Julian Sanchez header image 2

photos by Lara Shipley

An Afterthought on “Responsibility”

February 24th, 2012 · No Comments

It occurs to me that some of the confusion I mentioned in the previous post has to do with a certain ambiguity around the terms “responsible” and “responsibility.”  In addition to to the simple causal sense of “responsible,” which is obviously linked to the others, we use it to mean “properly subject to moral praise and blame” but also something roughly like “prudent, exercising foresight and impulse control, mindful of long-term consequences.” The latter has no necessary connection to the former—a totally amoral robot could be programmed to behave “responsibly” in this sense—except insofar as praise and blame are popular mechanisms for inculcating habits of prudence in humans. (Their usefulness for this purpose need not have anything to do with whether people actually “deserve” the praise or blame in some morally deep sense: The repugnance of “victim blaming” is no guarantee that it doesn’t confer some social benefit.) It’s actually hard to briefly describe the relevant propensities in terms that don’t have some thick normative connotation. There’s not really a colloquial language for calling people imprudent or work-averse that doesn’t sound like moral criticism, and history suggests that any scrupulously neutral term coined for the purpose will just take on all the baggage of he old one fairly quickly. Still, if we could manage to adopt a more anthropologically detached way of talking about behavior, norms, and their social consequences, it might make conservatives and liberals less prone to talking past each other.

All this reminds me, incidentally, of a panel I had the great pleasure of sitting on with the social psychologist Philip Zimbardo, of “Stanford Prison Experiment” fame. He was, naturally, speaking about the “power of the situation”—how social context can make decent people behave appallingly. He notes that he, too, fell victim to it: Absorbed in his role as the detached experimenter,  he went on enthusiastically gathering data as young men broke down under the psychological torment they were inflicting upon each other.  He stopped only when his new girlfriend (and future wife) yanked him out of the situation by reacting with horror at what he was allowing to go on under his nose. Yet the content of this new situation, as I pointed out, was a bit of old fashioned individualistic moralizing: “You are responsible for allowing this to go on, and if that is the sort of person you are, I don’t want to be romantically involved with you!”  From an external or scientific perspective, we can accurately say that his behavior was more determined by social context than any immutable character traits or some act of radical free will. But the context that generates morally desirable behavior will often be one that, from the internal perspective of practical reason, enjoins people to think of themselves as fundamentally responsible (and subject to praise and blame) for the consequences of their actions.

Tags: Moral Philosophy · Sociology