Rowman and Littlefield International

Against “Responsibility”

Published on Thursday 15 Feb 2018 by Frieder Vogelmann
"Only 150 years ago, our obsession with 'responsibility' would have been almost incomprehensible."


Why has “being responsible” become an imperative for all moral beings? Whether we think of citizens, politicians or consumers, all of them - in fact all moral subjects - are interpellated as responsible subjects, in philosophical discourse as well as in public debates or everyday talk.[1] And we don’t stop there: companies and nation states must be responsible, too, if they want our moral appraisal. Thus, we plead for “corporate social responsibility”, re-conceptualize “sovereignty as responsibility” or invent the “responsibility to protect”.[2]


Only 150 years ago, our obsession with “responsibility” would have been almost incomprehensible. For the longest time, “responsibility” [Verantwortung] was a marginal legal term first used in Germanic law. When it entered philosophy, it did so as a contested metaphysical concept of doubtful value in the free will debate and never quite fulfilled the high hopes pinned on it. In The Emotion and the Will, first published in 1859, Alexander Bain considered “responsibility” to be a fashionable modern version of “punishability” and hence superfluous.[3] John Stuart Mill agreed, yet thought the concept useful as a means to shift the free will debate to moral grounds. “Responsibility means punishment,”[4] Mill declared. Thus, if it really was connected to the question of free will, answers would have to be sought not in metaphysical quarrels but in empirical research in order to determine whether punishment really could better people.


The proliferation of “responsibility” picked up speed soon after its emergence as a moral concept, shortly before the beginning of the twentieth century. Still, it wasn’t as broadly used as today. In 1960, for example, Peter Geach chided H.L.A. Hart’s proposal to analyze the concept of actions as defeasible ascriptions of responsibility as overly dramatic:


“Now as regards hundreds of our voluntary or intentional acts, it would in fact be absurdly solemn, not to say melodramatic, to talk of imputation and exoneration and excuse, or for that matter of praise and reward. Ascribing an action to an agent just does not in general mean taking up a quasi-legal or quasi-moral attitude, and only a bad choice of examples could make one think otherwise.”[5]


These are just bits and pieces from the philosophical discourse on “responsibility” that we perhaps do not know as well as we tend to assume. They suggest that our use of “responsibility” has changed – hence the concept’s meaning is different as well. Yet for two reasons, it seems very hard to spot the differences. On the one hand, we tend to read back our understanding of “responsibility” into older texts. This seems innocent enough: does Hume not already use at least the verb? (He does once in the Treatise of Human Nature but it bears no argumentative or conceptual weight.[6]) Does Aristotle not already discuss the conditions of responsible actions? (He doesn’t, unless we pave over all historical distinctions and read his discussion of voluntary and involuntary action in “our” terms – as some do.) By reading back our understanding of “responsibility” we actively transform it into a necessity, instead learning from our contested history that we are, in many respects, freer than we think.


On the other hand, rendering the differences and, hence, this freedom visible would make us wonder what price we pay for our “era of responsibility”[7]. Strangely enough, although this question does get asked from time to time, those asking shy away from truly “ruthless criticism” as Marx famously called it: “ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.”[8] Even if we get scathing criticisms of “individual”, “forensic” or “neoliberal” responsibility, we always end up being served just another type of responsibility, be it “social”, “responsive” or “communal.” Yet, precisely with this move – from cold “accountability” to “responsive responsibility”, from “individual self-responsibility” to “social” responsibility for others and so on – our brave critics repeat history time and again, for a genealogy of the philosophical reflections on “responsibility” lays bare the constitutive ambivalence of responsibility to which all these oppositions can be reduced. From the very beginning of “responsibility” as a moral concept, it constitutes a relation to self that is both a relation of being subjugated (by myself, by the world around me or by others) and of subjugating (myself and others).


Filling out this sketch of an alternative history of “responsibility” is an important part of what I attempt in The Spell of Responsibility. However, merely looking at philosophy does not suffice. Since “responsibility” is such a treacherously familiar term in philosophy, because we are so used to using it and seem to know its preconditions so well, we tend to read our concept not just back into history but also into our contemporary practices outside philosophy. However, a closer look at “responsibility” in the sphere of labor or the practices of criminality reveals a striking departure from those supposedly necessary conceptual conditions declared by our philosophical reflections on “responsibility”. Hence, we need not only a detailed analysis of usages of “responsibility” in the non-philosophical practices of labor and criminality, but also to carefully consider their relationship to the philosophical reflections on “responsibility”.


To both get enough distance from the all too familiar concept of responsibility and be able to analyze philosophical practices on the same level as the practices of labor and criminality, The Spell of Responsibility uses a Foucauldian methodology. Seen from this “archaeological-genealogical” perspective, “responsibility” requires two subject positions: a “bearer” and an “attributor” of responsibility. The simple heuristic device enables us to see, I argue, that in the practices of labor, criminality and philosophy, the responsible relation to self of the bearer of responsibility has been intensified. Yet, whereas in the non-philosophical practices of labor and criminality the power relations between the “bearer” and the “attributor” of “responsibility” have been asymmetrically decoupled, thereby dissociating “responsibility” from “agency”, philosophy’s reflections on “responsibility” have fused both subject positions. This fuses “responsibility” and “agency”. Therefore, philosophy declares agency to be a conceptual precondition for “responsibility”, whereas in our non-philosophical practices this is by no means the case. This discrepancy leads philosophy to legitimate a concept with theoretical and practical effects very different from what it’s taken them to be. Because “responsibility” has become a key term in explicating philosophy itself and defending it against rival disciplines, the philosophical reflections on “responsibility” ignore this discrepancy. Thus, under the spell of responsibility, philosophy refuses to acknowledge the theoretical and practical effects of its devotion to “responsibility”.


Against this, ruthless criticism is needed; criticism that does not shy away from exposing what we become complicit in when we still use, defend and legitimate “responsibility”.



[1] See e.g. Hans Jonas, The Imperative of Responsibility. In Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age, trans. Hans Jonas and David Herr (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984) and Max Weber, “The Vocation of Politics,” in The essential Weber. A reader, ed. idem (London: Routledge, 2004). For a defense of “responsibility” as the necessary kernel of moral practices, see Jürgen Habermas, “The Language Game of Responsible Agency and the Problem of Free Will: How can epistemic dualism be reconciled with ontological monism?,” Philosophical Explorations 10, no. 1 (2007).

[2] See Peter A. French, “The Corporation as a Moral Person,” American Philosophical Quarterly 16, no. 3 (1979), Francis M. Deng, Sovereignty as Responsibility. Conflict Management in Africa (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1996) and ICISS, The Responsibility to Protect (Ottawa: International Development Research Centre, 2001) respectively.

[3] Alexander Bain, The Emotion and the Will, 2. ed. (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1865), 520.

[4] John Stuart Mill, An Examination of Sir William Hamilton’s Philosophy and of the Principal Philosophical Questions Discussed in his Writings (Toronto/Buffalo/London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979), 458.

[5] Peter Thomas Geach, “Ascriptivism,” The Philosophical Review 69, no. 2 (1960): 221.

[6] David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature. A Critical Edition, ed. David Fate Norton and Mary J. Norton, vol. 1 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2005), 2.3.2, 264.

[7] Barak Hussein Obama, “Inaugural Address,” ‹›.

[8] Marx in his letter to Ruge in September 1843, in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Marx and Engels: 1843–44, Collected Works (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1975), 142.