15, AUG 2012
There is no philosophically well-settled way of dividing or analyzing the various components of responsibility, and some components are often ignored by philosophers. To take a more comprehensive approach, this article divides the responsibility of individuals into four areas of enquiry. Recent analytic moral philosophy has tended to ask two deceptively simple questions about responsibility like; “What is it to be responsible?” and “What is a person responsible for?” The first question is usually taken as a question about moral agency, the second as a question about holding people accountable for past actions. As noted, however, this does not capture the variety of uses that we make of the concept. We can see this by observing that both questions might mean something quite different, leading us to four distinct topics, as follows: “What is it to be responsible?” is most often asked by philosophers as a question about the foundations of moral agency. What sort of creature can properly be held responsible for its actions? The simple answer is: a normal human adult. To explain and justify this reply, philosophers tend to turn to psychological and metaphysical features of normal adults, such as free will. We might also approach the same issue with a somewhat different emphasis: What features of (normal, adult) human interaction are involved in our holding one another responsible? However, in asking “What is it to be responsible?” we might also have a second question in mind. We often praise some people as responsible, and criticize others as irresponsible. Here responsibility names a virtue – a morally valuable character trait. We may also praise an institution as responsible. One of the word’s original uses was to call for “responsible government.” We can compare this with the more recent demand that corporations be “socially responsible.” This aspect of responsibility has received very little philosophical attention. “What is a person responsible for?” is a question most often asked by philosophers in connection with causation and accountability. This retrospective, or backward-looking, use is closely connected with praise and blame, punishment, and desert. When something has gone wrong, we invariably want to know who was at fault; and when something has gone right, we occasionally stop to ask who acted well. This is the topic of retrospective responsibility. Again, however, we might use the same words to ask an entirely different question: “What is a person responsible for?” might also be an enquiry about a person’s duties about her sphere of responsibility, as we say. A parent is responsible for caring for his child, an employee for doing her job, a citizen for obeying the law. It is a basic fact of human cooperation that responsibilities are often divided up between people: for example, the doctor is responsible for prescribing the right drugs, and the patient responsible for taking them correctly. As against questions of retrospective responsibility, this topic is sometimes termed prospective responsibility, that is, what responsibilities we are duty-bound to undertake.
In recent decades increasing attention has been given to the question of collective responsibility. This question can arise wherever the actions of a group of people combine to generate a particular result – whether a corporation, or the citizens of a state, or even individuals who have no particular connection to one another. (A well-known example of the last is “the tragedy of the commons,” when lots of people use a shared resource – for instance, everyone using the commons as grazing land for their cattle – resulting in the degradation of that resource. Our increasing awareness of damage to environment has given this case particular contemporary importance.) There are questions about the responsibilities of the collective, and of the individual as a member of that body. Recall that one of the...