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Strict Liability and the Mitigation of Moral Luck

by Greg Keating

The general problem of moral luck—that responsibility is profoundly affected by factors beyond the control of the person held responsible—is often said to cause special problems for strict liability, as opposed to negligence liability. Negligence, the argument runs, holds people responsible for both fault and fate whereas strict liability holds people accountable solely for fate. This criticism is off the mark, both in its specific claim and in its general implications. The specific criticism is mistaken because the choice between negligence and strict liability holds the contributions of fate constant. Strict liability holds people accountable for harms attributable to their agency, whereas negligence liability holds people accountable for harms attributable to their culpable agency. The more general thesis that strict liability puts agents at the mercy of fate is mistaken because the most important form of strict liability—strict enterprise liability in the law of torts—actually softens the blows of fate. In a world where the costs of accidents can be dispersed across the activities which engender them, strict enterprise liability substitutes certain but manageable insurance premiums for unpredictable but potentially catastrophic liability, and replaces less certain compensation for serious injury with more certain compensation. By subjecting us to a lottery some of whose spins of the wheel impose financial ruin, it is fault liability that puts our actions at the mercy of luck.

ISSN 1559-3061
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