How far does our responsibility extend? What can we rightly be regarded as responsible for?
This matters because, looked at negatively it coincides with what we may be blamed or be held culpable for, and looked as positively it coincides with what we might be praised or given an accolade for. This in turn, respectively, brings about things we might be expected to feel guilty about, feel the need to make amends for, learn from, think that being punished is not out of order, and then conversely brings about things where we might rightly feel good about ourselves, satisfaction, and that praise or a reward may not be out of order.
The negative aspect of responsibility is perhaps more significant in our lives than the positive.
On the positive side people can feel miffed and undervalued if they are not thanked for the good they do, but many people take the view most of the time that the good one was responsible for is reward enough in itself, and further acknowledgement is not necessary, indeed might be an embarrassment. At worst one might feel miffed and underappreciated and give up one’s successful deeds.
One has to be responsible for one’s view of responsibility, just one has to be responsible for what one is responsible for.
On the negative side a failure to correctly ascribe responsibility can be downright harmful, indeed it might tend towards harm accumulating because the person who brings about the harm never sees certain results of their actions as their responsibility, and so sees no reason to learn from those actions or change their ways. Having the incorrect attitude to responsibility, to misunderstand what one is responsible for, is itself, at another level, a failure of responsibility. One has to be responsible for one’s view of responsibility, just one has to be responsible for what one is responsible for.
The minimal and the maximal view
The minimum view of what one is responsible for is that one is responsible for only that which one intends. By intention is meant that one held an objective in mind and then sought to bring it about. A surgeon removes a heart from a person with the sole intention of having a heart to study and of course the person dies; but on the minimalist view the surgeon is not responsible for the death as it was not anything he intended. The maximal view of responsibility is that one is responsible for all that may be causally traced to oneself. A person goes in for a heart operation, and several days later, he examines the stitches in his chest, but in doing so he takes his eyes off the road he is crossing and gets run over by a bus; the surgeon is responsible for the accident as the stitches were put there by the surgeon, and without them the person crossing the road would not have been examining them. Neither of these views can be right. The first minimum view makes one oblivious and responsibility free what whatever follows from one’s actions or inactions that are bad provided one did not intend it, rather one may feel sanguine and have a clear conscience. The second maximal view would make one paranoid and afraid of anything one did, and indeed did not do, lest some harm followed by some chain of event one cannot know about. The second causal view is rare, but the former intentional view of responsibility is surprisingly common. It is also often harmful and potentially dangerous.
The flaw in the intention-only view is that it privileges as key to responsibility a particular mental aspect of that which brings about an action and its result. One is responsible for one’s actions only insofar as one intends them. This however brings a strange, not to say, pathological attitude to the results of what one does or does not do, whereby any of them that were not on one’s mind done with intention are met by a shoulder-shrugging lack of feeling responsible. That extreme can’t be right. One must also be responsibly in some measure for some of the results that were not intended but followed because of what one intended.
Degrees of responsibility
At the other extreme there would be the view that one is responsible for everything that may be causally traced to whatever one might or might not do. But this, of course, would be absurd and leave one responsible for events so remote in the chain of events from one’s actions that no-one could seriously be held responsible for them. If as some argue metaphysically that everything is causally interlinked, then one would be responsible for anything that happens in the universe. It’s worth noting however the salutary lesson that may be drawn from for considering this extreme view, that of it being a good idea to be positively aware of the possible additional consequences, the ramifications, of one’s actions in judging whether the action is the right thing to do.
So at one extreme we have the view that one is responsible for only that which one intends, and at the other extreme we have the view that one is responsible for everything that may be causally linked to a person, whether they intended it or not, a view that ignores the genuine possibility of mere accident. Neither view can be correct.
One may be held responsible not only for one’s actions, one by one, but to some significant degree to the kind of person one is.
Fortunately, the law can help us out here. For what it introduces are grades of responsibility related to four main categories, which in descending order of responsibility (and culpability) are adverbially given as: intentionally, knowingly, recklessly, negligently.
This is an excellent start, and it may lead us to some good overall view of what we are responsible for that lie between the extremes of pure intention and pure causality.
One may be held responsible if one acts in any of the ways listed above, but in the eyes of the law, one’s degree of responsibility declines over them, as does one’s culpability (if such is appropriate) attached to one’s actions or inactions in each case, and thence further the severity of any punishment.
- In the case of intentionally, I decide to shoot someone in the head in order to kill them;
- In the case of knowingly, I shoot someone in the head knowing that it will almost certainly kill them regardless of whether I intend to kill them;
- In the case of recklessly, I run about in a crowded shopping centre shooting indiscriminately and happen to shoot a person;
- In the case of negligently, I leave a loaded gun lying around where someone might well pick it up, does so, and shoots someone.
Intention involves demonstrating a certain state of mind, mens rea; knowing involves showing that someone knew the consequences of their actions and did so regardless of their intention; recklessness involves showing that the person themselves knew that their actions were highly risky if not certain as to their consequences; negligently involves showing that a reasonable person, not the agent themselves, would have thought of the consequences of their actions, might have been expected to think of them, regardless of whether the person in question actually did so.
Responsibility and character
One other factor needs to be introduced to get a good understanding of responsibility, that of a person’s character. One might not be held responsible for one’s personality, but that should be distinguished from one’s character which one may be held responsible for.
One may be held responsible not only for one’s actions, one by one, but to some significant degree for the kind of person one is: that part of oneself that is one’s formed character. Part of taking responsibility for one’s actions and for one’s life may be traced to building up the kind of personality that judges wisely. If that is the case, one may be held indirectly responsible for one’s actions because one has done nothing to change the kind of person one is, namely one who acts unwisely or fails to act as wisely as one might.
In addition, a key feature of judging and acting wisely is knowledge, and being aware of the limitations of both of one’s knowledge and the limitations of one’s character to know. There is no point in just having the best intentions in the world to restore someone’s sight by engaging in a spot of eye surgery if one knows nothing about how to do it and is unaware of one’s likely inability. The putatively exculpating mantra that one was only doing one’s best, had the best intentions, will hardly cut any ice if one ignores one’s woeful lack of knowledge of a situation and what the consequences of one’s actions lead to, as well as perhaps flaws in one’s character that make one unsuitable and less likely to make a good judgement in that situation.
The extent of one’s responsibility falls between the extremes of pure intention (not enough responsibility) and pure causality (too much responsibility).
It’s part of one’s moral duty, of one’s moral responsibility, to reflect on one’s own knowledge and capabilities, and either take steps to improve them or know one’s limitations and not act beyond them just because one intends a certain result. One might go about this by learning from one’s mistakes, reflecting on one’s character, and taking the advice of others, some of whom may be better equipped.
With this in mind, the extent of one’s responsibility falls — with grey shading one way or the other — between the extremes of pure intention (not enough responsibility) and pure causality (too much responsibility).
It looks as though a combination of intention and causality gives the best understanding of responsibility, whereby one is responsible for whatever one intended; extending that to what one may be reasonable be held to foresee had one taken the right steps to attend to one’s knowledge and one’s character.
One may hone one’s character so as to be in a better position to make good judgements, and this is something one is also responsible for along with one’s actions. We are all responsible for things we intended to happen and those we ought to have seen coming if we are trying our best to be responsible human beings.
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Dr John Shand is a Visiting Fellow in Philosophy at the Open University. He studied philosophy at the University of Manchester and King’s College, University of Cambridge. He has taught at Cambridge, Manchester and the Open University. The author of numerous articles, reviews, and edited books, his own books include, Arguing Well (London: Routledge, 2000) and Philosophy and Philosophers: An Introduction to Western Philosophy, 2nd edition (London: Routledge, 2014).
Cover image by Chuttersnap on Unsplash.