Intelligent Design

Responsible But Not Culpable

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David Filvaroff was my torts professor. Professor Filvaroff was one of those teachers who drill a mile deep and an inch wide. He really did not care whether his students understood what lawyers call the “black letter” of tort law (e.g., the elements of a negligence cause of action are A, B, C . . . ). I suppose he assumed we would pick up the black letter on our own as the occasion arose. Instead, he wanted us to understand the philosophical underpinnings of tort law, which made his class terrible for bar exam prep (the bar exam emphasizes “black letter” law) but unparalleled for increasing our understanding of the general philosophy of law.

Even after all these years I remember well Professor Filvaroff’s classes (not lectures; it was Socratic) dealing with the issue of causation in which he taught us that such a deceptively simple concept sometimes has unexpected nuances. The causation analysis is often very straightforward: Driver A was careless and allowed his vehicle to cross the yellow line and strike the plaintiff’s vehicle. Driver A’s carelessness caused the collision which harmed plaintiff. Simple enough.

But consider this scenario from Professor Filvaroff’s class: Executive decides to build a large suspension bridge and contracts for its construction. Executive has reviewed the actuarial data for construction projects of this type, and he knows to a moral certainty that at least two and as many as five workers will die from accidents during the construction of the bridge. He goes forward with the project, and sure enough three workers die.

Did Executive cause the workers’ deaths? Of course he did. All he had to do to prevent their deaths was cancel the bridge project. His decision to move forward with the project was a critical link – perhaps the critical link – in the chain of causal events (what lawyers call the “chain of causation”) leading to the workers’ deaths. So why is the careless driver liable at law and the Executive not? As I recall, we spent two class days discussing this issue, and at the end this is what we learned: Every attempt to distinguish the Executive from the careless driver as a matter of pure logic fails. When we examine such attempts closely we always find that the supposedly “logical” explanation masks a value judgment. For example, we might say the Executive’s action is “remote” in the chain of causation, and the careless driver’s action is “direct.” But what do “remote” and “direct” mean? Certainly there is no objective standard for remoteness and directness in these situations.

We can substitute other descriptors for “direct” and “remote.” We can say, Executive’s action was merely “but for” causation – a link in the chain that bears a logical connection to the ultimate outcome but is not the “proximate” cause of the outcome. Here again, where is the dividing line between “but for causation” and “proximate causation”?

Professor Filvaroff hammered home this point again and again: We hold the careless driver liable and don’t even think about bringing a case against Executive not based on logical considerations but on moral considerations. Yes, the Executive is responsible in some sense, but no one believes he is culpable, so we do not prosecute him.

I was thinking about Professor Filvaroff the other day when a commenter said that a good and loving God could not have created a universe in which evil existed. It is undeniable that God is “responsible” for the existence of evil. After all, all he had to do for evil never to have existed was to refrain from creating the universe (or anything else apart from himself), just as all the Executive had to do to prevent the deaths of the workers was to cancel the bridge contract. But does the fact that God is a link in the “but for” chain of causation leading to the existence of evil make him culpable for that evil? Or, just as with Executive, is the issue more nuanced?

21 Replies to “Responsible But Not Culpable

  1. 1
    fossil says:

    Barry, it seems to me that what is missing in all these cases is the one who makes the final decision. In the case of the Executive he had a dangerous project to complete but each of the workers were aware of the dangers also and made the decision to work on the project because the wages are significantly higher than in other jobs. They didn’t have to accept the employment; therefore, it was the decision of the one who died that ultimately caused the death.

    To me it is the same thing that we get into time and again when we try to go to the deepest pockets and pin the blame on someone else rather than the one who is really responsible. God made creatures and gave them freedom. With that freedom comes responsibility and when we choose to go in the wrong direction in spite of clear warnings it is our responsibility not the one who gives us the freedom to choose.

  2. 2
    CentralScrutinizer says:

    The Executive cannot prevent suffering from happening, and still make progress on the project. God (assumedly) could have made a universe where no suffering is possible (isn’t heaven like that, do the angels suffer?) and yet people would have still been free within the limits of the suffer-free universe to act.

    So, no, God and the Executive are not on equal footing with regards to culpability.

    However, we don’t know what the reasons for suffer are. Many possibilis exist that do not exist for the executive. For example:

    1. This is a prison. We’re here because from some unknown reason (such as prior bad acts in a previous existence that we cannot remember. Bad karma.) We deserve to be here. God is off the hook.

    2. This is a game. We’re chose to be here. This is a super duper reality game for super-cosmic entities, who temporarily attach themselves to brains within this universe, for amusement. Yes, it can get dangerous, and yes we can suffer, but we chose to be here. God is off the hook. Hell, maybe WE are “God.”

    3. It’s a school. We chose to be here to experience the difference between pleasure and suffering in a limited environment. God is off the hook since he didn’t make us do it.

    Etc. Etc.

    No, it’s not at all the same as the Executive.

  3. 3
    CentralScrutinizer says:

    … The only God who comes out looking bad in all the possible scenarios is a God who has unlimited power and creates dim witted finite beings who cannot help but transgress, and who had no prior bad acts that sent them to such a dreadful place, and then sends most of them to some never-ending torment because of it.

    I would say, THAT God is culpable as hell.

  4. 4
    Dionisio says:

    Responsible But Not Culpable

    Really enjoyed reading this OP. Thank you.
    Never thought I could enjoy reading so much any text from law school 😉 (probably not many engineers would)

    Agree, God is responsible, but not culpable.

    Responsible yes, because as professor Lennox said, God is not the gods of the gaps, but the GOD of the entire show.
    Hence He’s responsible for everything.

    Culpable? Of course not.
    He’s the Perfect Supreme Judge. The only almighty all-knowing eternal being. Our loving merciful Creator.
    And we, who are we?
    Just miserable unlovable rebellious creatures who naturally tend to reject our Maker.
    So who is culpable? Of course, we are.
    What do we get in return?
    God’s infinite grace, through His own Son, Who was incarnated in human flesh, dwelled among humans, and died the most horrible death on a Roman cross, so that we could be reconciled with our Creator, through the saving faith in Christ’s redemptive act, and receive the gift of eternal life, to be in His glorious presence forever.

  5. 5
    Dionisio says:

    Somewhere I read that this world is the closest to hell true Christian believers will be, and the closest to Heaven those who reject Christ will be.
    If someone enjoys rejecting and mocking God, that soul would not enjoy to be in Heaven, where all we are going to do is praise God constantly without break, non-stop, forever and ever, on and on and on, over and over again. If brief worshipping bothers them now, then Heaven would be a torment to them.
    Being apart from God forever is hell. Isn’t that what unrepentant souls want after all? So what’s all that whining and complaining about God allowing them to end in hell? Really, don’t get it.
    I don’t love God because I want to be in Heaven. It’s the other way around. I want to be in Heaven, because God loves me so much, and His love is so great, so delightful, and so undeserved, so amazing, that I want to be in His presence and enjoy Him forever.
    I was on that wide way that leads to destruction, completely blind and lost, but the merciful and gracious God pulled me out of that horrendous way, opened my eyes, and let me enter the narrow way that leads to eternal life in His glorious presence.
    So now I sing hallelujah, the Lamb has overcome!

  6. 6

    Good job Dionisio!

    Who can accuse God of not being fair?

    Remarkable thought:

    this world is the closest to hell true Christian believers will be, and the closest to Heaven those who reject Christ will be.

    But all your post is remarkable

  7. 7
    Dionisio says:

    InVivoVeritas @ 6

    Soli Deo Gloria

    Rev. 22:21

  8. 8
    LarTanner says:

    Transform this:

    Executive decides to build a large suspension bridge and contracts for its construction. Executive has reviewed the actuarial data for construction projects of this type, and he knows to a moral certainty that at least two and as many as five workers will die from accidents during the construction of the bridge. He goes forward with the project, and sure enough three workers die.

    into this:

    God decides to build a world/universe and actually constructs it himself. Hallelujah.

    God knows to a moral certainty people will eventually sin and then need to be punished via introduction of death, pain, and hell. Hallelujah.

    God goes forward with the project, and sure enough people sin, etc., etc. Hallelujah.

    But then he comes down in person to get himself killed and to establish several churches that will spend the ensuing centuries struggling to balance charitable impulses and internal organizational and personal corruptions. Hallelujah!

    I’m sorry, what is the point of the OP again?

  9. 9
    Barry Arrington says:

    LarTanner, you have a lot of unspoken assumptions packed into your comment. I wonder if you even know those assumptions exist, much less examined them.

  10. 10
    Querius says:


    God creates a universe with a planet and people with free will, a prerequisite for the ability to love and be creative.

    It is not deterministic nor inevitable, but an angel decides to become like God, is judged, and then defaces God’s creation by causing humanity to fall. God invokes his perfect plan that uses the angel’s murder victim to destroy the angel and those who choose to join him.

    But God needs to allow people to see the results of their self will and their desire to exclude God from their every day lives. God withdraws his hand of protection, so people can experience living under the law of cause and effect without God’s provision of mercy and grace.

    But some people want to blame God anyway.

    God empowers angels covered in eyes to watch and judge God’s every action. They conclude, “Holy, holy, holy.”

    LarTanner, why would you want to go to hell if you don’t have to? This angelic deceiver is a liar and is deceiving you. He hates you and wants you to perish like him.

    But God still loves you and is willing to give you a fresh start, both in this life and the next one. You can also choose—as I and some other people here have done—to be an authentic Christian rather than a phony one.

    If some scientists are correct in their guess that there’s a 60% chance that we’re living in a mathematical simulation, can you see the possibility for a purpose?


  11. 11
    Robert Byers says:

    Filvaroff got it wrong.
    A careless driver didn’t announce his carelessness. A bridge building knows and told the workers there was danger. its the workers who took the chance and who screwed up.
    Not the same thing at all.
    Explains the problems with lawyering today amongst others.

  12. 12
    Dionisio says:

    Queries @ 10

    But God still loves you and…

    I have a strong evidence of what you wrote: I know God loves me, even though I’m much worse than you or LarTanner. Therefore,…

  13. 13
    Paul Giem says:


    One difference between the driver and the executive could be that once the bridge is built, people on one side now have timely access to a hospital on the other side, and in the first year five people survive who otherwise would not make it. If the bridge is to a private island owned by the executive, it is much harder to justify building the bridge.

    One could argue that God is not culpable just as the executive is not culpable. But God did the executive one better. He went down to help build the bridge himself and became one of the victims. Now how are you going to make a lawsuit against him stick? I hear that in the end, the jury will give a unanimous verdict for the defense. Even the jury that the Devil reportedly assembled for Daniel Webster.

  14. 14
    Tim says:

    Can it be said, when we pause to reflect,
    That Signore D’Aquino we too quickly neglect?
    Lo, grace to the dumbest —
    Yes, you can become Thomist.
    Read twice the Summa for its double effect!!

  15. 15
    LarTanner says:

    Why Querius (10) –

    You have introduced a model of reality that not only includes a divine being (“God”) but also angels. We all understand the arguments for (and against) the existence of gods (including the ground-of-being, classical theist God).

    On what basis do you assert the existence of angels?

    And since you brought up angels, I have heard that one difference between angels and humans is that angels do not have free will. If this were so, there would be no way for an angel to decide, as you say, “to become like God.” The angel in question would only be able to fulfill the will of his creator.

    But my first comment was intended to help Barry realize some of the unspoken assumptions of his OP, assumptions that he perhaps had not reflected upon sufficiently. I think that intention has been fulfilled.

  16. 16
    Dionisio says:

    LarTanner @ 15

    I have heard that…

    It is prudent to verify what we hear and the source.

  17. 17
    LarTanner says:

    Dionisio, I could not agree with your statement more.

    Tell me, where are the most credible sources of information on angels to be found?

  18. 18
    TZ says:

    Hi LarTanner,

    what do you mean by “most credible sources of information”?

    please, can you define that concept for me? Thank you.

  19. 19
    Dionisio says:

    What do you mean by “most credible sources of information”?

  20. 20
    Eric Anderson says:

    Some of the distinctions that are being drawn in the above comments between Barry’s car driver example and bridge worker example may not hold up to closer scrutiny.

    From the comments here, one might get the impression that the bridge worker signed up for the job thinking that getting killed was a reasonable possibility. In reality, probably nearly every worker who signs up for such a job expects they have an excellent chance of not getting killed; otherwise they would not sign up.

    Is there some possibility that a construction worker will die on a large project? Sure. Is it likely in any particular case? No.

    Similarly, there is also some possibility that a driver on the road will get killed by another driver. Indeed, for many of us, probably the most dangerous thing we do every day is get behind the wheel and head out on the road. Certainly the driver who was killed in Barry’s example also knew there was a possibility of a fatal accident. So are we saying the driver should be viewed as having “accepted the risk”?

    Both the driver and the worker undertook an activity knowing there was risk involved.


    On a related note — as it relates to God’s culpability for the ills of our mortal sojourn — if we take some of the above comments about the worker “accepting risk” at face value, then I presume we could say that if: (i) we had been given a choice about whether to live on Earth or not, and (ii) we had some idea of the dangers and challenges that would await, then God would be off the hook for the whole affair. An interesting possibility to consider . . . 🙂

  21. 21
    Querius says:


    Here’s how to think your way through this:

    a. Assume that God doesn’t exist, and that everything religious can be adequately accounted for in human psychology and sociology. This assumption cannot be disproved, but instead one can assess the philosophical and behavioral results.

    b. Assume that God really does exist—some kind of extra-dimensional being, and apparently a mathematician according to some. This assumption also cannot be disproved, but one can also assess the philosophical and behavioral results.

    What could convince you or any reasonable person to freely choose b over a?

    Think about it.


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