To begin with, in order to be held responsible for something, morally speaking, the actor, or agent, must be a person or entity that is regarded as a moral agent. Paradigm cases of moral agents are normal human adults. Thus, an infant or child is not typically held morally responsible for committing some act in the way that an adult would be held responsible for committing the same act.
Moral agency is not limited to human adults, however. Groups and organizations – corporations, for example – can also be regarded as entities that both have moral responsibilities and that can be held morally responsible for their actions.
When a person (or group of people) perform (or fail to perform) an action, we often respond to their action by assigning praise, blame, or liability, that is, we respond by holding them accountable or responsible for their actions.
In this way, the concept of responsibility is often retrospective, as when someone is held responsible for the outcome or event which their actions (or lack thereof) brought about. If, for example, a passerby on the beach were to rescue a person drowning in the sea, we would praise the rescuer for his or her action. Conversely, if the passerby were to fail to offer assistance of any sort – if he or she did not, for example, alert a lifeguard or use a cell phone to dial 911 – we would respond by blaming the person for his or her negligence.
Responsibility, however, is not solely retrospective. It can also be prospective, as in the case of having a responsibility, or obligation, in a particular circumstance. A parent, for example, has a responsibility to provide care for his or her child. This example also illustrates how retrospective and prospective responsibility can relate to one another – if a parent fails to provide care for his or her child, that is, fails to meet his or her prospective responsibility, we typically hold them responsible for their negligence (that is, we hold them responsible retrospectively).
Additionally, both retrospective and prospective responsibility can be assigned in moral, professional, and legal contexts, and overlap between contexts often occurs.
In the United States, for example, a parent’s moral responsibility to provide care for his or her child is also a legal responsibility. Analogously, a physician, as a moral agent, has certain moral responsibilities – the same responsibilities that all moral agents have – to provide assistance to a person who has been injured; in some contexts, the physician may also have a professional responsibility to provide assistance (and this professional duty may also be enforced legally).