Philosophy Hurts Your Head

The blog of a cranky Philosophy PhD Student from Newcastle, Australia.

Where is responsibility?

Posted by Sam D on April 26, 2006

Responsibility: Liberal society is predicated on the existence of responsibility. A few weeks ago on Today Tonight, I saw a youth in trouble because he had racked up massive debt. His mother complained that there should be restrictions on how much people can spend if they don’t earn much (he was on about $18,000 AUD per year). If we really thought he was responsible, we would not have this conversation. This is why metaphysics and the philosophies surrounding Mind, Free Will and the like are so important, much more so than some ethicists would have us believe. Because the metaphysics that allowed us to believe in personal responsibility has evaporated, our ethical systems have foundered. We have only a few choices.

1. Craft a new system of ethics that does not rely on responsibility. This has turned out to be a little harder than we thought. It might resemble physics, or it might not. However some might argue that an Ethics that resembles what we understand Physics to be is no Ethics at all.

2. Find a way to get responsibility back into the picture. (This seems very, very hard.)

Overall it is option 2. that I would like to see acted upon. I am very suspicious of treating ethics like physics, as this could lead to people being viewed as particles, devoid of personal responsibility. This might not be a bad thing in some ways but I worry that it might lead to a situation that is untenable. Treating people as if they are not responsible seems to make them unhappy. It involves choices that are enjoyable, legitimate or both being taken away from people. More specifically this involves only certain kinds of changes being made. For example: too much, or even any X is damaging. Do we change the situation so that X can be used without as many negative effects, or provide alternatives that are less damaging? No, we restrict the availability of X and produce a new disciplinary discourse in the process. This general pattern is my concern. This “responsibility doesn’t exist/determinist” strategy is not deployed in a way that actually helps either the meta-ethical problem at hand, or the quality of life of the people involved. It is deployed in order to achieve and consolidate certain socio-political agendas, almost always conservative in flavour. In the current political environment in Australia (small ‘l’) liberalism is used to justify free market economics, but not freedom to marry a person of the same sex. Similarly, the denial of responsibility will be used to justify the restriction of liberties, but not the fact that we can’t help but strive for these same ends.

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