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Omission and Legal Responsibility: A Philosophical Exploration of Tort Law Principles

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  • Full or part time
    Dr V Rodriguez-Blanco
  • Application Deadline
    Applications accepted all year round
  • Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)
    Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

Project Description

The ‘common sense’ view is that omissions can cause state of affairs or events. But this shared intuition is explained neither by sufficient nomic nor by necessary counter-factual theories of causation. Recent developments in English law assert that omissions cause wrongs and on the basis of this causal link judges are willing to attribute responsibilities to agents. However, how can an absence cause a certain state of affairs? Paradoxes and puzzles arise. For example, why there is an asymmetry between actions and omissions in cases where the result is inevitable? Thus, if the effect is inevitable, and X omits to act, then X is not responsible for the results of her omissions. By contrast, if the effect is inevitable, and X acts, X might still be responsible for her actions. In recent years, a number of theoretical strategies have emerged to deal with the puzzle of ‘omission as causes’. First, some authors (Moore, M. Causation and Responsibility, Oxford: OUP, ) deny that omissions are causes. The core argument is that our current moral theories are a secure path to ground the metaphysics of causation. Thus, moral theories assign greater sanctions or responsibility for actions than for omissions. Second, some authors (Lewis, D. “Causation as Influence”, Journal of Philosophy, 2000: 182-197 and “Causal Explanation”. In: Philosophical Papers, Vol. II, New York: OUP) follow a reductivist strategy. They reduce omissions to actions and argue that cases of omissions as causes are truly cases of actions. Furthermore, some other authors (Bennett, J. The Act Itself, New York: OUP, 1995) have argued that we consider some omissions as causes and that we mistakenly talk as if there were omissions. This strategy contradicts the ‘common sense’ view. If Lewis and Bennett are right, they also need to explain why we always speak as if there were no error, when, according to them, there is actually one. A third group of scholars (for example Schaffer, J., “Causes Need Not be Physically Connected to their Effects: The Case for Negative Causation”. In: Contemporary Debates in Philosophy of Science, ed. C. Hitchcock: 197-216. Oxford: Basil Blackwell ) prefer to talk about two different kinds of causation, one type is ‘causation by omission’ and another type is ‘causation by action’. They both entail different ontologies. However, Schaffer needs to justify the multiplicity of ontological entities, i.e. two kinds of causation created ad hoc. All these strategies should be rejected since they fail to explain the ‘common sense’ view. Research proposals that address the following questions are welcome:
1) What is the sound theory of agent-causation that can explain the ‘common sense view’ of omissions in action?
2) How judges of different jurisdictions have developed the notions of omission and causation in Tort Law? Do they endorse the ‘common sense’ view?
3) Does the sound theory of agent-causation shed light on the case law of different jurisdictions?

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The School of Law offers a number of Postgraduate Teaching Assistant Scholarships, covering fees and maintenance as well as a teaching payment. The 2013/14 application window is now closed. The deadline for applications was 4pm, Friday 15 February 2013. Please check back later in the year for details of the 2014/15 competition.
Full details are available here: http://www.birmingham.ac.uk/schools/law/courses/research/scholarships.aspx

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Funding Notes

Each year the College of Arts and Law offers a number of doctoral scholarships, to cover fees and maintenance, for study starting in October. These are available to both home/EU and overseas students. The deadline for applications is typically in January.

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