A dialogue, paraphrased from reality:
Me: Ok, so we agree that this character was in part causally responsible for the death. But should we think that he bears some moral responsibility, too? Isn’t he in part to blame for it?
Student 1: Wait, what do we mean by ‘morally responsible’?
Me: I intended it as equivalent to blameworthy, at least in this context; maybe if he were morally responsible for a good thing, he’d be praiseworthy, so they’re not equivalent, but they come to the same in this case. But maybe we should distinguish them?
Student 2: Well, wait, I don’t think it makes sense to think of ‘responsibility’ as anything other than that. Like, to be responsible is to be morally responsible. It’s weird and confusing to say that someone is responsible when they just helped cause a thing but can’t be blamed for it.
Me: Ok, what if we describe him instead as a ‘causal contributor’? Can we agree that being a causal contributor might or might not be necessary for being morally responsible or blameworthy, but it isn’t sufficient?
Student 2: Yeah, I just think it’s weird to talk about ‘causal responsibility.’
Me: I think I agree with you; it’s a bit odd to call it a kind of responsibility when you aren’t really answerable for the outcome because you can’t be blamed for it.
Student 2: Well then why did you write the term ‘morally responsible’ on the board? Phhbbbbt.
Me: Oh, because that’s the terminology that people often use in philosophical and legal contexts.
Student 2: Hrmp. That’s stupid.
I’m not sure my students understand that part of what I try to do with them is help them understand the language and concepts that educated people actually use. Come to think of it, I’m not sure Student 2 thinks of her participation in class as aimed at learning anything. Nor am I at all sure that she differs wildly from her classmates in this respect.
But hey, at least sometimes we talk seriously about serious things, occasionally even the things I have assigned for them to read.