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Responsibility

The First Condition: Freedom, The Second Condition: Mentality, Bibliography

The term responsibility has several related meanings.

First, there is causal responsibility. To say that the short circuit is responsible for the fire is simply to say that the short circuit caused the fire.

Second, there is personal responsibility. This comes in two forms, prospective and retrospective. To say that the lifeguard is responsible for the swimmers' safety is to say that the lifeguard has a responsibility (a duty or obligation) to see to it that the swimmers remain safe. This is a prospective matter, since it points toward the future. In contrast, to say that the lifeguard is responsible for the swimmers' deaths is to say that the lifeguard bears responsibility for something that has already happened; it is to attribute a sort of blameworthiness to the lifeguard for having failed to fulfill a duty. Attributions of retrospective responsibility need not always be negative, though. To say that the generous donor is responsible for the charity's success is to attribute a sort of praiseworthiness to the donor.

Third, there is collective responsibility. This may also be either prospective or retrospective. Sometimes collections of individuals (such as corporations or nations) are said to have duties or obligations, and on such occasions they may also be held to account for fulfilling or failing to fulfill these duties. It is controversial whether collective responsibility is reducible to personal responsibility (so that all statements about the former can be translated into statements about the latter) or rather constitutes a distinct type of responsibility.

Noncausal responsibility, whether personal or collective and whether prospective or retrospective, may be either moral or nonmoral (as when it is legal or professional) depending on whether the duties in question are moral or nonmoral. Furthermore, retrospective responsibility, whether positive or negative, constitutes a susceptibility to reactions that may vary in kind. The most basic kind of reaction consists simply in an evaluation of the person (or collection of individuals) to whom (or which) the attribution of responsibility is made. Thus, to hold the lifeguard responsible, in this basic way, for the swimmers' deaths is to make a negative evaluation of him or her in light of the deaths. A more robust kind of reaction involves treating the person (or group) in some way—for example, by handing out reward or punishment. It is frequently held that justification for the more robust kind of reaction presupposes justification for the basic kind (so that, for example, punishment is warranted only if the person punished warrants a negative evaluation), but this is not universally accepted.

This article will concentrate on responsibility that is personal, retrospective, moral, and basic. Philosophers have concerned themselves with what is needed and what suffices for such responsibility. Aristotle (384–322 B.C.E.) suggested two distinct conditions, and his discussion has shaped all subsequent treatment of the matter.

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