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Responsibility as a Virtue


Philosophers usually discuss responsibility in terms of responsibility for past actions or as a question about the nature of moral agency. Yet the word responsibility is fairly modern, whereas these topics arguably represent timeless concerns about human agency. This paper investigates another use of responsibility, that is particularly important to modern liberal societies: responsibility as a virtue that can be demonstrated by individuals and organisations. The paper notes its initial importance in political contexts, and seeks to explain why we now demand responsibility in all spheres of life. In reply, I highlight the distinctively institutional character of modern liberal societies: institutions specify many of the particular responsibilities each of us must fulfil, but also require responsibility to sustain them and address their failings. My overall argument is that the virtue of responsibility occupies a distinctive place in the moral needs, and moral achievements, of liberal societies; and this, in turn, explains why it now occupies such a prominent place in our moral discourse.

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  1. Major discussions that combine these approaches include Wallace 1994 and Fischer and Ravizza 1998. An interesting exception to such non-historicist approaches is Williams 1985, for whom blame forms one element of a distinctively modern ‘morality system.’

  2. A detailed account is given by McKeon 1957, pp. 6ff. As McKeon acknowledges, however, the adjective may be traced back rather further—as early as the thirteenth century in French, and in medieval (legal) Latin in the following century (cf Bovens 1998, p. 23n2). Hobbes, for example, asks whether a member of an assembly may be responsible for its debts or crimes (1651, ch. 22, §§13, 15); and John Locke speaks of potential borrowers as ‘honest and responsible’ (1691, pp. 234, 286).

  3. Here I am relying on the citations of the Oxford English Dictionary and McKeon 1957, pp. 23ff. As noted, the adjective does have a longer history.

  4. Evidently, just the lack of a word to name a moral value is not enough to justify a strongly historicist position. Aristotle, for example, spoke of several virtues that lacked a name in his language.

  5. At least so far as individual agency is concerned: it is, I take it, rather easier to see that new forms of collective agency might emerge.

  6. Or at least it should: part of McKeon’s argument is that we do badly to think of responsibility in terms of the problem of free will. In any case, the question of whether adults of sound mind are responsible by virtue of, say, free will does not help with the question of how some better exemplify responsibility than others, nor with how collective bodies might manifest responsibility.

  7. I need to make one central exception, a figure who will be unheard of by most readers. Geoffrey Vickers anticipates much of my argument, being an acute observer of ‘two familiar but staggering changes of the last hundred years. One is the escalation of our expectations; the other is the escalation of our institutions’ (1973, p. 11).

  8. Thus we may praise someone as responsible in two ways. We may say she is responsible per se. Or we might describe how well she performs a particular role—eg, ‘the responsible mother’—and thus refer to a particular sphere of responsibilities.

  9. My translation. Weber writes, of course, in terms of Verantwortung and its cognates. In some contexts, as a referee for this journal has argued, this might be translated as ‘accountability.’ I retain the conventional translation because Weber’s general concern is with the qualities of character demanded of the politician—above all, a sense of responsibility.

  10. This claim might be supported by the many studies of organisational wrong-doing, from Hannah Arendt’s study of Eichmann’s conscience (1965) to Robert Jackall’s study of American corporate life (1988). See further Bovens 1998 on accountability within organisations.

  11. As Strawson put it in ‘Freedom and Resentment’ (1962).

  12. Many contemporary accounts of responsible agency find its most distinctive feature in responsiveness to reasons (eg, Wolf 1990; Wallace 1994; Fischer and Ravizza 1998). When we judge an agent to be more or less responsible it seems fair to suppose that she proves more or less responsive to the relevant reasons—indicating another direct connection between the virtue and responsible agency. However, to note this connection is to raise a delicate question, beyond my scope here, as to whether responsible agency comes in degrees, so that human beings may be unequal in their moral capacities. However this may be, our judgments of people as more or less responsible certainly pronounce some as better than others in negotiating key areas of moral and practical life.

  13. MacIntyre 1981/4. Bernard Williams has made the related claim that the peculiar degree of reflectiveness of modern societies has lent ‘thicker’ ethical concepts less currency (1985, pp. 163f). Williams does not make clear the logic behind this contested claim. But it is more natural to think that greater social reflexivity calls not for ‘thinner’ but for more reflexive moral concepts—responsibility being a case in point.

  14. Rose 1999, pp. 154f, 214f. As with MacIntyre, my brief comments hint at only a small part of his case.

  15. There are obviously many more, but most of these have been more widely recognised, and are more obviously political in character, than responsibility (eg, civic and welfare rights, toleration, or procedural justice).

  16. Of course, many think that our responsibilities in this regard are, or ought to be, greater than liberal theory usually takes them to be. Sympathetic as I am to this line of thought, it does not affect the overall point being made here.

  17. See Bovens 1998 on individual responsibilities within organisations.

  18. This can also happen when several different roles prove incompatible. The best observer of this problem is Chester Barnard 1938, pp. 263ff. More recently, see O’Neill 2002.


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I would like to thank the European Academy Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler for its generous support during the writing of this paper, and the Centre for Ethics, Philosophy and Public Affairs at the University of St Andrews for its support during the initial research. For comments I would like to thank audiences at Lancaster University, the European Academy and the Philosophy Club at Purchase College, State University of New York, as well as: David Archard, Margaret Canovan, Ruth Chadwick, Sean Crawford, Robin Downie, John Foster, Carl Friedrich Gethmann, Jorge Guerra González, Morris Kaplan, Onora O’Neill, Darius Rejali, Doris Schroeder, Udo Schuklenk and William Torbert, as well as two anonymous referees for this journal.

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Correspondence to Garrath Williams.

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For Ruth Chadwick.

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Williams, G. Responsibility as a Virtue. Ethic Theory Moral Prac 11, 455–470 (2008).

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  • Responsibility
  • Virtue
  • Agency
  • Institutions
  • Liberalism
  • Accountability