Moral philosophers often seem to think that persons can be understood apart from their social roles. They like to construct thought-experiments in which idealized moral agents interact with other idealized moral agents in sparsely described situations designed to evoke some kind of moral response from an observer sitting in a lecture hall who is suppose to consult his or her moral intuitions and render a judgment about what ought or ought not to be done.
Although such idealized philosophical though experiments can sometime be useful, I find such exercises strange. I understand persons as always being embedded within certain social roles which they can enact well or not. Sometimes person enter these roles through their free consent, but sometimes not. It is not, in my view, possible to really think of persons as “bare moral agents” who are not assumed to be embedded in some particular social context or another. At the topmost level we can think of all human persons, and indeed most other kinds of moral agents as embedded within societies in which they interact with other agents and patients in various ways. Human beings do not enter society as if they were tele-ported there from some distant galaxy. We are born into particular families, in particular countries, at particular times, and as we grow from childhood into adulthood we come to occupy the role of member of society and eventually other special roles such as that of student, citizen, parent, employee, doctor, soldier, politician, and so forth.
In talking about moral responsibilities philosophers often draw a distinction between general moral obligations which every moral agent has, and special moral obligations which only some moral agents have. Such special moral obligations are also termed “agent-relative” responsibilities because they are borne by some moral agents but not others. When considering general moral obligations, such as the responsibility not to knowingly cause harm to others, we tend to assume that bearers of this obligation should be seen as bare moral agents apart from any of their particular special social roles. However, I think this is a mistake. On my view, moral agents should be understood as having certain general social responsibilities that derive from their occupying the role “member of a moral community” When we say that “everyone” has certain responsibilities we really mean that every member of our moral community has it, irrespective of any additional special social roles they may happen to occupy within their moral community.
I prefer the term “social responsibilities” to designate the "agent-neutral" kind of moral responsibilities that individuals and corporate entities have toward their moral communities. Social responsibilities are different than religious duties (to observe the Sabbath), personal moral responsibilities (for instance those of friendship), role-related social responsibilities (such as those of parents), or professional responsibilities belonging to particular professional roles (such as those ascribed to doctors, lawyers, managers, accountants, engineers, and so forth). Social responsibilities, as I understand them, are better understood as shared or collective moral responsibilities which can be ascribed to all competent moral agents who are members of a moral community.
Social responsibilities should not be understood on the model of strict legal obligations since they are discretionary in nature and call upon human moral agents, and organizations, to utilize the power and capacities at their disposal in a conscientious fashion in order to contribute to the solution of important social problems. It is difficult to specify the specific normative contents of our social responsibilities, because what they will require an agent to do will vary greatly depending on their particular position in society, their capabilities, the other demands upon them, the opportunities that present themselves for constructive action and the particular character of the social and environmental problems that confront them.
We can, for instance, say of a person that she is “socially responsible" and here we mean that she reliably enacts her social responsibilities. People who are socially responsible are motivated to respond creatively to challenges and threats to collective values and moral ideals. Being socially responsible, in this sense, applies to those who take an active role in attempting to transform social roles and institutions, and in attacking the problems of the society in general in an attempt to improve their moral quality. This is the sense of the term which John W. Gardner, social activist and founder of Common Cause employs when he writes,
...the men and women who undertook to regenerate the society did so on their own. No one appointed them to the task; they were moved by some deep impulse to accept responsibility. And so it must always be. Some fraction of the population must commit itself to do what is needed: to reinterpret old values in light of contemporary reality, and, where necessary, to forge new values. (Morale, New York: W.W. Norton & Co. 1978, p. 26)
In illustrating this sort of commitment, Gardner cites a statement by a friend of his who realized his own maturity when he "decided to accept responsibility for my world‑‑to the limit of reality. Obviously I couldn't accept responsibility for thunderstorms or nationwide depressions. But where I could possibly imagine that a fraction of responsibility lay on me, I resolved to welcome that responsibility" (Gardner 64).
There is a difference between 'accepting responsibility' and 'taking responsibility.' In the former there is the implication that the responsibility is external and is offered to one to acknowledge or not as one's own. One can be said to have accepted responsibility for one's role in producing past harms, for instance. But, when one takes responsibility one assumes a prospective responsibility which did not exist in a defined social role or which was defined but ownerless in the sense that no one occupies the role. When one voluntarily takes it upon oneself to act to promote a valuable end of some kind one can be said to take responsibility or to act in a socially responsible fashion.
Socially responsible individuals are those who take seriously the responsibilities associated with their roles as citizens, or as inheritors of cultural traditions, or simply their roles as members of society. If we take this course, then we lay ourselves open to the charge of so enlarging the notion of a "role" as to make it virtually useless as a concept. If everything which an individual does is done because of a social role which he or she occupies, then the distinction between role‑related responsibilities and personal responsibilities, on the one hand, and social responsibilities on the other, collapses. As Downie notes, "there are areas of our lives in which we are role‑free and can devote ourselves completely to the pursuit of our ideals or inclinations" (Downie 31‑32). We may, for instance, speak of having "responsibilities to ourselves", or instance, for caring for our own health, our happiness, and the development of our talents and abilities.
However, I think that such self-regarding responsibilities are also defined by social roles. Becoming a responsible adult who is able to live independently and take care of himself or herself is a kind of personal achievement, one which once attained, generates social expectations about how other should treat that person, that is, as an autonomous adult. Not all human beings have this capacity; young children, the infirm, and persons with severely impaired abilities, are not expected to take care of themselves but depend upon others for various kinds of assistance and so become the beneficiaries of other people’s other-regarding responsibilities. So, even in those areas of life where we are free to pursue our own ideals and happiness, I think we are enacting a socially-defined role.
But there is still a difference between social responsibilities and special role‑related responsibilities in that the particular ends associated with a role are often spelled out in the description of the role itself, while for these broader types of social responsibilities are not, and instead require that individuals respond creatively to the social problems which they perceive as most urgent and most important.
Here again we see the association between responsibility and discretion, which serves to mark off the notion of responsibility from that of duty. Duties are obligations to carry out or omit specific actions, while responsibilities are moral obligations to see to it that certain states of affairs are brought about, in which we determine how to best to achieve those outcomes. As Gardner says, social activists create new roles and appoint themselves to them because they intend some end or good to result for the larger society to which they belong. Being a socially responsible person, in this sense, denotes a particular complex of dispositions and virtues which individuals possess in varying degrees.
Social responsibility requires an attitude of commitment to moral ideals, a determination to achieve social goals, and responsiveness to the needs of others. It is generally regarded as a goal of moral education to nurture the development of the attitude of social responsibility and encourage people to work for the general betterment of society. Thus, in understanding the notion of social responsibility, we must focus attention on these personal attitudes and dispositions that prompt some people to act in socially responsible ways and seek to promote the general good of society. In other words, we also need to think about the concepts of 'responsibility' and 'social responsibility' as kinds of moral virtues.