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Amazing Fantasy #15 by Steve Ditko and Stan Lee, August 1962

Amazing Fantasy #15 by Steve Ditko and Stan Lee, August 1962 (image source) ©

Thinking about the concept of responsibility lately (I wrote about it here), I found myself wondering why it seems nowadays to be so intimately related to the concept of fault (and guilt). In a very broad legal understanding of it, a fault is a responsibility for something bad. “It’s your fault” means “You will have to respond of this unwanted event”. Basically, the two appears to be tangled up from a legal perspective. In fact, to be more precise, the relationship between fault and responsibility seems to be broadly understood from a legal perspective, whereas the relationship between guilt and responsability seems to be studied mainly from a clinical/psychological perspective (a quick search on Google supports this impression: fault, guilt).
Maybe this could be explained by the recent (let’s say the second half of the twentieth century) multiplication of legal pursuits corollary to the constant hunt, these days, for “the responsible” each and every time something bad happens. One accustom to modern work spaces will most probably be familiar with this phenomenon: as soon as there is a problem, everyone start looking for a scapegoat. The important thing being: it must be someone else. “Who’s fault is it?” “It’s not me, I’m not the one responsible. The other department is responsible for this.”
While this is a very common phenomenon, it’s also disturbing for (at least) two reasons. For one, when we were younger, this situation was quite different. Even if most of us didn’t really care about responsibility (that is the capacity to give a response), we were anxiously longing for the powers that come with it. We couldn’t wait to be responsible in order to be enabled, to have the means, the capacity to do stuff: stay up late at night, baby-sit ourselves, play with daddy’s tool, drive the car, drink beers. We couldn’t stand being told that we weren’t: “Can I borrow the car?” “No, you’re not responsible enough”. (Harry C. Meserve made a similar observation in the editorial he wrote of an issue the Journal of Religion and Health dedicated to the concept of responsibility).
The first installment of the Spider Man cinematographic trilogy popularized the following idea: “With great power there must also come — great responsibility!”. From this perspective, responsibility is most likely perceived as a burden. In our youth however, we may have perceived it the other way around, as an opportunity to do stuff: “With great responsibilities come great powers”.
For a reason or another, as he or she climbs the steps of adulthood, one loses such a view, along with his appetite for taking responsibility. Sure, we’d love to be handed great power. We’d love to change the world. But who’s ready to accept great responsibilities (we’re not all super heroes)? We’d love to accept responsibilities for good things, after the fact. But who wishes to risk being responsible for something bad? Yet problems also need to be accounted for.
The other interesting aspect has been dully studied by many authors. Among them Günther Anders –once Hannah Arendt’s husband– was one of the first to noticed the quite frightening discrepancy between the ever increasing technological power developed by human beings and the shrinking capacity to feel responsible. Responsible for what? Responsible for what’s happening with the world, for the effects associated with the use of those technologies (in a broad sense). Anders argument is that we lost the capacity to feel responsible when we lost the ability to think, to fully grasp the impact of our technological power. The atomic bomb and the Holocaust are two examples of this incapacity: I cannot, as an individual, clearly represent to myself the full scale of those catastrophic events. Yet, the species to which I belong produced them.
Anders argument about the concept of responsibility appears in a short book he wrote in 1964, Wir Eichmannsöhne: Offener Brief an Klaus Eichmann (translated to English under the name We Sons of Eichmann: Open Letter to Klaus Eichmann). There isn’t any English preview of this book online. However, one can find many informations about Günther Anders life and work on a website maintained by Herbert Marcuse’s grandson, Harold Marcuse. Below are further resources available online about the concept of responsibility.

  • About the relationship between fault, guilt and responsibility, see Friedrich Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals, the second essay: “Guilt, Bad Conscience, and Related Matters”. With Nietzsche, one understands that there is a big difference between being made responsible and taking responsibility. With the latest view in mind, Nietzsche saw the philosopher “as the man of the greatest responsibility” (Beyond Good and Evil, ch. III, §61).
  • From Hegel’s The Philosophical Propadeutic (1808-1811), in its “Introduction”, §8:

    The Will has Moral Responsibility [Schuld] in so far as (a) its determination is made its own solely from its own self, or by its resolve: i.e. [in so far as] the Ego wills it, and (b) it is conscious of the determinations which are produced through its act as they lie in its resolve or are necessarily and immediately involved in its consequences.

  • Emmanuel Levinas wrote about the “responsibility for the other” in his book Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence (originally published in French in 1974). Google Books offers a some preview of the part of the book where he specifically addressed this problem. In 1981, he discussed his idea with French philosopher and historian Philippe Nemo. The exchange was published in French the next year, and translated in English in 1985 under the title Ethics and Infinity.
  • Hans Jonas’ wrote about the concept of responsibility in relation to the development of modern technology in his book The Imperative of Responsibility, first published in German in 1979 (Google Books has a preview of the English translation).
  • Hannah Arendt’s Responsibility and Judgment (2003) is a collection of previously unpublished “articles and essays taken from class and public lectures” written in the last decade of her life. It is an attempt on her part to offer further explanation about her controversial book Eichmann in Jerusalem. Previews are available over at Google books.
  • To go along Arendt’s book: “Hannah Arendt’s Concept of Responsibility” by Dr. Annabel Herzog (Studies in Social and Political Thought, 10, 2004, pp. 39-52, PDF).
  • Jacques Derrida also wrote about the concept of responsibility in his book The Gift of Death (first published in French in 1992). Previews are available over at Google Books.
  • In French only (I think) a very interesting discussion between Jacques Derrida and Jean-Luc Nancy titled “Responsabilité — Du sens à venir” (first published in Sens en tous sens. Autour des travaux de Jean-Luc Nancy, Galilée, Paris, 2004).
  • In her book Giving An Account of Oneself (2005) Judith Butler discusses both Emmanuel Levinas’ and Jean Laplanche’s (see below) views on the concept of responsibility. See part 3: “Responsibility”. Google Books offers some preview on this book.
  • See also Fables of responsibility: aberrations and predicaments in ethics and politics by Thomas Keenan (Stanford University Press, 1997):

    This book offers an analysis of the ways a linked set of ethico-political concepts—responsibility, rights, freedom, equality, and justice—might be re-thought, not simply jettisoned or reactively defended, in view of the linguistic deconstruction of their underlying principle, the individual human subject (Google Books).

  • The most recent book published on the subject is The Origins of Responsability by François Raffoul (2010):

    François Raffoul approaches the concept of responsibility in a manner that is distinct from its traditional interpretation as accountability of the willful subject. Exploring responsibility in the works of Nietzsche, Sartre, Levinas, Heidegger, and Derrida, Raffoul identifies decisive moments in the development of the concept, retrieves its origins, and explores new reflections on it. For Raffoul, responsibility is less about a sovereign subject establishing a sphere of power and control, than about exposure to an event that does not come from us and yet calls to us. (Google Books).

  • For an etymological inquiry about the word “responsability” see “Interpretations of Responsibility and Responsibilities of Interpretation” by Karlheinz Stierle (New Literary History, vol. 25, no. 4, 25th Anniversary Issue (Part 2), Autumn, 1994, pp. 853-867).
  • For a theological approach see the article “Responsibility as Response: Biblical-Theological Remarks on the Concept of Responsibility” by Dr. Johannes von Lüpke (Studies in Christian Ethics, November 2009, vol. 22, no. 4, 461-471).

Not online but worth mentioning (there are a couple more listed on the blog of a French political philosophy professor teaching at the Université de Grenoble 2, Thierry Ménissier):

  • Jean Laplanche is a French author, theorist and psychoanalyst. In 1994 he wrote an article titled “Responsabilité et réponse” (in Psychanalyse à l’Université, vol. 19, no76, pp. 23-39). It’s a psychoanalytic study heavily relying on the function of the “response” associated with the concept of “responsability”.
  • Two articles in French about the origin of the word “responsabilité”: Michel Villey’s “Esquisse historique sur le mot responsable” and Jacques Henriot’s “Note sur la date et le sens de l’apparition du mot responsabilité” both published in Archives de Philosophie du Droit, vol. 22, 1977, pp. 45-58 et 58-62. Jacques Henriot is also the author of the article “Responsabilité” in the Encyclopaedia Universalis (subscription required).
  • Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, fourth part, ch. III : “Freedom and Responsibility”.
  • Paul Ricoeur’s “The Concept of Responsability. An essay in semantic analysis” in his book The Just (first published in French in 1995 under the title Le Juste, tr. into English by David Pellauer in 2000).
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