Responsibility as a Virtue

Responsibility as a virtue denotes an uncommon excellence in the exercise of the skill of moral judgment and action. Being responsible in this sense involves several interrelated skills, motives, and dispositions: e.g., a skill of moral perception in which the person is sensitive to the moral aspects of their behavior; a skill of moral evaluation and judgment, skill in moral decision-making, and a disposition to respond creatively to what one perceives to be a moral need or problem.

Ordinary moral competence, that condition deemed to be necessary for the ascription of liability responsibility, entails only being able to give an account of one's actions when required to do so, and the ability to distinguish between right and wrong according to conventional standards under most circumstances calling for moral judgment. Responsibility as a virtue, however, describes the person who exhibits an uncommon degree of moral awareness and sensitivity. The responsible person is one who seems to know better than most how best to respond in a given situation calling for moral judgment.

Dewey and Tufts distinguish responsibility as liability in which an individual may be held accountable to society for his or her actions, and liable to praise or censure for them, from what they term "positive responsibility." In the latter case, "one responds, answers, to the social demands made; he is not merely called to answer,"

When society looks for responsible workmen, teachers, doctors, it does not mean merely those whom it may call to account; it can do that in any case. It wants men and women who habitually form their purposes after consideration of the social consequences of their execution. Dislike of approbation, fear of penalty, play a part in generating this responsive habit; but fear, operating directly, occasions only cunning or servility. Fused through reflec­tion, with other motives which prompt action, it helps bring about that apprehensiveness or susceptibility to the rights of others, which is the essence of responsibility, which in turn is the sole ultimate guarantee of social order." (Ethics. New York: Henry Holt 1910, p.437)

Rather than merely speaking of an "apprehensiveness and susceptibility to the rights or others" I would rather say "concern for the interests and well‑being of others," since the possession of rights does not fully guarantee the enjoyment of the goods rights are intended to protect. 'Responsibility' in this sense is a particular moral disposition, which once formed operates independently of fear of punishment or promise of reward. The responsible person is one who has cultivated a disposition to regard the interests of others, and the general interests of society, as part of the normal way in which they calculate reasons for action. We use the term 'taking responsibil­ity' to describe their actions, since it is they themselves who determine that they shall respond and how they shall respond to a perceived moral interest.

Being a responsible person, then, means being able to exercise proper moral perception, proper moral judgment and discretion, and to respond appropriately to the moral demands of the particular situation in which one finds oneself. Responsible people are moral agents who can be generally relied upon to apprehend what is the right thing to do, and to do it.

The theologian H. Richard Niebuhr has discussed this meaning of responsibility and has made it central to what he terms an "ethics of responsibility," a moral paradigm that he thinks is distinct from both consequentialism and deontology:

...we may say that purposiveness seeks to answer the question: "What shall I do?" by raising the as prior the question: "What is my goal, ideal, or telos?" Deontology tries to answer the moral query by asking, first of all: "What is the law and what is the first law of my life?" Responsibility, however, proceeds in every moment of decision and choice to inquire: "What is going on?" If we use value terms then the differences among the three approaches may be indicated by the terms, the good, the right, and the fitting; for teleology is concerned always with the highest good to which it subordinates the right; consistent deontology is concerned with the right, no matter what may happen to our goods; but for the ethics of responsibility the fitting action, the one that fits into a total interaction as response and as anticipation of further response, is alone conducive to the good and alone is right. (Niebuhr, H. Richard. The Responsible Self: An Essay in Christian Moral Philosophy. Intro. James M. Gustafson. New York: Harper and Row, 1963: 60-61)

If we accept this view, then responsibility is not the name of another particular moral virtue like honesty, courage, loyalty, or beneficence, but rather it functions as a kind of master‑vir­tue. The virtue of responsibility denotes the ability to determine in particular situational contexts which moral obligations are the highest. One must exercise moral discretion in order to determine what is fitting, in Niebuhr's sense to a particular situation; to balance the competing claims of various duties and obligations which the actor might have, and to decide which should take precedence at a particular moment; or to determine what is the proper moral response to a situation which requires moral reflec­tion, deliberation, or judgment.

Responsibility, in this sense, cannot be reduced to a particular actions or rule of conduct, nor can it be said to serve any particular ends. Sometimes, being respons­ible will means doing ones duty while at other times it will mean striving towards some end in one's actions. It is forward‑looking, but unlike some versions of consequentialism, it does not abstract the actor from history, either from his or her own past history of action and interaction with others, nor from possible future interactions which the actor's response calls forth.

Being respon­sible means being engaged in an ongoing context of relationships and fitting one's conduct to the moral demands created by those relationships in that context. Responsibility is, then, a particu­larly important moral notion when relationships are dynamic, that is, in cases in which the morally relevant qualifications of action are changing, and one must adapt one's behavior to the evolving demands of the situation. Responsibility calls upon the whole person to determine what it is most fitting for them to do, as concrete historical actors, in particular historical situations, and also what is fitting for them as a way of life.

The sense of responsibility as a virtue is particularly important for understanding my notion of social responsibility. A socially responsible person is one who appreciates the particular moral problematics of his or her time and circumstance, and directs his or her actions in order to respond morally to them. This moral response can take many forms, is highly discretionary, and is shared with other members of the moral community. However, social responsibilities are not, on my view, optional. While moral agents have a large degree of discretion in determining how and when and to what degree they discharge their social responsibilities, they do not have the liberty to ignore them entirely. Social responsibilities, then, are not merely supererogatory.

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