The Problem of Responsibility

Oh no, not again. That’s what I always used to think when people talked about responsibility to me. Now it’s one of those concepts that truly grips me. It’s not a fun subject. It’s quite confronting being responsible. Most of the time we try to push our responsibility away. But why? In this essay I want to touch upon what responsibility is, why it has a positive influence but also why we sometimes run away from it.

            So, what is responsibility exactly? And what are we responsible for? As I have already touched on in my essay about love, we can say that responsibility is always a relation. We are always responsible for something. We are responsible for turning the stove off when we leave our house. We are responsible for feeding our cat. We are responsible for turning in our thesis on the date of the deadline. We can say that when we are responsible for something, it is we who can be held accountable for the result of what happens because of the action. If something happens, then that is on you, whether that is positive or negative.

            On a sidenote, I want to make a distinction between responsible for and having fault. You can be perfectly responsible for something while it isn’t your fault that it happened. If you have a kid and that kid breaks something, it is not your fault, because your child broke the object. Yet, you are responsible because we do not see the child as responsible for her own actions. You the parent is responsible. Another example is cancer. It might not be your fault that you’ve got cancer, but it is your responsibility to make sure you get your treatment and try to live a good life while you’re battling the sickness.

            To delve deeper into the concept of responsibility, we must investigate if objects are responsible. Intuitively, we would say no. If the microwave breaks, we do not say that it is the microwaves fault it broke or that the microwave is responsible for its destruction. The microwave can break because of being used too much and age, but if someone breaks the microwave, we never say it’s the microwaves’ fault, except in an irrational attempt to divert the blame away from ourselves. To be responsible, thus, implies that someone can be held accountable. Since mere objects cannot be held accountable, objects cannot be responsible.

            Yet, we have already seen that children and animals are also not held responsible for their actions. Someone who enters a psychosis and attacks someone is also not held responsible for her actions. It seems that to be held responsible, you must be an autonomous human being with freedom to act a certain way. Being autonomous means that one is under no pressure of some external entity to do something. A slave is not an autonomous human being since it has no say on what to do with his life. Being autonomous means that we can choose the relations we want to have with other people, things, ideas, etc. A non-autonomous human being has no say in such a matter.

            But what makes a person autonomous? We have already highlighted that it is freedom that makes a person autonomous. The freedom to choose your own path in life. The freedom to engage in activities that you find meaningful. The freedom to choose who you want to have as a friend. The list goes on. But this freedom brings with it responsibility. The fact that we are free implies that we are responsible for what we do. This existentialist dictum is posited by Sartre “That is what I mean when I say that man is condemned to be free: condemned, because once cast in the world, he is responsible for everything he does.”[1]Responsibility is not something we can choose to have. You cannot take up your responsibility or choose to not be responsible for something. We fall into responsibility, the existentialists would claim.

            Being free implies that we can choose what we want to do with our lives. If you want to become a doctor, you are free to do so. If you want to travel the world, you are free to do so. Being free to do so, doesn’t necessarily imply that you are able to do it. This might seem paradoxical, so let me explain. You might want to travel to Thailand. A ticket for the plane is 500 euros. You don’t have that money. Are you free to go to Thailand? Well actually yes. You are free to undertake actions that will allow you to go to Thailand. You can save up money or sell stuff to buy the plane ticket. Sure, you are not capable of flying to Thailand without the 500 euros, but you are free to undertake the steps required to get there. This radical freedom implies radical responsibility, which might be a bit too radical. It is this radical freedom that has been heavily criticized against by non-existentialists. Yet, I do believe that the existentialists have a point here.

            Freedom and capability seem to be linked. We are not free to just fly off because we don’t have the capability to do so. Yet here we have an example where it is utterly impossible to do so. When there is a possibility of achieving something, we can say that we are at least freer to do so. In the Thailand example, I would say that we are free to take the plane to Thailand even though we might not have the capability to do so. However, we could say that freedom can be seen in gradations of possibility. But how to deal with this problem might be a subject for another essay.

            Now that we have touched upon the concept of responsibility, we can look a bit into why it is a positive influence on our lives. After that we can look at why we as people try to evade it as well.

            The most beneficial influence of bearing responsibility is that your actions acquire a certain weight to them. The fact that you have a certain responsibility towards something, or someone implies that it matters what you do. If you have the responsibility to turn the stove off when you leave the house, it matters if you do it or not. Maybe because your roommate might be angry with you or because leaving the stove on increases the risk of setting your house on fire. Responsibility is the virtue which gives your actions a certain meaning. It makes those action important. It makes them matter. Thus, taking up responsibility has the positive influence that it makes you actions valuable. They have a certain value which makes them meaningful.

            However, responsibility is a double-edged sword. Yes, it makes all your actions meaningful. The downside is that it makes all your actions meaningful. How is this negative? Isn’t it just great that your life is filled with meaningful actions? Well, yes. If your actions matter and have consequences, when those consequences are good then you can be proud of your achievements. However, if you do something wrong, then that is on you as well. You are responsible for the bad things that happen then. If your house burns down because you left the stove off, the house burns down because of you. The suffering that is caused in the process is because of you. This can be a very fearful thing to realize because we, as people, don’t want to be responsible for bad things. We don’t want to make the world a worse place to live in and we don’t want other people to think bad of us. So, because the importance of your actions confronts you with the possibility of (your own) evil, we become afraid. We have the choice of facing this fear or running away from it. But to where do we run?

The philosopher Martin Heidegger saw fear as the most fundamental mood-of-being. It is this fear to be confronted with ourselves that paralyzes us to make choices. Heidegger would say that we run away in das Man (sometimes translated as ‘They’), which is the communis opinio, the common opinion, of the average person. We do what ‘everyone else’ does and we say what ‘everyone else’ says. We don’t really think what we think. We think what ‘They’ think. This allows us to not think for ourselves. We are not responsible for what we do or say, because we do and say what everyone else does and says.

It is the fear of freedom, as the psychoanalyst Erich Fromm would claim, that makes us run away from our responsibility. We are afraid of the freedom we have and thus run away from that freedom, for example towards Heidegger’s das Man. But why would we do so? Well, this is because our actions matter when we take responsibility. When they don’t, we are not responsible (or at least we think we are not) for the suffering that we cause. We can turn a blind eye towards the bad things that we do. Most of the time this turning away is partial in a sense, because when something good happens we are quick to claim that we are the ones responsible for it. But there is no such thing as only being responsible some of the time. We are responsible for our actions all the time. Whether bad or good consequences, we are responsible for it. So, the positive influence of running away from responsibility is that no action really matters. You can do whatever you want, the consequences do not concern you.

So, the problem of responsibility is as follows. We can choose to acknowledge our freedom and in return every action we take matters. But that means that we must confront failures and bad consequences and acknowledge that it’s our responsibility when that happens. This takes courage, virtue, and strength to do so. The alternative is not acknowledging our freedom and running away from responsibility. The downside is that nothing matters, but the upside is that nothing matters. We don’t have to feel bad when something bad happens. We can choose which path we take.

I would say it is better to confront our fear of freedom and take responsibility of our actions. Then you can constitute a goal for your life and work towards it. We are responsible for reaching this goal or to at least come closer to it. This is another aspect that might need some investigation, but I will leave this for another essay. One reason I believe responsibility is the better path, is because even though you might choose to run away, the world will still press responsibility upon you. Existentialist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir claims that it is the Other, other subjects which aren’t you, that gives rise to the ethical dimension. The Other will confront you with your own responsibility. Thus, you will feel the weight of freedom on your shoulders, whether you like it or not. So, you can better accept it and do your best to become a responsible person. That way, I believe, you can make the world a better place.

Running away from something is never the answer, because in some way it always catches up with you. Eventually it will confront you. So, it is better to face it with your head held high and with courage. Then, we can grow as a person and increase our capacity of making meaningful actions and bearing the responsibility the world throws at us. It is one of the ways to have a truly fulfilling life in my opinion. It only takes one choice. To take up responsibility.

[1] Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism is a Humanism, p. 29

By elenchusphilosophy

Philosophy student from Ghent, Belgium. I write about what I find interesting which is about nearly anything. Though my guiding question in life is how to be a good person.

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