(When) Are Authors Culpable for Causing Harm?

Journal of Moral Philosophy 20 (1-2):47-78 (2023)
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Abstract

To what extent are authors morally culpable for harms caused by their published work? Can authors be culpable even if their ideas are misused, perhaps because they failed to take precautions to prevent harmful misinterpretations? Might authors be culpable even if they do take precautions—if, for example, they publish ideas that others can be reasonably expected to put to harmful uses, precautions notwithstanding? Although complete answers to these questions depend upon controversial views about the right to free speech, this paper argues that five notions from philosophy of law and legal practice—liability, burden of proof, legal causation, mens rea, and reasoning by precedent—can be adapted to provide an attractive moral framework for determining whether an author’s work causes harm, whether and how culpable the author is for causing such harm, steps authors may take to immunize themselves from culpability, and how to responsibly develop new rules for publishing ethics.

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Marcus Arvan
University of Tampa

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