Moral Responsibilities and Duties

A person may be causally responsible for a certain action although that action is not the subject of a moral evaluation. I may, for example, decide to dig a hole in my backyard in order to plant a bush, and in doing so satisfy all of the conditions for moral agency and liability responsibility, yet my action would still be morally neutral on account of its being neither required nor prohibited by any moral duty.

Generally speaking, we only inquire into an individual's moral agency and liability responsibility when his actions or their consequences become the subject of a moral evaluation, that is, when what he does or does not do something that a moral observer might consider as a subject for moral praise or blame. Thus while substantive moral responsibilities, responsibilities in the sense of moral obligations or duties, are distinct from ascriptions of liability responsibility, they inform judgments of the latter kind by specifying the general sorts of conditions under which we are concerned to make them.

These different senses of 'responsibility' are reflected in our use of the terms "not responsible" (or "nonresponsible") and "irresponsible." When we say that someone is "not responsible" it can mean either, they did not cause something, their are not liable for some kind of blame, or they lack moral competence. When we call someone "irresponsible", we are saying that they are not fulfilling a moral duty or obligation. Only those individuals who have substantive moral responsibilities can act irresponsibly. One has responsibilities, in this sense, when, "The well‑being, the interest, the fate of others has, by circumstance or agreement, come under my care, which means that my control over it involves at the same time my obliga­tion for it. The exercise of the power with disregard of the obligation is, then, `irresponsible'" (Jonas 1984, 93).

Jonas illustrates this concept of responsibility with the example of a ship's captain being responsible for the well‑being and safety of the ship's passengers. The captain has responsibility for the safety of the passengers because of the office he occupies, and the powers that office gives him to affect his passengers’ well-being, creates for him a moral responsibility to protect them. The notion of moral responsibility used here is similar to the notions of duty and obligation, and many people employ these terms as synonyms. So, in the last sentence of the preceding paragraph, try substituting the words “duty” and “obligation” for the word “responsibility.”

However, there are some nuances of meaning that are worth attending to among these terms. As Robert Goodin has noted, “Responsibilities are to consequentialistic ethics what duties are to deontological ones. Duties dictate actions. Responsibilities dictate results” ("Responsibilities." The Philosophical Quarterly, Vol 36, No. 142, p.50). As he explains this idea, “Both duties and responsibilities are prescriptions of the general form: A ought to see to it that X, where A is some agent and X some state of affairs.” However, in the case of duties, the state of affairs, X, is some action of A’s own doing, while in the case of responsibilities the X clause need not refer to specific actions on the part of A. In the case of responsibilities, the agent A can delegate his or her responsibilities to others.

So, while the ship’s captain has the responsibility to steer the ship so as to avoid hitting icebergs, he can delegate this duty to his first officer. The captain’s responsibility includes seeing to it that the ship does not hit an iceberg, that is a particular state of affairs to be avoided, but he can fulfill his responsibility to bring about this state of affairs by delegating the actual steering to others. When he does so, Goodin says, the captain retains supervisory responsibility, in that he must see to it that those to whom he delegates his responsibility act in the appropriate ways. What matters for responsibilities is that a certain outcome or state of affairs be obtained, not who is doing what specific actions in order to obtain them.

This difference between the concepts of "duty" and "responsibility" bears on the choice of one’s fundamental ethical theory. The notion that morally right action consists in acting in accordance with duty is the central notion of traditional Kantian deontological ethics. Consequentialist theories in ethics, on the other hand, assume that the goal of moral action is to bring about certain outcomes in the world. The notion of responsibility, used as Goodin does, splits the difference between these traditional views by holding that moral agents have various kinds of moral responsibilities which require them to see to it that certain consequences obtain or are avoided or that certain actions are performed. The emphasis on duties of the individual only arises incidentally not essentially in moral action descriptions

The traditional notion of duty has acquired a certain puritanical flavor that tends to put some people off. When we speak of a person's duties we generally mean specific demands for action that are placed upon their wills by others or by external forces. Duty has come to suggest action in which the agent merely complies or in which he or she acts heteronomously, that is, in accordance with the will of another. Responsibilities, on the other hand, when understood in the normative sense, denote obligations which can be are often are self-assumed and which are highly discretionary. The moral agent is viewed as someone who "responds" in the morally appropriate ways through free decisions of her own, often without there being any external authority or sanction which would compel her to do so.

A responsible mother, for instance, takes care to ensure her child is furnished with a variety of goods that are necessary to his well-being and development. No one is commanding to perform particular actions; she is acting responsibility in her maternal role by doing things for her child that a reasonable person would expect would be beneficial and healthy. Her aim is to bring about certain states of the world in which her child is protected from harm and is in fact benefited in various ways. While moral attitudes of care and love are the typical motives for such behavior, what matters to our moral evaluation of her actions is not her intentions nor her mental states, but whether or not a reasonable person would regard something that she has done as likely to bring about certain kinds of effects in the world, effects that should be sought or avoided.

For instance, a mother who leaves her infant locked in a car in his car seat while she goes into a beauty shop to have her nails done, would normally be thought of as irresponsible, in the moral sense, and might become liable for blame or punishment even if no actual harm befalls her child. She would certainly be asked to give an account of why she had done such a stupid thing, and for this purpose, her mental state at the time and her intentions might be relevant. But for a moral observer who is judging her action, what matters is whether what she did would be considered by a reasonable person as having placed her child at risk of serious harm. Children are specially vulnerable, and the VCP ascribes to their caregivers, and in fact all other moral agents, the responsibility to protect children from harm.

While the difference between duty and responsibility is perhaps not uniformly reflected in the way ordinary people use these terms, it does mark what I shall take to be a significant moral difference. It is the difference between saying, for instance, "Obeying the law is a civic duty." and saying, "Voting is a civic responsibility." In the former case, society arranges for there to be authorities, police, judges, and so forth, who will enforce obedience to the laws, so that whenever someone does obey the law it is never clear whether they do so because of fear of social sanction, or because they freely chose to do so. But with respect to voting, where no law (at least in the United States) compels one to register and to vote, there is not this same ambiguity.

While individuals have the moral discretion to choose whether or not to vote, there is also a clear sense in which people ought to choose to vote. When someone does vote, we feel that the reason they did so was because they freely chose to exercise that right and assumed the responsibility that goes with it for making an informed choice. There is, thus, an element of voluntarism and discretion in the notion of responsible action which often seems lacking in the notion of acting on a duty.

While the distinction between these two concepts is not always clear in the way in which we use these terms in ordinary language, as I shall use these terms, responsibilities provide grounds for duties. Both duties and responsibilities are kinds of moral obligations, but the notion of responsibility is the more basic. Duties are actions that are chosen because they fulfill or help to discharge a moral agent’s responsibilities. So, in the case of the negligent mother, we can say that she had a duty not to leave her child unattended in the car while she went into the beauty shop. A number of particular actions, such as taking her child with her into the shop, or leaving the child in the care of a grandparent or baby sitter, would have served to fulfill her responsibility to protect her child from harm.

Agents normally have some discretion in choosing which particular actions they will employ in order to adequately discharge their moral responsibilities. It is the discretionary nature of responsibilities and their goal-directedness that makes them a better candidate for a theory of the nature normative obligations in my view.

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