The Meanings of 'Responsibility'

The concept of responsibility is one of the most important yet also one of the most complex notions in the moral idiom. An analysis of the many ways in which the term "respon­sibility" is used reveals many partially overlapping but distinct senses of the term.

We speak of persons as "being responsible" for their actions, meaning that they can be held accountable for them, can be the proper objects of moral praise or blame, and may become liable for punishment or to pay compensation. Persons can also be said to "accept responsibility" for the effects of their actions, as when they acknowledge their guilt for having caused some harm or broken a moral rule. We also speak of persons as "having respon­sibili­ties" related to their interpersonal roles, such as those of parents or lovers, and also having responsibilities related to their jobs, occupations, professions, and other their other roles in society such as those of citizens.

People are sometime said to "take responsibility" for either themselves or for others, meaning that they enter a particular role in which they attempt to bring about certain outcomes. We also use the term to describe a character trait as when we call someone a "respon­sible" person and mean that they possess certain kinds of virtues, e.g., trust­worthiness or conscientious­ness. In this sense responsibility is a kind of virtue: a responsible person can be relied upon to do what is called for and what is right.

We also speak of people as being "respon­sible to" others, such as those in positions of authority over them, and "respon­sible for" the perfor­mance of certain tasks or accomplishing certain goals. People often complain of being burdened with too many responsibilities and often view responsibilities as limiting their freedom. Yet sometimes people seek greater responsibility because by accepting respon­sibility one can also sometimes gain greater power and authority.

Judging from this brief survey of some common uses of the term "responsibility," it appears that there, in fact, may be no single core meaning of "responsibility" to provide conceptual unity for an "ethics of global responsibility." There no such thing as the problem of responsibility; there are various problems about responsibility connected with various meanings and uses of the term.

I begin, therefore, with a brief survey of some of the main senses of "responsible," "responsible for," "responsible to," and "responsibility" in order to sharpen the linguistic tools needed for our inquiry. This survey is offered only as a descriptive analysis intended to mark the main ways in which the term is used in contemporary moral discourse. It does not purport to provide a theoreti­cal analysis of the concept of responsibility, or to address questions of substance concerning how certain types of moral responsibilities arise or are ought to be understood, the topic that will be addressed once we have a clear idea of which concept of responsibility we are talking about.

The analysis of the meanings of “responsibility” offered here distinguishes the following main senses: (1) causal responsibility, (2) agent responsibility, (3) responsibility as accountability, (4) responsibility as liability or culpability, (5) responsi­bilities as moral obligations, (6) role‑related responsibilities, (7) social responsibilities, and (8) respon­sibility as a virtue. I will examine each of these senses of the term "responsibility," with the goal of explaining how these various meanings of "responsibility' relate to the the VCP and to the larger project of constructing an ethics of global responsibility.

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