The word ‘responsible’ can imply assessments that are virtually opposite to one another: culpability or credit. In the first sense – blame – the concept of responsibility features prominently in a diverse range of social, political and cultural discussions. For example: outrage at banking institutions and the governments that failed to hold them accountable for the Global Financial Crisis, calls for Muslim leaders to take more responsibility for condemning Islamic extremists and the perennial accusations that young people lack the personal responsibility of previous generations. In the other sense – praiseworthiness – we are often told that the ability to recognise the consequences of our actions and take responsibility for them is not only a measure of maturity, it is a marker of good character. If these consequences are favourable ones, it is pleasing to be credited with responsibility for them.
Of course issues about what it is to lead a responsible life are found not only at a personal level, but also at a professional and political level. Practitioners of a wide variety of professions, including medicine, psychology and social work; journalism, tourism and the arts; architecture, civil engineering and the law, engage in reflection about ethical issues as part of their daily practice. Ethical behaviour and accountability in public life, in the media and in business are significant concerns for many citizens; Corporate Social Responsibility is high on the agenda for many companies and most professions have an ethical code with which its members are expected to comply
It is precisely because responsibility is invoked in different ways, in different contexts and in the service of different viewpoints that the concept has acquired a richness of meaning that is complex and, at times, contradictory. We may use phrases like ‘taking responsibility’ and ‘holding someone responsible’ for unwanted phenomena, and ‘being responsible’ for a good thing, but what does responsibility really mean? What are the necessary conditions for responsibility? Where does responsibility begin and end? Is there ever virtue in irresponsibility or in sidestepping questions of responsibility altogether? How do perceptions of responsibility colour the way we behave in our personal relationships, our occupations and as citizens in communities? Can concepts of responsibility be applied meaningfully to entities such as governments, corporations or organisations?
The notion of responsibility is one for which a wide variety of individuals and organizations need to take … responsibility. What is seen as responsible behaviour by one person looks irresponsible to another with a different frame of reference, so it is important that the dialogue involves a number of people, practices and disciplines. Having a range of voices will increase the possibility for achieving a richer understanding of the concept, even if this results in polyphony rather than unison.
The strand of programming that highlights personal responsibility will focus on how responsibility informs the ways in which individuals live their lives and interact with each other. In recognition that institutions play a critical role in shaping the social, political and cultural landscape we occupy, a separate strand will explore what is at stake when the concept of responsibility is applied to organizations with their own structures, rules and objectives. The third and final strand of programming examines collective responsibility as a middle ground between the individual and organized institutions whose agency and obligations are legally recognized. This strand considers the implications of holding members of a group (usually defined on the basis of factors like race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nationality or profession) accountable for the actions of other members as well as current and historical actions carried out in the group’s name.
These three strands are likely to appeal to different disciplines. For example, the first (which deals with individuals) might productively be analysed by the fields of psychology, philosophy, theology and criminology, as well as the practices of law, therapy, education and the media. The second strand (institutional responsibility) might be of particular interest to economists, sociologists, anthropologists, political theorists, businesspeople, journalists, whistle-blowers, cultural theorists, and the legal profession. The third strand (group accountability) is one to which historians, ethicists, politicians and advocacy groups might have a particular contribution to make. But none of these categorizations is mutually exclusive, and we would encourage specialists in all areas to consider all three strands.
While it is anticipated that the discussions developing over the continued life of the project will help to shape its direction and progress, the key themes and issues that the project intends to explore include:
Philosophical perspectives on responsibility and free will (and related concepts such as obligation, culpability, accountability and reparations)
Legal perspectives on responsibility and defences related to diminished capacity
Legislating for responsibility
Responsibility in religious traditions
Concepts of responsibility in different cultures
Social forces that discourage or encourage taking responsibility
Responsibility and power: having the power within a situation or state of affairs to be able to respond
The role of parents/guardians, educators, public institutions, media and other social forces in shaping how personal responsibility is defined and experienced
Responsibility and the formation of civic character/notions of citizenship within communities
Limits on personal responsibility
Responsibility and personal development, including self-help models
Enforcement, punishment and other responses to lapses of responsibility
Legal perspectives on responsibility; the defence of diminished responsibility
The relationship between sanity and responsibility
Guilt and the by-products of accepting responsibility
Teaching responsibility inside and outside the classroom
Responsibility in the workplace and other professional contexts
Activism (ethical consumer practices, volunteerism, etc)
Financial responsibility (money and debt management)
Exploring personal responsibility through film, literature and the arts
Obligations of corporations (e.g. tax avoidance, banker bonuses and corporate bailout amid economic austerity, corporations as people)
Levels and limits of governmental responsibility for shaping behaviour and preventing harms to the community
Responsibility and foreign policy involving governmental and non-governmental actors
Obligations of NGOs
Negotiating personal morality and professional duty (e.g. workers in abortion clinics, refusal of service on the basis of religious beliefs, etc.)
Institutional cover-ups and whistle-blowing around illegal/unethical practices (e.g. the Jimmy Savile phenomenon, NHS whistle-blowers, Edward Snowden, Julian Assange)
Enforcement, punishment and penalties for institutional irresponsibility
Public management policy perspectives on accountability and responsibility
Community responses to institutions that assume/neglect responsibility
The challenges of assigning and enforcing collective responsibility
Collective memory, shame and guilt
Inter-generational responsibility and guilt: does responsibility for events like the Holocaust end with the generation that perpetrated them?
Acknowledgment of responsibility in the historical record and educational curriculum
The backlash against collective responsibility
Exploring collective responsibility through film, literature and the arts
Strategies for dealing with collective responsibility in governmental and non-governmental contexts
Professional responsibility (e.g. responsible scientific/medical research, the responsibility of the entertainment industry to promote racial and ethnic diversity, responsibility of labour unions to promote workers’ interests, etc.)
Who Should Get Involved?
This project is designed to create a space for engagement between individuals who are professionally and personally interested in aspects of responsibility. We want to provide access opportunities to this conversation for the widest range of people with something to say.
These might include: philosophers, sociologists, economists, historians, political theorists, theologians, cultural theorists, anthropologists, educationalists, teachers, doctors, nurses, mental health professionals, therapists, pharmacists, lawyers, police, judiciary, defence forces, bankers, finance professionals, accountants, businesspeople, politicians, community leaders, NGOs, voluntary organizations, the security industry, artists, writers, film-makers, journalists, broadcasters, pilots, transport professionals, tradespeople, former addicts, rehab workers, ex-prisoners, prison staff, advocacy groups, and anyone else who has a contribution to make in understanding the nature and implications of responsibility.
In attempting to shift the discussion of responsibility into practical/applied contexts, rather than concentrating exclusively on the implications of how responsibility is discussed and conceptualized in intellectual terms, this project seeks to create genuine, meaningful, inter-disciplinary dialogue.
The project seeks to achieve a better understanding of the rich notion of responsibility, by examining both its negative and positive ramifications. Living responsibly, caring for others and the planet is, of course, a complex business, because so often different sets of demands conflict with one another. By discussing responsibility in an interdisciplinary setting that draws on a variety of perspectives, we hope to reach a clearer and more nuanced view of the topic. However, these benefits should not remain on a purely intellectual level, but be put into practice in two interconnected ways: (i) substantive, positive changes in our own practices, in the direction of greater responsibility, catalyzed by personal development and (ii) greater social justice in the communities to which we belong. We become more responsible personally, and feel empowered to hold others to account for both their laudable and reprehensible actions.