Responsibility as Ownership of One’s Actions

In a somewhat-recent post on the New York Times Blog, Galen Strawson ends up concluding that whether or not we ultimately have free will, we can assume responsibility for our actions as an “ownership” of them.  He “can do no better than” the novelist Ian McEwen who wrote to him:

“I see no necessary disjunction between having no free will (those arguments seem watertight) and assuming moral responsibility for myself. The point is ownership. I own my past, my beginnings, my perceptions. And just as I will make myself responsible if my dog or child bites someone, or my car rolls backwards down a hill and causes damage, so I take on full accountability for the little ship of my being, even if I do not have control of its course. It is this sense of being the possessor of a consciousness that makes us feel responsible for it.”

In other words we plead guilty to Nietzsche’s accusation (which Strawson quotes) of arrogantly claiming free will in the face of all reason to doubt its existence; but then we reaffirm personal responsibility in full knowledge that it is an artifice.  Now it need not solely be pride that motivates this reaffirmation: we might reaffirm it because it is a convenient, socially useful way of dividing up necessary tasks (someone has to fix things when things go wrong, and one way to assign that task is to pick the person whose body caused those bad things to happen[1]).  Or we might reaffirm responsibility simply because, on a more fundamental level, it is an important part of how we comprehend and organize the world, cut up the whole complicated mass of bodies and events into persons and actions.

There is of course a darker motivation to continually affirm personal responsibility.  Note that so far we’ve been considering responsibility with a neutral attitude — calmly considering what needs to be done for society’s good and how we should distribute the work. A rational utilitarian would be happy with this.  But once we consider the moral/emotional phenomena involved in calling someone responsible, it becomes clear that in exchange for the sacrifice of taking blame and punishment for our harmful actions, we gain the right to punish, shame, and scorn others when their actions cause harm.  We can be motivated to assign responsibility not at all by concern for society’s good but solely by psychological and emotional payoffs.  [2]

Assuming we desire something like a free and rational society, in which we allow people to do whatever promotes their own or the general happiness, and don’t resort to such crude and manipulative tools of influence as shame and flattery, we face a questions. Is the notion of responsibility as ownership a useful one?  If so, can we divorce the utilitarian motivations from the purely emotional ones (if we find them likely to lead us  astray)?  I see no logical impossibility, and it seems likely that with significant effort and self-awareness an individual could achieve this to some degree.  Effecting conceptual and ethical change across an entire culture is of course another matter.

A FURTHER QUESTION:What is the relationship between the notion of personal responsibility and Western individualism?  Would/does it take a different form in cultures where there is not such a strong concept of the individual subject?


[1] For the sake of brevity I will generally discuss bad or socially harmful actions that someone is to be held responsible for.  But all of this should apply without much trouble to responsibility good or socially beneficial actions.

[2] It is possible that these two senses or mechanisms are linked in the history of human biological or cultural evolution.  Those communities which could remove or correct harmful agents had an advantage over competing communities.  On the whole an instinctive desire to punish agents who caused harm would serve this purpose just as well as or better than rational reflection about how to correct a given wrong and prevent future instances of it.  But whenever an innate non-rational tendency in ourselves comes into view, along with it comes the possibility of rationally evaluating it and deliberately counteracting its influence on particular occasions, or even suppressing the tendency in general.

APPENDIX: Analysis of the uses of the word “responsible”

  1. The causal or structural notion: S is responsible for (event or state of affairs) E just means that S caused E (knowingly or not, freely or not)
  2. The moral or emotional notion: S may be blamed or praised or rewarded or punished for E.
    1. In common practice, causal responsibility is a necessary condition for moral responsibility, given that in addition S caused E freely and knowingly.
    2. Are there any situations where one can be held morally responsible for an event one did not cause?
      1. Consider perhaps blaming a parent for a child’s bad behavior.  But usually the blame will amount to calling them a “bad parent” in the sense that a good parent would have prevented the child’s bad behavior.  Similarly, criticizing a government for crimes committed abroad by its citizens.  ( I think both of these slide into use (3).)
  3. Responsibility as duty or obligation to oversee/supervise/maintain, regardless of causal responsibility.  This seems to be closest to the idea of “ownership” and most explicitly serves the purpose of a sort of division of labor.  For some (harmful) event E, S is expected to prevent or correct it whether or not S had any causal control over it.
    1. This is usually intertwined with some sort of causal responsibility (In a sense I caused your child’s teeth to be knocked out by not preventing my child from throwing the rock – preventing him, for example, by raising him to believe that one shouldn’t hurt others and one should be careful when throwing rocks in case someone is in the way)
    2. If causal responsibility is completely absent, there may be some sense of injustice—If I have absolutely no control over my motor tic and did not know there would be a precious vase in the room I just entered, I should not have to pay to replace it when I knock it over.

    Cross-posted at Les Boas Ouverts et Fermés.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: