Responsibility for Risks: Theory and Practice

About the project

At a glance

Responsibility for Risks: Theory and Practice is a five-year research project focusing on the philosophy of risk and the conditions for justified attributions of moral responsibility for risks. Project financing comes from the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) – project number P 31527 – with support from the University of Graz’s Institute of Philosophy.

During its lifespan, Responsibility for Risks: Theory and Practice will deliver peer-reviewed articles based on project research, host various events related to project topics, as well as interact with partners and others through this website and social media (Twitter @Resp4Risks).

In depth

Philosophical concern with the topic of risk has increased steadily over the last decades. This growing interest is understandable given the pervasiveness of risks that seem specific to contemporary ways of living (e.g., climate change, new and emerging technologies) and the difficult philosophical challenges that the concept of risk poses. Nevertheless, the bulk of philosophical debates remains wedded to a fictional world of certainty, where outcomes are either known in advance or are knowable. Perhaps as a direct result of this, normative theories are still ill-equipped to handle the moral and ethical dimensions of risks.

One of the most overlooked aspects in philosophical research on the topic is that of retrospective moral responsibility for risks. Moral theories have traditionally addressed these kinds of backward-looking responsibility ascriptions in contexts of complete certainty, where actual harms or wrongs are assumed to have occurred. These theories have implemented and relied on standard models of responsibility (hereinafter, SMR) that, by virtue of the assumption of certainty, omit the significance, moral implications, and grounds for responsibility attributions when it comes to cases of risk. On the face of it, then, it appears that SMR are unable to address the moral and ethical nuances of risks because of their built-in suppositions. Thus, the project's starting assumption is that SMR are wanting when it comes to cases of risk.

In lieu of forsaking such conceptions wholesale, the project’s working hypothesis is that SMR can be modified and extended to accommodate risk cases. This hypothesis is reasonable at least because it is difficult to believe that the long history of philosophical thought on the topic of responsibility would be worthless when applied to risks. Furthermore, at least some conditions for justified attributions of responsibility under conditions of certainty are prima facie applicable in risk cases. 

The project’s aim is to develop a normative framework for the justified allocation and assessment of responsibility for risks on both individual and collective levels. To achieve this aim, the project first conceptualizes SMR through the isolation of common criteria of justified responsibility allocations across prominent individual and collective models of responsibility. Second, the project provides the identification and normative assessment of SMR’s shortcomings vis-à-vis risks, which pinpoints the challenges that SMR need to overcome in order to accommodate risk cases. Third, the project re-conceptualizes both individual and collective SMR so that the aforementioned difficulties can be addressed. This step results in (fourth) the project’s provisional normative framework of responsibility for risks, which is then applied to specific risk-related challenges. 

The framework helps to establish whether a charge of moral blameworthiness for risk creation is justifiable in these areas. The application allows for the testing of the responsibility framework on both individual and collective levels without denying possible interplay between the two. In light of application, the project’s framework benefits through refinement, calibration, and scope demarcation. Finally, this results in the project’s comprehensive normative framework for justified responsibility ascriptions for risks. In revealing and addressing problems of responsibility in contexts of less-than-complete certainty and linking theoretical to practical applications, this project provides a comprehensive analysis, synthesis, and guidance to an under-explored topic.