Moral Responsibility and Mechanism Design

Professor Martin van Hees
Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam


This project contributes to the analysis of and aims to help solve the so-called many hands problem: the allocation of moral responsibility in a multi-agent setting. The existing literature on the many hands problem focuses mainly on the difficulties when agents want to establish who is responsible for some outcome in which they were involved but in which many others were as well. The approach here is different by assuming that the individuals responsible for the outcome are predetermined.  However, due to the lack of information and inability (because of high costs) to gather evidence, these individuals cannot always be easily identified. The problem then is to design a truth-revelation mechanism that efficiently identifies a sub-group of individuals responsible for an adverse outcome. The mechanism requires individuals to release certain information (to an external authority or otherwise). A rule is implemented, based on this information, to help reveal the culprits. An efficient mechanism is one that precisely identifies the responsible individuals by minimizing the search costs.

This project is focused on developing this mechanism for two environmental applications: one at the state-level where an external authority does not exist and another at the individual-level with an external authority. The benefit of this mechanism is that it would deter individuals from non-compliant behaviour even in situations where formal evidence cannot be gathered.

The Research Idea

Many political and economic situations involve identifying a sub-group (or an individual) responsible for an adverse outcome that has occurred. The responsible sub-group benefit from their own actions, but causes a negative externality on the complementary group. If the  responsible sub-group were identified, they must compensate the complementary group by making costly transfers. These transfers would usually exceed the private benefit they obtained, hence it is in the interest of the responsible sub-group to not reveal themselves.  For example, to reduce carbon emissions countries agree to invest in costly methods to produce efficiently. However, a decade after this agreement, it is observed that the emissions have not been reduced substantially. Although every country claims that it has followed the agreement, in reality a sub-group has beneficially deviated. Using insights from so-called implementation theory, this project aims at designing  mechanisms that can be credibly implemented by an external authority to help elicit the responsible group. This mechanism is designed ex-post, that is, after the occurrence of an irrevocable and undesirable outcome. After constructing the general theoretical framework, we plan to tailor the mechanism to address two contemporary environmental problems.


The problem of assigning moral responsibility when large groups of people wrongfully cause some harm – known as the many hands problem  (Thompson 1980) – has been extensively analysed in the literature on formal ethics. The many hands problem can be said to consist of at least two different kinds of issues (Braham and Van Hees 2017). First, there is the possibility of the existence of responsibility voids, i.e., situations in which none of the individuals  involved can be held responsible for the outcome (Braham and Van Hees 2012; Pettit 2007). Another possibility is that responsibility for an outcome can be assigned but that the allocation will be fragmented: different individuals are responsible for very different aspects of the outcome (Van Hees 2010, Braham and Van Hees 2017) making it very difficult to establish who exactly is responsible for what.

This project addresses a novel problem by assuming the responsible members are aware of their involvement but have an incentive to conceal their role as no external evidence about it exists. Assuming there to be a causal link between wrong-doings (actions) and moral responsibility, unlike traditional problems of moral responsibility the focus here is not on who is responsible as such but how the responsible agents can be identified by others.

The Focus

The focus is to develop a robust revelation mechanism implementable by policy makers for two specific environmental applications. The important difference in these two applications is that the first (second) is with (without) an external authority to implement the mechanism.

Application 1: A group of countries (including the EU) have mutually agreed through the Paris climate agreement and the Kyoto protocol to engage in proactive measures to curb carbon emissions. However, it is against a country’s interest to implement these measures as they are costly. Suppose a sub-group of these countries ‘cheat’ in a way that is not observable to the remaining countries. If the expected outcome from the agreement is not achieved, it becomes clear that some country/s have cheated, but who has cheated is unknown. The problem here is to design a mechanism based on a set of `messages’ submitted by the countries that reveals the culprits.

Application 2: The government requires industries to reduce (or treat) their waste before disposing it off into a water-body. Firms individually do not want to bear the additional cost of reducing production or treating waste. If the industries do not meet the governmental disposal requirements, the undesirable outcome of the water-body being polluted occurs. The truth-revelation mechanism in this case is different because there is an external authority: the government, that can enforce the design. In the previous application, the countries must find a way to enforce the mechanism on the group.

Theoretical Novelty

The use of implementation theory for the design of institutions that help reveal individual responsibility is novel in at least two ways. First,  it adds to the standard welfarist approach in mechanism design because of its focus on moral responsibility. Secondly, in its use of formal tools from economic theory it forms an innovative approach to the study of moral responsbility. By thus integrating two distinct fields and though its use of rigorous game-theoretic tools, the project will make a major contribution to the emerging field of formal ethics.

The mechanism will be designed for two different scenarios: when an external authority can enforce the mechanism and when the group, as a whole, must agree over an enforceable mechanism.

Further, by applying it to environmental problems, the approach is made relevant for policy purposes. Policy makers often view arguments rooted in the ethics literature as fuzzy. In its use of, and contribution to formal ethics, the project would allow a precise interpretation of an ethical problem to policy makers using mathematical tools.


The methodology is focused on producing high-quality collaborative written work and is designed to embed inter-disciplinary exchanges between the fields of philosophy, politics and economics into the project.

This problem of formal ethics will be treated using concepts from mechanism design, a sub-field of game theory. In the mechanism to be designed, the social optimal action is unique, the responsible sub-group will be sanctioned. Society would be worse off if any sub-group other than those responsible are sanctioned. Each individual (or defined sub-groups) must submit `messages’ to an external authority who then selects a sub-group by a pre-announced rule based on the messages submitted by all individuals. An efficient mechanism selects a sub-group that coincides with the responsible sub-group. Using evidence from real-life situations, the mechanisms will be tailored for specific policy debates discussed above.

Work Plan

The collaboration is facilitated by the experience of a pair of researchers: one (main applicant) specialized in ethics, political philosophy and formal modelling, while the other (co-researcher) specialized in economic theory amd game theory. The project plan is as follows:

Month 0-3: The project begins mid-December through weekly face-to-face meetings to develop core theoretical concepts for a truth-revelation mechanism.

Month 4-6: The project further continues through electronic communication in order to tailor the model to for both environmental applications.

The intended output consists of at least two  papers that will be submitted to leading international journals in philosophy and/or economic theory by the planned end of the project.


This project would yield proposals for the further development of  institutional arrangements that facilitate a transparent and justifiable allocation of responsibility. In doing so it contributes to the literature on formal ethics and non-welfarist economics. But, in the long run, the objective is to solve or at least substiantially descrease the many hands problem.

Steps that will be taken after the project concern, first, the  further development of the institutional analysis of moral responsibility. The development will be both with respect to the notion of moral responsibility (in particular, the causal ascriptions that are involved) as well as the different areas of application via an examination of the way insitutional constraints affect the causal impact of our actions. Secondly, the results will be compared with theories and insights from a very different field of reseach, to wit, organization studies. We   envisage a fruitful synthesis between the theoretic insights developed here, and the literature on good governance. Finally, drawing on the project’s application of our studies to environmental problems, the analysis will be used to further examine the extent to which  indviduals can be said to bear moral responsibility for large-scale social and political transformations (e.g.migration,climate change).


Braham, M. and Hees, M. van (2011). Responsibility Voids. Philosophical Quarterly 61: 6–15.

Braham, M. and Hees, M. van (2012). An Anatomy of Moral Responsibility. Mind 121: 601–634.

Braham, M. and Hees, M. van (2017). Voids and Fragmentation. The Economic Journal, forthcoming

Hees, M. van (2010). Some General Results on Responsibility for Outcomes. In Deemen, A. van and Rusinowska, A. (eds), Collective Decison Making. Heidelberg: Springer, 99–109.

Pettit, P. (2007). Responsibility Incorporated. Ethics 117: 171–201.

Thompson, D. F. (1980). Moral Responsibility of Public Officials: The Problem of Many Hands. American Political Science Review 74: 905–916.