contracts to friends and family.

For more detail discussion of moral responsibility and organizations, See the IEP’s Collective Moral Responsibility

8. Can An Autonomous AI-Powered Robot Be Morally Responsible For Its Actions?

I’m really not sure if an autonomous AI-powered robot can be held morally responsible for their actions. Logically and technically, maybe an AI application can be held morally responsible. For example, if the robot is programmed to make decisions based on a moral code, then it can be held morally responsible for its actions. However, an intelligent robot’s decisions are programmed by humans. Therefore, there is a good argument that the ultimate responsibility still lies with the humans who programmed it.

On the other hand, as AI becomes more autonomous it takes on more responsibilities and its morality becomes a more relevant question. For a more detail discussion on AI and moral responsibility, see Prindle Institute’s Can Machines Be Morally Responsible?

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To help you cut through the hype, this article explains what AI is and what it is not. In addition, find out how recent technology advances have allowed AI to be commercialized, and concise examples of Artificial Intelligence and how it is changing our lives.

“Every bad man is ignorant what he ought to do and what to leave undone, and by reason of such error men become unjust and wholly evil.


For additional references on moral responsibility, see Stanford University’s Moral Responsibility. Also if you are curiosity about where you stand in regard to your own morality, take the Morality Test.

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