Living with Responsibility

This starts with pretty simple questions. What am I responsible for? When is it reasonable to say something is my fault? Problem is, things get interesting when we start taking responsibility for making choices about what we are responsible for.

If Agnes kicks Beth, then A is responsible for kicking B on the face of it. If the kick was involuntary, or the result of a mind control laser or suchlike, then we might reconsider that assessment.

Regarding the involuntary nervous twitch, A did not intend B, so she may still feel some responsibility for the outcome but the link seems somewhat lessened. Perhaps if it is a constant occurrance, A could be considered negligent if she does not wear an appropriate warning sign around her neck, or sufficiently weighted shoes!

With regard to the mind control or similar extraneous influences I think it’s safe to say that responsibility rests with the influencing agent if a person. Call it an accident if the cause is not capable of moral consideration such as a baby, animal, or falling tree scaring poor A into kicking B.

Let’s look at a new situation. Agnes stops Beth from walking out in front of a moving car. If A did not do so, by inaction she could be deemed responsible if she was aware and capable of intervening. If she was wearing her special weighted shoes, Agnes might not be quick enough to help Beth. Equally, if Agnes was busy writing her personal warning sign, she may not notice the impending calamity. If A is aware and able to intervene, there is still the possbility of ‘akrasia’ – weakness of will. She fails to motivate herself because of a weak link between intent and outcome – something like ME perhaps? See

Focus now on the role of awareness in A being responsible. In most situations we apply a fairly generic idea about what a person can be deemed reasonably required to be aware of. If the awareness depends on some obscure fact about a traditionally safe lake being recently filled with flesh-eating pirhanas, then most would waive the responsibility as unreasonable.

But what if you are very observant? What if, like superman, you have very good hearing, vision, and reasoning faculties? Suddenly the awareness defence fails. You can claim that a normal person would not have known about the pirhanas, but with your super-hearing you heard their snapping teeth in the lake so you were responsible for the ensuing tabloid spectacular. There is still room for the inability defence if your awareness extends beyond your capacity to help, as with poor old Cassandra – see – who saw the future but nobody believed her. Though you were not responsible, you’d likely have issues dealing with the sense of impotence! Superman though, being such a nippy lad, ends up spending almost all of his time on the go rushing from one calamity to the next, and any R&R he gets comes at a high price – though I think the inability defense cuts in again to allow him some slack!

So what about a person’s ability to improve their awareness? Say, if they could take a ‘super-hearing’ pill. If they take it, their responsibility would increase within the limits of their ability and willpower. Similarly for increased ability and willpower. Then what about the very choice they make to take these super-pills? Failure to do so may well result in a calamity that could have been prevented. My concern is this: The moment you become able to increase your awareness or ability or willpower, are you then morally encouraged to do so, and responsible for your failure to do so?

The flip side might be the idea that a person might deliberately cut themselves off from the world around them, effectively hiding from responsibility by limiting their awareness. I think this just emphasises that responsibility is not so easily ignored! Do we see ourselves as ostriches with a status quo of keeping our heads in the sand rather than seeking to be aware of important issues?

The ‘super-pills’ are already available in various diluted forms of technological, psychological and experiential self-improvement. Mobile phones, psychotherapy and martial arts to name a few. Admittedly, the various forms have constraints such as cost and time which may well make them impractical compared with the freely available and convenient super-pill! Are we all required to make ourselves into the best moral super-heroes we are capable of becoming?

The important qualifiers there are ‘moral’ super heroes and ‘capable’ of becoming. With the focus on being able to help others, given we all have day to day lives to lead, there are obvious limits. There are existing systems and institutions in place to help others too, before we get a run of caped vigilantes! Seriously though, many people already have mobiles and talk through our concerns with friends and relatives. The Internet and Twitter extend our awareness in new ways. Others may look up to us as role models, often unexpectedly. Martial arts may be more useful for developing personal confidence than in practice, but combining physical and spiritual well-being seems like a plus. We find down to earth explorations of moral situations in soap operas and the Jeremy Kyle show. The practical extent of some of these methods are debatable! After such an exhausting day of self improvement, you probably need a night in watching telly. Even Superman gets time off!

In summary, responsibility is not just about what you can do, but what you COULD do. If you are really able to do more, then why not? What is at stake is partly the public ideal of reasonable responsibility. I know some people who really work hard to help others, and that is something I aspire to, but it’s not always possible. In a sense this is preaching to the converted as I hope most people do their bit, but maybe it’ll inspire someone to volunteer for a local cause or something.