No question about it: responsibility is a burden. It reins in our freedom and threatens our pleasant sense of innocence. On the face of it, responsibility is anything but desirable. We are tempted to wriggle out of it: that’s not my fault or my department or my problem. At the same time, responsibility gives us a sense of worth, gravity and seriousness. In community, we depend upon others to shoulder the responsibility that is proper to each. But how do we know what that is?
Responsibility is one of those curious “re-” words that seem to point back to something prior, something with priority, something to be returned to, recollected or renewed. Its Latin root, spondere, means “to pledge”. What is the pledge that responsibility keeps faith with?
The most straightforward responsibility comes with the various roles we play. As a (whatever), certain things are expected of me. I should know what these are and when I assume the position, I accept liability for them as my responsibility or duty. Just like anyone else would.
Moving, as it were, from contract to criminal law, I am also responsible for the consequences of my intentional acts. This responsibility is both more personal and more uncertain, for reasons of both causality and intentionality. Is this effect really the result of that act (or failure to act) of mine? And did I mean well? We all know which road that paves! But when I decline to hide behind childish excuses and evasions (I didn’t do it and if I did it was an accident!), when I freely step up to accept my responsibility, this indicates a more solemn pledge of oneself as an individual agent and it returns a greater sense of personal meaning.
Another source of responsibility seems to lie still closer, in the very workings of consciousness, as if consciousness and conscience coincided. It arises, for instance, when the recognition of an injustice or an awareness of suffering seems to concern and even implicate me. Even when this is evidently none of my doing and not in my job description: how can I turn away without fault? It is as if the scope of my responsibility is not limited to – and even exceeds without limitation – every pledge I have ever made. And yet, to freely accept this obligation and responsibility somehow returns me to myself, in a recollection or renewal. A true re-spondere. (It’s very strange.)
Three roots of our subjectivity – identification, conduct and conscience – generate three types of responsibility: call them, if you like, liability, culpability and answerability. In life, these are often “mixed up” (both combined and confused) with each other, but they’re worth thinking about. Not least because the responsibilities that are easiest to identify and evaluate are not necessarily the most important ones. Or because those that are the most difficult to teach (if they can be taught at all), are likely the most important.