Monday, October 04, 2010

What does being responsible mean?

In these blogs I have often talked about our responsibility for doing things, but what does being responsible mean? I do not want to give an extensive analysis of the concept. Many philosophers have done that before and I don’t expect to be able to give an original contribution. However, in view of all what I have written about it here, I think that it is time to clarify what the concept in my opinion involves. “Responsible” or “responsibility” is a bit, what I would call, a “bucket concept”: we throw a lot in it which is hardly related. For instance, responsible can mean being in charge with a task, or behaving properly and sensibly, and the like. That is not what I mean with it. As used here, responsibility refers to a person and an action done by that person, to something a person did with an intention or intentionally. Only then I call here a person responsible for what s/he did or for the consequences of what s/he did. But for calling a person responsible for what s/he did it is not enough that s/he was acting with an intention or intentionally. The action or its consequences must also imply a moral obligation.
These are only minimum criteria. If they haven’t been fulfilled in some way, we cannot say that the agent has a responsibility for an action in my sense. And just this “in some way” makes the concept so difficult to catch. For who determines in which way? For example, was running into the car an action of mine? (See my blog last week) Cycling near Breukelen was, for I had the intention to cycle there, it’s true. However, when I saw the car I tried to avoid it. Nevertheless, the collision was a consequence of my action cycling there, and it can be defended that this makes that I am responsible for the accident: It was my choice to become a road-user and I need to know then that I run risks to make mistakes and to cause an accident. In this sense I am responsible for the accident caused by my mistake and it is this which gives me an obligation to pay for the damaged caused by me. But does it give me a
moral obligation? As for me I have the feeling it does, for the car driver couldn’t help that I run into his car. However, the Dutch legislator does not agree. According to him every car driver needs to know that a car can cause serious injuries and heavy damage to a pedestrian or cyclist that can exceed by far the apparent severity of the accident. A car is a dangerous instrument. Therefore, by becoming a road-user, a car driver is responsible for the consequences of a collision with a pedestrian or cyclist, even if s/he did not cause it, and s/he has a moral (and legal) obligation to pay at least a part of the damage caused. That’s what the Dutch legislator thinks.
The upshot is that the concept of responsibility can be given many interpretations and can be fleshed out in many ways. Just when we have determined the minimum criteria of what being responsible is, the discussion really starts.

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