Responsibility: German Perspectives

views updated


In the German philosophical tradition the concept of responsibility (Verantwortung) has been accorded special and extensive treatment, especially in relation to science and technology. The following introduction to this tradition begins with a description of responsibility as a relational construct and then distinguishes three basic levels of responsibility: action responsibility, role responsibility, and universal moral responsibility.

Basic Concept

The German word Verantwortung derives from the Middle High German and originally meant simply "to answer," probably in response to an accusative question such as "Did you do X?" The concept of responsibility is thus evaluative and attributive as well as descriptive. A person can be held (to be) responsible, which introduces the normative or ethical dimension into human experience.

The concept of responsibility implies a multidimensional structure linked to assignment, attribution, and imputation, in ways that may be analyzed and interpreted with respect to the following model:

  • Someone S (the subject or bearer of responsibility, which can be a person or a corporation)
  • is responsible for A (actions, consequences, situations, tasks)
  • to O (addressees or "objects" of responsibility)
  • under the supervision or judgment of J (some judging or sanctioning agent)
  • in relation to N (a prescriptive or normative criterion of attribution)
  • and accountable within context C (a sphere or realm of human activity).

For example, a person (S) is responsible to other motorists and pedestrians (O) for stopping at traffic lights (A) under the supervision of the police or courts (J) in relation to the traffic laws (N) when driving an automobile
(C). This makes responsibility a five- or six-place relation, although some of the relations may overlap. For instance, it is possible for an addressee (O) and supervisor (J) to be the same.

Following work in the development of attribution theory by the social psychologist Fritz Heider (1896–1988) and the social phenomenologist Alfred Schutz (1899–1959), it was the Polish logician I. M. Bochenski (1987 [1947]) who first defined responsibility in terms of the logic of relations. For Bochenski, however, responsibility was a two- or perhaps a three-place relation: Someone (S) is responsible for action (A) to another person (O).

As an attributive, relational construct, responsibility is also an interpretative concept with social functions. It can be expressed as an attributive, relational norm (controlling expectations regarding action and behavior). Responsibility further implies that a person
(S) must justify actions, action consequences, situations, tasks, and so forth (A) in front of an addressee (O) and before an agent (J) in respect to which the responsible party has obligations or duties in accordance with standards, criteria, or laws (N). Responsible parties are accountable for their own actions or under specified conditions for the actions of others. Parents, for example, are liable for certain behaviors of their children, and corporations for certain behaviors of their employees. (This tends to apply more to wrongdoings than to achievements.) The concept of responsibility thus structures social reality and social relations.

One may further differentiate between the typical bearers of responsibility in terms of active roles and observer roles. Specifically, one may impute or attribute a particular responsibility to oneself as an actor or to others from the multiple perspectives of a participant, observer, or scientist, in relation to general rules and norms. Particular cases of attribution instantiate general patterns of responsibility. The attribution of responsibility is an active process both in self-interpretation and in the interpretation of the actions of others. The concept of responsibility is thus implicated in self-understandings and projections of ideals for social order.

Types and Levels of Responsibility

Types of responsibility occur at three basic levels: individual actions, social roles, and universal moral principles. Such distinctions are justified by appeal to "ideal typ(ic)al" prevalence, similar but not identical to Max Weber's Idealtypen or ideal types. In what follows, diagrammatic schema are used to condense and illustrate hierarchical models of different types of responsibility, with different levels or strata referring to different dimensions of interpretation. The first diagram is more abstract and calls for more interpretative constructs, such as particular kinds of responsibilities, than the others.

QUALIFICATIONS. In general, the three levels are constituted by analytic and perspectival constructs that may overlap and all apply (although in different ways) to a single real case of responsibility. That is, concrete instances of responsibility attribution may be analyzed not only on a formal or abstract level (as illustrated in the first diagram) but also from a more concrete point of view (as with role or moral responsibility). Although usually any one analysis on a specific level is tied to a certain interpretation (e.g., some particular role), this does not preclude another interpretation (from, say, the moral point of view).

Within the different levels of these schematic constructs are further analytic constructs that are also able to be attributed to individuals or groups. Even in their more concrete forms, constructs are to be understood as analytic distinctions. That is, collective or group responsibility seldom precludes individual or personal responsibility, although collective responsibility cannot be reduced to or derived from individual or personal responsibility alone. The same applies to institutional responsibility. Moreover, there are conceptual connections or analytic relations between some juxtaposed or subordinated subtypes.

ACTION RESPONSIBILITY. The most obvious and general level of responsibility is that which involves being responsible for the results or consequences of one's own actions. This may be termed the prototyp(ic)al case of (causally oriented) action responsibility. A subject is held responsible for the outcomes of his or her actions in an instance for which he or she is accountable. An engineer designing a bridge or a dam is responsible to the supervisor, employer, client, and/or general public for his or her design in terms of technical correctness, safety, cost, feasibility, and more. A scientist is not responsible for the outcome of an experiment or research project but is responsible for the conduct of the research and the reporting of its results.

Frequently, accountability questions are raised in negative cases, when one or more of these criteria are not fulfilled. The breaking of a dam may be the result of such factors as honest mistakes in statics or dynamics analyses; careless, negligent, or even criminal misconduct; incompetence; and the use of substandard materials. The need to withdraw or revise technical reports in science may likewise be attributable to honest mistakes or malfeasance. In any particular case it is important to identify the particular negative action responsibility. Professional scientists and engineers have responsibilities to the public to ensure high standards in their work, to avoid risks of disasters insofar as this is compatible with reasonable costs, and to report results fully and completely without fabricating or falsifying data. The responsibility to avoid mistakes, failures, and poor quality products, processes, systems, and so on is part and parcel of action responsibility. Different types of action responsibility are shown in Figure 1.

The most commonly discussed cases of action responsibility are individual action responsibility. But if a group is acting collectively or if individuals participate in joint group action, then what may be called coresponsibility arises as a distinctive phenomenon. Coresponsibility is the sharing of responsibility by participating members in a group action. Responsibility for group actions is also sometimes called collective or group responsibility, and the circumstances in which this can be legitimately attributed to groups—especially large ones such as a nation-state or ethnic classification—are highly contentious. Mostly such attributions are rejected or justified only under very special cases on the grounds that groups should not be punished (or rewarded) for the actions of individuals. In practice, however, such punishments are quite common (as in warfare where they may be apologized for as "collateral damage").

ROLE RESPONSIBILITY. A second level of responsibility is constituted by role and universal moral responsibility. In accepting a role or fulfilling a task (e.g., by taking on a well-defined job) a role holder usually bears some responsibility for acceptable or optimal role fulfillment. Role responsibility is not opposed to or fundamentally different than individual action responsibility, but manifests action responsibility at a level other than that of human action as such. Indeed, as the examples already cited in discussing action responsibility indicate, most of these roles will entail individual action responsibilities, or can be thought of as constituting particular instances of individual action responsibility.

These roles or duties might be assigned in a formal way or be more or less informal. They can even be legally ascribed or at least legally relevant. Different types of roles and responsibilities, including legal responsibilities, are presented in diagrammatic form in Figure 2.

In corporate or institutional settings, role patterns include leadership responsibility (with respect to external and internal instances, addressees, and agents) as a special form of associated institutional role responsibility. In addition, there is the corporate responsibility of firms, corporations, or other social institutions such as government agencies and even nongovernmental organizations insofar as these have special tasks to perform or obligations to fulfill with respect to clients, the public, or members of the organization or corporation. This type of responsibility can also have a legal, moral, or neutral character, which may or may not coincide with group or institutional responsibility.

Other examples of role responsibility that deserve explicit mention include not only legal responsibility but also pedagogical responsibility, religious responsibility, political (citizen) responsibility, and more. In an advanced scientific and technological society one might also speak of consumer responsibility.

UNIVERSAL MORAL RESPONSIBILITY. Universal moral responsibility provides a different specification for the functioning of individual action responsibility than that associated with role responsibility. Not all action responsibility and role responsibility is specifically moral in character or moral to the same degree. To have a responsibility to be on time for an appointment because of a particular role has more an efficiency than a moral character; it is a responsibility that keeps some particular organizational system functioning more smoothly than would otherwise be the case.

Action responsibility and role responsibility take on a specifically moral character when an agent's actions and the results of those actions are directed toward persons or living beings (including even the agent) whose well-being is directly affected by the agent's activity. With regard to others such affects can be direct or indirect, can be defined by contractual or formal duties, and can inhere in institutions or corporations. By way of diagrammatic summary, see Figure 3.

For Hans Jonas (1984) universal moral responsibility can become pronounced with regard to the uses of technology that have the potential for environmental or human destruction such as nuclear weapons or genetic engineering. Caring responsibility is not only role related (with different kinds of scientists or engineers exhibiting it in different degrees) but also general for those who inhabit a highly scientific and technological society—that is, those who promote and benefit from advanced scientific and technological activities. According to Jonas's argument, members of a scientific and technological society, by virtue of participating in such a society, and because of the tremendous potential for intentional and nonintentional destruction present in the society, become responsible for ensuring the well-being of all persons and other living beings affected by their specific actions in the form of a general and permanent obligation.

A few more restricted observations on various types of universal moral responsibility related especially to science and technology are as follows:

  • The remote consequences of an agent's activity—possibly combined with the impacts of other people's commissions or omissions—may create an indirect moral (co-) responsibility. For instance, neglecting a safety check or wrongly certifying the airworthiness of an airplane could contribute to loss of life when coupled with a less than expert pilot or other crew member.
  • Corporate moral responsibility frequently coincides with, but need not be identical to, the moral coresponsibility of members of a decision-making board. Therefore corporate moral responsibility is not to be analytically confused with the moral coresponsibility of group members partaking in a collective action or decision-making process. (Questions of responsibility distribution are increasingly important in assessing responsibility in the virtual environments created by computers and information systems, where teams of programmers have created web-based utilities in which people differentially interact to produce multiple types of products.)
  • To abide by the ethics code of a professional society is a combination of indirect responsibilities. As such it is certainly a moral obligation. Thus beside immediate action- or impact-oriented responsibilities, scientists and especially engineers take on, through their professions, higher-level moral responsibilities to fulfill contractual or role duties and promises and to live up to the ethical standards of their professional organizations, not to infringe established laws, and more, inasmuch as the fulfillment of a task, contract, or role does not contradict another overriding moral norm or right. In engineering ethics codes the responsibility to protect public safety, health, and welfare has (since World War II) increasingly been considered paramount.

General Commentary

The previous review aims to summarize in somewhat schematic or outline form the consensus of an extended tradition of critical reflection on responsibility in the German philosophical traditions. These traditions run at least from Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (theodicy) through Immanuel Kant (categorical responsibility) and
G. W. F. Hegel (idealist responsibility) and Karl Marx (economic responsibility) to the phenomenological tradition (Edmund Husserl through Martin Heidegger to Schutz) and critical social theory versus systems theory (Jürgen Habermas versus Niklas Luhmann). Since World War II, discussions within the Verein Deutscher Ingenieure (Society of German Engineers) have been especially concerned with conceptualizing responsibility in relation to science and technology. The 2002 "Fundamentals of Engineering Ethics" highlights the topic of responsibility in its first major paragraph. The most general discussion of responsibility in this context has occurred in the work of such philosophers as Karl Jaspers, Günther Anders, and Hans Jonas—drawing attention to new moral responsibilities engendered by nuclear weapons, environmental pollution, and genetic engineering. Hans Lenk and Matthias Maring have since the 1980s worked to synthesize the many achievements within these traditions.

One of the important notes to emphasize about this schematic synthesis is that there exists a differentiated interplay among the identified levels and types of responsibilities, universal moral obligations being but one case. Moral responsibility may be activated by a special type of action and in connection with a special role, but its key characteristic is universality. Moral responsibility as such is not peculiar to a specific person or role but applies to everyone in a similar situation or role. Moral responsibility is nevertheless individualized in the sense that it cannot be delegated, substituted, displaced, replaced, or off-loaded by the respective person, corporation, or organization. Neither can it be diminished, divided, dissolved, or done away with by being shared by a number of people. Moral responsibility is both irreplaceable and unable to be diminished.

With regard to conflicts between different responsibilities or types, priority rules have been developed for adjudicating, regulating, or at least mitigating conflicts and for combining different responsibilities when they are present at the same time. In the last analysis, the presence of a situation- and context-dependent responsibility under the auspices of practical (concrete) humanity should, from the moral point of view, prevail or override any partial and nonmoral responsibility. That is, human rights trump role responsibility rights. One of the challenges of a technoscientific society is to explore ways in which such a priority can be operationalized in and through scientific and technological developments, not just among technical professionals but in society as a whole.


SEE ALSO Technology Assessment in Germany and Other European Countries.


Über einige strukturelle Probleme der Verantwortung." In Über den Sinn des Lebens und über die Philosophie, ed. J. M. Bochenski. Freiburg, Basel, Vienna: Herder.

French, Peter A. (1984). Collective and Corporate Responsibility. New York: Columbia University Press.

Jonas, Hans. (1984). The Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age, trans. Hans Jonas and David Herr. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lenk, Hans. (1982). Zur Sozialphilosophie der Technik [Toward a social philosophy of technology]. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.

Lenk, Hans. (1987). "Ethikkodizes für Ingenieure" [Codes of ethics for engineers]. In Technik und Ethik [Technology and ethics], ed. Hans Lenk and Günter Ropohl. Stuttgart: Reclam.

Lenk, Hans. (1992). Zwischen Wissenschaft und Ethik [Between science and ethics]. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.

Lenk, Hans. (1994). Macht und Machbarkeit der Technik [Power and feasibility of technology]. Stuttgart: Reclam.

Lenk, Hans. (1998). Konkrete Humanität: Vorlesungen über Verantwortung und Menschlichkeit [Concrete humanity: Lecture on responsibility and humanity]. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.

Lenk, Hans. (2003). "Responsibility for Safety and Risk Minimization: Outline of an Attribution-Based Approach Regarding Modern Technological and Societal Systems." Human Factors and Ergonomics in Manufacturing 13(3): 203–222.

Lenk, Hans, and Matthias Maring. (2001). "Responsibility and Technology." In Responsibility: The Many Faces of a Social Phenomenon, ed. Ann Elisabeth Auhagen and Hans-Werner Bierhoff. London: Routledge.

Lenk, Hans, and Günter Ropohl, eds. (1987). Technik und Ethik [Technology and ethics]. Stuttgart: Reclam. 2nd edition, 1993.

Schutz, Alfred. (1967). The Phenomenology of the Social World, trans. George Walsh and Frederick Lehnert. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

Werhane, Patricia H. (1985). Persons, Rights, and Corporations. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.