On Responsibility.

I recently got into a discussion about how a big problem with “modern leftists”, whatever that means, is that their ideology paints people as responsible for things they had no role in bringing about. I’m a straight white cis man, therefore I’m somehow culpable for the oppression of people less privileged. This is not a part of any mainstream modern leftist ideology I’m familiar with, but it is a common misconception (or deliberate misrepresentation), so I think it deserves an explanation.

On the one hand, we’re only directly responsible for making amends for wrongs we ourselves have done. On the other hand, leftist ideals like human rights, empathy, compassion, and so on impose on us some sense of responsibility (commensurate with our means) for fixing harms wherever and whomever they may befall. The misconception is that since, on such ideals, we are responsible for fixing these harms, those ideals claim we are somehow responsible for causing them, perhaps by virtue of unwittingly benefiting from unequal power structures or being raised in casually bigoted societies.

The key is in the word responsibility. It’s one of those annoying words that are very easy to equivocate; here, it’s being used in at least three different senses. The first is that of causal responsibility: if you hit someone while driving, you’re causally responsible for their injuries, which means that (and only that) you had a causal role in bringing them about.

The second is moral responsibility, which we can also refer to as culpability: if you hit someone while driving, you can be morally responsible for injuring them — although, if they were being reckless, your culpability may be lessened. Causal responsibility is a necessary condition for moral responsibility — you can’t be culpable for something you had no role in causing — but not a sufficient one.

The third sense is that of liability or duty, which we can refer to as normative responsibility, or more prosaically responsibility to as opposed to responsibility for. If you’re morally responsible for hitting somebody while driving, then you can be held liable for covering their medical bills, and perhaps some compensation over and above that. If, on the other hand, they deliberately hid and jumped in front of your vehicle (say if they were feeling suicidal), as your moral responsibility is lessened, so is your liability.

It will be seen that each of these senses supervenes upon the former. You can’t have normative without moral, and you can’t have moral without causal. But normative responsibility can arise from things we don’t usually consider when we think about the first two (although in strict ethical terms, they do count). We can incur liability from things other than moral transgressions. We can be liable for repayments due to entering into a loan contract, for example. We can be liable for sales taxes as a result of making purchases. We take on many diverse responsibilities when we choose to have children.

The responsibilities we have to the unfortunate, to alleviate poverty and inequality, to create a better and fairer society — these are responsibilities we incur through the basic social contract, and we would have them no matter how little we were (as individuals) causally responsible for the situation. All that said, though, it is the case that we can be held culpable for actively doing things that make the situation worse, and that those in positions of particular power to make it better — the wealthy, the privileged, the politically powerful, the media — have a bigger obligation to do so.


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