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Responsibility has emerged as a central ethical category, directing attention to human beings as moral actors. It highlights the importance for ethical understanding of self-conscious moral commitments, discretion in moral judgment, personal strengths necessary to effective action, a wise use of the power and authority of societal offices, and accountability to oneself and to fellow human beings, perhaps also to God, for moral judgment and action. Discussions of responsibility do not displace systematic treatments of moral principles, laws, and rules; neither do they set aside critical studies of values worthy of promotion in human affairs. They recast these inquiries in terms of the personal lives and social roles of human beings.

Themes associated with responsibility have long been prominent in philosophical and religious discourse, though in different conceptual forms. Especially important are accounts of the moral and intellectual virtues, of moral character, and of the obedient or resolute wills of the upright (Aristotle; Aquinas; Calvin; Kant; cf. Cohen). Also relevant are themes elaborated in conceptions of moral law, including natural law; in notions of the orders of nature or creation; in interpretations of divine commandments and ordinances; and in treatments of God's covenant with Israel, or of the Christian idea of a new covenant in Jesus Christ (Aristotle; Aquinas; Brunner; Häring). Contemporary accounts of responsibility weave these classic themes together in ways that take account of modern social realities, and that utilize theories of action provided by the human sciences.

In regard to modern realities, the concept of responsibility corresponds to social complexity, which routinely generates problems with more features than any system of moral rules can encompass. It fits well with advanced technologies and high levels of specialization, where expert knowledge and skill are indispensable to moral judgment. Responsibility takes account of open spaces within democratic and free-market settings for individuals and groups to follow independent initiatives in the pursuit of cherished social goals. It accords with modern social theory, which conceives of social institutions—the state, business enterprises, special-interest associations, even families and religious bodies—as the constructions of autonomous individuals contracting for mutual advantage. Finally, responsibility can accommodate reflections on the moral ambiguities of the social and organizational contexts that structure human activity. In respect to each of these characteristics, themes relating to responsibility take on considerable importance.

The concept of responsibility enjoys prominence, then, because it can draw together a wide range of ethical ideas in a fashion pertinent to contemporary social existence. For some thinkers it serves as the unifying principle of a comprehensive ethical theory (cf. Niebuhr; Jonsen). Responsibility virtually becomes the first principle of ethics, so that the admonition "Be responsible!" conveys all that needs to be said about the moral life (Jonsen; cf. Glatzer). The theoretical task is to unfold the dimensions of responsibility in their bearing on personal and social processes.

The dimensions of responsibility appear both in the personal lives of individuals and in the roles, positions, and offices that order social institutions. All of these dimensions may not be explicit in a particular ethical theory, though most enter into discussion at some point. For religious thinkers, responsibility includes relationship to God, which uncovers a theological basis for ethical understanding.


At the most elementary level, responsible persons are those who recognize and carry out their duties. Duties define the moral requisites of human social existence: what we normally must do, no matter what else we might hope to accomplish, and what we normally may not do, regardless of our larger objectives. Moral duties can be qualified or set aside only when exceptional steps are necessary to secure the values they are designed to protect. Thus, medical procedures normally may not be performed without a patient's informed consent, even if the patient's life is at risk. However, in a medical emergency, they may be performed without consent, provided the patient is unable to respond and there is no one present with authority to decide on his or her behalf.

Duties are formulated as laws, regulations, and rules, perhaps in conjunction with underlying moral principles. Responsible persons abide by moral principles in their personal lives. They pay special attention to principles and rules linked to their social roles: parent, spouse, physician, research scientist, junior executive at a medical center, senator. They support collective efforts to uphold moral standards that order human activities in institutional contexts (cf. Beauchamp and Childress). For those who are religious, moral duties may derive their ultimate authority from divine purposes.


Within the constraints of moral principles and rules, responsibility consists in the reliable performance of assumed or assigned tasks. We may speak of our tasks as our responsibilities. Responsible persons know what needs to be done, they appreciate its significance, they proceed on their own, they get the job done, and they do it well (Jonsen).

Some tasks are broad and open-ended: sustaining a good marriage; bearing and nurturing children; promoting the public good as a citizen, public servant, or professional. Others are specialized, such as the practice of pediatric medicine. Some may be narrowly focused, for example, the execution of insurance claims. Even specialized tasks lack clear limits. When do physicians know enough to be confident that they are providing optimal care for their patients? When have they done enough to promote life, health, and healing? Responsible persons maintain standards of excellence in relation to expectations associated with their social roles. Those who are religious may further connect their tasks with a vocation to serve a wider, divine purpose in all areas of their lives.

General Well-being

In conjunction with explicit moral commitments and role-determined assignments, responsible persons strive for just, fair, and good conditions where they live and work. They seek to bring about and maintain states of affairs that favor human well-being, perhaps the well-being of all creatures. Similarly, they resist and, where possible, seek to change circumstances that do harm to fellow human beings, even to other living creatures. They strive to improve the execution of tasks, and to see that basic moral imperatives are honored in everyday social interactions. Those who are religious may be sustained in their quest for a greater good by their hope in the promises of God.

Thus, a physician's responsibility does not end with patient care or with professional relationships wherein standards of quality care are maintained. It includes a public interest in the healthcare system as a whole, and in its ability to provide appropriate services for all people. More broadly, it embraces the promotion of human health in basic life patterns.


Responsibility is about personal commitment. It expresses human care about the moral life (cf. Fingarette). Those who are responsible claim their duties and tasks as their own, as ways of acting that are internal to who they have become and are becoming (Gustafson; cf. Jonsen).

Classic ethical theories dealt with commitment either in terms of moral virtues (Aristotle; Aquinas) or in terms of the resolute will (Calvin; Kant; cf. Novak). Moral virtues are habits, stable ways of acting that accord with the good. They derive their energy from passions that have been perfected through disciplined practice, until an actor is disposed to do the good as a kind of second nature. In terms of normative content, the central moral virtue is justice, the disposition to grant to each person what he or she is due.

In Judaism and in Reformed Protestant thought, the basic commitment to do the good has been defined not as habit or disposition but as volition, a self-conscious determination to do one's duty in all things. Here the aim is not to shape the passions but to control them. Immanuel Kant gave these latter traditions philosophical form by speaking of the unqualified value of the "good will," that is, the will ever ready to do what the moral law commands (Kant).

Modern psychological theories generally set aside accounts of the self that isolate discrete virtues or particular psychic functions, such as the will. They portray the self as a complex, dynamic process in which a centered unity can be only a relative achievement (cf. Wallwork). Post-Freudian thinkers place special emphasis on the formative power of human relationships in these complex dynamics (cf. Erikson; Winnicott; Kohut; Chodorow). Thus, our moral commitments are integral to the relational bonds that form and sustain us as human beings. We come to understand these commitments through our life stories, including both family stories and the stories of communities to which we belong. It is by means of narrative that we apprehend and claim our moral identities (Taylor; Ricoeur).

Psychological perspectives substantially inform ethical discussions of responsibility (cf. Fingarette; Rouner; Wallwork; Taylor). They render more intelligible seemingly irrational features of human behavior: individuals acting in socially inappropriate ways or in ways that work against their self-conscious purposes (cf. Fingarette). They help us grasp dynamics that leave some persons virtually incapable of consistent care for the good, and hence unable to respond to concrete situations with moral sensitivity. In other instances, persons may profess moral concern, yet find themselves internally torn, deeply ambivalent, or emotionally empty. They lack focused energy to carry out the good they claim to honor.

In classic thought, such cases either revealed bad habits, called vices (Aristotle; Aquinas), or they represented the bondage of the will to sinful inclinations (Augustine; Calvin; Luther; cf. Kant). Modern perspectives introduce notions of pathology to account for this "irresponsible" behavior. They offer neither moral admonition nor judgment but therapy, a supportive relationship wherein a skilled professional helps a patient gain insight into the internal conflicts that impel him or her to destructive behavior. Therapy provides resources for self-discovery that open the way to mature moral concern (cf. Fingarette; Wallwork). Through processes of self-discovery we reconnect with values and relationships that give identity and significance to human life.

Moral commitment involves social roles and offices. Responsible persons incorporate into their personal identities moral principles and values that are linked to positions they occupy. Social roles, like social institutions, are invariably marred by moral ambiguities. They gain their moral import from the fact that despite their ambiguity, they serve a greater good, at least by minimizing harm. Responsible actors seek to advance the moral promise of their offices while resisting their morally questionable tendencies.


Responsibility presumes that we have the personal strengths and the requisite skills to carry out our duties and to perform our tasks. Classic traditions of moral virtue and volition focus on distinctively moral strengths. In volitional approaches, the pivotal strength is willpower, the determination to control any fears, desires, even natural inclinations, that might distract us from our duty. Those who are religious seek divine support for moral rectitude.

In theories of virtue, moral strength derives from an ability to harness the passions in the service of purposive activity (Aristotle; Aquinas). On the one hand, responsibility requires personal toughness, perseverance, courage. These strengths stem from a natural, organic combativeness that through practice has been shaped into a virtue. If we lack such strength, the pressures, threats, and risks common to social existence will force us to shrink from the proper performance of basic tasks and duties. For example, a physician might remain silent after witnessing a senior colleague's failure to observe minimal professional standards in practice. Although the physician cares about standards, he or she cannot bear the stresses of a formal complaint. Courage equips us to follow through on our commitments, even those that entail danger.

On the other hand, responsibility requires self-control, the ability to restrain our wants, desires, and feelings when they dispose us to betray our commitments. Here, too, we develop self-control or temperance through practice. We learn to shape our wants and desires to accord with the larger good toward which we aspire. Without self-control we are unreliable. Our desires continually override good judgment, perhaps even impelling us to harmful actions (cf. Aristotle; Aquinas).

Because of an attraction to a patient, a psychiatrist violates sexual boundaries that define professional relationships. A research scientist falsifies research data or makes improper use of the findings of others in order to advance his or her career. In the interest of increased income, a specialist in internal medicine proposes medical procedures of dubious merit to a dying patient. Responsibility requires the discipline to restrain our wants for the sake of our moral integrity.

Modern psychological theories deal with similar phenomena, although with greater emphasis on the complex dynamics, including interpersonal relationships, that figure so prominently in our makeup. As a result, moral strengths appear less as matters of personal accomplishment and more as functions of self-formation in relationships. As inherently social beings, we derive both courage and self-control from human bonds that cohere with our moral purposes (cf. Kohut; Chodorow; Rouner; Glatzer).

Personal strengths are not limited to emotional resources or volitional restraints. They embrace intellectual capacities, general and specialized knowledge, competence in oral and written communication, self-confidence, self-esteem, the mastery of skills crucial to typical tasks, physical strength and agility, energy, stamina, and manual dexterity.

We may not associate all of these elements with the moral life, yet they profoundly affect a person's ability to act. The responsible life includes, therefore, a commitment to cultivate native talents and abilities, and to devise ways of mitigating disabilities. Similarly, social responsibility requires policies that enhance human potential for effectiveness: opportunities for education and advanced training; specialized equipment and physical arrangements for persons hampered by "handicapping conditions"; nondiscriminatory practices regarding race, gender, ethnic origin, age, religious identification, and sexual orientation.

Responsibility for personal strengths includes self-care and discipline in holding personal and professional commitments to manageable levels. Mistakes, indiscretions, intemperate and abusive behavior, even addictive and self-destructive patterns, are more likely when we habitually overextend ourselves. Personal strengths are indispensable to the good we are disposed to do. They also allow us to broaden our moral commitments, perhaps to assume leadership in promoting the common good.


The human capacity to act derives from social offices and positions as well as from personal strengths (cf. Brunner; Bonhoeffer). Responsible persons are attentive to power dynamics that operate in their interactions with colleagues, associates, and employees, as well as with patients, clients, customers, and users of services. They resist abuses of power in these interactions and draw upon the resources of their offices to promote justice and the common good. They model fairness and concern for general well-being in their own activities; they commend similar practices by others.


Responsibility involves sound judgment about the good to be done in concrete situations. Our ability to judge depends upon stable moral commitments and personal strengths to act on those commitments. It is affected by the perceptions of those to whom we are closely related, and also by interests that structure our business, professional, and political activities. Yet judgment is still a distinct skill, a "practical intellectual virtue" cultivated through practice (Aristotle; Aquinas).

Moral judgment operates in a number of ways, all of which involve the creative imagination and accumulated practical wisdom of morally mature individuals. It consists in the interpretation and application to concrete cases of laws, regulations, and rules that define moral duties (cf. Ramsey). These regulations may be borne by the common culture or the culture of professional practice; they may also be codified in public law or in the operating procedures of complex organizations, such as hospitals. The task is to discern what is at stake in these regulations so that they can appropriately inform particular moral judgments. Interpretation generally leads to a search for principles that disclose what is morally at stake in various regulations, for example, the claim that these regulations protect conditions essential to human existence and well-being.

By their very nature, principles, laws, and rules are abstract. It is not uncommon, therefore, to confront cases that are not adequately covered by existing regulations. Moral judgment may then consist in the construction of new rules that can inform our responses to these problem cases. The new rules may represent reformulations or extensions of familiar standards. They may consist of novel directives derived from elemental moral principles. The goal is to furnish stable guidelines for dealing with an emerging class of cases in the context of changing social circumstances. Bioethics continually confronts such challenges as it responds to enlarged technical capacities within biomedical practice.

Some cases are sufficiently distinct that they are best treated as exceptions to the rules. Moral judgment then entails adapting the rules to take account of variables that define the exception. Through experience, we learn to distinguish genuine exceptions from sets of cases that expose problems with existing rules. For the latter, we must rethink the rules, devising fresh formulations suited to the new cases.

In many life contexts, such as biomedical practice, we regularly deal with so many specific variables that general principles and rules cease to prove helpful as guides to moral judgment. Especially important are cases where conflicting values and disvalues are likely to result from any conceivable course of action, such as the treatment of the terminally ill or experiments with promising medical procedures that invariably have negative side effects. Practical wisdom for handling such cases emerges through experience accumulated in the treatment of similar cases. By evaluating a significant number of cases, we increase our ability to isolate variables pertinent for assessing each new case. This pattern of moral judgment is continuous with classic traditions of casuistry, or case reasoning. Casuistry locates moral judgment in the comparative study of recognizable classes of cases that require human decision and action (cf. Jonsen and Toulmin). Medical centers now institutionalize casuistic thinking through case conferences and regular consultations with specialists and advisers.


H. Richard Niebuhr dramatizes the social matrix of action. We act in response to actions upon us and in anticipation of further responses to our own actions in ongoing social interactions. In this interactive framework, moral judgment involves responsiveness, self-conscious attempts to draw upon the perceptions and experiences of others in our own deliberations (cf. Gilligan). Responsiveness is best realized in conversation among representative actors in a situation. The conversation is not primarily an occasion for debate, in which the stronger positions defeat the weaker until the most cogent prevails. Its purpose is to facilitate vision. It may confirm widely held judgments, yet it may uncover matters that have been concealed, clarify phenomena that have been obscured, and bring to awareness considerations previously passed over.

Responsiveness begins with the attempt to understand what is going on. It does not presume that the morally important issues in a situation are obvious. Through conversation we surface the pivotal issues and construct ways of portraying them to ourselves and others. Historical studies and social analyses inform these efforts. The account we provide of the situation sets the stage for a consideration of appropriate responses.

Responsive judgments are guided by the notion of what is fitting. The fitting action may be largely self-evident once we have grasped what is morally at stake in a situation. Yet it may emerge only gradually, through the thoughtful balancing of multiple variables with their negative and positive features. Moral imagination and discernment are as important to this balancing process as are conceptual precision and logical rigor. The reasoning involved, moreover, is often more akin to weaving a tapestry than to forging a chain. Various strands of thinking supplement, complement, and perhaps clash with one another within a complete configuration. A fitting response is integral to that configuration. It consists of the most promising means of negotiating multiple considerations. For Niebuhr, fitting actions are also responses to God, the center of values that bestows authority on all values.

Responsiveness gains moral urgency from the partial, even distorted, nature of all human viewpoints. Biases rooted in special interests plague our most sincere efforts to promote justice. For example, a white male medical establishment gave lower priority to breast cancer than to prostate cancer. In studying heart disease, it focused on male rather than female subjects. Exalting scientific advances and technical achievements, the U.S. healthcare system institutionalizes almost unlimited care for those with comprehensive health coverage while failing to offer basic care for the poor. Other biases—racial, ethnic, religious—have distorted biomedical practices from time to time. We overcome socially mediated biases by responsiveness to the voices of those previously left out of the conversation.

Responsiveness is not merely a personal trait. It can be incorporated into professional, organizational, and institutional practices. We can create contexts for exchanges of views among peers, colleagues, coworkers, support staff, and volunteers. We can regularly seek information from those who receive medical services: patients, clients, consumers, constituents. Within a particular organization, these exchanges promote collaboration on common projects, facilitate coordination among interrelated activities, and enhance both quality and efficiency in performance. As a dimension of responsibility, responsiveness contributes to good management. Similarly, professionals routinely respond to peer judgments through associations, convocations, conferences, and publications, as well as through regular consultations and case conferences. Ideally, they also elicit the active participation of clients to whom they offer their services.

Responsiveness in moral judgment is especially pertinent to the formation of public policy, such as debates about healthcare reform. These debates begin with attempts to interpret "what is going on" and move to proposals for the "fitting" response (Niebuhr). In the United States, controversial policy issues are rarely resolved by a new public consensus on the proper treatment of pressing social problems. Practical accomplishments require compromise. To gain support for new directions in policy, public actors accommodate the special interests of competing groups. In so doing, they consent to measures that fall short of their larger goals. The search for acceptable compromises is crucial to public responsibility.


Responsibility embraces accountability for judgments and actions (cf. Jonsen). Because our actions affect the lives of fellow human beings, we have to answer to others for what we do. We must be able to give an account of our intentions and of their moral bases that is credible within the relevant conversational context, whether it be familial, communal, professional, or public. Responsible persons seek feedback from others because they are conscientious about quality performance. Structures of accountability may be formalized in well-defined review processes, including disciplinary hearings, and civil and criminal actions. Yet they also operate in everyday human interactions.

The morally committed have a strong sense of accountability to self. Conscience names the dynamism whereby we answer to ourselves for our fidelity to our commitments. If we violate our own normative standards, we feel guilt. If others have been disadvantaged or harmed by our actions, we recognize a need to apologize, perhaps to make restitution. In religious contexts, accountability involves answering to God as the source and ground of the moral life. We confess our failures, seek forgiveness, and pray for strength to renew our commitments.

Responsibility includes a readiness to hold others accountable for their actions, in the interest of the common good. It will not suffice to be conscientious only about our own actions. Because substantive moral commitments are requisite to human existence and well-being, we must hold one another accountable to those commitments. Accountability is especially important for professionals, who alone are adequately equipped to assess the performances of peers. Likewise, we are obliged to promote mutual accountability in the organizational and communal contexts in which we normally live and work; this includes support for appropriate disciplinary hearings and criminal proceedings.

The notion of accountability directs us to revisit all of the dimensions of responsibility, though with a focus on our obligation to nurture, model, encourage, cultivate, and teach responsibility to fellow human beings, especially the children, youth, and young adults of a coming generation.

thomas w. ogletree (1995)

SEE ALSO: Care; Compassionate Love; Communitarianism and Bioethics; Freedom and Free Will; Holocaust; Lifestyles and Public Health; Paternalism; Profession and Professional Ethics


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Fundamental concepts

Historical survey

Types of responsibility and control

Obedience and responsibility


As a philosophical concept, responsibility is a correlate of freedom; as a political concept, it is a correlate of constitutionalism. Philosophically, the opposite of responsibility is external or internal compulsion; in political terms, it is arbitrariness.

It is necessary to distinguish between moral, political, and legal responsibility. Moral responsibility may be related only to consciousness; its extreme expression is Dostoevski’s statement: “Everybody is guilty of everything.” A clear example of such responsibility is the Stuttgart Declaration of the Evangelical church in Germany. Although no one blamed it for its attitude under the Nazi regime, the church made the following statement: “During long years we fought in the name of Jesus Christ against the devilish spirit of which the terrorist regime of National Socialism was a terrible expression. Nevertheless we accuse ourselves that we did not confess more bravely, pray more faithfully, believe more joyfully, love more intensely.” Moral responsibility may also have an objective dimension. According to John Stuart Mill, “A government is to be judged by its action upon men, and by its action upon things; by what it makes of the citizens, and what it does with them; its tendency to improve or deteriorate the people themselves, and the goodness or badness of the work it performs for them, and by means of them” ([1861] 1958, p. 28). Here moral and political responsibility are linked.

Political responsibility is more rigid than moral responsibility because it is judged by results and not by intentions. Political responsibility means the right use of power. It is relevant to both the tiny fragment of power in the hands of a single voter and the unlimited power of the dictator.

Legal responsibility is a fragile instrument of control because legislators and judges can easily misuse their political power by making laws and decisions weighted against political opponents. The ancient use of impeachment suggests how easily politics can be turned into law and law into politics.

The classic political expression of responsibility is found in Constant’s De la responsabilité des ministres (1815). Although Constant’s reasons for writing this book are now only of historical interest (the solemn impeachment power of parliament in cases of treason and embezzlement), he did develop three thoughts that still have fundamental meaning: (1) He replaced the notions of treason and embezzlement by the more general term “misuse of power.” (2) He declared that in a constitutional monarchy a vote of no confidence by parliament must inevitably lead to the resignation of ministers. (3) He asserted the coresponsibility of lower executive officials who obey illegal orders.

Fundamental concepts

The three statements above foreshadow the four main categories used in this article in the analysis of responsibility.

Who is responsible?

Every member of the body politic is responsible according to his function, from the absolute ruler to the common voter. There are specific forms of political and legal responsibility attached to specific functions, e.g., to those of ministers and officials in constitutional states.

How far does responsibility extend?

In the framework of a bureaucratic hierarchy, responsibility can be determined according to duties. The minister is responsible for his department, the

mayor for his city, the official for his office. The lower the position, the easier it is to define the limits of responsibility; until, at the lowest level, responsibility is limited to the execution of orders and directions. The higher the level of government, the harder it is to distinguish between the execution of laws and the exercise of discretion. In the jurisdiction of the German administrative courts the question of discretion is of great importance. After the excesses of administrative arbitrariness under National Socialism, an attempt was made to keep the field of discretion as narrow as possible. However, some discretion is necessary because efficient administration requires that each case be treated individually. Political responsibility in the broadest sense means responsibility to the public interest. The highest authorities—the sovereign people, the chief of government, the head of the state—are responsible not only for matters within their control but sometimes also for matters beyond their control, such as success or failure in war or in diplomatic negotiations. In former times, kings were held responsible even for starvation and floods. King Frederick the Great dismissed generals who were unsuccessful in battle. Public opinion tends to blame a political leader for not having mastered overwhelming odds. For instance, German political opinion held Chancellor Brüning responsible for the failure of the Weimar Republic.

To whom is a man responsible?

Theoretically, the politician or administrator is responsible to those who gave him the mandate. His responsibility is in the first place to his superior in office and to the competent judge, who act as representatives of the sovereign; then to the sovereign; and finally to God. When the sovereign is the people, its judgment is expressed through public opinion, elections, or special tribunals. Often in primitive societies, the ultimate test of political responsibility is the ordeal.

To which sanctions must the responsible person answer?

Legal penalties are adequate sanctions only if responsibility can be defined in legal terms. The politically responsible person can be dismissed only if he fails or has lost the trust of the person who commissioned him. The classic example is the dismissal of a minister after a vote of no confidence in parliament. Apart from this there are cases in which neither the field of competence nor the form of sanctions is fixed, but punishment is demanded by the disgraced monarch or the indignant people. Under these conditions sanctions may take the form of the “silk string” the despot sends to his vizier, of judgment by revolutionary tribunals, or of punitive measures by victorious enemies.

Historical survey

One can speak of political responsibility only if there is a generally acknowledged standard for judging actions that affect the community; thus, political responsibility presupposes a kind of public interest. The history of political responsibility is simultaneously a history of the interpretation of public interest. In societies where a religious spirit dominates, public interest means adaptation to a divine order.

The emperor of China, for example, had to make certain that his empire found the middle path between heaven and earth. If the empire were permanently struck by misfortune, the emperor was considered to have lost his mandate from heaven; he was no longer a true emperor and could be— even had to be—deposed. Snorri Sturluson told of two Swedish priest-kings who were sacrificed to the gods in order to prevent starvation. A similar feeling for responsibility to fate was behind the Athenian institution of ostrakismos; a person could be banished arbitrarily, without imputation of dishonor, by vote of the majority. This was not meant as punishment for a crime, but merely to prevent some future misfortune that his continued presence might cause.

Medieval Christianity was the first to distinguish between several kinds of responsibility and between different authorities to whom responsibility was due. The church controlled the responsibility of the monarch to God. But it was a twofold responsibility. The prince had to lead a life beyond reproach in order to conform to the old idea that he personally represented the harmony of the political and the cosmic orders. At the same time he bore another responsibility, arising out of his political function: he had to dispense justice. The true nature of justice had to be determined by the public interest, which was conceived of as the best order for all or as a guaranteed order based on valid law. The absolute monarch was responsible only to God. Therefore, he was independent of the church as well as of the privileged estates. The doctrine of the “divine right of kings” included supremacy over the church. In the period of the Enlightenment the king himself separated the office from his person. Like Frederick the Great of Prussia, he thought of himself as the premier serviteur de I’état. The theory of the divine right of kings was upheld, but God was replaced by reason and justice as the recipient of responsibility. The king should be a Staatskänig; his authority was based on the idea of the state, but not necessarily on the consent of the nation.

Further changes in the concept of responsibility were introduced in the period of constitutional and parliamentary monarchies. Indeed, in these two systems the king was not responsible to anyone. In a constitutional monarchy such as Germany the ministers were responsible to parliament only for the legality of their actions. They did not need the confidence of parliament to stay in power; they needed only the confidence of the monarch. In England, a parliamentary monarchy, the ultimate decision on political responsibility rested in society itself, as represented by a full parliamentary convention.

The history of the modern state is also the history of the idea of public interest, proceeding from the privileges of the kings and the estates all the way to the raison d’état of absolutism. In continental Europe the raison d’état was generally embodied in the prince and his administrative and military staffs, and the public interest was represented by a well-ordered administration and well-ordered courts. In England the character of parliament changed; from representing the special interests of the different estates it came to represent the whole nation, and freedom became the standard of public interest.

The principle of popular sovereignty, through either representative or plebiscitarian democracy, has now been accepted all over the world. The constitutions of representative democracies contain a web of responsibility on different levels and a system of corresponding controls. Courts of justice examine whether legislation is within the limits of constitutional law and whether administration is exercised within prescribed bounds. Parliament controls the politics of the cabinet. In the same way it also controls the conduct of every minister responsible for a department. Public opinion controls the political style. Its organs are a free press, corporations of public or private law, and interest groups, spontaneous assemblies, or action groups. There is no immanent contradiction between representative and plebiscitarian democracy. But as soon as the plebiscitarian principle itself becomes an important factor, differentiation of responsibility is no longer possible. For in this case rulers and nation are declared to be identical, and the people itself takes over responsibility. Totalitarian regimes, therefore, often insist on being regularly legitimated by genuine or faked plebiscites.

Types of responsibility and control

A distinction must now be made between the responsibility of a trustee and the responsibility of an agent. [See Representation.] The trustee’s responsibility is personal; the agent’s responsibility is technical. This distinction permits a consistent scheme for the different examples discussed. The leader of the state, whether a single person or a group, acts in the name of the whole body. Leaders can be regarded only as trustees of the whole—in a democratic society, as trustees of the whole nation. On the other hand, people responsible only for clearly circumscribed functions are mere agents. Their responsibility is limited by their instructions, provided that these instructions are in accordance with the constitution. A third and very important group consists of the leaders of the constituent sections or departments of the total power, for instance, members of legislative bodies, supreme courts, ministers as heads of the administration. In some of their duties they can be regarded as agents, but because they are more responsible for the spirit than for the manner of executive power, they are trustees. One might say that they exercise secondary trusteeship. In a democracy the distinction between trustee and agent vanishes. Even agents as a part of the sovereign people are regarded as—and may feel themselves to be— trustees. On the other hand, an authoritarian, and above all a totalitarian, government destroys any sense of trusteeship. This is illustrated by the attitudes of Hitler’s and Stalin’s highest functionaries, who hid behind orders and denied any personal responsibility, claiming to be only agents.

Primary trustees

The sovereign is responsible for the state as a whole. In democracies that responsibility is exercised through elections or plebiscites. There is no appeal against the decisions of the sovereign. It is a mutual responsibility of the people and their representatives; its standard is the spirit of the community. But there are exceptional cases, where responsibility is exercised by self-nominated agents of public opinion. Such exceptions may begin in rather trifling expressions of public uneasiness, as in the Der Spiegel affair in Germany in 1962. They can lead to a total change in the regime, as did I’affaire Dreyfus in France, and ultimately to a violent revolution, such as that caused by the protest of the French press against the royal ordinances in 1830.

The leader of the government, the head of the state, or the prime minister is also responsible for the whole destiny of a nation. He is legally controlled by parliament, by the voters, and indirectly by public opinion. He will be held responsible not only for misconduct, but also for bad policies, and in the last analysis for success or failure. The normal sanction is removal at the next election. Although other methods for removal are available, their utility is doubtful; in the United States, for example, the institution of impeachment has never led to a conviction. The parliamentary committees for investigation, developed above all in German public law, may help to detect corruption, but they have no serious political effects. Decisions by supreme courts, e.g., the very influential Bundesverfassungsgericht (federal constitutional court) in Germany, are useful correctives for legislation and administration, but they do not provide sanctions against irresponsible behavior.

Secondary trustees

The importance of secondary trusteeship depends on the character of the government. It is considerable in a government with collective responsibility; it diminishes as a government approaches monocracy. Even under the same constitution it changes with the personal influence of the head of government and the minister concerned. In England the minister, as head of a department, is regarded as responsible for the conduct of his officials. Parliament will not remove him for minor blunders but probably will for mistakes seriously affecting men or institutions. In most cases the minister will resign quickly to save the government. In the United States the presidential system gives no opportunity to overthrow the government; the responsibilities of the departments and of their chiefs are sometimes not very obvious. So Congress uses other methods to get rid of unpopular officials: refusing to allocate funds, delaying bills, and so on. In the Continental systems the power of the bureaucracy as a semiautonomous body is so great, and is organized in such a way, that the main responsibility lies not with the parliamentary ministers but with the permanent secretaries of state or their equivalents. Here the special administrative courts are important means for compelling the administration to observe the intentions of the legislature.


The responsibility of agents consists in implementing constitutional provisions, making independent decisions of minor importance, and executing orders given by superiors. In the first two cases, the public is interested in internal control through the bureaucratic hierarchy itself and through administrative courts so that authority is not capriciously misused. The means of internal control are described by Carl J. Friedrich (1937, chapter 19) as (1) disciplinary measures, (2) promotional measures, (3) financial measures, (4) judicial measures, and (5) the spirit of craftsmanship. Friedrich makes the interesting observation that the appeal to esprit de corps is in some respects akin to the appeal to religious responsibility and affects the deepest strata of personality.

Obedience and responsibility

The execution of orders given by superiors can give rise to serious conflicts. The official may be anxious to avoid a wrong policy because, as an expert, he can foresee serious consequences. In such cases the official should, according to Max Weber, “execute conscientiously the order of the superior authorities, exactly as if the order agreed with his own conviction. This holds even if the order appears wrong to him and if, despite the civil servant’s remonstrances, the authority insists on the order” ([1919] 1946, p. 95). Responsibility in these instances is necessarily limited, and the official will resign only when he is convinced that the execution of the order would be dangerous for the state or would dishonor him.

Another source of conflict is the illegality of orders. In this case the official is not allowed to obey. When this occurs in a constitutional regime, it will be solved very quickly by appeals to parliament or by other legal means. The guilty superior will be reprimanded, and the disobedient official will be cleared. In authoritarian or totalitarian states the problem is more difficult. We still see Nazi officials trying to exculpate themselves with the claim of Befehlsnotstand (danger to their lives if they did not obey). Although the constitution and the special laws, and even military law, clearly forbid the execution of illegal orders, the culprits often justify themselves on the ground of imminent danger to their security and life. But personal responsibility must prevail even against obedience to political superiors. It is an important step in the democratic development of a people when the citizen’s responsibility toward law takes precedence over his responsibility toward a superior.

O. H. v. D. Gablentz

[See alsoAuthority; Constitutions And Constitutionalism; Dictatorship; Legitimacy; Totalitarianism.]


The most complete discussion of political responsibility is in Friedrich 1937. For the American point of view, the writings of Niebuhr 1956 and Lippmann 1955 should be consulted. Fauconnet 1920 deals with criminal responsibility in different societies. Many references may be found in “The Quest for Responsibility” in Schubert 1961.

Constant De Rebecque, Henri Benjamin 1815 De la responsabilité des ministres. Paris: Nicolle.

Fauconnet, Paul 1920 La responsabilité: Étude de sociologie. Paris: Alcan.

Fraenkel, Ernst 1958 Die repräsentative und die plebiszitäre Komponente im demokratischen Verfassungsstaat. Tübingen (Germany): Mohr.

Friedrich, Carl J. (1937) 1950 Constitutional Government and Democracy: Theory and Practice in Europe and America. Rev. ed. Boston: Ginn. → Originally published as Constitutional Government and Politics: Nature and Development.

Gablentz, Otto Heinrich Von Der 1959 Politische Gesittung. Cologne (Germany): Westdeutscher Verlag.

Hennis, Wilhelm 1962 Amtsgedanke und Demokratie-begriffe. In Konrad Hesse, Siegfried Reicke, and Ulrich Scheuner (editors), Staatsverfassung und Kirchenordnung: Festgabe für Rudolf Smend zum 80. Geburtstag am 15. Januar 1962. Tübingen (Germany): Mohr.

Leibholz, Gerhard 1958 Strukturprobleme der modernen Demokratie. Karlsruhe (Germany): Müller.

Lippmann, Walter 1955 Essays in the Public Philosophy. Boston: Little.

Meinecke, Friedrich (1924) 1957 Machiavellism: The Doctrine of Raison d’état and Its Place in Modern History. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press. → First published as Die Idee der Staatsrason in der neueren Ge-schichte. Contains a general introduction to Friedrich Meinecke’s work by W. Stark.

Mill, John Stuart (1861) 1958 Considerations on Representative Government. New York: Liberal Arts.

Niebuhr, Reinhold 1956 Reinhold Niebuhr, His Religious, Social, and Political Thought. Edited by C. W. Kegley and R. W. Bretall. New York: Macmillan.

Schubert, Glendon A. 1961 The Public Interest: A Critique of the Theory of a Political Concept. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press.

Stahl, Friedrich Julius (1830–1837) 1854–1856 Die Philosophic des Rechts. 2 vols., 3d ed. Tübingen (Germany ): Mohr.

Weber, Max (1919) 1946 Politics as a Vocation. Pages 77–128 in Max Weber, From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. Translated and edited by H. H. Gerth and C. W. Mills. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

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The term responsibility has several related meanings.

First, there is causal responsibility. To say that the short circuit is responsible for the fire is simply to say that the short circuit caused the fire.

Second, there is personal responsibility. This comes in two forms, prospective and retrospective. To say that the lifeguard is responsible for the swimmers' safety is to say that the lifeguard has a responsibility (a duty or obligation) to see to it that the swimmers remain safe. This is a prospective matter, since it points toward the future. In contrast, to say that the lifeguard is responsible for the swimmers' deaths is to say that the lifeguard bears responsibility for something that has already happened; it is to attribute a sort of blameworthiness to the lifeguard for having failed to fulfill a duty. Attributions of retrospective responsibility need not always be negative, though. To say that the generous donor is responsible for the charity's success is to attribute a sort of praiseworthiness to the donor.

Third, there is collective responsibility. This may also be either prospective or retrospective. Sometimes collections of individuals (such as corporations or nations) are said to have duties or obligations, and on such occasions they may also be held to account for fulfilling or failing to fulfill these duties. It is controversial whether collective responsibility is reducible to personal responsibility (so that all statements about the former can be translated into statements about the latter) or rather constitutes a distinct type of responsibility.

Noncausal responsibility, whether personal or collective and whether prospective or retrospective, may be either moral or nonmoral (as when it is legal or professional) depending on whether the duties in question are moral or nonmoral. Furthermore, retrospective responsibility, whether positive or negative, constitutes a susceptibility to reactions that may vary in kind. The most basic kind of reaction consists simply in an evaluation of the person (or collection of individuals) to whom (or which) the attribution of responsibility is made. Thus, to hold the lifeguard responsible, in this basic way, for the swimmers' deaths is to make a negative evaluation of him or her in light of the deaths. A more robust kind of reaction involves treating the person (or group) in some wayfor example, by handing out reward or punishment. It is frequently held that justification for the more robust kind of reaction presupposes justification for the basic kind (so that, for example, punishment is warranted only if the person punished warrants a negative evaluation), but this is not universally accepted.

This article will concentrate on responsibility that is personal, retrospective, moral, and basic. Philosophers have concerned themselves with what is needed and what suffices for such responsibility. Aristotle (384322 b.c.e.) suggested two distinct conditions, and his discussion has shaped all subsequent treatment of the matter.

The First Condition: Freedom

A common assumption is that, to be responsible (personally, retrospectively, morally, and basically) for something, one must enjoy freedom of will or action. Just what the relevant sort of freedom consists of is controversial, but the central idea is that one's behavior must be within one's control.

There is a venerable argument to the effect that this condition of responsibility is impossible to satisfy, and hence that responsibility is never incurred. The argument involves the thesis of determinism (roughly, the view that every event has a cause) and may be put as follows:

1. If determinism is true, no one is ever in control of what happens.

2. If determinism is false, no one is ever in control of what happens.

3. Determinism is either true or false.


4. No one is ever in control of what happens.

5. One is responsible for what happens only if one is in control of it.


6. No one is ever responsible for what happens.

Premise 5 states the precondition for responsibility that is at issue. Premise 3 is taken to be a logical truth. The rationale for premise 1 is this: if something is caused to happen, then it is, under the circumstances, inevitable; and if it is inevitable, then no one is in control of it. The rationale for premise 2 is this: if something occurs uncaused, then it occurs at random and if it occurs at random, then no one is in control of it.

Some philosophers have accepted this argument, but it is surely hard to do so. (Others, such as Immanuel Kant [17241804], have insisted that the idea that individuals never act freely is, practically speaking, impossible to accept.) Among those who have rejected the argument, some have done so by explicitly disputing one or another of its premises. So-called compatibilists deny the first premise; their number includes such major historical figures as Thomas Hobbes (15881679), John Locke (16321704), David Hume (17111776), and John Stuart Mill (18061873). So-called libertarians deny the second premise; among major historical figures, perhaps the most uncompromising proponent of this view was Thomas Reid (17101796), although both Aristotle and Kant also flirted with it at times.

More recently, premise 5 has been challenged. Robert Adams has argued that certain sins, for which one is to blame, are involuntary and hence such that one is not free with respect to them. Examples include the vices of bigotry, cowardice, cruelty, and so on, where these are understood not as a matter of behaving in a certain way (something that may well be under one's control) but of being a certain way, that is, of having certain inclinations, desires, or beliefs (something that may well not be under one's control). Adams's point is that, whether or not these phenomena are under one's control, one is certainly to blame for them.

One way to resist Adams's conclusion is to deny that the phenomena in question are never under one's control. Aristotle took this tack, claiming that, even if individuals have now reached a point in their lives at which certain of their virtuous or vicious traits are beyond their control (not in terms of acting on them, but in terms of ridding ourselves of them or of acquiring them), still there was a time when they could have acted in such a way as to prevent their having them (if they are vices they now have) or to produce them in themselves (if they are virtues they now lack). Another way to resist Adams's conclusion is to acknowledge that individuals may be to praise or blame in some way for such traits, but to deny that such praise or blame constitutes an attribution of responsibility. (Peter Abelard [10791142] at times suggested this position.)

Another challenge to premise 5 involves granting the traditional idea that responsibility requires freedom but denying the traditional idea that freedom requires control. Harry Frankfurt has recently pressed this line of thought, urging that the inability to behave differently does not compromise the freedom required for responsibility when this inability does not serve to explain one's behavior. His discussion of this issue has generated a vigorous, subtle, and often complex debate.

An argument similar to, but also importantly different from, the argument concerning determinism has lately garnered considerable attention. The argument ends, as before, with the inference of 6 from premises 4 and 5. The difference lies in the beginning. Now the claim is that 4 (the proposition that no one is ever in control of what happens) is true, not because of any general considerations concerning determinism, but simply because of the fact that luck cannot be eliminated from people's lives. In support of this contention, cases of the following sort are commonly cited: Alf shoots at Bert and kills him. Charlie shoots in like fashion at Dave but, because a bird happens to get in the way of the bullet, fails even to wound him. This case serves to dramatize the fact that, in all one's actions, what one succeeds in doing is in large measure not up to the individual but, as it is often put, up to nature. Or again, it may be that what saves Dave is not a passing bird that intercepts Charlie's bullet but a sudden sneeze that prevents Charlie from even firing his gun. The more one thinks about it (independently of any question of determinism), the more one sees that luck permeates people's lives, eroding the control over, and thereby the responsibility for, their actions that they like to think they have.

The force of such considerations is keenly debated. In light of them, some philosophers appear willing to forgo attributions of responsibility. Others seek to preserve such attributions by rejecting (once again) the traditional idea that responsibility requires control. Still others seek to preserve such attributions by pointing out that lack of complete control over what happens need not amount to lack of any control.

Finally, just what sort of freedom or control might be thought necessary for responsibility has been a subject of some controversy. Some philosophers propose a fairly thin account, involving one's being in some sense the source of one's actions. Others propose richer accounts, involving some form of autonomy or of responsiveness to reasons. Whatever the proper account may be, it is important to note a distinction between two types of freedom, each of which may initially appear necessary for responsibility. This distinction can best be drawn by means of a familiar example. Suppose that Emma goes into a bank, points a gun at Fiona, the teller, and orders her to hand over all the money in her till. Fiona complies. Two questions arise: did Fiona freely hand over the money and is she responsible for doing so? One's initial inclination may well be to answer "No" to both. One may be tempted to add that the negative response to the first question is the ground for the negative response to the second. But on reflection this may seem mistaken. Although there certainly seems to be a sense in which Fiona did not act freely (for she was strongly coerced to do what she did), there is also clearly a sense in which it seems she did act freely; she had a choice in the situation (albeit an unpleasant one) and, one may assume, she made the right choice. Indeed, in light of this, it may well be appropriate to praise her for acting as she did, and this would seem to imply that she is responsible for her conduct after all. It thus seems that the sort of freedom necessary for responsibility (if, indeed, any sort of freedom is necessary) is that which Fiona exemplified rather than that which she failed to exemplify.

The Second Condition: Mentality

Control over one's behavior is not all that is necessary for responsibility. Gwen, a young child, may have control over what she does (for example, she may freely choose to yank the tail of the family cat), but that is no reason to hold her morally responsible for her behavior.

What is it that Gwen lacks? The obvious answer is that she fails to understand the moral character of her action and is thus not to blame for it. This suggests that one is blameworthy (in a way that imputes responsibility for one's behavior) only if one is aware that one is doing wrong. At least three reasons may be given for rejecting this view, however.

First, ever since Plato (c. 428348 or 347 b.c.e.), philosophers have claimed that it is not possible freely to act in the belief that one is doing wrong, since this requires that one willingly do wrong, which is impossible. (Of course, many philosophers have rejected this claim. Indeed some, such as St. Augustine of Hippo [354430], have gone so far as to suggest that it is possible to have wrongdoing as one's ultimate objective.) Although this claim may seem at odds with common experience, its plausibility may grow on reflection. For example, many apparent instances of willing wrongdoing may reveal themselves on inspection to be better characterized as cases of doing something that one merely believes that others take to be wrong.

Second, to be aware that one is doing wrong implies that one is indeed doing wrong, but some philosophers have claimed that blameworthiness merely requires the belief, and not the fact, that one is doing wrong.

Third, blameworthiness seems often to be incurred through negligence, which in many cases involves the failure to be aware that one is doing wrong; indeed, it is this very failure that seems to ground the attribution of responsibility.

On these arguments, it is doubtful that awareness of wrongdoing is necessary for blameworthiness. Yet, as the case of Gwen indicates, it seems that one must satisfy some rather sophisticated mental condition to be blameworthy; just what this condition is, however, remains unclear. Similarly, presumably some other rather sophisticated mental condition must be satisfied if one is to be praiseworthy (in a way that imputes responsibility for one's behavior). Again, it is controversial just what this condition is. Some philosophers appear to think that simply having good intentions will do; others, such as Kant, insist that one must have doing one's duty as one's ultimate objective.

Finally, there is the question of the relevance of mental disorders to responsibility. It is commonly said that suffering from a mental disorder relieves one of responsibility for one's conduct. But this is far too sweeping. While kleptomania may provide an excuse for theft, it surely provides no excuse for assault; similarly, pyromania may furnish an excuse for arson but not for theft. There must be some close connection between disorder and offense for an excuse to be in the offing. Even then, whether an excuse is indeed available is debatable. Suppose that Holly is a kleptomaniac; why think she therefore has an excuse for theft? One answer is that she literally cannot help stealing. But this seems dubious. More accurate would seem to be the claim that she finds it abnormally difficult, rather than literally impossible, to resist the impulse to steal. But if there is the possibility of resistance, why excuse her for failing to resist? Perhaps she is not to be excused after all, if she recognizes that it is wrong to steal. Or perhaps the unusual strength of the impulse to steal makes it justifiable for her to succumb to it, so that she is indeed not to blame for doing so. Or perhaps she is not justified in succumbing to the impulse but is still not to blame for doing so because of some aspect of her mental state that has yet to be identified; for it is noteworthy that we tend rather to pity people such as Holly than to judge them wicked.

It is safe to say that the grounds for attribution of moral responsibility are complex and that, despite Aristotle's lasting contributions, the discussion that began with him remains unresolved.

See also Determinism ; Fatalism ; Moral Sense .


Abelard, Peter. Ethical Writings. Translated by Paul Vincent Spade. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1995.

Adams, Robert M. "Involuntary Sins." Philosophical Review 94 (1985): 331.

Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Translated with an introduction by David Ross; revised by J. L. Ackrill and J. O. Urmson. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Augustine, St. The Confessions. Translated with an introduction and notes by Henry Chadwick. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Frankfurt, Harry G. "Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility." Journal of Philosophy 66 (1969): 829839.

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Edited with an introduction by C. A. Gaskin. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Hume, David. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, edited by Tom L. Beauchamp. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Kant, Immanuel. Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals. London and New York: Hutchinson's University Library, 1948.

Locke, John. Essay Concerning Human Understanding, edited by Peter H. Nidditch. Oxford: Clarendon; New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.

Mill, John Stuart. An Examination of Sir William Hamilton's Philosophy. Edited by J. M. Robson. Buffalo, N.Y., and Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1979.

Plato. Meno. Edited with translation and notes by R. W. Sharples. Chicago: Bolchazy-Carducci, 1985.

Reid, Thomas. Essays on the Active Powers of Man. 1788. Reprint, New York: Garland, 1977.

Michael J. Zimmerman

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re·spon·si·bil·i·ty / riˌspänsəˈbilətē/ • n. (pl. -ties) the state or fact of having a duty to deal with something or of having control over someone: women bear children and take responsibility for child care. ∎  the state or fact of being accountable or to blame for something: the group has claimed responsibility for a string of murders. ∎  the opportunity or ability to act independently and make decisions without authorization: we would expect individuals lower down the organization to take on more responsibility. ∎  (often responsibilities) a thing that one is required to do as part of a job, role, or legal obligation: he will take over the responsibilities of overseas director. ∎  [in sing.] (responsibility to/toward) a moral obligation to behave correctly toward or in respect of: individuals have a responsibility to control personal behavior.

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responsibility (ri-spons-i-bil-iti) n. (in nursing) the state of being answerable for one's performance according to the terms of reference of the Code of Professional Conduct see NMC code of professional conduct: standard, The