People think that philosophy is about pondering, and ideally answering, questions like the following ones: Does life have meaning? What…
By Jeremy Moss
Acting responsibly by accepting the costs that result from our decisions has long been a mantra of governments world-wide. The former US President Ronald Reagan famously said “We must reject the idea that every time a law’s broken, society is guilty.” Rather, what happens to us should be seen as a result of choices that we make and we should bear the costs of those choices. Not only is it claimed that it is good for individuals to adopt a principle of responsibility, but that institutions ought to adopt it too.
On the face of it, this is an intuitive idea. There are many examples from our everyday lives where personal responsibility plays a part such as, making good health choices, respecting the environment, taking responsibility for our actions with friends and partners and so on. All of these acts require us to make choices and live with the consequences, and rightly so.
These views certainly have echoes in modern philosophical and policy debates. As the philosopher Ronald Dworkin claimed, in determining when an individual or group should receive some sort of publicly distributed resource people ought to assume responsibility for their choices and the outcomes of those choices (all things being equal), but not for the bad effects of pure chance. For instance, the cost of an unemployed person’s choice not to look for a job is a suspension of benefits. However, costs that result from risky financial decisions or poor education choices should not be borne by governments.
Intuitive as this view might seem, the position is far from compelling. What seems to have happened is that we have fallen for a philosophical version of rugged individualism more suited to Robinson Crusoe’s island than modern life.
Take the example of determining when someone has been responsible. Imagine that you work for a government agency and you are asked to assess whether a person has behaved responsibly and is, therefore, entitled to a benefit. To make this judgment you will have to distinguish whether their actions resulted from their choice or circumstances, such as bad luck that they couldn’t help. With the case of unemployment or even health, this can be hard to do. In the welfare case, except in glaringly obvious cases where a person either admits that they are not trying to get a job or they are caught perpetrating a fraud, it is often an imprecise process. This kind of process is a repeat of the idea that responsibility should be used to differentiate the deserving from the undeserving poor.
But even at the level of theory, thinking that we need to ensure that responsibility governs our allocation of resources in cases like health or unemployment might not be such a good idea. Think about what such a policy would look like if fully implemented. If we were really serious about enacting this kind of ‘tough love’ approach, then the irresponsible would have to bear the costs of their choices no matter what. If someone drove too fast and injured themselves (but nobody else) in a car crash, society would not have any obligation to admit them to hospital – unless they assumed the full cost. Similarly, if a person had chosen to live in a fire-prone area and lost their property, that would be their fault.
Supporters of responsibility-inspired theories of justice will tell us that their view rightly places greater weight on opportunity rather than outcomes. Recent political philosophy and public culture is imbued with the idea of giving people equal opportunities to have meaningful lives, find fulfilling work, and so on. This is indeed an important goal. But outcomes matter as well and this is why a too strong focus on responsibility can lead us into dangerous territory.
This is especially true where outcomes are particularly bad, as in the poor health and job cases mentioned earlier. We might just think that some outcomes – serious illness, drastic poverty, etc. – are so bad that we ought not to permit them, even where responsibility is lacking. Imagine a society that did operate according to a principle of responsibility where everyone bore the costs of their choices no matter what. It would likely create some very stark divisions between the well-off who could afford to shoulder these burdens and the poor, who may not be able to.
The thought that there is too much emphasis placed on responsibility also stems from how we see it deployed. The unemployed, some of the unhealthy, and sometimes parents often have to deal with social institutions that prioritise responsibility. But it is hard to find many supporters of this view clamouring to extend it to other groups.
For instance, where are the laws that would demand that our coal exporters take responsibility for the harms to the climate that their products cause when they are used? The coal miners will respond that their products are perfectly legal and sold on a global market. But this is scarcely a defence if what we are talking about is placing a principle of responsibility at the forefront of our institutions.
This goes to show that not only are the targets of responsibility often wrongly identified, responsibility is a more complex idea than many suppose. It is all very well to invoke personal responsibility as a guiding principle in public policy settings, but the action is in the detail. Even if responsibility is as good a principle as many claim it to be (and it seems doubtful that it is) applying it in a non-arbitrary way seems essential. So rather than demanding that the ever-increasing numbers of unemployed take responsibility for there being no jobs – a situation about which they can do very little – we should extend the principle of responsibility to other groups, or admit its current application is flawed.
All this is not to say that responsibility is not at all valuable; it is. It is not that those of us who advocate a lesser role for responsibility as part of a theory of justice don’t want people to act responsibly, it is just that we do not think that it should be the foremost principle in one’s theory.
What the rugged individualists miss is that responsibility is just not as important as other principles. Many traditional egalitarians argue that achieving a society where people stand in relations of equality with one another is more important than making sure people bear the costs of their choices. Unless we want to go back to an earlier age, those who design social institutions would do well to take less note of responsibility and more of equality.