Can you be blamed for forgetting?

I read an interesting news story recently about a tragic case of a baby dying in a hot car. The mother had forgotten to drop off the baby at a childcare center on the way to work. She spent 8 hours at a school, where she was assistant principal, only to return to her car and find the baby dead.

The mother now travels around speaking out about the risk of leaving children in hot cars—something that people do all too often, with tragic consequences. So she’s not only suffered terribly, but also tried to make something constructive out of her personal tragedy. In an interview the woman sobbed about her child’s death (and you’d be crazy not to feel for her) but she said something I found strange. She said she wasn’t to blame, because she forgot.

Well, you can sort of see it. The fact that her baby was in the car simply never entered her mind. There was nothing deliberate or intentional about it. She hadn’t even done anything overtly reckless, like drinking and driving, or texting while driving. It just didn’t occur to her that the baby was in the car.

It does seem puzzling how a person can be held responsible for forgetting something. Remembering isn’t exactly something we do, but something that happens to us. But on the other hand, there’s a lot a person can do to increase the chances of remembering.

You can write things down on pieces of paper. There’s also a sort of mental writing we do all the time. You maintain mental lists and keep looking at them throughout the day. If you have young children, you do this a lot, asking yourself where your kids are, and under whose care, and what they may need from you, and whether they’re OK.

But (she would say) she forgot to jot, she forgot to check! How can blame get a foothold here? I leave you with that question, but my sense is that there must have been a crossroads. She must have chosen, at some point, to obsess more about her job or whatever was preoccupying her, instead of keeping track of her most important mental list, the one about her baby. Or must there really be a choice, a crossroads, for blame to make sense?

It’s striking what a huge role luck plays in determining the gravity of an error. If only the woman’s car had been parked in a busy parking lot. Somebody would have seen the baby in a short time and saved the day. If that had happened, I imagine the woman would have blamed herself, but for a much lesser mistake—for being dangerously distracted. For imperiling but not harming her baby. It’s understandable that she doesn’t blame herself for the events that actually occurred, considering their enormity, but it doesn’t seem true that forgetting is always innocent. Is it?

And one last thing. Mea culpa. I have sometimes forgotten important things. Fortunately, not with tragic consequences.

Cross-posted here.


Anonymous said...

She forgot... true. But, in our cooperative society, she had taken on a role and responsibility. So yes, there is blame, for failing in her role; a role charged with protecting and nurturing a life.

What matters if it's fault or blame? It's failure, with dire consequence.

Brandon Byrd said...

You might want to take a look at some recent articles on moral responsibility by Angela Smith. She has recently argued that we can be blamed for things like forgetting (say, a friend's birthday or a wedding anniversary) and failing to notice something of normative importance. I think "Responsibility for Attitudes" is the name of the relevant article; it's in Ethics.