Samples from Chapter 17: Responsibility


"Who Is To Blame?"

Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it.
George Bernard Shaw

Assumptions about responsibility are centrally important in analyzing disputes. This chapter explains why. Because such assumptions often are only implied, it also explains how to detect them.

Who should be blamed or praised? Who most deserves help? To what extent is anyone responsible for what they do? Are personal choices subtly shaped by factors beyond individual control? Despite much scientific research and even more philosophical speculation, these still are open questions. Nevertheless, many arguments hinge on assumptions about personal freedom and responsibility.

Why Assumptions About Responsibility Are Important

The concept of "responsibility" figures into disputes as issues of guilt, fault and blame or who deserves credit, reward or help. These matters are centrally involved in many controversial issues. Consider the present welfare debate. On one side are those who argue that much of the blame for the present situation rests with individuals who prefer indolence to a job, provided the welfare check arrives regularly. The other side responds that unemployment has more to do with massive changes in the economy that have resulted in there not being enough jobs to go around. The first argument focuses fault and blame on individuals; the second points to issues individuals cannot control. Both arguments hinge on assumptions about responsibility.

"Unto whosoever much is given, of him shall much be required."
Bible, Luke 12:48

Under what conditions is an individual ordinarily thought to be personally responsible? Generally, only when he or she is believed to have:

1) done it or brought something about and

2) done it or brought it about freely. and deliberately

But there is extensive disagreement concerning how "free" and "deliberate" human behavior really is. Let's briefly review various opinions.

Some maintain that human behavior is so hemmed in by biological and social restrictions that responsibility and blame are severely limited. A few even argue that such restrictions totally eliminate personal freedom and responsibility. In this extreme view nature and/or nurture rules us, taking us totally beyond responsibility.

A more moderate view asserts that people can, in fact, freely choose the course of their lives; but only if their basic needs for things like love, acceptance, security and nourishment have been at least minimally met. In this perspective the only people who are fully responsible are those who have fully satisfied these deficiency needs.

Finally there are those who argue that, barring abnormalities, human behavior is entirely the consequence of individual choices. From this point of view all normal human being are fully and personally responsible for who they are and how they behave.

These differing opinions are graphically represented on a continuum below.

Once again, why is any of this relevant to analyzing disputes? Because many disagreements explicitly, or by inference, involve laying blame, assigning rewards, deciding who deserves help or who deserves praise, and so forth. These matters, in turn, hinge on explicit or implied assumptions about freedom and responsibility.

Now let's move on to applying this to dispute analysis..

Step 1) Determine if the dispute involves assumptions about responsibility

Disputants seldom announce their assumptions about responsibility. (Indeed, they may be blissfully unaware of making any.) Their suppositions are commonly buried in other rhetoric. Nevertheless, such assumptions are present if the dispute involves:

       who, or what, deserves blame

       who merits praise or reward

       who deserves help or assistance

So in analyzing any dispute ask, "are such issues involved?" For additional clues look for judgmental terms like "should," or "ought." They generally indicate that a dispute involves assumptions about freedom and responsibility.

Consider the present heated debate about whether or not to eliminate government aid to unwed mothers and their babies. One side argues that such aid encourages irresponsibility and welfare dependency. Their adversaries claim eliminating this aid is heartless and stupid. Both are making assumptions about freedom and responsibility. How can we know that? Because the conflict is about who, or what, is to blame when...