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.
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.
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.
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.
Although the term "supererogation" is not common in ordinary moral discourse, it is commonly used by moral philosophers to describe a class of moral actions which are familiar to most people. Etymologially it means "the act of paying out more than is required or demanded." As David Heyd writes, superogatory acts are "optional" or non‑obligatory, that is ‑ distinguished from those acts which fall under the heading of duty....they are beyond duty, fulfil more than is required, over and above what the agent is supposed or expected to do" [Supererogation: Its Status in Ethical Theory.(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982: p.1].
These features serve to distinguish acts of supererogation from duties which arise, for instance, from the rights of others, and also, from duties which arise from moral responsibilities which do not derive from the rights of others. Unlike acts of pure supererogation, duties, obligations, and moral responsibilities are not optional; they are strict moral duties whose non‑performance is considered to be morally blameworthy (though perhaps not legally so). However, unlike the legal duties that flow from rights, the moral duties which flow from responsibilities cannot be demanded by others ‑‑ they are non‑peremptory. Legal obligations are peremptory and can be enforced by means of the coercive police powers of the state. There are many kinds moral responsibilities that are non-peremptory in this sense, for example, the duty of a child not to lie to her mother. The duty not to lie is not a legal duty except in cases where the agent in under oath or under some other legal requirement that forbids deception. However, truth-telling is not generally regarded as a supererogration; it is generally expected of competent moral agents as part of their responsibility to society.
Joshua Halberstam has suggested that there is a mirror category of what he calls suberogatory actions [Everyday Ethics: Inspired Solutions to Everyday Problems. (New York: Viking, 1993), pp. 54-55.] Suberogatory actions are those that while not morally forbidden are nevertheless blameworthy. "It's not that you're prohibited from behaving in these ways, but you'll be considered a moral toad if you do." He gives as examples of suberogatory actions rudeness and obnoxious behavior, for instance, blowing cigartte smoke in a non-smoker's face, might be considered a suberogatory action. There is some controversy as to whether this category of suberogatory actions is real or not. (For an interesting discussion of the notions of supererogation and suberogation see the article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). However, I think this is a useful, and indeed, an important category of moral obligations. Suberogatory actions are ones that violate moral responsibilities that are non-optional but also non-peremptory.
We can have responsibilities towards others which require us "pay out" more than can be demanded by others as their right. Doing what is "right" is often more than merely doing what can be demanded as a right, that is, not all morally required actions are peremptory. However, to call an act "supererogatory" also is generally thought to imply that its performance is optional, that it may be omitted without moral fault. Heyd formally defines acts of supererogation as follows:
An act is supererogatory if and only if:
(2) Its omission is not wrong, and does not deserve sanction or criticism ‑‑ either formal or informal.
(3) It is morally good, both by virtue of its (intended) consequences and by virtue of its intrinsic value (being beyond duty).
(4) It is done voluntarily for the sake of someone else's good, and is thus meritorius (115).
Heyd argues that "it is in the nature of any option that failure to choose it does not incur a critical reaction, while taking the option may win merit. Defining supererogation in terms of this asymmetry serves to illustrate not only the logical difference between duty and supererogation, but also the ethical justification of the distinction, in particular, the right not to engage in some forms of morally good action" (118).
The question I should like to raise here is whether there might not be a class of moral actions which are non‑peremptory but nevertheless non‑optional? I want to suggest that many of our responsibilities fit this description, that is, acts whose performance cannot be demanded by others as observance of their rights can be, but which would be, nonetheless, morally wrong to omit. This would leave us with a three‑fold classification of moral actions: those which are peremptory and non‑optional, corresponding to strict duties and obligations; those which are non‑peremptory and non‑optional, corresponding to substantive responsibilities; and those which are non‑peremptory and optional, corresponding to acts which have traditionally been referred to as supererogatory.
Heyd includes under supererogation saintly and heroic acts; acts of charity, generosity and beneficence; acts of kindness and consideration; acts of mercy and forgiveness; and other voluntary acts. He notes, however, "The very act of volunteering means doing something over an above what is required. One cannot volunteer to pay one's debts, or feed one's children" (p.3).The duty to pay one's debts is generally regarded as a non-optional, peremptory duty in that the person to whom the debt is owed can demand payment. Feeding one's children, on the other hand, is a part of parental responsibility. It is a strict duty of beneficence to feed one's children, and a parent ought to do so whether or not their children can demand to be fed.
Feeding one's children, on my account, represents a non‑optional and peremptory duty ‑‑ it is a strict role-related moral responsibility. Thus, I will argue that some cases which have traditionally been viewed as strict duties are really non-optional, peremptory responsibilities, and some cases of what have been viewed as supererogations are non-optional but non-peremptory responsibilities. This will have the effect of enlarging the set of responsibilities, which will here be taken to mean actions which are morally non‑optional yet whose performance cannot be demanded by others. The term "duty" can be used to denote acts which are peremptory and non-optional such as specific duties which individuals may have as a necessary means of discharging their role-related responsibilities.
Heyd points out that while "the degree of risk and sacrifice involved in actions of a certain type may serve (along with other considerations) as grounds for classifying that type of actions as lying within or beyond the call of duty,...risk and sacrifice cannot be conditions of supererogation, because there are non‑risky supererogatory acts on the one hand, and supererogatory acts which do much good at a relatively small cost to the agent" (145). According to Heyd, although acts of supererogation "go beyond" what is strictly required by duty, they are nevertheless "correlated and continuous with natural (positive) duties." He explains,
A doctor who goes to a remote tribe to cure a rare disease is doing a supererogatory act. But he acts beyond his duty not in the sense that he is extending his social (professional, "institutional") role so as to include the tribe, but rather goes beyond his natural duty, which in this case is confined to the fulfilment of his social duty as a doctor in his community. Furthermore, the social or institutional duty of an Albert Schweitzer cannot be the sole criterion for judging whether an act (e.g. going to that distant place) is supererogatory or not, because even if it is agreed that the act in question lies beyond his institutional duty as a doctor, it may be his natural duty as a human being (who happens to have medial skill) to do so. A policeman touring a foreign country may have a duty to help overpower a violent criminal, because he happens to be trained to deal with such situations. His act is not supererogatory, even though he acts beyond his institutional duty as a policeman (which binds him only to his own country) (120).These intuitions can best be accounted for by noting that, in Heyd's examples, persons which special knowledge or skill are, by virtue of their possessing these skills, are in a position to benefit others who are especially vulnerable to harm, and this combination of vulnerability and relevant competence, creates a context of action in which special moral responsibilities can arise.
Heyd argues for unqualified supererogationism: "This view not only acknowledges the possibility and existence of supererogation, but treats it as absolutely irreducible to duty. Acts of supererogation are characterized as purely voluntary, optional, and in a sense arbitrary, that is, not determined by universal standards or rules. Underlying such a contention is the view that holds human beings to be autonomous individuals having a basic right to pursue their own ideals and projects, sometimes regardless of the public or general good. People are not just tools for the promotion of good or for maximizing value or happiness in the world. Their duty towards others is limited, and moral considerations of what is obligatory do not come into every moral deliberation" (p.9). He contrasts this view with what he calls "qualified supererogationism" which holds that supererogatory acts are morally binding in some way, a view under which one "cannot regard omissions of these acts as being totally immune from criticism" (125).
On my view, social responsibilities form a category of moral obligations whose non-fulfillment is not totally immune from criticism. Competent moral agents have responsibilities to society which entail non‑optional but non-peremptory duties to protect themselves selves and others who are specially vulnerable which go beyond merely supererogatory actions. There is still a sphere of purely supererogatory actions, to be sure, which does not reduce to either rights or strict responsibilities, but this sphere is smaller than traditional accounts suggest because many of the sorts of actions which would formerly be regarded as supererogatory and therefore optional, should be seen to be non-peremptory, yet non-optional moral obligations that flow from our social responsibilities to protect the vulnerable.
Thus, for instance, when there is a major natural disaster such as a flood or earthquake, and tens of thousands of people are in dire need of relief assistance, I think that everyone has a social responsibility to aid them. Some people may be excused from fulfilling this responsibility for various good reasons, for instance, because they are unable to do anything to affect the situation, or because they have other more compelling responsibilities that conflict with doing something to aid the victims of a natural disaster. But individuals who can do something to help the victims, and have no good excuse for not doing it, are blameworthy, on my view, for they have failed to fulfill one of their standing social responsibilities.
Donating to disaster relief efforts, while generally regarded as an act of charity, and therefore as supererogatory, is, on this view, a non-optional yet non-peremptory social responsibility. In other words, it is something we can legitimately criticize others for not doing, but which we cannot demand that they do.
This way of cutting things up leaves us with the following classification of moral obligations:
A) Obligations which are peremptory and non‑optional, corresponding to strict or perfect duties.
B) Obligations which are non‑peremptory but non‑optional, corresponding to social responsibilities; and
C) Obligations which are non‑peremptory and optional, corresponding to acts which have traditionally been seen as supererogatory.
Logic forbids the fourth category of obligations that are optional but peremptory, since it would be strange to demand that someone do something they are not required to do.
But the great legal theorist, H.L.A. Hart argued that sanction theories of law confuse being "obliged" by means of a threatened sanction to do something, and being morally "obligated" to do it. Obligations have no necessary connection to sanctions or to commands for that matter. In his The Concept of Law (1961) Hart argued that Austin's definition amounts to saying that the law is the same as the demand of a gunman to hand over one's wallet. Being under threat of sanction provides a motivation to do what is demanded, but not a justification for doing it.
In order to understand the nature of obligation and hence that of law one needs instead to invoke the concept of following a social rule. But there can be rules that do not create obligations, or only weak ones, as the rules of etiquette for instance. For Hart, rules are conceived as imposing an obligation when, "the general demand for conformity is insistent and the social pressure brought to bear upon those who deviate or threaten to deviate is great" (Feinberg and Coleman, Philosophy of Law, p. 72). However, the social pressure to conform need not take the form of sanctions or threats of punishment, but instead "may take only the form of a general diffused hostile or critical reaction which may stop short of physical sanctions. It may be limited to verbal manifestations of disapproval or of appeals to the individuals' respect for the rule violated; it may depend heavily on the operation of feelings of shame, remorse and guilt." What makes rule-following an obligation, according to Hart, is the "seriousness of the social pressure behind the rules."
We have several grades of seriousness of social pressure. The most serious and strictest forms of social pressure are associated with peremptory legal norms compliance with which are demanded by society and disobedience punished by coercively imposed sanctions, e.g., laws against murder, rape, theft, fraud and so forth. Lesser crimes are sanctioned by fines and other kinds of administrative penalties. Various other kinds of harms are dealt with by means of torts law, rather than criminal law, for instance, failures to adequately discharge duties of care to prevent and avoid harm to others.
For other important moral obligations, however, we rely on other forms of social pressure to promote conformity with social rules which stop short of imposing sanctions. For instance, lying is generally frowned upon but is not illegal unless done under oath or when it constitutes fraud. While it may be wrong to lie to your mother about what you did last weekend, it is not a crime.
Finally, some moral rules, those normally associated with supererogations and suberogations, the rules are really framed as recommendations rather than as requirements. We are advised that it would be rather praiseworthy to so something, say volunteer for community service, or somewhat blameworthy to do something else, say, gamble with the rent money, but moral agents are given the option of noncompliance without threat of social sanction or censure. This last class are the weak obligations that I called non-peremptory and optional.
But they should not be confused with the middle class of obligations, those which are non-peremptory but non-optional, that characterize social responsibilities. These are real obligations, usually moral, but also sometime legal, but are not backed by formal sanctions for noncompliance. Failure to discharge such obligation may, nevertheless, lay the agent open to moral blame and criticism and other forms of non-coercive social pressure. There are in fact many common kinds of moral obligations which fall into this category for which noncompliance does not carry any realistic likelihood of threat of harm, but which are nonetheless, real obligations.
Moral and legal norms belong within the general category of what Jacques Ellul has called human techniques. Human techniques are for Ellul those in which “man himself becomes the object of the technique” (The Technological Society. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1964 p. 22), that is, in which technique is applied to alter or control human conduct. Moral and legal norms are human techniques in precisely this sense; they are ensembles of techniques by which we attempt to bring about desirable patterns in human social behavior. In general, moral and legal norms are designed to promote social cooperation and to moderate conflict by regulating competition within certain limits. Morality and law structure “arenas of competition” in which permissible agent interactions are limited; for example, most kinds of voluntary trade of goods and services are allowed, while coerced or involuntary exchanges, such as theft, are disallowed. Action-guiding norms are human techniques that define the organizational forms of social interaction.
Morality and law, however, do differ: an analogy might be useful here. On older TV sets there used to be two tuning devices: a channel selector that one used to select the frequency range of the broadcast, and a fine tuning dial that one used to select the precise frequency that would deliver the clearest picture and sharpest sound. This is similar to the functional relationship between law and morality: the law sets minimum requirements for socially permissible behavior, that is, it selects the general range of behaviors that society is willing to tolerate. Behaviors that fall outside that acceptable range are subject to various kinds of punishments and sanctions designed to enforce general compliance with these norms. Morality supplies the fine-tuning. Within these ranges of legally permissible behaviors there are forms of conduct that while legal, are deemed more or less morally praiseworthy or blameworthy. The more informal dictates of morality and ethics appeal to the individual’s conscience and direct him or her towards selecting those forms of conduct that are more conducive to virtue and human happiness, and away from those forms of conduct that are vicious and harmful, although legal.
The two normative spheres do overlap particularly with respect to forms of conduct that are regarded as strongly impermissible; things that are strongly morally impermissible are often made legally impermissible as well precisely because noncompliance so strongly offends the moral sense. But on the other end of the spectrum, the law rarely enforces virtue, and many believe it should not attempt to do so. Under the modern liberal conception of the state, the sovereign should be neutral as regards the best way to live. Individuals are at liberty to choose their own conceptions of their good and to orient their lives towards the pursuit of happiness as they conceive it, so long, of course, as they do so within the limits of what the law allows. So, under this arrangement, society, by means of the institutions of the law, sets the outer limits on what is socially acceptable behavior, the basic channels, while individuals guided by their own morality and their own consciences, perform the “fine-tuning” needed in order to select what is, for them, the best way to live.
The "ethics of rights" represents the dominant contemporary approach to understanding the nature of moral obligation. However, some writers have criticized the "rights-based" approach to morality by claiming that morality cannot be based entirely on fundamental principles which assign rights to human individuals. Instead what we need is a pluralistic understanding of normative ethics which recognizes that besides rights, notions such as responsibilities, values, interests, utility, and other moral notions are also fundamental moral concepts.
According to Joseph Raz, "`x has a right' means that, other things being equal, an aspect of x's well‑being (his interest) is a sufficient reason for holding some other person(s) to be under a duty" ["Nature of Rights" Mind 93 (1984), pp.194-214]. This formula expresses is what is called the "beneficiary view" of rights which regards the "interests of people as the only ultimate value," and assigns duties to others which are grounded in rights of individuals to have their well-being or interests protected. This is a useful way of thinking about rights that I will return to later one. However, for now, I want to focus on the limitations of this view.
One important limitation of rights‑based moralities stems from their being nothing more than the grounds of duties to individuals. But, as Raz and others have argued, there are some things which we morally ought to do and to value which do not stem from duties to particular human individuals which arise in virtue of their rights; "There is more to morality than rights and duties and precepts which can be derived from them" (183).
Raz rejects moral individualism: i.e., the view that the only morally significant values are ones which resolve to individual personal interests. Rights‑based theories are usually individualistic in that they do not recognize "any intrinsic value in any collective good" (186). They typically hold that collective goods have only instrumental value. Since there are some collective goods which have intrinsic value, he concludes that rights-based approaches to morality cannot encompass all that which moral agents ought to do or to value.
As an example of this he cites various collective goods which individuals may value but which do not resolve to benefits to individuals:
Consider collective goods such as living in a beautiful town, which is economically prosperous, and in a society that is tolerant and cultured. Living in such a society is in the interest of each of the inhabitants: it is more agreeable to live in such a society, whatever one's personal circumstances, than to live in one which lacks these attributes. But the fact that it is in my interest to live in such a society is not normally considered sufficient to establish that I have a right to live in such a society....This is explicable on the definition of rights offered above, according to which a right is a sufficient ground for holding another to have a duty. It is the common view that my interest in living in a prosperous, cultured, and tolerant society and in a beautiful environment is not enough to impose a duty on anyone to make my society and environment so (189‑190).
The existence of such collective (or public) goods suggests that, "It is implausible to assume that an individual can conduct his whole life on the basis and sole motivation of respecting other people's rights" (198).
In addition to moral duties which are derived from the rights of individuals, Raz also mentions duties which arise in the context of various personal relationships: "Personal friendships, marital relations, one's loyalty and sense of pride in one's workplace or one's country are among the most valuable and rewarding aspects of many people's lives" (200). The moral significance of personal relationships consists in the fact that special duties may arise in such cases which do not correspond to rights which individuals may demand.
For instance, "Friendships entail a special concern for the welfare of the friend, concern for his welfare over and above the concern required of us towards other human beings generally..." (197). We may, in his example, feel we have a duty to compensate a friend for a loss, even though we did not cause it, because of the value which we place on the friendship. Such a duty, he argues, does not derive from our friend's "right to compensation" since compensation for a loss is not something which he can demand.
These reflections are perfectly consistent with, and indeed support my claim that there are certain moral responsibilities that we can have that are non-optional but also non-peremptory. Since friends are supposed to care for their friends' well-being and happiness, they can be thought to have a special role-related moral responsibility to compensate them for a loss, even though their friends cannot demand that they do so. One has such responsibilities independently of any rights that one's friends may have against you.
As a second example of duties that do not derive from rights, Raz discusses the duty not to destroy a valuable work of art which one owns. Normally. ownership entails the right to dispose of one's property in any way that one pleases. Owning a Van Gogh painting gives me the right to destroy it, even though one ought not to exercise that right because one has a responsibility not to wantonly destroy something of beauty and value.
On the other hand, despite the fact that many people would derive pleasure from seeing the painting, no one has a right that I shall not destroy it. "Nevertheless, while I owe no one a duty to preserve the painting I am under such a duty. The reason is that to destroy it and deny the duty is to do violence to art and to show oneself blind to one of the values which give life a meaning" (197). Put in another way, I have a non-optional but non-peremptory responsibility to protect the painting even though I have the right to destroy it. Saying that I have the right to destroy it simply means here that no one else is in a position to demand that I not destroy the painting. Yet having a responsibility to protect it entails that I have a moral responsibility not to destroy it. While I may exercise my right to destroy my painting, doing so would leave my action open to moral criticism. One sometimes has a responsibility not to do things that one has a right to do.
I prefer the term "responsibility" to denote what Raz describes as "duties which do not derive from rights." In his example, the owner has a responsibility not to destroy the Van Gogh painting but to preserve it, though his ownership gives him the right to destroy it. I, the painting's owner, in particular have this responsibility because ownership places me in a position of power over the objects I own; my possessions are specially vulnerable to me.
But my right of ownership is limited by a coordinate responsibility to care for items of my property which are valuable and specially vulnerable to harm. I may, in this case, have a duty to care for a valuable work of art, though that duty is owed to no one in particular in virtue of his or her rights. Responsibilities to protect valuable moral patients which are not persons provides an example of a moral responsibility that does not derive from someone's rights.
According to Ladd, legalism leads to the "almost exclusive use of the concept of rights as a category of analysis for problems in medical ethics....As a result,...our view of these problems and how to go about resolving them is unduly narrow and dogmatic, i.e. "legalistic" in the worst sense" (6). The legalistic approach is limited in the medical and other contexts because of its essential reliance on the notion of rights, and therefore, on the limitations of an exclusively "rights-based" approach to ethics. There are, he argues, three essential features of rights which make them particularly inappropriate in the medical context: "(1) the peremptory nature of rights, (2) the particular kind of interpersonal relationship implied in the appeal to rights, and (3) the ethical importance of distinguishing between the possession and the exercise of a right" (16).
First, "unlike other moral considerations, such as appeals to generosity, appeals to rights are appeals that are peremptory; to secure them it is usually permissible to use coercion, either in the form of legal action or in the form of self‑help" (16). Second, rights "represent a relationship between two persons (or parties): the right‑holder and the right‑ower. To have a right is to have a right against someone (or against anyone or everyone)" (17). Third, "one can possess a right only if one can choose not to exercise it" (17): "Strictly speaking, this condition requires that right‑holders (and right‑owers) be competent adults capable of self‑directed choice." Ladd argues that, "these three properties of rights show why it is sometimes quite inappropriate ethically to base medical decisions on the notion of rights alone. For neither medical advice nor patients' requests need be peremptory, that is, advanced as demands backed by force, nor does the doctor‑patient relationship need be an adversary one" (18). Generally speaking, "standing on one's rights is a last ditch stand, to be taken only after communication has broken down or when there was no hope for communication to begin with" (20). "Indeed, if one insists on a right, it will more than likely destroy the relationship altogether because it implies the absence of trust, which may be more important ethically. That is why the appeal to rights is sometimes inappropriate, improper, and immoral" (19).[i] A fourth feature of the notion of rights, acording to Ladd, is that there can be no rights without rules: "it is quite impossible to understand what is involved in asserting a right without examining a rule, or a possible rule, that it refers to or with which it is correlated in some way" (7).
But, rights and the rules they are based on, Ladd argues, are often mistakenly treated as context-independent guides to action: [I]n dealing with issues of medical ethics, and with other kinds of ethics that are concerned with problems of modern life, we must begin by recognizing the contextual character of rules, practices, and concepts. Legal answers are relevant in legal contexts, but may not be so in other contexts; by the same token, some moral categories may be appropriate in one context and quite inappropriate in other contexts. In general, then, we must take into account the context in which problems arise and in which our rules, principles, etc. are designed to operate before we can determine how and to what extent they are valid for the radically new kinds of situation that arise in modern medicine and modern life in general (4).
Ladd contrasts the rule-guided, context-independent, "right-based" approach to moral questions with an approach which he terms "the ethics of responsibility." Responsibility, unlike rights, operates contextually relying on the discretion of the moral agent to determine what is the morally "best" response to make in a given situation. While agents may have recourse to moral and legal "rules" in making these judgments, the ethics of responsibility acknowledges that it may not always be possible to bring any particular action‑situation completely under rules. Situations calling for moral judgments are often unique and require the moral agent to devise a "fitting" response, not just one that follows a rule.
In the medical context, "the unreflective acceptance of an ethics of rights in preference, say, to an ethics of responsibility, inevitably leads to moral confusion and irresponsibility...for the simple reason that the ethics of rights rests on the twin assumptions that, from a moral point of view, someone must have a right and that, in the ultimate analysis, rights relationships can only obtain between equals" (29). As an alternative, he suggests, "we need [an ethics] that covers such things as caring, as providing for another person's needs‑‑in more general terms, we need an ethics of giving and receiving" (22). The ethics of care and the VCP provide the basis for such an approach to normative ethics. It may also enable us to better understand the sorts of moral relationships that exists between "unequals".
Ladd's views are consonant with my own; the doctor-patient relationship is a special moral relationship characterized by the VCP as one in which the physician or caregiver has special responsibilities to protect her patient that cannot be reduced to or entirely derived from the patient's rights. These responsibilities are highly discretionary, but non-optional in the sense that the physician can be rightfully blamed or called to account for failing to fulfill them, even though they are also non-peremptory in that no one can demand that these responsibilities be fulfilled as their right.
The reflections in the last two sections, then serve to cement the proposal that there is a class of moral obligations, what I call moral responsibilities, that are distinct both from peremptory duties derived from the rights of others and from supererogations.
Having reviewed the meaning of the term "responsibility" we are now in a position to consider and respond to several objections to the kind of account I have been developing.