• StreetlightX
    4.3k
    I want to bring out a simple point about responsibility that I think is often missed: that we are responsible ONLY for what is NOT in our control. This may seem counter-intuitive, but becomes clear, I think, with any cursory investigation into what responsibility entails. The first way to approach the point is contra-positively: were the results of our actions wholly under our control, if we were able to master every last consequence of what we said and did, we would not need to be response-able for them: there would be no response required, no ability to be exercised as a result of what we have done. Responsibility enters precisely at the point at which our actions exceed us.

    Judith Butler, in her remarks on the concept of responsibility, puts it this way: “I cannot think the question of responsibility alone, in isolation from the other. If I do, I have taken myself out of the mode of address (being addressed as well as addressing the other) in which the problem of responsibility first emerges” (Butler, Giving An Account of Oneself). For as Butler notes, responsibility is ultimately relational: it is only in relation to another that one is responsible, accountable, for what one has said and done. There would be no ‘problem of responsibility’ without the relation to the other. But the other, as other, as an-other agency, is precisely what, or rather who, I am not in control of. It is in the face of the other that I am responsible, and the other is that who exceeds my mastery over things.

    Another way to approach the point is less through the notion of responsibility than its subject: action. We say that we are ‘responsible for our actions’: but ‘our’ actions never belong wholly to us, at least, not insofar as they make a change in the world, insofar as they have consequences that exceed me. Hannah Arendt, in her beautiful passages on action, puts the point thus:

    “[The] consequences [of actions] are boundless, because action, though it may proceed from nowhere, so to speak, acts into a medium where every reaction becomes a chain reaction and where every process is the cause of new processes. Since action acts upon beings who are capable of their own actions, reaction, apart from being a response, is always a new action that strikes out on its own and affects others. Thus action and reaction among men never move in a closed circle and can never be reliably confined to two partners… the smallest act in the most limited circumstances bears the seed of the same boundlessness, because one deed, and sometimes one word, suffices to change every constellation” (Arendt, The Human Condition).
  • Grre
    141
    I'm a little tired and not with it, so I didn't digest your full point. But if what you're trying to say is that actions create infinite results/reactions, and therefore, responsibility entails accepting this infinity ripple (for lack of a better work) and encompassing this encompassment in our definition of responsibility, then yes, I agree!

    I love Hanna Arendt though. Banality of evil. So important. Especially when you teach kindergarten.
  • Wallows
    9.2k


    What do you tell a Stoic who claims that one should only be concerned about things within their control?

    I would say that the distinction is fundamentally fallacious... What about you?
  • StreetlightX
    4.3k
    The Stoics are more subtle than might first appear - recall the story Epictetus tells of Priscus' response to Vespasian, when Vespasian threatens to kill Priscus if he turns up to the senate: “You do your part, and I will do mine. It is your part to kill me, mine to die without flinching; your part to exile me, mine to leave without protest." (Discourses). That Priscus cannot control Vespasians' actions does not mean he does not take responsibility for his own; in fact, Priscus wholly accepts the consequences of his actions, even in the face of death, brought about from without (from what is beyond his control, as it were).

    In other words, the Stoic injunction that we ought to concern ourselves only with what is 'up to us', does not entail that we disavow responsibility for what our actions bring about, even if those consequences are not 'up to us'. So Stoic ethics may not be quite as diametrically opposed as it might seem at first sight.
  • Janus
    8.6k
    It seems that Butler is, in the quoted passage, speaking of what one is responsible to, which is not the same as what one is responsible for. We are responsible to what exceeds us, but we are responsible for only what we are able to control; which is to say only for those actions where alternative choice is possible.
  • StreetlightX
    4.3k
    I think the point is that the two are consubstantial: there is no responsibility for without responsibility to: as she says, the entire 'problem of responsibility' is engendered through the relation to the other, which I take to encompass both 'poles' of responsibility.
  • Snakes Alive
    392
    So if I kill someone on purpose, I'm not responsible?
  • Echarmion
    984
    I want to bring out a simple point about responsibility that I think is often missed: that we are responsible ONLY for what is NOT in our control. This may seem counter-intuitive, but becomes clear, I think, with any cursory investigation into what responsibility entails. The first way to approach the point is contra-positively: were the results of our actions wholly under our control, if we were able to master every last consequence of what we said and did, we would not need to be response-able for them: there would be no response required, no ability to be exercised as a result of what we have done. Responsibility enters precisely at the point at which our actions exceed us.StreetlightX

    I don't see the connection between being responsible and "able to respond". This seems like a misapplication of etymology. Responsibility, the way that the word is generally used, refers to the connection between a person and a state of affairs. Being able to "respond to" that state of affairs isn't part of that connection.

    Judith Butler, in her remarks on the concept of responsibility, puts it this way: “I cannot think the question of responsibility alone, in isolation from the other. If I do, I have taken myself out of the mode of address (being addressed as well as addressing the other) in which the problem of responsibility first emerges” (Butler, Giving An Account of Oneself). For as Butler notes, responsibility is ultimately relational: it is only in relation to another that one is responsible, accountable, for what one has said and done. There would be no ‘problem of responsibility’ without the relation to the other. But the other, as other, as an-other agency, is precisely what, or rather who, I am not in control of. It is in the face of the other that I am responsible, and the other is that who exceeds my mastery over things.StreetlightX

    Yes, the problem of responsibility only arises in connection with other subjects, and only because we are not a hive-mind. But it doesn't follow that we are only responsible for what we do not control. Responsibility is the connective tissue between a world governed by cause and effect and minds governed by freedom of will. There is an element of "lack of control" here. If we simply controlled the world regardless of physics, there'd be no need for responsibility. We need it because we cannot simply use control over the outcome as the determining factor.
  • Janus
    8.6k
    Yes, that makes sense.
  • leo
    626
    I was fully in control of my actions when I committed that crime, therefore I am not responsible for that crime and so I am innocent your Honor.

    there is no responsibility for without responsibility toStreetlightX

    You're saying "responsibility to" implies "responsibility for"

    https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/responsible
    be responsible to sb/sth: to be controlled by someone or something
    be responsible for sb/sth/doing sth: to have control over someone or something

    So you're saying "being controlled by someone" implies "having control over someone", that's quite the sophistry.

    Obviously we can only be controlled by what we do not control, so we can only be responsible to what we do not control. Which does not imply in any way that we are only responsible for what we do not control.

    The very definition of "responsible for" hinges on having control, so it's obvious something has gone wrong in our argument when we conclude that "responsible for" hinges on not having control.

    When we twist the meaning of words we can reach any conclusion. Sadly this is the kind of thing that gives a bad name to philosophy, and which makes people see philosophy as useless.
  • Marchesk
    3k
    I cannot think the question of responsibility alone, in isolation from the other. If I do, I have taken myself out of the mode of address (being addressed as well as addressing the other) in which the problem of responsibility first emerges” (Butler, Giving An Account of Oneself). For as Butler notes, responsibility is ultimately relational: it is only in relation to another that one is responsible, accountable, for what one has said and done. There would be no ‘problem of responsibility’ without the relation to the other.StreetlightX

    I can think of exceptions. Once I drove my car into high water and ruined the engine. It was under my control. I didn't have to drive the car when I knew there was going to be a downpour. I could have taken a different route on higher ground. I could have slowed down and not gone through the deeper water, or backed up and turned around. But nope, I was impatient and misjudged the situation.

    There was nobody else to be responsible to, but I was still responsible for ruining my engine. I couldn't blame the weather. Nobody else could forgive me for what I had done, and no apologies were owed.
  • fdrake
    2.8k
    Under what conditions do people think morally?

    Sometimes people orient their lives towards impersonal commandments and principles. A life lived with a higher calling or in a socially recognised cult.

    Most of the time, people think morally when posed with moral problems. These aren't like the trolly problem, or debating whether lying is consistent with the categorical imperative. These are questions of how best to treat people, also of whether what one did is wrong and how to mitigate its effects. Under what conditions does someone care how best to treat someone? When they care, when they believe their influence matters, when their influence does in fact matter and such a state is discovered. That is, they are discovered in social contexts; family, friends, lovers, organisations. Belief in this regard is also embedded in interpersonal connection; a relation of people and people; rather than as a pro-attitude towards an ethical maxim. Such a belief might be called trust.

    You can usually 'refute' an ethical maxim, "One ought to do X" or "One ought not to do X" by interpreting it literally and supplanting a contextual defeater. This is an intellectual game; it varies arbitrarily over contexts and people. It's a game of association between stated principles and subtended social contexts in which their expression contradicts the maxim as stated.

    Where ethics happens is between people. Ethical thought is inspired by care of others. Care not just as an emotive state, but care as an ontological condition of interpersonal relationships. Care is what inspires terror when seeing a child play in traffic, "one should not play in traffic" as a maxim is a reified guide, however sensible.

    This change of perspective, really a return to the perspective we have usually, of ethics being rooted in care induces a transformation of ethical thought to the development of heuristics which guide the praxis of interpersonal development.
  • thewonder
    412

    Responsibility arises out of that there are others, but I think that your conclusion may still assume that it can be soundly considered. Because it is impossible to know the consequences of our actions before they are committed, how can we be held accountable for them? Arendt, I think, only asks the question. I would suggest that formal responsibility is an impossible ethic to maintain. A person always takes a leap of faith by acting. Human agency is always beset by the perils of Ethics. The consequences of an event can only be understood after the event has taken place. You just have to cope with that it's all kind of a lot of guesswork.
  • JosephS
    108
    “I cannot think the question of responsibility alone, in isolation from the other. If I do, I have taken myself out of the mode of address (being addressed as well as addressing the other) in which the problem of responsibility first emerges” (Butler, Giving An Account of Oneself)StreetlightX

    I read this and I become confused by the term 'the other'.

    Is this other agent an agent in singular or does the other reflect the 'other' in toto?

    Responsibility is tri-partite:
    - My responsibility (e.g. an obligation or prohibition)
    - to the other (e.g. a contractual partner, my child, other drivers)
    - due to the other (a system of control -- legal/criminal, contractual, social, moral)

    For as Butler notes, responsibility is ultimately relational: it is only in relation to another that one is responsible, accountable, for what one has said and done. There would be no ‘problem of responsibility’ without the relation to the other. But the other, as other, as an-other agency, is precisely what, or rather who, I am not in control of. It is in the face of the other that I am responsible, and the other is that who exceeds my mastery over things.StreetlightX

    Maybe Butler makes this clear but the quote above doesn't resolve, for me, the scope of 'other'.

    From a review by Chris Lumberg:

    The second assumption is that when a subject dependent on other subjects attempts to give an account of itself, it does so within a structure of address. A subject makes a claim for itself only in the presence of others—an account of oneself both aims at the self but also simultaneously aims at presenting the self to another.

    When Butler discusses "being addressed as well as addressing the other" is that another (one) subject or is it the "other subjects" (the whole of the other) the first subject is dependent on?

    Maybe this is clear to other readers here. It is not obvious to me.
  • StreetlightX
    4.3k
    Hello! Sorry for the late reply, I wrote the OP at the airport before a weekend trip, which is a terrible idea, but I'm back so better late than never. Gonna go with a general reply as it's a little tough to respond one by one at this point:

    So - there are some misunderstandings among some replies here, but that's partly because I titled the post in a deliberately provocative way. 'Control' is clearly not some black and white property, like an on/off switch. It's obviously more of a gradated notion, a matter of degrees and the of more or less (more control, less control). But that's also precisely the point: to the degree that what we can control always 'shades off' and is mixed into what we can't, responsibility itself must always include a degree of that which we cannot control, by necessity. That's the crux: there's no sharp diving line where control ends (or begins, for that matter), which correspondingly implies that responsibility must involve what is not in our control, as a matter of conceptual necessity.

    Consider it like this: the alternative is solipsism (or at least a certain kind of solipsism). For the solipsist is neither responsible nor not responsible: 'In control' of everything that happens, the world of the solipsist is pure cause without effect: the solipsist coincides with the world and everything that happens in it (Witty: "The self of solipsism shrinks to a point without extension and there remains the reality co-ordinated with it"), and in such a situation both the very idea of responsibility or non-responsibility become meaningless. The solipsist does not act, at least, not in any way humanly recognizable: coinciding with the world and all that occurs in it, nothing that happens escapes or exceeds the solipsist: the solipsist is a theological figure, commensurate with the monotheistic God.

    But such is exactly the figure that humans are imagined to be when it isn't acknowledged that only when the act exceeds our control can we even count as being responsible for something. So the glib parodies of 'I was fully in control, therefore not responsible miss the point - there is no possible way you were fully in control to begin with, which is why you can even begin to count as responsible. The one who murders the other on purpose always has the effects of that action outrun any possible intent: only then could it even qualify as murder, let alone an action able to which responsibility could be imputed.



    This doesn't cover everything, but here's at least some extra fuel for the fire.
  • Terrapin Station
    13.8k
    I want to bring out a simple point about responsibility that I think is often missed: that we are responsible ONLY for what is NOT in our control. This may seem counter-intuitive, but becomes clear, I think, with any cursory investigation into what responsibility entails. The first way to approach the point is contra-positively: were the results of our actions wholly under our control, if we were able to master every last consequence of what we said and did, we would not need to be response-able for them: there would be no response required, no ability to be exercised as a result of what we have done. Responsibility enters precisely at the point at which our actions exceed us.StreetlightX

    That paragraph made nothing clearer. Writing "response-able" as if it would refer to the same thing as "responsible" is comical, too.

    Judith Butler, in her remarks on the concept of responsibility, puts it this way: “I cannot think the question of responsibility alone, in isolation from the other. If I do, I have taken myself out of the mode of address (being addressed as well as addressing the other) in which the problem of responsibility first emerges” (Butler, Giving An Account of Oneself). For as Butler notes, responsibility is ultimately relational: it is only in relation to another that one is responsible, accountable, for what one has said and done. There would be no ‘problem of responsibility’ without the relation to the other. But the other, as other, as an-other agency, is precisely what, or rather who, I am not in control of. It is in the face of the other that I am responsible, and the other is that who exceeds my mastery over things.StreetlightX

    So, I'd tell Ms. Butler that I can very well think about responsibility in isolation from others. It's weird that she can't. I could maybe help her be able to do this if she were here.

    Re "the problem of responsibility" as she's using it, she's using a subjective interpretation as if there would be something universal to it.

    You're not responsible for the reactions of other people unless we're talking about causality in the sense that I talk about it.

    Another way to approach the point is less through the notion of responsibility than its subject: action. We say that we are ‘responsible for our actions’: but ‘our’ actions never belong wholly to us, at least, not insofar as they make a change in the world, insofar as they have consequences that exceed me. Hannah Arendt, in her beautiful passages on action, puts the point thus:StreetlightX

    This conflates actions and consequences of them.

    “[The] consequences [of actions] are boundless, because action, though it may proceed from nowhere, so to speak, acts into a medium where every reaction becomes a chain reaction and where every process is the cause of new processes.StreetlightX

    Insofar as we're talking about other people, this would be denying that they have free will.
  • Pantagruel
    261
    if we were able to master every last consequence of what we said and did, we would not need to be response-able for them: there would be no response required, no ability to be exercised as a result of what we have done.StreetlightX

    Why does responsibility require a response? If A does x, then A is responsible for the consequences of x. Why does this description require further amplification? Whether or not we intended or foresaw all the consequences, the essence of the term responsibility is a causal attribution. Why do we need to go one step further?

    For as Butler notes, responsibility is ultimately relational: it is only in relation to another that one is responsible, accountable, for what one has said and done. There would be no ‘problem of responsibility’ without the relation to the other.StreetlightX

    Similarly, responsibility is not a 'problem,' it is a descriptive condition or attribute. A caused x (and all further consequences) ergo A is 'responsible.'
  • StreetlightX
    4.3k
    The essence of the term responsibility is a causal attribution.Pantagruel

    Not at all. We regularly distinguish between those (held) responsible for their actions and those not, if by means of age, mental capacity, or otherwise. Certainly we say that the sun is 'responsible for warming the stone, but this is an equivocation on the term, much in the way we say that he did a cartwheel in the backyard, without asking for his load-bearing capacity. Responsibility, in the ethical or even juridical sense that I am discussing here, is an imputation, not description (and even all descriptions are normative, but let's not go into that).
  • Pantagruel
    261
    Not at all. We regularly distinguish between those (held) responsible for their actions and those not, if by means of age, mental capacity, or otherwise.StreetlightX

    A person can have no idea of the consequences of his or her actions but still be "responsible" for those actions in the actual sense of having done something. It seems like what you are talking about is actually "accountability" not responsibility. Those are, I agree, two very different things.
  • StreetlightX
    4.3k
    It seems like what you are talking about is actually "accountability" not responsibility. Those are, I agree, two very different things.Pantagruel

    We can call it accountability instead if you prefer, and keep responsibility for causal attributions. In any case it's not the latter idea I'm concerned with. I'm not particularly fussed about the nomination here.
  • Pantagruel
    261
    Works for me. Then it becomes more of a social phenomenon. I'm still not clear on the reasoning behind being accountable for the unintended consequences of my actions. Is that because I was acting irresponsibly by engendering some result that I ought to have foreseen?
  • thewonder
    412

    Nothing is in our control StreetlightX. You give someone who is running late 5 dollars to catch the train and they trip, fall, and land smack dab in the middle of the M. Maybe you should have noticed. Ethics is like the Lacanian interpretation of God. You will never be free of the anxiety that it inspires.

    What I meant, though, is that you have assumed that we do, in point of fact, have responsibility. I agree, but I haven't quite gotten it out of my head that because you ultimately can't know what the right thing to do is that there is nothing to be responsible for.
  • StreetlightX
    4.3k
    I'm still not clear on the reasoning behind being accountable for the unintended consequences of my actions. Is that because I was acting irresponsibly by engendering some result that I ought to have foreseen?Pantagruel

    I wouldn't say that 'intention' is at stake here, or at least I don't think intention is coextensive with control. What I'm trying to argue for is rather that an internal relation exists between the concepts of action, accountability, and a certain incapacity ('lack of control)': that you cannot have one without the other, and that all three are a package deal, as it were. Or put otherwise: that the concept of responsibility cannot be made sense of in any coherent way without recognising that to be responsible (or 'accountable') commits us necessarily to that which inevitably exceeds our control, without which we would not be accountable at all.

    Or yet another way to put it: I'm not arguing that we should enlarge the extension of the concept of responsibility/accountability to 'include' what is not in our control; as if there are two distinct classes of things which I want to subsume under a larger class. Rather, I'm arguing that the very intension (not to be confused with 'intention'!) of the concept of accountability includes that which is not in our control.
  • Noah Te Stroete
    2.1k


    IOW, we need not be ultimately responsible for our actions in order to be morally culpable? If this is what you’re saying, then I agree. One may not be in control of one’s emotions that override the frontal lobe’s inhibiting influence, but no one but they are responsible for any negative actions taken.
  • Terrapin Station
    13.8k


    It seems like you're talking about concepts as if they're not something that individuals construct.
  • StreetlightX
    4.3k
    As are horseshoes, which are not made any which way.
  • StreetlightX
    4.3k
    IOW, we need not be ultimately responsible for our actions in order to be morally culpable?Noah Te Stroete

    Stronger than this: 'need not' implies an option. I'm saying this is a matter of principle, of necessity: we are only responsible to the degree that we are not 'ultimately' (?) in control of our actions. In yet other words: responsibility implies - necessarily - an exposure, on our part, to the accidental, to the unforeseen, and to the 'uncontrollable'. Without such an exposure or risk, it makes no sense to speak of responsibility (or 'accountability'). Without the element of risk inherent to action (without which an action would not be an action, but a mere mechanical process), responsibility cannot be attendant to the agent who engenders it.

    And you're probably best off ignoring Terrapin's sophistry.
  • Noah Te Stroete
    2.1k
    Stronger than this: 'need not' implies an option. I'm saying this is a matter of principle, of necessity: we are only responsible to the degree that we are not 'ultimately' (?) in control of our actions. In yet other words: responsibility implies an exposure, on our part, to the accidental, to the unforeseen, and to the 'uncontrollable'. Without such an exposure or risk, it makes no sense to speak of responsibility (or 'accountability'). Without the element of risk inherent to action (without which an action would not be an action, but a mere mechanical process), responsibility cannot be attendant to the agent who engenders it.StreetlightX

    This is quite a profound ontological claim. I’m sure you’re right, too. I agree with you even though I’ve never encountered such a claim as this. It’s kind of an “aha!” moment for me. :chin: :up:
  • Noah Te Stroete
    2.1k
    Without the element of risk inherent to action (without which an action would not be an action, but a mere mechanical process), responsibility cannot be attendant to the agent who engenders it.StreetlightX

    But maybe this is confusing the epistemic issue (risk or not knowing the unintended consequences of an action) with the metaphysical issue (whether actions are indeed mechanical or ‘information in, action out’)? I’m not sure now. I think moral responsibility is just a convenient framework that people use to place blame or give praise and separate people who are dangerous from those people we want in our community.
  • S
    11.8k
    It's more than counterintuitive: it's false and absurd, and obviously so. It's contrary to common sense. I am in no way responsible for something out of my control, for the obvious reason that there would be nothing within my power to do anything about it. If you were to hold me personally responsible for, say, it raining last Friday in Bulgaria, then I would probably laugh in your face, and that reaction would be entirely appropriate.

    Whatever next?
  • thewonder
    412

    Is Judith Butler "Ms." Butler? I think that you should refer to em as Mx. Butler. Granted, I am just using the Spivak pronouns as I don't know what Judith Butler prefers.

    Without the element of risk inherent to action (without which an action would not be an action, but a mere mechanical process), responsibility cannot be attendant to the agent who engenders itStreetlightX

    I like this notion. I agree, but will still contend that it remains to be proven that there is a responsibility that arises out of the element of risk in action.
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