1.4 The Problem of Many Hands: Who is responsible

Course subject(s) 1. Responsible Innovation and Applied Ethics

Let us look at an hypothetical  example in which several people are involved: the development of new fire-resistant material using new materials. There are four people involved:

• Person A is working in the laboratory and is doing fundamental research into the atomic properties of this new material;

• Person B is hired by the fire brigade to design a new outfit for the firemen with this promising new material;

• Person C is the director of the fire brigade who hired the designer and, 

• Person D works at the fire brigade and he is responsible for cleaning the firemen’s outfit. 

As it turns out, this promising new material happens to become carcinogenic if it is brought into contact with washing powder. One of the employees develops a lethal type of cancer and eventually dies. Can we say that one of the persons above is morally responsible for the death of the cleaner?

What we see is that the actions of the four people together lead to some dramatic outcome but none of the individual persons can be held responsible. This phenomenon is called the problem of “many hands”. Because there are different people involved, it is impossible to identify one single person that is responsible. This problem is very urgent in engineering because there are often many people involved in the development of technology, even risky technologies with a substantial footprint were anything to go wrong.

Neelke Doorn will explain this in detail in the lecture and also the accompanying reading.

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