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When Is Someone Responsible for Not Acting?

photograph of empty chair with "Lifeguard On Duty" sign displayed

A recent law in Minnesota legalized edible marijuana for those over the age of 21 with support from both Republicans and Democrats. While this new law is perhaps unsurprising to many locals and lawmakers, it came as a surprise to one Republican who voted for the bill. Minnesota State Senator Jim Abeler claims that he was not aware of what he was voting for. In fact, he called for the legislature to repeal the new law, a call that was shot down as quickly as it was raised.

Abeler’s claim, that he was not aware of what he was voting for, might be met with genuine suspicion. It’s presumably a part of Abeler’s job to know what he is voting for, and such a claim might be disingenuous. But, for the sake of argument, I would like to consider Abeler’s claim to be genuine.

If Abeler was not aware that his vote would support the legalization of edible marijuana, is he still responsible for his vote?

Abeler’s claim effectively amounts to a denial of one if not both of the classical conditions of moral responsibility: (i) awareness and (ii) voluntariness. Classically, individuals are responsible for an action only if both of these conditions are met. Abeler’s claim is a denial of awareness concerning the specific content of the bill. And his claim is a denial of voluntariness with respect to support for the specifics about which he was unaware. Indeed, assuming Abeler’s claim is genuine, how could Abeler willfully vote to legalize marijuana edibles if he wasn’t aware of this aspect of the bill?

This particular question is an application of the following general question:

Is an individual responsible for something the same individual fails to do?

In philosophy and law, this problem is known as the problem of negligent omissions (see here for an overview in law, and here for an excellent piece in philosophy).

Pinning down when a lack of action becomes a failure of action is tricky. For example, we generally think that if a child is drowning and there is an individual nearby who does not act, this individual is culpable in some sense. The individual ought to have acted and did not — there is a negligent omission. However, we do not generally think the individual is culpable if he is not able to save the child. For example, if the individual is a couple of miles away and unaware of the child drowning, he does not seem to be culpable for not acting.

So, under what conditions is an individual responsible for a failure to act or a failure to act knowledgeably? Generally, there are three conditions. An individual is responsible for an omission if the same individual:

1. Is able to act;
2. Is obliged to act;
3. Is aware of the relevant events and obligation.

To see how these conditions are important, consider the following example. Sylvia is a lifeguard at the local beach. Her job is to save people from drowning and to alert people about the weather conditions by placing the correctly colored flags on the beach. For example, if there is a riptide and it is dangerous to swim in the ocean, she is to place a red flag on the beach. As it happens, an individual begins to drown. Sylvia jumps to the rescue and successfully saves the individual.

Notice that, among the individuals on the beach, it is Sylvia’s job to save the person drowning. The other swimmers do not have the training. And, even if they do, they are not obligated in the same way that Sylvia is obligated to save the person drowning.

Imagine now that Silvia fails to act and the person drowns. Reasonably, she is responsible in some sense. Moreover, imagine the outrage if Sylvia were to turn to a surfer and exclaim, “Why didn’t you save him?” The surfer can legitimately say that he could not have responded because he does not have the proper training. Even if the surfer were to have the training, he would not be obligated to save the individual in terms of his role or job (of course, the surfer still has the more general obligation to help those in need).

The example shows how Sylvia is responsible for her failure to act. She has the ability (the proper training), the obligation in virtue of her role, and the awareness of the event and obligation.

When she fails to save the drowning individual, her omission is negligent.

Now, Abler’s omission is a bit more subtle. He claims to have not voted knowledgeably. He acted, and yet he failed to act with an awareness and knowledge of the bill for which he voted. To see how Abeler is responsible for this omission, let us revisit the lifeguard. Among Sylvia’s various responsibilities is the task to alert the beachgoers of the swimming conditions. Imagine that she raises a yellow flag to alert the people that there is a medium hazard to swimming. However, Sylvia did not take into consideration that the tide is now becoming high tide. This collection of conditions will cause a riptide — Sylvia should have raised a red flag to alert the beachgoers to not swim. Regardless of whether the beachgoers swim, we have a situation where Sylvia acted and did not act knowledgeably. She is responsible for her failure of knowledge because it is her job to account for the water conditions.

Abeler is likewise obligated to know what he votes for in virtue of his role. So, when he fails to vote and when he fails to vote knowledgeably, he is still responsible. His omission is negligent.

All is well at the intuitive level. It seems intuitively correct to ascribe responsibility to Sylvia and Abeler. The conditions are articulated, work together, and have common examples to back them up. But something worrying has happened.

If we can ascribe responsibility for an omission, and more specifically, omission of knowledgeable action, we seem to lose one of the classical conditions of responsibility: awareness.

One way to keep the awareness condition is to maintain that Abeler is generally aware of his responsibilities as a state senator. When Abeler assumed his position, he was aware of his decision and obligated himself to read certain documents. Thus, when he enters his office on voting day and fails to read the bill thoroughly, he has already fulfilled the awareness condition in an important sense. So too with our lifeguard. When Sylvia signs on the dotted line to become a lifeguard, it obligates her to act and be aware in certain ways.

It may also seem that the voluntariness condition is in peril. However, we can offer the same answer that applies to the awareness condition: Abeler voluntarily took on the role of a lawmaker.

There is more to be said about negligent omissions, and there are more ways to pair the classical conditions of responsibility with negligent omissions. What is clear, however, is that Abeler is still responsible for his vote.

Is It Right to Hope for a Politician’s Death?

photograph of newspaper stand with various magazines with Trump on the cover

For a wide swath of the U.S. population, the news that President Trump is COVID-19 positive was not exactly met with wailing and gnashing of teeth. Many believe that Trump’s dithering, downplaying, and dismissals are in fact responsible for some non-trivial proportion of the country’s 200,000+ COVID deaths — a fact whose significance will become apparent shortly. That he now has the virus strikes many as a delicious irony, and not a few fondly hope and fervently pray that Trump may speedily pass away. But there are plenty of Trump opponents who find this bloody-mindedness unsavory, perhaps even unethical. Thus, we confront the following ethical issue: is it right to hope for a politician’s death?

There is an important caveat to the discussion that follows, which is that even if hoping for a politician’s death may be justified, that does not mean that we are justified in hoping for their deaths. The distinction has to do with our reasons for hope. While a justification might be available for hoping for a politician’s death, that often isn’t the reason why we actually hope for their death. Instead, the reasons why many people actually hope for politicians’ deaths have to do with revenge or hatred, which is not a sufficient justification for so hoping. In short, you aren’t actually justified in hoping for a politician’s death unless your motives for so hoping match the reasons that actually justify so hoping.

Here is an argument I have seen bandied about on social media. Commonsense morality recognizes circumstances under which killing is morally justified: namely, when it is necessary to save the life of a third-party, and more controversially, when it is deserved. If it is true that Trump’s mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic has led to thousands of unnecessary deaths, then it might be argued that his death is both deserved and necessary for the prevention of many future deaths. But if an act that results in some outcome is morally justified, then the outcome is one that we may permissibly hope for, whether it is produced by an act or by some other cause. Therefore, we may hope for Trump’s death.

One problem with the argument is that Trump’s death is not strictly necessary to prevent future death; there are other ways to remove him from power. Nor is it obvious that Trump’s death is even the best, or the most efficient, means of preventing future death. Trump’s death would have many consequences that we can only dimly foresee, many of them probably not good for disease control and prevention. If the use of lethal force is not necessary, nor even the best or most efficient means of protecting third parties from imminent lethal harm, then its use is arguably unjustified. Furthermore, there may be an intent requirement: it may be impermissible to use lethal force to save innocent lives unless the person who threatens those lives intends, or at least can be reasonably interpreted as intending, to kill. Trump’s sin seems more like negligence than intentional wrongdoing.

We might also question whether Trump’s gross negligence really merits death. Generally speaking, the death penalty is reserved for those who commit intentional crimes, not negligent ones. On the other hand, it could be argued that negligence can be so gross that it does deserve death. Questions of proportionality are difficult to pin down with any precision.

It might also be objected that to hope for something is to view it as a good thing, and that we ought to hope for what is actually good. Furthermore, a person’s death is never a good thing, even if to kill that person would be morally justified. Thus, we should never hope for someone’s death. Here we are taking aim at the premise of the argument that says that if an act results in some morally justified outcome, then the outcome is one that we may permissibly hope for. Not so, says the objector: there are outcomes that are always bad, and so ones we should never hope for, even if it is permissible for us to bring them about.

It seems right to say that we should always hope for what is actually good. And it’s true that death is almost always bad for the person who dies. So, we can agree that Trump’s death would be bad for him. But Trump’s death would, ex hypothesi, also be good for many people. And it is also good if people get what they deserve. We can, therefore, plausibly say that what we hope for in the complex state of affairs that involves Trump’s death is that people will be saved, or that Trump will get what he deserves. Thus, there seems to be no difficulty hoping for Trump’s death even if it is bad for him, if what we are really hoping for are the good consequences of Trump’s death or that Trump gets his just deserts. Hope for these things does not involve hope for what is actually bad.

This point also applies to the slightly different objection that hope involves the anticipation of happiness, but we should never be happy about someone’s death. For example, many people thought the spectacle of crowds rambunctiously celebrating Osama bin Laden’s death was unsavory. One reason this might indeed be unsavory is because it involves taking pleasure in others’ misfortune, which seems like a bad thing, although this would have to be argued for in greater depth. It seems possible, however, to hope for a politician’s death in a way that does not involve taking pleasure in anticipating their misfortune, if the object of hope is either the good consequences that will flow from the politician’s death or that the politician gets what she deserves. Here we come back to the point that in order to be justified in hoping for a politician’s death, our motives must match the reasons that actually justify so hoping. If our hope is based on taking pleasure in anticipated misfortune, it may not be justified; but if it is based on the anticipated goods that either flow from or are realized by the politician’s death, it may be justified.

To conclude, it seems that we can be justified in hoping for a politician’s death under some circumstances, although it is less clear that these circumstances obtain with respect to President Trump. There is no special ethical barrier to hoping for a politician’s death in principle, although in so hoping most of us face the ethical pitfalls of vengeful feeling and sadistic pleasure.

The Continued Saga of Education During COVID-19

photograph of empty elementary school classroom filled with books and bags

In early August, Davis County School District, just north of Salt Lake City, Utah, announced its intention to open K-12 schools face-to-face. All of the students who did not opt for an online alternative would be present. There would be no mandatory social distancing because the schools simply aren’t large enough to allow for it. Masks would be encouraged but not required. There was significant pushback to this decision. Shortly thereafter the district announced a new hybrid model. On this model, students are divided into two groups. Each group attends school two days a week on alternating days. Fridays are reserved for virtual education for everyone so that the school can be cleaned deeply. In response to spiking cases, Governor Herbert also issued a mask mandate for all government buildings, including schools. Parents and students were told that the decision would remain in place until the end of the calendar year.

On Tuesday, September 15th, the school board held a meeting that many of the parents in the district did not know was taking place. At this meeting, in response to the demands of a group of parents insisting upon returning to a four or even five-day school week for all students, the board unanimously voted to change direction mid-stream and switch to a four-day-a-week, all-students-present model. Many of these same parents were also arguing in favor of lifting the mask mandate in the schools, but the school board has no power to make that change.

Those advocating for a return to full-time, in-person school are not all making the same arguments. Some people are single parents trying to balance work and educating their children. In other households more than one adult might be present, but they might all need to be employed in order to pay the bills. In still other families, education is not very highly valued. There are abusive and neglectful homes where parents simply aren’t willing to put in the work to make sure that their children are keeping up in school. Finally, for some students, in-person school is just more effective; some students learn better in face-to-face environments.

These aren’t the only positions that people on this side of the debate have expressed. For political, social, and cultural reasons, many people haven’t taken the virus seriously from the very beginning. These people claim that COVID-19 is a hoax or a conspiracy, that the risks of the virus have been exaggerated, and that the lives of the people who might die as a result of contracting it don’t matter much because they are either old or have pre-existing conditions and, as a result, they “would have died soon anyway.”

Still others are sick of being around their children all day and are ready to get some time to themselves back. They want the district’s teachers to provide childcare and they believe they are entitled to it because they pay property taxes. They want things to go back to normal and they think if we behave as if the virus doesn’t exist, everything will be fine and eventually it will just disappear. Most people probably won’t get it anyway or, if they do, they probably won’t have serious symptoms.

Parents and community members in favor of continuing the hybrid model fought back. First and foremost, they argued that the hybrid model makes the most sense for public health. The day after the school board voted to return to full-time in-person learning, the case numbers in Utah spiked dramatically. Utah saw its first two days of numbers exceeding 1,000 new cases. It is clear that spread is happening at the schools. Sports are being cancelled, and students are contracting the virus, spreading the virus, and being asked to quarantine because they have been exposed to the virus at a significant number of schools in the district.

Those in favor of the hybrid model argue that it is a safe alternative that provides a social life and educational resources to all students. On this model, all students have days when they get to see their friends and get to work with their teachers. If the switch to a four-day-a-week schedule without social distancing measures in place happens, the only students who will have access to friends and teachers in person are the community members who aren’t taking the virus seriously and aren’t concerned about the risks of spreading it to teachers, staff, and the community at large. It presents particular hardship for at-risk students who might have to choose the online option not only for moral reasons, but also so they don’t risk putting their own lives in jeopardy. Those making these arguments emphasize that the face-to-face model simply isn’t fair.

Advocates of this side of the debate also point out that we know that this virus is affecting people of color at a more significant rate, and the evidence is not yet in on why this is the case. The children who are dying of COVID-19 are disproportionately Black and Hispanic. The face-to-face option has the potential to disproportionately impact students of color. If they attend school, they are both more likely than their white classmates to get sick and more likely to die. Many of these students live in multi-generational homes. Even if the students don’t suffer severe symptoms, opening up the schools beyond the restrictions put in place by the hybrid model exposes minority populations to a greater degree of risk.

Slightly less pressing, but still very important, considerations on this side of the debate have to do with changing directions so abruptly in the middle of the term. The school board points out that students that don’t want to take the risk of attending school four days a week can always just take part in the online option, Davis Connect. There are a number of problems with this. First, Davis Connect isn’t simply an extension of the school that any given child attends; it is an independent program. This means that if students and their families don’t think it is safe to return to a face-to-face schedule, they lose all their teachers and all of the progress that they have made in the initial weeks of the semester. Further, the online option offers mostly core classes. High school students who chose the online option would have to abandon their electives — classes that in many cases they have come to enjoy in the initial weeks of the semester. Some students are taking advanced placement or dual-enrollment courses that count for college credit. These students would be forced to give up that credit if they choose the online option. The result is a situation in which families may feel strongly coerced to allow their children to attend school in what they take to be unsafe conditions and in a way that is not consistent with their moral values as responsible members of the community.

Those on this side of the argument also point out that community discussions about “re-opening the schools” tend to paint all students with the same brush. The evidence does not support doing so. There is much that we still don’t know about transmission and spread among young children. We do know that risk increases with age, and that children and young adults ages 15-24 constitute a demographic that is increasingly contracting and spreading the virus. What’s more, students at this age are often willful and defiant. With strict social distancing measures in place and fewer students at the school, it is more difficult for the immature decision-making skills of teenagers to cause serious public health problems. It is also important to take into account the mental health of teenagers. Those on the other side of the debate claim that the mental health of children this age should point us in the direction of holding school every day. In response, supporters of the hybrid model argue that there is no reason to think that a teenager’s mental health depends on being in school four days rather than two. Surely two days are better than none.

Everyone involved in the discussion has heard the argument that the numbers in Davis County aren’t as bad as they are elsewhere in the state. In some places in the area, schools have shut down. In a different district not far away, Charri Jenson, a teacher at Corner Canyon High, is in the ICU as a result of spread at her school. The fact that Davis County numbers are, for now, lower than the rates at those schools is used to justify lifting restrictions. There are several responses to this argument. First, it fails to take into consideration the causal role that the precautions are playing in the lower number of cases. It may well be true that numbers in Davis County are lower (but not, all things considered, low) because of the precautions the district is currently taking. Other schools that encountered significant problems switched to the hybrid model, which provides evidence of its perceived efficacy. Second the virus doesn’t know about county boundaries and sadly people in the state are moving about and socializing as if there is no pandemic. The virus moves and the expectation that it will move to Davis County to a greater degree is reasonable. You don’t respond to a killer outside the house by saying “He hasn’t made his way inside yet, time to unlock the door!”

To be sure, some schools have opened up completely and have seen few to no cases. This is a matter of both practical and moral luck. It is a matter of practical luck that no one has fallen seriously ill and that no one from those schools has had to experience the anguish of a loved one dying alone. It is a matter of moral luck because those school districts, in full possession of knowledge of the dangers, charged forward anyway. They aren’t any less culpable for deaths and health problems — they made the same decisions that school districts that caused deaths made.

A final lesson from this whole debate is that school boards have much more power than we may be ordinarily inclined to think. There are seven people on this school board and they have the power to change things dramatically for an entire community of people and for communities that might be affected by the actions of Davis County residents. This is true of all school boards. This recognition should cause us to be diligent as voters. We should vote in even the smallest local elections. It matters.

When Are Leaders Culpable?

photograph of pyramid of wooden cubes indicating people on yellow background

When are leaders, especially politicians, morally culpable for the deaths their decisions and actions cause? This is a hard question of course because culpability comes in degrees. For example, Sally is culpable for murder if she knowingly kills someone without moral reason (e.g., self-defense); however, Sam is less culpable than Sally if he knowingly sells someone a defective automotive part which results in a fatal car accident. By the same token, the culpability of leadership comes in degrees too. This issue made especially salient recently when Kristen Urquiza, at the Democratic National Convention, shared how she lost her father due to coronavirus complications, arguing her father likely wouldn’t have died had he ignored President Trump’s downplaying of the threat. This isn’t an isolated problem. President Trump misled Americans about the impact of the pandemic, with disastrous results, in an attempt to revive his reelection prospects. We may wonder then about the blame leaders deserve for the death they cause.

There is an obvious way leaders, and politicians in particular, are directly culpable for the deaths of their citizens: starting an unjust conflict, like a war, without accurately assessing the long-run consequences. Leaders look blameworthy here because of the incentive structure at play: soldiers on a battlefield often face perverse incentives, like the prospect of prison, if they don’t carry out an order. This of course isn’t to deny that soldiers share some blame for following orders they know are wrong. However, leaders share in this responsibility given the position of power they hold, especially if they order something they know is unjust.

For example, we should be reticent to accept a proposed war is legitimate given the historical record: throughout history, especially recently, wars are often justified with moral language. Perhaps a group living in the targeted nation or region is claimed to have wronged us somehow; perhaps our invasion would help set things right; perhaps we would be justified using force to get back what was wrongly taken from us. If these kinds of justifications for war sound familiar, it is because they are. It is too easy to use flimsy moral appeals to justify things we would otherwise think morally wrong. We are susceptible to this sort of thing as individuals; so it wouldn’t be surprising if politicians and governments routinely abuse their trust to leverage baseless moral justifications to convince their citizens and constituents that the proposed war would be morally permissible.

Things are less clear when morally weighing an order from a leader or politician not intended to cause harm, but with foreseeable negative consequences. Some ethicists appeal here to what is known as the doctrine of double effect: an order or action is morally acceptable, even if it has bad and foreseen consequences, if they are the by-product of a morally good, intended action. For the sake of argument: even if abortion is morally bad, on this doctrine a doctor may still abort a fetus if the intention is to save the pregnant mother’s life: the intended, morally good outcome (saving the mother’s life) can’t occur without the bad, unintended outcome (aborting the fetus). Whether the doctrine of double effect exonerates leaders and politicians for ordering a war, even a just war, with very bad foreseen consequences is controversial.

What about indirect culpability of leaders and politicians? Things are dicier here. However, we can still call to mind cases that may help us think through indirect culpability. An obvious and recent case is that of managing the coronavirus in the United States: the current United States President, Donald Trump, downplayed the threat of the coronavirus and gave poor advice to U.S. citizens. This is not of course to say that the current U.S. president intended for people to die of coronavirus; but it does illustrate he could well have indirectly contributed to citizens deaths by downplaying the virus, and playing up ‘cures’ that ultimately failed.

We should pause here to reflect on why the current U.S. President — or any leader similarly situated — looks indirectly culpable for such deaths, even if he isn’t nearly as culpable, say, when starting an unjust war. There is an obvious source of indirect culpability here: abusing the trust placed in them by his followers and constituents. If Harry knows his constituents trust him (whether this is poor judgment on their part or not), he bears indirect culpability for what happens to them if he knowingly gives them bad advice, and they act on it, especially if they wouldn’t have acted that way had they not trusted him. This would be wrong, just as it would be wrong for a physician to knowingly give dangerous medical advice to her patients, especially knowing they only took her advice because they trusted her good intentions and competence.

This is because, broadly speaking, when there is trust, there is vulnerability. When I trust that someone is competent and has my best interests at heart, I place myself in a vulnerable position that can be exploited by those with bad intent. The point generalizes to the ethics of leadership: a leader may be in a position to exploit their followers because of the trust placed in them by their followers, even though such trust is only placed in them on the condition that the leader has their best interests at heart. And if the leader used the trust to knowingly put their followers in harms’ way for their own end, they bear some responsibility for that bad outcome, even if it was unintended.

Moral Luck and the Judgment of Officials

photograph of empty tennis court and judge's chair

Novak Djokovic was defaulted from the US Open last week for violating the Abuse of Balls rule. During the first set of his quarterfinal match with Pablo Busta, he struck a ball to the back of the court without looking. This resulted in the ball hitting a line judge. The referee, Soeren Friemel, after consulting with other officials, made a ruling to bypass the Point Penalty Schedule and issue an immediate default. In other words, Djokovic lost the match, left the tournament, forfeited all of his winnings in the tournament, and is subject to further fines. In the aftermath of this incident, many of the TV commentators discussed issues of the severity of the injury to the judge, that the ruling was correct, and the bad luck of Djokovic. The bad luck was in reference to the fact that just as Djokovic was striking the ball, the line judge straightened up from her bent over position which put her head in the direct path of the ball.

As I watched the events unfold and before the ruling was made, I immediately began to think about the fact that the referee’s judgment was going to hinge on the problem of moral luck. This problem was initially discussed by Bernard Williams and Thomas Nagel in a two-part article in 1976. Dana Nelkin describes the problem as one that “occurs when an agent can be correctly treated as an object of moral judgment despite the fact that a significant aspect of what she is assessed for depends on factors beyond her control.”  In other words, judgments of moral approval or disapproval, including the imposition of sanctions, can depend upon accidents or choices by third parties. The problem can be exemplified by considering two teenagers drag racing. Both of them are using poor judgment as well as speeding. The car on the right is clearly pulling ahead of the car on the left (due, let’s say, to crummy spark plugs in the left car) when an animal darts out into the street from the left. Neither teen attempts to avoid hitting the animals because neither sees the animal. As luck would have it, even though the animal darts into the road from the left, the car on the left misses the animal but the car on the right strikes it. Is it really the case that the driver on the left is morally innocent compared to the driver on the right? Had it not been for the crummy spark plugs the driver on the left would have struck the animal; had it not been for the presence of the animal the accident would not have occurred at all.

What seems to be at issue here, Nelkin explains, is the acceptability of two ideas, one called the Control Principle and the other a corollary of that principle.

Control Principle (CP): We are morally assessable only to the extent that what we are assessed for depends on factors under our control.

CP-Corollary: Two people ought not to be morally assessed differently if the only other differences between them are due to factors beyond their control.

At first, these ideas seem to be intuitively acceptable. To accept them means that luck should play no role in moral assessment. But notice that they imply that in our stipulated example of drag racing that the driver on the left seems to be just as culpable as the driver on the right for hitting the animal — either both are culpable or neither is culpable. After all, the only difference between the two drivers are factors beyond the control of either driver and both were in control of the decision to drag race. So, what is to be questioned? Should the judgment that the two drivers have different levels of culpability be jettisoned or should CP and its corollary be abandoned?

This hypothetical case is analogous to the situation with Djokovic. A few points before the offending event, Djokovic much more angrily and with much more force slammed a ball into a side wall of the court. None was injured. He was not warned, given a point penalty, or given a game penalty.  But, given the rule, the earlier event was just as much of a violation of the rule as the latter event. It is worth seeing the rule in its entirety:


  1. ABUSE OF BALLS Players shall not violently, dangerously or with anger hit, kick or throw a tennis ball within the precincts of the tournament site except in the reasonable pursuit of a point during a match (including warm-up). Violation of this Section shall subject a player to fine up to $20,000 for each violation. In addition, if such violation occurs during a match (including the warmup) the player shall be penalised in accordance with the Point Penalty Schedule hereinafter set forth. For the purposes of this Rule, abuse of balls is defined as intentionally hitting a ball out of the enclosure of the court, hitting a ball dangerously or recklessly within the court or hitting a ball with negligent disregard of the consequences.

What should be noticed is that the mere act of hitting a ball “violently, dangerously or with anger,” regardless of whether anyone is injured, is sufficient to violate the rule. So, the earlier act by Djokovic was sufficient for Friemel to issue a warning in accordance with the Point Penalty Schedule. Nowhere in the code does it specify that Friemel may skip directly to default based on the poor luck of the ball hitting and injuring someone, though, as with all officials in sports, part of his job is to use judgment to make decisions.  But, it seems as if part of that decision to not issue a warning for the earlier outburst and to default Djokovic for the latter outburst included a rejection of the control principle and its corollary. Otherwise it seems as if the only difference between the two events was the placement of the line judge and the fact that just as Djokovic hit the ball she stood up in a way that placed her head in the direct path of the ball. Both of these elements were beyond the control of Djokovic. So, if CP is operative, then Djokovic seems to be equally culpable and equally deserving of being defaulted for the earlier outburst as for the one that resulted in the injury to the line judge. By abandoning CP, while Djokovic clearly violated the rule earlier, he did not need to be sanctioned because luckily the outcome was different.

But now comes the twist. It looks like other officials at the match bear some responsibility for the line judge’s injury.

What do we say about the Friemel’s non-application of the rule earlier in the match?  Furthermore, what do we say about the officials at the Western & Southern Open just a few days before who did not default Aljaz Bedene for hitting a camera operator in a similar situation? Here we have an almost identical set of facts, but the injury sustained by the camera operator did not require immediate medical attention, unlike the line judge injured by Djokovic. The rules do not make an explicit allowance for the severity of the injury to factor into the judgment of the officials, but in these three cases, the severity of the injury was considered. The different decisions make sense if we abandon the control principle because those different outcomes, that were due in part to factors beyond the control of the players, seem to allow for different judgments.

Now, all we have to do is accept that luck plays a role when making moral judgments. This implies that you can be morally culpable for things beyond your control. Friemel and the other tennis officials seem to be committed to this idea. But now that we know that consequences matter, it appears that Friemel and other officials should also be culpable in the injury of the US Open line judge. After all, if we let consequences matter, then we have to confront the suggestion that acts of omission resulting in bad outcomes are open to moral censure. By not giving Bedene a harsher penalty a few days before, and not even issuing a warning a few minutes before in the Djokovic – Busta match, the officials perform acts of omission. These acts of omission appear to support a claim that Djokovic could vent his frustration in violation of the Abuse of Balls rule without fear of serious sanction. The officials are thus, oddly, morally implicated in Djokovic’s transgression. They seem to be responsible for creating a situation in which Djokovic could behave this way. The resulting injury involves actions beyond their control (the line judge standing up and Djokovic hitting the ball). But by abandoning the CP and its corollary, they nevertheless appear to share in the responsibility of injury.

These observations — to accept or reject the CP as well as the implications of doing so — apply beyond sports. In any social arena, officials who are entrusted with making judgments may have more responsibility for the outcomes of their silence than they want to recognize.