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What is Responsibility?

Hans Lenk relates to different types of responsibility.

In his The Devil’s Dictionary (1911), the well-known satirical writer Ambrose Bierce defined responsibility as:

“a detachable burden easily shifted to the shoulders of God, Fate, Fortune, Luck or one’s neighbour. In the days of astrology it was customary to unload it upon a star”

This ironic definition isn’t far off the mark: in fact, it seems nowadays to even have acquired a new connotation thanks to the modern meaning of ‘star’! Indeed, to shuffle off, displace, delegate, or otherwise vicariously attribute responsibility – these are well-known tricks. One such might be called the ‘Russian solution’ to the problem of political responsibility. Simonov, in the nineties Chairman of the Moscow Foundation For Defending Glasnost, notoriously remarked:

“Nobody is responsible for anything. Therefore, the President is responsible for practically everything – and yet, in practice not, to be sure. For everybody knows that one person cannot be responsible for everything. As a result we have a situation where nobody is responsible for anything, for everybody is entangled with everybody else.”

Indeed, entanglement, or more formally, relational intertwinement, is a characteristic feature of responsibility – though not strictly abiding by the Russian strategy.

The concept of responsibility is both a relational and an attributional concept. What does that mean?

To my knowledge the logician J.M. Bochenski was the first philosopher explicitly to point out that the concept of responsibility is a concept of relation, in the sense of the formal logic of relations. Bochenski reasoned that if somebody is responsible to someone for something, this must be a two-place if not a three-place relation. This makes the concept of responsibility a relational concept, the two-place relation being but a ‘partial relation’ of the three-place one. Indeed, Bochenski is right, but could have gone further. One is responsible or takes responsibility to someone for something in the face of some consequence, and this also has to be specified with regard to standards and to a system of norms. When we do this, responsibility rather seems to be a five- or six-place relationship. Thus concepts of responsibility can be interpreted and analysed into the following elements:

Somebody (the bearer of responsibility, ie a person or corporation) is responsible

for something (actions, consequences and results of actions, states, tasks etc)

to somebody

in the face of (or before or in light of) an instance of judgment or potential sanctions

with regard to a prescriptive criterion [such as a rule]

within the framework of a realm of relevant actions and responsibilities.

We could also draw secondary distinctions, though perhaps those should not be seen as part of the core relational concept itself. For instance, we might distinguish between responsibility before and after the fact; or with regard to different sorts and degrees of sanctions (eg formal or informal); or with differing degrees of obligation (eg must, ought, can).

Responsibility therefore is a concept expressed by a relational system of attribution in terms of an expectation of an action or its result. To be responsible, or to take responsibility for something (or someone), means that somebody is obliged to (against) an addressee for actions, results of actions, tasks and states of affairs, and that he or she has to justify these actions and results before (or in the face of) a judgement, according to standards, criteria, or norms. The responsible person has to justify his or her actions: he or she has to be answerable (‘responsible’ in the narrower sense), i.e. accountable for them.

Moreover, the word ‘responsibility’ isn’t only used in a descriptive sense, to state that somebody bears responsibility. Crucially, it is also an evaluative attributional notion – somebody is made or held responsible or called to account for something. This latter notion is prototypical insofar as it opens up the ethical dimension of actions.

The attribution of responsibility is therefore multidimensional. We can assign the respective causal responsibility, or the moral, or legal or some other kind of responsibility in a descriptive manner. Primarily, we can attribute guilt or moral blame, or praiseworthiness, or legal liabilities. Different types of responsibilities and their respective attributions can be developed by further interpretation, in particular by exploring the ramifications of the above general scheme of responsibility.

This approach can be understood as an analytical framework for a differentiated theory of responsibility which does not merely rest with global concepts like ‘the responsibility of the role-bearer’ or ‘the responsibility of the institution’. Such global concepts aren’t at all susceptible to potential fine divisions of responsibility; our approach allows us to analytically classify responsibility in a more detailed manner.

But before whom is someone responsible? There may be many replies. I think the Kantian idea of moral responsibility based on the dignity and the highest value of humankind and the integrity of humanity is an acceptable and unique frame of moral orientation. But Kant’s perspective doesn’t mean that mankind would somehow be a real judge entitled to legally produce judgments and sanctions, but rather a kind of ideal court. [Kant’s moral system specified that one should act as if one’s actions defined laws for humanity as a whole, thereby making humanity itself a sort of judge - Ed.] In this case then, ‘responsibility’ is an idealized concept of attribution. This Kantian notion at least circumscribes the five- and six-place relational concept. We can say that moral responsibility is a special form of responsibility.

Essentially, I would like to distinguish between at least four dimensions of responsibility:

1. Responsibility for actions and their results

2. Task and role responsibility

3. Universal moral responsibility

4. Legal responsibility.

Special responsibilities like religious or educational [or bioethical] responsibilities might also be added.

In the following I would like to concentrate on just one of these: universal moral responsibility. This kind of responsibility is characterized by specific traits. First is that the well-being or ill-being of persons (under some circumstances, my own person) is involved. ‘Well-being’ and ‘ill-being’ refer to states of the body and the psyche; in short, to life, limb and soul. Moral responsibility isn’t restricted to any special realms, but is in principle universal, pertaining equally to everybody in comparable situations. It doesn’t admit of postponements, delegations and shuffling-off, and it is always personal. It can’t be taken over vicariously, in proxy or by substitution. Restricted role responsibilities [the second category], e.g. political or administrational ones, are at times used as means of shuffling-off real moral responsibility, or are sometimes even misused: but strategies of shuffling-off responsibility are necessarily (even by definition) excluded in moral matters. Morally speaking, a human being cannot intentionally withdraw responsibility. Moral responsibility is moreover characterized by the fact that it is not attached to specific roles, but is in principle universal and applicable to everyone. When applicable, it is unconditional.

In politics we often encounter the rhetorical manœuvering of someone saying “I take full responsibility” for some mishap, yet nothing at all happens after that – no resignation, no punishment. Under an ideal assessment of moral judgment this would not be coherent. To be sure however, moral perspectives are but valuations without real means of sanction. Morality cannot enforce sanctions as the law can. However, in many countries (including my own) we find popular strategies or tendencies to ‘legalize’ questions and perspectives of ethics, in particular those involving the attribution of responsibility. One likes to make somebody responsible as the uniquely responsible person.

Law and morality are related to one another to be sure, and they have much in common, but they are not the same realms. Indeed you can so to speak put somebody in the pillory – expose him or her publicly in the moral sense, or even morally condemn somebody - but you cannot from the moral point of view convict him or her by enforcing sanctions in the legal sense [then it would be law, not morality - Ed]. For Kant, moral judgment is not even generally susceptible to public evaluation, because it refers instead to the intention of the individual will. Moral responsibility is basically not identical or to be held on equal status with legal responsibility with its susceptibility to legal sanctions and consequences.

There’s a growing complex of problems concerning the distribution of responsibility which seems to be rather pressing nowadays in science and technology. Does science and its related actions and involved agents admit of moral responsibility at all? I would like to deal briefly with some of these problems under the auspices of the types of responsibilities differentiated above, in terms of questions of the division and distribution of responsibility.

Moral responsibility to be sure is direct and immediate as well as unavoidably individual and personal (at least in the prototypical cases), whereas some of the other responsibilities, e.g. liability for associations and groups, as well as corporations, may be role-specific and can, at times at least, in part be transmitted or delegated. Moral responsibility however can also refer to groups, and under some circumstances to institutions; for instance corporations and associations, and their members too. I would like to talk here of ‘co-responsibility’ rather than ‘group responsibility’ or ‘collective responsibility’, as other philosophers would do (for instance, Brown University’s John Ladd). ‘Group responsibility’ seems to me to be a rather misleading expression. Co-responsibility is instead borne by the many individual contributors within the group, without their personal or individual responsibility being reduced at all. There is no easy way out by stating a divided responsibility whereby you are excused of guilt. Moral responsibility is, as mentioned above, not to be delegated or shuffled-off: it cannot be divided up, although several or even many members can participate in it. That is to say, it has to be possible to relate the moral responsibility which apparently refers to the group to the respective personal responsibilities of the individual members. Think of members of a parliament who are individually responsible for their voting decisions, but are members of a party or faction at the same time. This is however a difficult problem. How is it possible to bear responsibility in common without diminishing it through an increasing number of co-responsible agents? The larger the organization, the less responsibility seems to amount to for the individuals who contribute – except maybe the highest ‘responsible’ leader, e.g. the president or the politically-responsible highest official. Moral responsibility however is to be distinguished from the political attribution of responsibility. Political responsibility does in many respects not always operate adequately: compare the examples of Chernobyl – the highest manager of the nuclear power plant was fired after the catastrophe – with President Reagan’s taking ‘full responsibility’ in the case of Irangate.

We find here then the first problem of the distribution of responsibility: How is responsibility within groups or of groups, i.e. co-responsibility, related to personal responsibility? This problem refers mainly to moral co-responsibility. By contrast, with respect to role responsibility, this problem is frequently formally solved by contract or by law.

There are further problems concerning the distribution of responsibilities, for instance originating from the collective or cumulative actions of many agents. Think of the dying forests. Here, many different little harms well below a threshold accumulate to create a total damage which as such cannot be accounted to each individual. Thus there is a problem of the attribution of responsibility here. Everybody who takes part (eg runs a car or uses coal or oil heating systems) contributes, but any individual contribution is not as such already really harmful. To whom can we attribute responsibility for the total damage, the dying of the forests? Is it possible here to talk of ‘innocent irresponsibility’ (unverschuldete Verantwortungslosigkeit) or rather ‘unsusceptibility’ with regard to responsibility (Unverantwortbarkeit), as the German ethicist Felix Hammer did? It seems to be too easy a way out of the problem of distributive responsibility to except these evil effects, which are human-made indeed, from any attribution of responsibility whatsoever.

In addition, are not such constellations nowadays typical and characteristic of a world impregnated by science and industry – especially in the many situations, effects and results encountered via Big Technology? Is it possible in morality to take over an analogue of the Japanese attribution principle in environmental law, which considers the correlative statistical significance of nearby factories with respect to potential pollution or environmental damage? Is that sufficient reason already to sue those firms for damages, indemnification or compensation? It is true that mere statistical suspicion may not guarantee real causality, and consequently no moral guilt; is such suspicion a sufficient basis for the respective claim for damage compensation? This may be legally a viable strategy, but in any case it doesn’t suffice for demonstrating moral guilt. Moral guilt seems to presuppose not only causality but also conscious motivation, or at least negligence, and there are real methodological problems with turning the burden of proof (holding the alleged damagers accountable for proving their non-involvement). These questions are certainly also morally relevant.

An important possibility with respect to the potential and popular dilutions of responsibility in groups and with respect to collective agency in general, is to act through a heightened sensibility or intensification of the consciousness of responsibility (ie conscience) and by educating and fostering the respective capability for responsibility in all participants.

With regard to universities, we on the European continent are behind some American universities, who have introduced ethics elements into many undergraduate and even graduate courses as an obligatory part of the program. As a result we find there new disciplines like ‘bioethics’ (nowadays pouring over into Europe), ‘engineering ethics’, ‘business ethics’ (also spreading on an international scale), ‘governmental ethics’, ‘ethics of science’, and even ‘computer ethics’. In continental European universities not much has thus far been developed with respect to courses in science and engineering ethics. (Even medical schools are trailing behind the American ones.) It is still characteristic of the mentality of scientists and technicians, that two of my colleagues at our technical university stated with respect to the problem of introducing ethical courses for scientist and engineers: “Students should work hard for eight semesters; after that then they can start thinking.” Or as the other said: “We technicians have completed our moon landing program. Now the humanities and social scientists should step in and solve the value problem for us.” Admittedly, these statements were made a decade or so ago, but it seems to me that this is still characteristic of a large proportion of researchers and university professors in science and technology.

With respect to the latter quote, one cannot have such an easy way out. One cannot just shuffle off the problems of moral responsibility to the moral philosopher or sociological expert. The co-operation of both sets of people is certainly necessary (but not sufficient) for solving social problems of practical relevance to all of us. In particular, the ‘philosophy expert’ cannot take over the conscious application and realization of responsibility from the acting practitioner or technician. To bear individual responsibility is part and parcel of the moral cost and the chance for our moral freedom.

Equally, it does not make sense if philosophers, social scientists or politicians generally hold only technicians morally responsible for everything which comes out of their research and development. It would not make sense either to establish an international commission to rule on what should be morally obligatory or morally prohibited for scientists and engineers in general – although it does seem necessary to develop international declarations and agreements in such thriving fields as biomedical research. The European Convention on Bioethics as well as conventions in the USA and under the guidance of UNESCO are important steps in that direction. The first steps seem to have been the Nuremberg Code of 1947, the World Declarations of the World Medical Association, and the Mount Carmel Declaration on Technology and Moral Responsibility (Haifa, 1974). The latter essentially relied on an appeal to the moral consciences of individual scientists and engineers. This encouraging of conscience still seems to be necessary but not sufficient for approaching all the difficult problems of the distribution of different kinds of responsibilities.

In general, it does not seem viable to establish an ethical ‘supercommission’ which would decide which basic scientific research would be acceptable and morally accountable and which not. It seems that discussion of a special ‘science court’ or ‘technology tribunal’ (the latter formulation is a rather telling one!) is to be sure generally fruitful, but not yet well defined. The idea might be meaningful in the form of hearings, or as an instrument of educating consciousness and conscience. But it is not possible for general research to introduce a comprehensive special science or technology court. Only with respect to specific projects would such a thing make sense; such as bioethics committees in hospitals, or environmental commissions with regard to environmental planning projects. This however is a rather wide field which cannot be dealt with in detail here. One may only say this much: we cannot predict beforehand what results will come from basic research. In addition, most of the results may be applied in a positive as well as a negative way, constructively as well as destructively (evidenced by the use of even knives and dynamite, as well as nuclear energy and drug research). By the way, this is a very old debate indeed.

The question whether or not scientific research can be morally neutral cannot obviously be answered on a general and global level. Indeed, there is something right about the intention to except pure basic research (in the narrower sense, ie theoretical) from the direct zone of ‘external’ responsibility, because of such moral ambivalence concerning research results.

According to Bochenski, one can make and hold somebody personally responsible just for the sufficient conditions of the respective results of his or her developments, i.e. for what really triggers the consequences: “Whoever is responsible for a sufficient condition, is also responsible for what is conditioned. If consequently an action, for which I am responsible, leads to the death of a human being (i.e., is a sufficient condition for this death), I am responsible for his dying”. The same is not automatically true for all necessary conditions. Whoever establishes a necessary condition for an outcome would be according to Bochenski at best possibly be responsible “for the probability of the conditioned.” In the strict sense, the one responsible for only a necessary condition is therefore “not responsible for the conditioned”.

Bochenski finds just such an intriguing situation in the case of Otto Hahn (1879-1968). In 1938, Hahn, together with Lise Meitner and Fritz Strassmann, discovered nuclear fission at his small Berlin-Dahlem laboratory table. Hahn was a chemist by training rather than a physicist, so he wasn’t well prepared to predict and assess the mass-energy implications of fission, or consequently, its military applications. Indeed he couldn’t even predict the chain reactions and the consequent multiplication of energy output (Otto Frisch and Lise Meitner as physicists did that). Therefore Hahn certainly can’t be held personally morally responsible for the development of the atomic bomb. Even so, he felt great scruples and qualms, even a kind of co-guiltiness – so much so that the other German physicists held in the same internment camp near Cambridge after the war were afraid that he would commit suicide.

Generally speaking we may postulate that better education of consciousness with respect to responsibility and one’s own involvement, including a sharpening of conscious sensibility and sensitiveness, are indeed important, but intelligent differentiation is necessary. We can’t make do with general talk about “the responsibility” of “the scientist(s)”, or even ‘science’ or ‘technology’ in general. Besides their special internal responsibilities (the internal scientific ethos of truth-orientation, honesty and fairness), we have also to differentiate the concepts and notions of external responsibility towards society and humankind in terms of a relational analysis.

We definitely need to discuss and dig deeper into the problems with analysing the concepts of responsibility – in order not to experience the real demise of homo ethicus even more than has been already extensively seen these days.

© Professor Hans Lenk 2006

Hans Lenk won the gold medal for rowing at the 1960 Rome Olympics. He is now a professor at the Institute of Philosophy at the University of Karlsruhe in Germany, and was recently elected President of the International Institute of Philosophy.

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