Responsibility is a complex concept with both non-moral and moral meanings, and at least forward- and back-looking forms. The moral and forward-looking sense of responsibility is the sense in which one is responsible for achieving (or maintaining) a good result in some matter. The idea is that one is entrusted with achieving or maintaining this outcome, and expected to both have relevant knowledge and skills, and to make a conscientious effort. However, despite one’s best efforts, the result may not be achieved. For example, patients of responsible physicians may die, and the work of a responsible engineer may result in an accident because the accident was not foreseeable, it was not possible to compensate for the factors causing the accident, or because others were unwilling to heed the engineer’s warnings. The moral and backward-looking sense of responsibility is that in which a person or group deserves ethical evaluation for some act or outcome, that is deserves moral praise for a good outcome or blame for a bad one.
The moral sense of responsibility should not be confused with the causal sense of responsibility for some existing or past state of affairs. For example, when we say “the storm was responsible for three deaths and heavy property damage,” meaning that it caused these outcomes, we do not mean to attribute moral responsibility to the storm. Storms do not have moral responsibilities, and are neither responsible or irresponsible in the moral sense. However, when a moral agent is causally responsible for some outcome, that is a reason to think that the agent is morally responsible for it. Causal responsibility is not conclusive evidence of moral responsibility, however. If one’s actions cause a terrible outcome only because of bad moral luck in the form of a freak accident, then one is not morally responsible for the outcome.