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An Oxford scholar of moral responsibility had his ideas tested in court after he hit a child while driving

Reuters/ Peter MacDiarmid
The Oxford University legal scholar faced the practical side of his theories in court.
By Olivia Goldhill
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

At Oxford University, Tony Honoré made his name as an expert on causation and moral responsibility in the law. This week, the 97-year-old legal scholar came face to face with the practical application of his theories when he was found guilty of dangerous driving.

Honoré’s academic work explored the complexities of causation. For example, in a Stanford Encyclopedia entry, the Oxford All Souls College investigates the question of how much responsibility an individual has for undertaking an action that causes harm, but only because of a later intervening event of which he or she was not responsible. In the encyclopedia entry, Honoré writes:

Suppose that a motorist negligently injures a pedestrian, who is then taken to hospital and wrongly treated for the injury. Instead of asking whether the mistaken treatment was so abnormal as not to be accounted a consequence of the motorist’s negligent driving it would, in the critics’ eyes, be better to ask whether the risk of medical mistreatment should be borne exclusively by the hospital authorities.

In other words, Honoré suggests that someone is not responsible for all ensuing harm that results from their actions. If a later event, which occurs following their actions but for which they’re not responsible, causes further harm, then they do not carry the whole blame.

In his own case, the legal issues were far more clear-cut. The court heard that Honoré drove through a red light in February last year, and hit nine-year-old Ragnar Cadogan, who flew into the air, hit the hood of the car, and then went under the wheels. Despite the severity of the impact, Cadogan was physically unharmed, and has since recovered fully. At the time, Honoré continued driving at 20 miles per hour after the accident, reported Oxford Mail, showing no signs of having seen the boy, before eventually slowing to a stop. When police arrived at the scene, Honoré failed a roadside eyesight test.

Honoré denied the charge of dangerous driving but was found guilty and fined. District judge Malcolm Dodds said the evidence powerfully suggested “a driver falling well below the standard of what is expected of a careful and competent driver,” and that Honoré’s driving patterns indicated he was “in a state of oblivion as to what is going on.”

Honoré’s defense counsel told the court that the experience was “the worst thing that happened to him in his life”— worse even than fighting in the of battle of El Alamein during World War II.

Nevertheless, even this simple case raises several ethical questions: How much responsibility does Honoré have for his failing eyesight? Should he be considered reckless for driving given the propensity for poor eyesight at his old age, and would a young man whose vision unexpectedly worsened be considered similarly culpable? Does Honoré’s denial of the charges suggest he hasn’t fully reckoned with his actions? How does Cadogan’s lack of injuries affect the morality of the situation? (The law takes this last question into account: If Cadogan had been seriously hurt or killed, then Honoré would have faced more serious charges, such as “causing death by dangerous driving,” which carries the same prison sentence as manslaughter. But some ethicists would hold that the same actions should be punished the same way, even if they result in different consequences.)

The issue of causation seems fairly cut-and-dry in this case: Honoré’s own writing in his Stanford Encyclopedia entry recognizes that “it is a civil wrong to cause injury to another by negligence in driving a vehicle.” And, though the boy wasn’t seriously injured, Honoré acknowledges in his writing that ”both inside and outside the law many actions are regarded as wrongful whether or not they cause tangible harm.” (In the example he gives in the encyclopedia, trespassing is considered wrong regardless of whether harm is caused. In this case, Honoré is responsible for dangerous driving, regardless of whether his actions caused serious physical harm.)

As with so many driving accidents, the case also highlights moral luck: The uncomfortable idea that everyone’s morality is affected by actions outside of their control. If there had been no one crossing the road when Honoré went through a red light when he did, he would still have driven dangerously and with poor eyesight, but the ethical weight of his actions would be much lighter. Honoré’s academic work grappled with the complexities of such issues but, as this case shows, even the greatest scholars can struggle to navigate such ethics in practice.

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