Moral Responsibility


A fundamental difference between a human person and a tree or a cow is that the person is held responsible for his actions (at least some of them), while the tree and the cow are not said to be responsible for their actions.

Both plants and animals act in certain ways by necessity, since they function according to the nature that God endowed them with. Human persons also have a nature, but specifically human actions proceed from knowledge and freedom.

"Responsibility", therefore, is essentially related to free actions that proceed from adequate knowledge. It is clearly recognized both in ethics and in law that a mentally deranged person is not responsible for his or her actions. When we say that a man is responsible for his actions we mean that he knew what he was doing and that he acted freely.

Very closely related to the notion of responsibility is the idea of "imputability", which means that one may be declared the free author of an action and may be held responsible for it. The more free the action is, the more imputable it is, and vice versa. Thus, when we speak about moral responsibility and imputability we are touching on something that is at the very heart of all moral activity.

Since a person can act with more or less knowledge and with more or less freedom, it follows that any restriction on knowledge or freedom will also affect the personal responsibility or imputability of the act. Since man is very limited and is open to a number of influences, we find that there are many obstacles or impediments to fully human acts -- all of which affect moral responsibility in one way or another.

Some of the factors that can diminish or altogether remove imputability are: ignorance, emotion or passion, fear, bad habits, violence, hypnosis, drugs and mental illness. All of these affect either a personís mind or his will, or both, and to the extent that they do, they lessen responsibility.

Moralists make a distinction between ignorance that cannot be overcome and ignorance that can be eliminated with minimal effort. The former is called "invincible ignorance"; the latter is called "vincible ignorance".

Thus, in the realm of morality a person is not held responsible for the observance of laws that he does not know about. Moralists make a distinction between ignorance that cannot be overcome and ignorance that can be eliminated with minimal effort. The former is called "invincible ignorance"; the latter is called "vincible ignorance". If I am invincibly ignorant of some obligation, such as attending Mass on a Holy Day of obligation, then I am not responsible for missing Mass on that day. Vincible ignorance can be cleared up if one wants to; if I fail to clear it up and thereby violate the law of God, my guilt depends on the degree of neglect involved in persisting in my "voluntary" ignorance.

It is common knowledge and experience that emotions can inhibit clear thinking and free choosing. Sometimes they can be so strong that they remove all culpability. Fear is mental anxiety because of impending evil. It is rarely so strong as to deprive a person of all moral responsibility for actions performed. Fear can lessen imputability but it can also increase the merit involved in good actions when one persists in good in spite of great fear. Such would be the case for a police office who, in spite of great danger to himself, overcomes his own fear in order to rescue someone held as hostage in a bank robbery.

Violence, bad habits, hypnosis, mental illness, etc. either diminish moral responsibility or totally erase it depending on their influence on the mind and will. Of course, if a person is freely responsible for positing an obstacle to his own knowledge or freedom, such as deliberately getting drunk or taking drugs, then he is fully responsible for what is done or omitted.

In all of this it is important to remember that complete responsibility for human acts depends on their proceeding from adequate knowledge and full consent of the will. Defects not traceable to personal fault will either diminish or totally remove all moral responsibility.


See the index of chapters from Fundamentals of Catholicism
which have been reprinted to CERC here.



Kenneth Baker, S.J. "What Makes Human Acts Good or Bad?" In Fundamentals of Catholicism Vol. 1 Part II, Chapter 2 (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1983), 126-129.

Reprinted with permission from Father Kenneth Baker, S.J.


Rev. Kenneth Baker, S.J., has served for the past thirty years as editor of the Homiletic & Pastoral Review. He entered the Society of Jesus in 1947. In 1970 he served as president of Seattle University and in 1971 became editor of the Homiletic & Pastoral Review. In 1973 he published his translation of the Philosophical Dictionary and adapted it to American usage. In 1975 he became president of Catholic Views Broadcasts, Inc., which produces a weekly 15-minute radio program that airs on 50 stations across the United States. He has built and run three community television stations. In 1983 he published a three-volume explation of the faith called Fundamentals of Catholicism Vol. 1, Creed and Commandments; Vol. 2, God, Trinity, Creation, Christ, Mary; and Vol. 3, Grace, the Church, the Sacraments, Eschatology.

Copyright © 1995 Fr. Kenneth Baker, S.J.

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