Sometime last week I got into a discussion spurred by Guantanamo issues about the nature of culpability. Our legal system is crutched on intent, which I think is a good thing, but it also makes things much more complicated. What if you run over a little boy because he ran out into the street and you couldn't stop in time? How about if you run over a little boy while drunk? And if you run over a little boy because he keeps smashing your windows and knocking over your mailbox? Very different.
With that in mind, tack on the additional complexity of responsibility to authority figures. If a kid steals a candy bar because his dad tells him to, who is guilty? The kid might have wanted to steal the candy bar anyway, but we can't bank on knowing if he wanted to or not. Alternatively, the kid might have been scared of his dad beating him if he didn't. The law needs to be generally applicable and do the right thing for both cases.
Children aside, what if the case is that of a man obeying a policeman, his boss, or the president? Or, just for kicks, a religious leader? Authority figures are just as fallible as the rest of us. And people vary greatly in their levels of obedience, morality, trust, and fear. Imagine a lawyer committing perjury to gain $300k. How about because he'd lose his job if he didn't? Now imagine a lawyer committing the same perjury because someone with extensive influence threatened to kill his wife and daughter. A person with a strong sense of morality, little fear, and trust in the legal system would turn themselves in before it got to that point. But someone with strong senses of obedience (to the person with extensive influence) and fear might get stuck with the perjury. Should we be legally responsible for being spineless? To some extent, I think so. The question is, what extent?
Obviously things need to be taken on a case by case basis. People tend to be surprisingly good at reading other people. Imagine the kind of kid that wanted to take the candy bar. And now imagine the kind that was just afraid of his dad. They'd look different, act different, sound different. There are always clues, though sometimes hidden under layers of sociopathic acting. It's just scary how good that acting can be sometimes.