When it happens to young children, the facts are often the same: An otherwise loving and attentive parent one day gets busy, or distracted, or upset, or confused by a change in his or her daily routine, and just… forgets a child is in the car. It happens that way somewhere in the United States 15 to 25 times a year, parceled out through the spring, summer and early fall. The season is almost upon us.
Two decades ago, this was relatively rare. But in the early 1990s, car-safety experts declared that passenger-side front airbags could kill children, and they recommended that child seats be moved to the back of the car; then, for even more safety for the very young, that the baby seats be pivoted to face the rear. If few foresaw the tragic consequence of the lessened visibility of the child . . . well, who can blame them? What kind of person forgets a baby?
The wealthy do, it turns out. And the poor, and the middle class. Parents of all ages and ethnicities do it. Mothers are just as likely to do it as fathers. It happens to the chronically absent-minded and to the fanatically organized, to the college-educated and to the marginally literate. In the last 10 years, it has happened to a dentist. A postal clerk. A social worker. A police officer. An accountant. A soldier. A paralegal. An electrician. A Protestant clergyman. A rabbinical student. A nurse. A construction worker. An assistant principal. It happened to a mental health counselor, a college professor and a pizza chef. It happened to a pediatrician. It happened to a rocket scientist.
There’s an interesting philosophical worry in the neighborhood: responsibility for omissions. The parent, perhaps distracted or tired, simply doesn’t think about the child in the car seat. The forgetting isn’t an action one chooses or does deliberately; the thought about the child simply fails to materialize. Like sleeping through an alarm, failing to notice another’s distress, or not attending to some important detail, forgetting the child isn’t the sort of thing we do at will. Yet there’s a strong intuition that one is morally responsible only for things one does, and, if this is true, it’s hard to make sense of responsibility and blame in cases like this. Nevertheless we seem to blame and punish for these sorts of failures. (Another place this puzzle comes up is responsibility for beliefs, which don’t seem to be under direct voluntary control either.)
Four ways to respond: (i) break the connection between control/doing at will and responsibility (i.e., say that we can be responsible for things that we don’t control in the relevant sense, then give another account of why we’re responsible for some things and not others– ideally one that explains why we’d think there might be a control condition on responsibility in the first place); (ii) try to save that connection between the will and responsibility by showing that there’s some prior intentional action in virtue of which the agent controlled the outcome (someone in the literature– I think it’s George Sher– calls this the “benighting act,” the one that leaves the agent in position to forget, oversleep, or whatever); (iii) argue that we do have control in cases like this, because control isn’t a matter of doing things “at will” (this has more application in the case of controlling belief); (iv) keep the control condition and bite the bullet by denying that we’re responsible in cases like this. It’s an interesting problem.