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devil duck

who's responsible?

Inspired by this post, to which I was going to reply but realized I didn't actually have an answer to her question but rather wanted to ask a different one.

When a problem needs to be fixed, who is "responsible" for fixing it?
(a) the person who caused the problem?
(b) the person most capable of fixing the problem (quickly, efficiently, correctly)?
(c) the person with the most (or at least something) to gain from the problem being fixed?

Ideally, all three of these would be the same person, and the problem would be fixed promptly. In practice, the three are frequently not the same person, and things get tricky.

An obvious moral argument says (a), on the grounds that "if you have to clean up your own mess, maybe you'll learn a lesson and not make a mess next time." Unfortunately, if person (a) doesn't also meet criteria (b) and (c), all the blame in the world won't get the problem fixed.

If (b) = (c), the problem is likely to be fixed promptly, albeit with some grumbling: "why do I have to clean up everybody else's mistakes?"

If (b) != (c), you can finesse the issue by having person (c) pay person (b) to do the job, shifting the "gain" from one person to another so the interests are better aligned. Person (c) will probably grumble a bit, especially if (a) = (b) so (s)he arguably "should" have done it anyway without having to be paid.

If (a) != (b), you can use some kind of governmental or community power to penalize person (a) if the problem isn't fixed, thus converting person (a) into person (c); see previous paragraph. Person (a) will presumably complain of government repression, but this kind of governmental power is arguably justifiable on grounds that "teaching people a lesson" reduces the total number of problems that need to be fixed in the future, and thereby makes society as a whole run more smoothly.

An especially tricky problem arises if there is no obvious person (c), i.e. if the "gain" from the problem being fixed is widely and evenly distributed (take air pollution or traffic, for example, where no one person stands to gain enough to pay for the cost of fixing the problem). You still need person (c) (i.e. "the public") to somehow persuade or pay person (b) to do the job. "The public", in many cases, will try to put most of the costs onto person (a); see previous paragraph.

Case studies to think about:
(1) the woman who ran a red light last year and totaled my mother's car (nobody seriously injured, although we spent an hour and a half on the side of the road, inside city limits and across the street from a major shopping mall, waiting for the police to show up)
(2) a small child who knocks over and breaks something expensive
(3) a pet who knocks over and breaks something expensive
(4) an Enron executive
(5) a President who decides to invade a foreign country on false pretenses and with only the vaguest plan for what to do after the inevitable quick victory
(6) a college student who accidentally uncovers a security hole and crashes the servers on which the rest of the University relies
(7) etc. etc. fill in your own.


"exixtential flame war" - inspired response

Jaded statement blaming New Orleans for not engendering sufficiently obscene profit motive to warrant Executive interest and attention 8P

Tangential (?) analysis

It is an undeniable fact of life that sometimes there is no person "A", however much our human nature cries out that there must be. Other times, person "A" is clearly identifiable to anyone with eyes, yet person "A" will never be forced to become or finance person "B" or "C" because person "A" (or other people who surround person "A") will devote vast amounts of energy protecting themselves from any consequences.

Sometimes one has to hope that person "A" has sufficiently thought things through and will be prepared with the mature words/offers, not because person "A" is anymore inherently flawed than the rest of us, but because somewhere, sometime, we are ALL (or have been) person "A".

Liberals have a point re: government oversight, since so many people DO expend such vast energy evading responsibility. However, some conservatives also have a point since the sight of large piles of communally-collected money also tends to blur people's vision re: responsibility 8/

Re: Tangential (?) analysis

True; people really really want to have someone to blame. If your approach to assigning responsibility is simply "person a", then it's easy to see why: if nobody is to blame, then the problem won't get fixed. Furthermore, it becomes important to find somebody other than me to blame, so fixing the problem isn't my responsibility.
An obvious moral argument says (a), on the grounds that "if you have to clean up your own mess, maybe you'll learn a lesson and not make a mess next time." Unfortunately, if person (a) doesn't also meet criteria (b) and (c), all the blame in the world won't get the problem fixed.

True. I remember waiting for you to replace something of mine that you had broken; by the time that I concluded that it would be more efficient (if less morally satisfying) for me to replace it myself, the item was no longer available :-/
I'm not sure what specific episode you're thinking of, but (trying to leave our individual personalities out of it) here's a possible scenario:

Person (a) promises to fix things out of a sense of moral responsibility, but person (c) (having, by definition, more to gain) places a higher priority on fixing the problem soon than person (a) does. As a result, person (c) sees the problem not solved "soon enough", concludes that person (a) is shirking responsibility, and person (a) is baffled at the accusation because, from his perspective, he's going to do it after more-urgent tasks and before less-urgent tasks; to do anything else would be irresponsible.

No two people ever have exactly the same priorities. In particular, person (c) will always place a higher priority on fixing the problem than anyone else does, no matter how capable or morally responsible. As a result, person (c) will usually end up impatient with everyone else's feeble efforts to fix things.

Take a customer-service situation. The customer comes in with a broken or defective product; obviously, the customer is person (c), while the manufacturer is person (a) and/or (b). You never hear the manufacturer complain that the customer is "dragging his/her heels"; you never hear the customer complain that the manufacturer is "in too much of a hurry". The best story you ever hear is a rare, grudging admission that the manufacturer fixed the problem "fast enough." "Good customer service" is another name for "adopting the customer's priorities in place of your own," or in other words "the customer is always right."

Now consider two friends, spouses, siblings, lovers, etc. without an asymmetrical customer/client relationship. Under what circumstances should (or can) one person adopt the other person's priorities in place of his/her own? How does "the customer is always right" apply when there is no customer?