Link to the University of Pittsburgh
Jesus College, University of Cambridge

Keyword: Responsibility

Responsibility and related adjective responsible are important terms in law, philosophy and politics, as well as in more general non-technical use. For example, they are difficult words in news reporting and discussion of avoidable disasters, crimes, accidents and alleged medical or corporate negligence. Understandably victims and relatives often wish to hold to account those judged to be responsible, in circumstances where whoever was responsible is not considered to have acted responsibly. Part of the challenge in seeking to hold people to account in this way is that, in present-day English, while both responsibility and responsible have strands of meaning that intersect with duty and accountability, they also showing partial synonymy with morality terms like ethical and elusive descriptors of standards such as reasonable. At the same time, responsibility may also convey a concept of moral agency, associated both with clinical and philosophical assessments of mental capacity and culpability.

According to the OED, the noun responsibility is first attested in English in mid 17c, derived from adjective responsible, from around a century earlier. Etymologically, both forms can be traced to a French legal term which carried senses approximating to ‘answerable, accountable’, with the French term ultimately derived from the past participle form of classical Latin respondere:‘answer, reply (in a formal or official capacity)’. Early citations of responsible in English, as with its French counterpart, show frequent legal use, particularly in relation to money: a responsible person is one who is financially trustworthy and capable of fulfilling financial obligations. By 18c, both the French and English words show the complex range of related senses that characterise their use in modern times.

In a change from its earliest uses in English, however, the adjective responsible is now most frequently followed by the preposition for. Data from the BNC (British National Corpus), as well as from basic Google searches, show that responsible for x accounts for more than 70% of occurrences. This pattern is found from mid 17c, and shows the development of the sense ‘having an obligation to do something, or having control over or care for someone’. The resulting concept has two facets: legal and philosophical treatments of responsibility distinguish between prospective responsibility and retrospective or historic responsibility. The firstinvolves creating and allocating duties and obligations: if for example an employee is given responsibility for health and safety in a workplace, or a government minister has responsibility for Education, he/she is expected to perform or oversee specific tasks as they arise, i.e. the responsibilities of the job. Retrospective responsibility, by contrast, is closely related to liability, and concerns the failure of a person or group of people to do something which they were expected to do: if a person is held responsible, they are blamed for an event or situation. This relatively clear distinction between prospective and retrospective responsibility nevertheless masks potential ambiguity regarding the required role of a responsible party, who may directly cause things to happen, or have only a more distant, overseeing role. A murderer who is responsible for several deaths has caused them, and can be said to be directly responsible or to have sole responsibility. On the other hand, a director of a bank who is responsible for the bank’s failure may not have done anything him/herself to cause the failure, but has been negligent in supervising employees whose actions are to blame: the director is ultimately or indirectly responsible, or may be held to have overall responsibility. Without use of modifiers in a given context, it is not always clear which meaning is intended. For example, after an investigation into the fixing of interest rates by banks in June 2012, the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne said in a statement that, ‘Those responsible should be held responsible’; in itself, however, this did not indicate whether lower-level bank employees such as traders, or higher-level employees such as the CEO, or both, should be inferred.

Alternatively, responsible can occur with the preposition to. Such use specifies the institution or individual imposing the duties, and in this way makes explicit the relevant aspect of hierarchy or social structure. For example, a head teacher may be responsible to a board of governors. In constructions without to, an unspecified higher authority or body is merely implied. The notion of responsible government relates to a government answerable to Parliament, while parental responsibility is less clear, and may be considered to be responsibility for children but to both those children and society more generally.

A key element of the current meaning of responsibility - one which distinguishes it from partial synonyms like accountable and liable - is its association with morality and morally correct behaviour. ‘Moral obligation’ appears to have emerged as an identifiable sense during 18c, and is often intended where responsible and responsibility occur without any following prepositional phrase for/to: a person or body considered morally virtuous might be described as responsible or as having a (strong) sense of responsibility. This meaningoverlaps with ethical and with moral. In fact, a notion of morality colours many uses of responsibility and responsible, with frequent collocates reflecting the popular idea that not only individuals (who might show personal responsibility) but also governments and corporations have a duty to behave in a morally prudent way, even if there may be no clear consensus as to what this means in practice. It is generally recognised that legal and moral responsibility may not coincide, although it is a widespread conception that one should inform the other.

Corporate responsibility cuts institutionally and politically across these various threads of meaning. It is not restricted to legal or financial obligation but has moral entailments as well, and is often viewed as a liberal concern. Pressures groups such as CORE (the Corporate Responsibilities Coalition), an alliance of voluntary organisations, trade unions and companies set up in 2001, actively campaign for legislation to protect the rights of workers, communities and the environment. Social and collective responsibility and responsible citizenship place the needs and priorities of the group above those of the individual, and also often imply attention to environmental concerns, as the Responsiblecitizen website illustrates: its guide to responsible citizenship identifies three strands - of legal, social and moral obligation - noting that moral obligations are ‘harder to pin down because different people have different moral codes. But one place we can all start is in helping the environment.’ The phrases financial responsibility and fiscal responsibility, on the other hand,have very different resonances, and are associated with conservative ideals to the extent that they valorise restraint on public borrowing and public spending. Responsibility is also found as a count noun in the expression rights and responsibilities, a phrase which is used by political groups on both left and right (as well as by non-political organisations and individuals), and is particularly associated with discussion of the welfare state.

A specific development in the meaning of responsibility which bridges the senses ‘accountability, blameworthiness’ and ‘moral obligation’ can be seen in the legal phrase diminished responsibility. This is a defence that can be invoked where an individual is not in possession of full mental agency and cannot be held to be fully in control of their actions; the equivalent plea in US military law is lack of mental responsibility. The underlying idea of responsibility as agency has its origins in mid 18c, and has been explored in philosophical discussion of responsibility that investigates the role of free will vs. determinism in an individual’s actions. Responsibility in this sense is central to clinical opinions about mental and behavioural disorders. For example, in Hare’s Revised Psychopathy Checklist, widely used as a tool in legal and clinical diagnoses, one attribute of a psychopath is ‘failure to accept responsibility for own actions’; another is ‘a tendency to transfer responsibility to others’, part of the condition labelled ‘dependent personality disorder’ in the World Health Organisation’s International Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (10th edition). 

Across these various meanings, responsibility is a vague and increasingly difficult term, whose meanings are complicated by often occurring in contexts and collocations which play off one meaning against another. Yet the word’s importance is beyond doubt. The present cultural importance of responsibility seems greater than ever, apparently motivated by anxiety regarding what values underpin social order, a concern reflected in newly-coined expressions and not least by calls during the past decade – a period of serious financial collapse and recession – for a responsibility revolution in business.