Responsibility seems at first to be an odd choice for a blog on philosophy and politics. It’s regarded as a common sense phrase, something that almost needs no definition as we are all sure what it is or what it means. But a closer look reveals a deep underlying philosophical disagreement about the nature of freedom. Responsibility is philosophically considered to be entwined with free will. It is argued that we can only hold people responsible for choices they freely made themselves. We can’t, apparently, condemn people for what they did not choose. Recent advances in neuroscience and psychology have then made free will seem an outmoded concept, given that so much of our everyday action can now be readily and easily identified as an unconscious process. As a result it is becoming easier for people to suggest that you are not responsible for a growing portion of your actions.
I find this idea troubling, for three reasons. First, it makes the same mistake with responsibility as was made with free will. Arguably if free will was previously misunderstood because it was, in part, poorly defined, responsibility was even more poorly understood as it was placed logically downstream of our free will. Better, clearer definitions of responsibility, I believe, would unhinge it from being shackled so simplistically to free will. All sorts of issues that we face in life become our responsibility to manage without there being a free choice. Disease strikes us down and demands our attention but who chooses cancer? A judge cannot choose his cases but must judge them according to the rules and traditions of legal precedent nonetheless. In both cases it might seem unfair to make people responsible in the sense of being obligated to act a certain way but who could reliably be cured of disease without holding a responsible attitude towards the problem? Any doctor will tell you that once you are ill there are things you can do which aid or impede the process of becoming well and being responsible to discipline yourself to those actions is critical because the doctors and nurses can’t be there all the time to monitor your behaviour. Responsibility is a moral driver, an obligation to act in a way that others deem appropriate to the context, not merely a by-product of the choices we individually make.
Secondly, there is an absence of responsibility in public life. Politics, the media and business have all seemingly become corrupted by a contempt for the truth. I don’t find claims that we now live in a post-truth society very convincing as the underlying trend for this concept seems an almost integral part of the process. I doubt anyone can think of a time when politicians told the God’s honest truth or when the media was genuinely fair and balanced. One knew, when buying a certain kind of newspaper, what to expect between the covers across a range of issues. A genuine philosophical dedication to the truth was not usually amongst them. If our time seems particularly condemned by the absence of truth I would argue that it is not that politicians have got worse but that the people have got better. The great democratising fact of the internet is that there is nowhere for these liars to hide anymore or to practise their craft without scrutiny. Search engines, whistle-blowers, blogging and social media have combined to grant us access to information that we could not have expected to see twenty or thirty years ago. These new sources of information have laid bare the lies that most public bodies have been engaged in. What is yet to emerge is any countering force to the cynicism this creates. A healthy dose of responsibility in public life would start with ensuring that politicians, the media and business owed a genuine duty of care to the truth and not merely to covering their backsides. Understanding responsibility, particularly in what it now demands of us, is therefore critical if we are to make progress with this issue of a post-truth society wedded to ‘alternative facts’.
Thirdly, where we have spent most of human history engaged in a battle against nature we are now moving into a battle against ourselves. Even where we historically seemed to cause our own problems through war these were usually the result of famines from poor harvests or arguments over scarce resources which we were unable to manage with low levels of technology. But we are at a crucial tipping point and the dangers of this shift are only just becoming apparent in the last two decades. If one is asked what the future holds few will now claim that it is more of the same. From climate change to robotics and genetics there are movements afoot which could radically alter our world and they are all man made. We cannot blame nature for nuclear power or artificial intelligence and the real danger of these issues is that they are both solutions and problems at the same time. One is often posed as a solution to the other and the feedback loops this creates in our viewpoints are difficult to unwind.
The issue is made more complex morally as these changes are often interpreted as a technological trend with technological solutions. It is being adiaphorised, that is, according to Zygmunt Bauman, “when systems and processes become split off from any consideration of morality”. We don’t need to change our society to sort out climate change we just need geo-engineering or solar power. We don’t need a complete realignment of our understanding of ourselves to cope with artificial intelligence we just need people who input only ‘good’ code. These simplifications, albeit understandable, try to place us at right angles to the problem, as if humanity is fine and it was climate change that was the problem, all by itself and not the human societies that create it on a daily basis.
We therefore need a new theory of responsibility, not just to assess how we are responsible or who is responsible but also to acknowledge that these new trends are moral changes first. They alter the obligations we owe to each other, particularly in the remote sense of a social contract in which we owe duties to those we do not personally know. Our definition of a functioning society will alter in the face of the changes that genetic alteration and cybernetics will bring. It will be impossible to ignore or escape from so we need a theory of responsibility that explains and allocates our obligations to one another, not one that emerges from a shrunken concept of free will, which is itself suspected of not even being real.