In the example of the ship's captain being responsible for the safety of his passengers, we are using the term 'responsibility' in the role-related normative sense. It is this sense of responsibility we use when we say that parents are responsible for the care of their children, doctors are responsible for the care of their patients, and that teachers are responsible for the education of their students. In this sense of "responsibility" persons who occupy particular roles or offices are said to be responsible for the proper management of the affairs associated with the offices or roles they occupy.
Everyone who occupies a socially-defined role has responsibilities of this kind, and persons can also acquire responsibilities of this type by entering into interpersonal relationships such as love and friendship. Role‑related responsibilities cut across the distinction between private and public roles; we can have responsibilities associated with our private roles as friend, spouse, or parent, and we can also have responsibilities associated with our public roles as citizens and as members of society, in our particular professions or jobs, or associated with the voluntary offices or roles we enter.
Unlike retrospective responsibilities as liabilities which moral agents incur through their past actions, role‑related responsibilities are always to some degree future‑oriented: they impose constraints on moral agents which guide the performance of their private and public roles in society. We say, for instance, the Department Chairman is responsible for the management of the departmental budget; the store clerk is responsible for seeing that the shelves are neatly stacked with goods; the tennis court manager is responsible for scheduling court time for members, and so on. When understood in this way, having a role-related responsibility grounds attributions of duties, that is, the commission or prohibition of certain kinds of acts. An office‑holder is said to be irresponsible if they omit the performance of tasks which it is their responsibility to perform. Role‑related responsibilities, then, are defined primarily in terms of the sorts of outcomes which are required of persons who occupy particular offices or roles.
However, not everyone has precisely the same set of role-related responsibilities, and some of the responsibilities that are associated with ones roles do not carry any moral special significance, although a person's diligence or lack thereof in fulfilling his or her task or role responsibilities is often taken as an indication of moral character traits such as trustworthiness and conscientiousness. But, I think that even those apparently non-moral obligations attached to specific roles can be understood as carrying some moral implications, particularly in case where others are relying on one to do certain things associated with one’s job. The dependence of others on one’s job-performance gives even these responsibilities a moral dimension.
R. S. Downie has developed an analysis of role‑related responsibilities which distinguishes three models of such responsibilities: a model of the morality of roles, a model of the morality of role‑enactments, and a model of role‑acceptance [Downie, R. S (1964). "Social Roles and Moral Responsibility." Philosophy, 39: 29‑36]. Downie notes that roles are defined by a "social system," that is, "a complex network of institutions which gives structure to the life of the community" (1964, 29). Duties and responsibilities are associated with the social roles defined by the social system independently of the individuals who occupy these roles: "A social system, of course, does not operate on its own: it is operated by individual persons. But the important point is that the individuals who operate the social system are not acting as free and uncommitted agents. Rather they are acting in social roles, understood as patterns of rights and duties the natures of which are determined by the natures of the institutions which give rise to social roles" (29). According to his first model, we can evaluate "a system of social roles conceived in abstraction from its operators as a network of responsibilities for and to" (30). We may, for instance, say that a particular social role, e.g., that of a torturer in a secret military prison, is inherently evil, or that another role, say that of ombudsman in a socially responsible corporation, is inherently good or useful. This sort of evaluation applies to the role itself apart from the individuals who occupy the role.
Sometimes an individual may attempt to escape personal responsibility for his role‑performance by suggesting that he was "only doing my job." For instance, a police officer who arrests a demonstrator with whose cause he is personally in sympathy may invoke this excuse as a way of disowning personal responsibility for his action. However, claiming that an immoral act was performed only because one was doing one's job can function as an excusing or mitigating factor in ascriptions of accountability or liability responsibility only when it is possible for the individual to claim that he did not freely or knowingly accept the responsibilities of his office. As Downie notes, "if moral judgments can properly be made about social roles there must be a connection at some stage between the nature of the role and individual human decision or acceptance" (30).
Questions of this kind concern what Downie calls the morality of role acceptance. In terms of his model, "a person is held to be responsible not just in the sense that it is he who carries out actions with a certain quality, but responsible as he would be supposing he had created the role. In so far as he did not bother to envisage the kind of actions which would be expected of him, he is morally blameworthy. But in any case he can resign or refuse to obey orders" (35). One should still ascribe liability responsibility to someone who voluntarily takes the job of torturer even though he made have tortured someone under the command of another. The possibility of evaluating role‑acceptance in this way suggests that role‑related responsibilities may be reducible to contractual or consensual ones; the torturer’s mistake was in consenting to enter a role in which he would be expected to commit torture. Thus, it may be that some role-related responsibilities may acquire a moral dimension if the agent consented to accepting the role knowing that torture would be a requirement of it.
Downie's third model, the model of role‑enactment, concerns the manner in which individuals who occupy socially prescribed roles fulfill the particular responsibilities associated with them. "It is this quality which is being noted when a person is described as conscientious, responsible, or irresponsible in his actions..." (31). Evaluations of this kind cannot be completely detached from evaluations of personal responsibility, since, as Downie argues, "roles can be more or less formal and hence more or less open to permeation by ideals" (32). He suggests a useful analogy:
The morality of a role and of its enactment may be compared with the performance by a musician of a musical score. On the one hand scores differ greatly: in some the composer has recorded not only every note he wants played but also every nuance of expression he wants brought out; in others the composer has written merely an unfigured bass line and has left the performer to fill in the harmony and melody as well as to perform with expression. On the other hand, musicians differ greatly in their abilities to interpret and perform music. Similarly, some roles may be clearly and meticulously defined. leaving little scope for individual imagination and personal qualities, while other roles may be mere adumbrations which leave everything to the individual person's enactment. (32)
Many existing social roles carry with them a well‑defined task‑structure which must be learned by those who occupy these roles. The task structure specifies the particular duties which are normally associated with a particular role. But existing social roles are products of culture and tradition, and their task structures must be renewed and re-adapted by each occupant placed in them, and they evolve with changes in technology. We may enact roles whose scripts are written for us, but we must still interpret those scripts in light of the demands and constraints placed on us by circumstances. We may also, in many cases, redefine parts of our roles by eliminating certain tasks, altering the ways in which they are performed, or incorporating new tasks into the role. We may also in some cases create new roles for ourselves and appoint ourselves to them. In all of these cases we can speak of the responsibilities of our roles in Downie's sense of role‑enactment. In so doing we assume that the bearer of those responsibilities must exercise personal judgment and discretion in determining what particular tasks or duties his or her role requires.
Generally speaking, there is an association among the concepts of authority, responsibility, and role‑enactment such that the greater the authority associated with a particular role, the greater the discretion assumed to belong to its bearers. Responsible persons, in this sense, are those who possess a particular complex of personal virtues which enable them to determine what needs to be done, figure out how to do it, and do that which needs to be done. Such individuals not only enact roles which are given to them, but in a real sense transform and create their social roles giving them new meaning and structure.
What controls the transformation of roles? The natural answer is that ends and outcomes control them. Most roles are defined either explicitly or implicitly by the ends which they are designed to achieve. The doctor's role and the task‑structure of that role is explicitly defined by the end of promoting the health of their patients. The particular tasks and acts need to performed in the doctor’s role are conditioned by this end, as well as by the doctor's medical competence and the state of medical science. Physicians choose to make tests, prescribe medications, and provide treatments which, their medical knowledge leads them to believe will improve their patients' health. When a new form of treatment is developed which is more likely to improve the health of a particular patient, the doctor's responsibility requires that she employ that treatment in preference to older and less effective treatments.
Roles also change and adapt in response to new technologies, and they also decay when the ends which they serve are no longer deemed important, or when the tasks required to accomplish those ends are transferred to another role. The advent of the automobile largely eliminated the blacksmith's role, and created the role of the mechanic. The copy boy in the press room has been eliminated by the electronic computer; doormen have been replaced by automatic doors, bank tellers by ATMs, and so forth. Thus, it is possible to speak of machines as performing certain roles. even though they are not moral agents because they embody the intentionality of their designers and those who deploy them in order to achieve certain results.
That role‑related responsibilities are defined by means of ends and structured by competences needed to accomplish these ends is an important fact about them. It serves to distinguish the kinds of obligations which arise from roles from those obligations produced by rights and contracts. Rights and the reciprocal obligations they normally entail are, generally speaking, owed to individuals. If we enter into a contract, we have acquired a duty toward the other party of that contract which requires of us the performance of a certain thing. Such obligations are "denotative" since they can exist only between known individuals. My promise to you obliges me to perform something for you and no one else. In this sense, we speak of obligations owed to individuals.
We must, however, sometimes distinguish the beneficiary of a responsibility, from the individual(s) to whom the responsibility is owed, that is, the object or addressee of one’s obligation. For instance, if I promise to feed your cat while you are out of town, I have a responsibility for your cat (the beneficiary), but I owe my responsibility to you (the addressee or direct object). We sometimes say that person is responsible to another for performing a certain task, e.g., employees are responsible to their employers, but may be responsible for the performance of particular tasks which have no particular beneficiaries, but may benefit some general class of moral patients.
In professional roles, professionals are responsible to their patients, clients, students, and so forth. This usually in understood to mean that the agents who occupy these roles are obligated to perform in certain ways towards the individuals whom they serve. Here the beneficiary of the responsibility is the same individual to whom the responsibility is owed. When we speak of responsibilities as being owed to others, we generally cede those persons to whom responsibilities are owed the power or authority to absolve or waive the bearer from the responsibility. An employer may, for instance, relieve an employee of a particular role and its attendant responsibilities.
In other cases in which the beneficiary and the addressee are the same, the bearer maybe relieved of responsibility by actions of the person to whom their responsibility is owed. Physicians have a responsibility to their patients not to disclose confidential information, to get informed consent prior to giving treatment, and so on. On one account, we can think of such responsibilities are arising from a contract between parties, as in a promise. In this case, the intended beneficiary has the power to relieve the physician of her responsibility to maintain confidentiality or disclose information relevant to informed consent. On another account, however, we can think of these responsibilities as following from the definition of roles themselves, and being referred "attributively" to whomever happens to come to occupy the position of recipient or beneficiary of one's role‑related responsibilities.
Teachers and professors typically have students assigned to their classes without their prior knowledge or consent, store clerks have to serve customers as they come, even physicians are required to treat some patients, for instance, those who walk into an emergency room, without prior knowledge of to whom they owe their responsibilities. When a role‑responsibility is attributive, we have a responsibility of a certain kind to whoever happens to be placed in the position of prospective beneficiary. In these cases, it may not always be possible for the beneficiary to relieve the bearer of a responsibility as is the case with voluntarily assumed denotative obligations.