Date post: 2017-11-08 05:11
"What is it to be responsible?" is most often asked by philosophers as a question about the foundations of moral agency. What sort of creature can properly be held responsible for its actions? The simple answer is: a normal human adult. To explain and justify this reply, philosophers tend to turn to psychological and metaphysical features of normal adults, such as free will. We might also approach the same issue with a somewhat different emphasis: What features of (normal, adult) human interaction are involved in our holding one another responsible?
George Moses Horton's signature at the bottom of his essay "Individual Influence." It reads "George M Horton, of colour, Born in North Hampton county North Carolina, 65 years old, belonging to Hall Horton." New York Public Library hide caption
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However this may be, it is fair to say that this usage of "responsible" has received the least attention from philosophers. This is interesting given that this is clearly a virtue of considerable importance in modern societies. At any rate, it is possible to see some important connections between the virtue and the areas that philosophers have emphasized.
This article began by observing that the word responsibility is surprisingly modern, and that two quite different philosophical stories have been told about it. Very little was said concerning the first story, concerning responsibility in political thought. However, it has pointed out that the concept extends more widely than modern philosophical debates tend to acknowledge. Prospective responsibility relates to the fine-grained division of responsibilities involved in the different roles which people adopt in modern societies – above all, the different spheres of responsibility which we are given in the workplace. By the same token, responsibility has clearly become a very important virtue in modern societies.
Descartes' realized understanding of a thing that thinks is that a thing which thinks is a thing which doubts, understands [conceives], affirms, denies, which wills, refuses, imagines also, and perceives. This however is a very broad definition of thought. Descartes argues that thought is intimately connected with consciousness of the mind and the body. Descartes held the essence of body and mind to be extension and thought. Accordingly a thinking thing must be a conscious thing. While Descartes does not pontificate the details of such identity to the extent in which Locke does there is a very evident connection between his view of epistemology and identity.
Looking at the matter positively, we can also say that a person who exhibits the virtue of responsibility lives up to the three other aspects of responsibility in an exemplary way. First, she exercises the capacities of responsible moral agency to a model degree. Second, she approaches her previous actions and omissions with all due concern, being prepared to take responsibility for any failings she may have shown. And third, she takes her prospective responsibilities seriously, being both a capable judge of what she should do, and willing to act accordingly.
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