A Letter to a Friend- Our own Partial Agency in the Misfortunes that befall us
To answer simply, yes. The individual, by taking part in any action, holds a part of the responsibility for the consequences of that action, though never the whole, for other factors are always present. I do not view this in a legal context so much as in a causal context. Because there are an inestimable number of factors driving every event, those factors each hold a proportional share- though I doubt an accurate readout of those shares is attainable by us humans.
This is the historian in me speaking, and the historian in me finds the political rhetoric of today to be utterly ridiculous- Republicans insisting that the current debt crisis and the chaos in the Arab world are Obama’s fault entirely, Democrats placing the debacle of the Iraq War and the financial collapse entirely on Bush’s shoulders. And the fallacy of demonization and (angelization?) I see in politics, I see in most other ethical questions.
My main exposure to the thought experiment you present has been on the topic of rape. As you know, a large majority of feminists (and generally decent people) is so disgusted by cases of rape, that they place the entirety of the responsibility upon the shoulders of the rapists. And I agree with them in sentiment- women are not at fault for being raped, and rapists, in a just world, would be castrated and given the mark of Cain. But when I come to think of cases by themselves, it seems that girls can hold some agency in their NOT being raped, and thus in their being raped. For example, why would a girl choose never to return to a frat house in which she was raped? BECAUSE SHE KNOWS THAT FRAT HOUSE IS SEXUALLY MORE DANGEROUS THAN OTHERS, and that crimes there are less likely to be prosecuted. And therefore by avoiding that frat house she is taking a certain degree of responsibility in not letting herself get raped. And for the same reason she might choose to wear slightly more modest clothing, to get a little less drunk, to stop accepting drinks from strangers, to never go out without friends, to carry mace, or to do a host of other things which, in all honesty, will probably lessen her chances of being raped. If she were simply to assume that all boys are nice and responsible gentlemen, she [would be] making the very mistake which Machiavelli so callously cautions us against.
And rape is not the only scenario where this is the case. As a girl who goes out without adequately protecting herself did nothing to stop her rape, so a man who ventures into the wilderness without adequate survival gear does nothing to prevent his own death, a soldier who ventures on patrol without informing his superiors or comrades does nothing to stop his own capture, and a statesman who fails to pursue his nation’s security and prosperity does nothing to forestall the ruin of his own country.
Therefore, to a degree, everyone is partly responsible for everything that happens to them, more particularly those things which are foreseeable risks. We are cast out of the safety of the womb into this brutal, beautiful, and unpredictable world, and it is luck and wisdom which perpetuates our life. (Luck includes all external factors, including the care and love of others and a safe situation, while wisdom includes everything emanating from within us. I will not discuss divine interference here- that is another conversation.)
It would seem that a great many things, tragedies especially, most notoriously our own deaths, cannot be our own fault in any way. But I believe we do hold a share of the responsibility for at least our reactions to things that happen to others [and us,] and in our own death, the fact that we chose life. But this expands my answer to a level of metaphysics which I normally do not consider, and is in any case not pertinent to my answer to your question.
The last thing that must be addressed is the role of personal responsibility. As you will see in an essay I publish on my blog eventually, I do not believe anyone has any intrinsic rights, and I believe that believing passionately in one’s own rights creates a sense of entitlement which harms one’s humility in the face of greater things, one’s endurance in the face of unjust hardship, and one’s responsibility in the face of conflicting rights and duties.
Now if a person enamored with their rights was at fault for some grave crime, undoubtedly they would justify their conduct by the alignment of their actions with their rights. And if someone enamored with their rights failed to conduct an important duty, more likely than not they would argue that their rights trumped their duties. And this sort of demeanor, I cannot stand- and therefore I have always elevated duty above rights in my pyramid of virtues.
And, to use the thought experiment you first posed to me, I would infinitely trust someone with a car who saw it as his duty to protect human lives, over someone who saw it as his right to drive a car.
[In truth, this can only be one aspect of the wider phenomena of events, and I do not believe any person capable of accurately producing a workable theory of happenstances. I merely hope to illustrate one aspect.]