24. Four concepts of responsibility

In this theoretical essay I will explore the topic of political responsibility, drawing a distinction between four meaningful types of responsibility and arguing that a more complete understanding of responsibility could greatly benefit society.

In his classic 1969 essay Two Concepts of Liberty, Isaiah Berlin showed us that although political values are ultimately not reducible to each other – you have to choose! – we can learn much by understanding each other’s perspectives on key concepts. I aim to make a similar point in this essay for the concept of responsibility, which runs through thousands of discussions and challenges. There is much to improve in political debate and policies alike once we understand that responsibility can take different (equally legitimate) meanings, and the real challenge is not to pick one but to increase responsibility across the board. Note that I will exclusively deal with responsibility in a societal sense, leaving psychological, theological or other meanings aside.

While we will ultimately end up with four types of responsibility, I will start with two. The first is what I will call liberal or contractual responsibility, in which your responsibility is generated by past actions: you break the pot, you pay for it. In society, we encounter this in the social expectation to take responsibility for one’s own actions, repair inflicted damages and in the case of an advanced school: honor written contracts no matter how small and misleading. The second type of responsibility I will call social or Christian responsibility, in which your responsibility is generated by the (unique) opportunity to act: you have to pull your friend up from a cliff, since it is you who she is holding on to. In society we encountered this in the expectation to for example give up your seat to old people, helping your drunk friend safely get to her house or calling the police on a kidnapping. If this distinction is unclear, consider the following example: suppose that you are leaving the house, but in a rush forgot your keys and locked yourself out. The good news is that somebody else lives in the house, so you ring the door for them to open. The other person responds by pointing at your failure to take the keys (liberal responsibility), and that you now and forever must stay outside. Most of my readers will agree that your roommate is acting unreasonable, and probably also irresponsible in refusing to open the door (social responsibility). Matter of fact, you could argue that you forgetting was not a conscious act, and that the roommate is even being more irresponsible given he is intentionally not solving a situation that only he can solve with minimal effort.

    Both forms of responsibility are constitutive of our social contract. For example most legal systems penalize fatal neglect or abandonment (social responsibility), as well as the breaking of contracts or driving under influence (liberal responsibility). Political leaders are both responsible for what they have caused, and for responsibilities that simply come with their position, such as dealing with criminal groups bred during previous administrations. Yet for ideological reasons, they are often pitted against each other in heated left-right discussions. The political right will typically favor contractual responsibility, and in the case of extreme neoliberalism flat out refuse the existence of any responsibility for others or even notion of honor in relation to society. More moderate conservatives will still be skeptical of any organized social responsibility, since they fear it will absolve people from their individual responsibility (usually: working for the man). Conversely, the political left (and the Church) will typically defend a strong version of social responsibility, for example in the notion that the strongest shoulders should carry the strongest burden, or the political idea that problems are best solved collectively. Leftists will sometimes question the notion of contractual responsibility, bitterly pointing at structural factors that influence outcomes and actions. They do this mainly out of defensive motivations, as they anticipate the right will not only seek to shed all social responsibility but blame weaker groups (poor, immigrants, rape victims) for their plight.

    While such discussions can be meaningful (and your servant frequently partakes in them), it is a mistake to think one should eliminate the other, since we – desperately – need both. Given we are weak and social animals, society is impossible without a minimum of taking care of each other, and limiting responsibility to contracts would lead to organized stupidity in which we don’t solve easy-yet-high-stake problems because it was nobodies legal fault. Likewise, the left is wrong in underplaying liberal responsibility, since a culture that doesn’t encourage people to take responsibility for themselves can devolve into corruption, and social responsibility would be hard to organize. Only a movement of responsible individuals can fight for social rights.

Time to complicate things further. So far we discussed responsibility in a direct, here-and-now sense. Yet both forms of responsibility can also be conceptualized in an indirect form (see table).

Relation / response to Past actions Present opportunities
Direct Liberal responsibility Social responsibility
Indirect Indirect liberal responsibility Indirect social responsibility

Indirect liberal or contractual responsibility relates to situations in which our actions have important consequences, but we are not immediately presented by them. One example of this is environmental responsibility: there is a direct link between your insistence of frequently traveling by plane and eating beef every day and climate change. Note that this link is not metaphorical: it is a physical (chemical) process with very complex yet predictable effects. The facts that others don’t it do doesn’t negate your contribution. Another example is consuming cocaine, which besides the direct consequences for your own life, also supports an entire criminal economy including murder, extortion and slavery.

    Indirect social responsibility relates to situations in which our actions could have important consequences for other people (including life or death), but we are not directly related to them. This argument is best made by Peter Singer in his puddle though experiment. While I encourage you to check the original, in essence it comes down to this: suppose you could save a child from drowning by making your clothes dirty, most would agree you should do it. Now suppose you could save even more children from dying of hunger by donating the same money it costs to wash your clothes. Should not the same responsibility apply? A less zoomed-out example would be blood donations. Suppose you see a message on social media asking for blood donations, but it is not a close friend of yours. While you are not the only person seeing the call, you are one of the hundreds, and you also know that if nobody ever responds to these type of calls, the whole blood bank system could not function.

    What both indirect forms of responsibility have in common is that a) they are weaker than direct responsibilities of both types; b) the world would be a better if more people took indirect responsibility, and in some cases the survival of society would be impossible without it. We thus have to explore the limits of increasing such responsibility. In the case of indirect liberal responsibility, the difficulty lays in the disconnect between actions and consequences. While they are real and causal, their relationship is not imminently visible to us, partly due to these actions mingling with those of thousands of others. While you understand your responsibility, you are not certain if your contribution will be socially recognized or even noticed. Plus, since many others are not taking responsibility, you don’t think you make a difference. In the case of indirect social responsibility, it might be easier to see how you make a difference, but for most of us it is not possible to respond to all calls for help. We can (thus should) help, but not everyone. Peter Singer would argue that one should do as much as one could anyway, but the argument gets weaker. Plus, a common excuse for not doing any social good is that one does not trust the government/charity/institution with doing good. And you would rather help directly – which people of course don’t end up doing.

How can we reconcile these different views on responsibility? A starting point would be to notice that many arguments against each of them usually relate to fears that ‘others’ won’t act responsible in return. Actors on the left know that behind a strong ‘individual responsibility’ discourse there are calls for tax cuts and welfare retrenchment. Conservatives (pretend to) fear that recognizing social responsibility would damage the character of poor folk, for which they somehow do feel responsible. You won’t reduce your ecological footprint because you blame the industry, and why should you be the one rescuing strangers because ‘they probably would not help you either’. Notice that these arguments don’t need to be true or genuine to work, as the land of excuses is a forgiving and rich place, pulsing with rivers of hypocrisy and dotted with meadows of feigned ignorance.

    If any of the above is true, it tells me that the solution is to have more, rather than less responsibility of all kinds. We could flip this dynamic around, and strive for a situation in which one type of responsibility inspires the other. More individual responsibility for our actions (for example less corruption) inspires more indirect social responsibility, and more direct social responsibility could compel people rethink how their actions affect society at large. The solution is thus not to give in to the cynics and nihilists who should be looted for resources, but rather to learn to value different forms of responsibility. While we for ideological reasons are more used to the first liberal type, it is not any less real, important nor more practiced that social responsibility. Taking indirect contractual responsibility can be hard, yet humanity is fast approaching doom because it is exactly this type of responsibility that we are lacking. Indirect social responsibility cannot always be sustained, yet most would agree that people who never respond to the calls of the wider humanity or nation are dysfunctional to some degree.

    Beyond individual ethics, the political question is how we can organize in order to encourage (or enforce) a fuller spectrum of responsibility. Leading by example is an obvious part of this, but we should also explore how we can make responsible behavior more rewarding beyond punishing irresponsible one. In today’s society, being responsible (in any of the four ways) at the wrong moment can be very punishing, sometimes more than acting irresponsible. In the past I already called for a sociology of self-control, but in this case it would be valuable to study how different societies organize responsibility. Maybe experimenting with new combinations of responsibility might yield fruits, such as letting workers run their own cooperative workplaces. Much is to be learned.