Column by Tim Boot (Mechanical engineering - TU Delft)

How knowing about a problem can influence the parties held responsible.

The influence of knowledge on responsibility

This week’s topic introduced us to many new terms related to responsibility, like causal and moral responsibility, but also individual and collective responsibility. To decide whether a person or party is either causal or morally responsible always depends on the amount of knowledge that this person or party has about the problem.


In particular, knowledge is required in order to be morally responsible for a problem. As an example, we could take a car accident that happens on an intersection. A woman crosses the intersection when another car approaches from the right and they have an accident. Because the car from the right had the right of way, we could say that the woman is causally responsible for the accident. If she had seen the car approaching before crossing the intersection, the woman would also be morally responsible. We can see here that the difference between being causally and morally responsible is only a matter of knowledge. In the very same accident, the fact of knowing that another car is approaching changes the situation.

Furthermore, we can note that while knowledge is required to be morally responsible, this is not the case for being causally responsible. Regardless of whether the woman saw the other car approaching or not, she is always causally responsible for the accident. This is linked with the idea that someone cannot be morally responsible if he or she is not first causally responsible for a certain problem.


In this case it is fairly easy to distinguish who is responsible for the accident in what way. However, in cases where there are multiple parties involved, a case of many hands, this is a more difficult task. Additionally, it can also fundamentally change how a problem is viewed. As an example we can take the fireproof material problem given in the course, which is as follows.

-          Person A is a researcher who invents a fireproof material.

-          Person B hires person A to do this task.

-          Person C uses the material to make fireproof suits.

-          Person D cleans these suits after each use.

The problem here is that when the material comes into contact with soap, this results in a chemical reaction which causes the death of person D. Who is responsible for this death? At first we might say that person A is responsible, because he invented the material. But what if person B didn’t tell him that they would be made into washable suits? Then surely person B is responsible since person A only did the research he was asked to do. Furthermore, in the case that people A and B and C knew about the danger but person C decided to make suits out of it anyway knowing that they were to be washed, person C should be held accountable.


In this issue, it is of huge importance that it is made clear how much knowledge each person had of his task before a verdict is given to the murderer. What first seems like a minor detail, turns out to be a cause of death. This importance of knowledge is the cause of why any party always documents how much they know about a subject in the process of innovation. This documentation of knowledge is crucial in determining who is responsible for a problem in any innovation. And as such, crucial in any process of responsible innovation.