We feel responsible for our children, without usually needing to be held responsible (picture -Wikimedia)

Responsibility: What we Feel, not What we’re Held to

Do we hold people responsible, without feeling responsible? Social media storms, political campaigns, and organizational disputes often focus our attention on holding others to what we see as their responsibilities. Perhaps we think they have been negligent or incompetent, or even broken the law — and that is fair enough if we have evidence of it. We may also feel that we have to take responsibility for what society allots us: our job or our children, for instance. We may feel guilty when these go wrong. But all of this can divert us from the responsibility that we actually feel, and the way this lies at the heart of any moral development that we may actually experience as embodied human beings. I want to argue that we too often neglect feeling responsible and focus far too relentlessly on holding ourselves or others responsible.

Feeling responsible is an emotional state in which we identify with a particular situation and thus are concerned about it. If I take responsibility for myself and my future development, I think about things like my health, my relationships, and my mental states and am prepared to put time and effort into doing things to improve these. Similarly, if I take responsibility for my children, or my friends, or the political situation in my country, I am prepared to give these things effort, resources, time and reflection. It doesn’t particularly matter where this feeling of responsibility arises from (for example, whether it is innate, or socialised from infancy, or a result of deeper inspirations). The situation is that I feel such responsibility — and probably you do too — though how much and about what may vary between us.

When we feel responsibility, that’s a genuine practical basis for developing it further. Let’s take the example of a woman who’s immersed in the challenging responsibilities of caring for children and doing a job. Responsibility for that may emerge in a fully embodied, immediate way from biological drives (say, to look after our children), or by a deeply-felt sense of duty instilled in us from childhood by our parents or society. She may feel fully stretched by that situation and have no energy left for, say politics. However, a connection between her current sense of felt responsibility and something in the political area (say, a threat to the quality of education in her children’s school from the local government) may be all that is required to extend that sense of responsibility into the political arena. Maybe she then becomes a committed local campaigner.

That example may seem obvious, but the problem seems to be that people don’t habitually think about the responsibility that people actually feel when they think about moral responsibility. Instead, they think in terms of holding people responsible.

Holding people responsible is a necessary legal and social mechanism, so I’m not suggesting that we should cease to do so. However, we tend to let that way of thinking take over, because it is easier to think in the absolute terms of law and social rules rather than to try to get to grips we the complexity and variability of how people actually feel. Thus, a political campaigner approaching the woman in the example before she got interested in politics might just urge that it was her duty to get involved in politics as a citizen, because there are so many pressing issues in the world, and get a blank stare back in response — actually she’s thinking about her children.

We are constantly bombarded with such urgings from media and social media, and for the most part people switch off in response. Their sense of felt responsibility has not been engaged just by being held responsible. Even someone convicted of a criminal offence may still not feel responsible for it. So, although there need to be social and legal mechanisms that hold people responsible, that’s not what ethical responsibility is about. Instead, I’d argue, feeling responsible is what ethics is all about. Without felt responsibility, ethics is just an institutionalized failure — going through the motions.

That doesn’t mean that being ethical is just about feeling what you’d feel anyway and doing what you’d do anyway. Reflection and effort can have a role, and we can experience them making a difference, but that doesn’t mean we should idealize them. Instead, I think the term stretch is a very helpful one for understanding the nature of moral responsibility. We start off with an embodied situation, including habitual feelings of responsibility, and we can stretch these just a little way at a time, just as we might stretch our bodies further when doing yoga. Believing that we can take responsibility for the whole world is self deceptive, but inch by inch we can extend what we feel responsibility for.

I think this way of thinking about moral responsibility has huge advantages. It is realistic but also normative — making sense of should and ought in a universal way, but not an idealized one. It closes the gulf between psychology and moral philosophy, between what we’re actually motivated to do and what idealizing moral thinkers have kept telling us we ought to do. No, I can’t sell all my goods and give them to the poor as Jesus urged the young man — that isn’t psychologically realistic, but I can stretch my identifications bit by bit so as to care more about the poor, and about justice in society.

This stretch is an important aspect of the Middle Way as I understand it. It starts with our current situation, and works with the tension between that starting point and our ideals about where we’d like to be. If you don’t take your actual starting point fully into account, then your moral ideals just become an impractical fantasy — and worse still probably a source of rationalization, deception, and hypocrisy. Through practice of all kinds — such as mindfulness, the arts, and critical thinking — we can help develop our capacity for responsibility in a way that actually makes us more morally capable in the long run. To take ethics seriously, we need to start where we are.

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For more about a Middle Way approach to responsibility, see this video on Youtube. For more about the Middle Way in general, please see the Middle Way Society website, and my books.

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Multi-disciplinary practical philosopher. Author of around 20 books on Middle Way Philosophy and founder of the Middle Way Society

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Robert M. Ellis

Robert M. Ellis

Multi-disciplinary practical philosopher. Author of around 20 books on Middle Way Philosophy and founder of the Middle Way Society

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