☛ 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.
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.
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).
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).
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):
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