Taking responsibility seriously

By Andy Crosbie

Many people bemoan the growth of the so-called Blame Culture. Pedestrians trip over uneven pavements and blame local councils. People gorge on fatty fast food then blame McDonalds for their consequent obesity. Placing causal responsibility at the heart of our moral concepts is a simple and well-practised step to blaming. Philosophical analysis has thus far done so as this notion ties to metaphysical questions about personhood and free will, but therein we see thateven philosophy has a role to play in the culture of blame.  If we continue to limit our notion of moral responsibility to that of causal responsibility, if we insist we are only responsible for what we ourselves have caused, then we will find that much responsibility will slip through the cracks.

This point is perhaps well-illustrated by reference to the military term ‘collateral damage’. This term has emerged in recent years to become part of common parlance, but referred originally to the foreseen but unintended killing of civilians through their close proximity to a genuine military target. (In this way it closely resembles of Doctrine of Double Effect.) Collateral damage is typically spoken of as something that happened but not anything that anyone did. Since there was no intention to kill civilians, it is taken to follow that nothing active was done, hence that no-one can be attributed with the responsibility for the action. Mary Midgley makes the same point, saying “the administrative complexity of the modern world makes such cases increasingly common. Bureaucracy tends to look like ‘the rule of nobody’… [an] obscuring of individual responsibility…” And Anthony Bandura writes, “Euphemistic language is used widely to make harmful conduct respectable and to reduce personal responsibility for it.” All this leads to what he has termed “the disengagement of moral self-sanctions” or “moral disengagement.”

The notion of attributing responsibility (causal responsibility) is highly susceptible to the threat of moral disengagement because it requires something akin to the ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ condition in criminal courts of law. If we have to prove beyond reasonable doubt that a person can be held responsible for a particular action, there are going to be many actions for which no-one can be held responsible. In order to counter this trend towards moral disengagement, we need to bolster the notion of moral responsibility to include that of ‘taking responsibility’.

Attributing responsibility is, at heart, a curtailing notion. Moral responsibility should not be limited to the concepts of legal liability, contractual responsibility and mere accountability. Reliance on these notions alone serves to turn morality into a matter of ‘do no wrong’ instead of ‘do good’ – a matter of moral minimalism. In seeking always to find someone to blame, someone to hold responsible, the very notion of responsibility is weakened.

Taking responsibility, on the other hand, allows us to extend ourselves outwards, to go beyond organisational boundaries to do something which nevertheless is neither exceptional nor supererogatory. The moral agent is one who assumes responsibility, takes responsibility, and doesn’t wait to have this assigned. We should emphasise taking responsibility in our moral practices, seeking principally to make things better instead of to minimise personal blame. By shifting our emphasis thus, we will not merely be supplementing our concepts. More importantly we will also be changing our ways. Instead of suing McDonalds, people would control their own diet and eat better. Instead of saying “I’m not to blame” or “It’s not my responsibility” people would instead recognise “I can do something to help” and would act in such a way as to make a positive difference. And this certainly would be a valuable step forward.

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One response to “Taking responsibility seriously

  1. Interesting that various religions follow the lack of responsibility in the way of temptations – what a woman wears will tempt me to do this…

    Yet the same woman has now to adapt to those circumstances and pay the price in personal freedom.

    Responsibility is an active choice – It is something we do every day, we just have to think about it and make the ‘right’ ones, without blame or impingement on others

    Perhaps it is a test of character, can you make a difference – Try It…

    I am sure that you can!

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