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I looked forward to reviewing this book. Having recently written a paper on issues related to responsibility, and at the time having had difficulties locating sufficient current reference material, this book was enticing.
Responsibility raises significant philosophical and practical issues. The closer one examines the concept, the more opaque it seems to become. Do we have individual responsibility; to what extent? Is responsibility linked primarily to the consequences of our actions or is there such a thing as 'responsibility in itself', and do we have similar responsibility whether or not we can predict the consequences of our actions? Is responsibility linked to duties (eg duty of care), if so are there also related rights and obligations? Is it entirely a moral or ethical issue or are there other domains that need to be considered? What about communal responsibility, how does this relate to individual responsibility? Is there such a thing as vicarious responsibility e.g. of a government on behalf of its electors or a parent on behalf of their children? These kinds of questions form the launching point for this book.
The book is an edited collection of papers presented at the Boston University Institute for Philosophy and Religion. As in any collection of papers there is some repetition between chapters, although the repetition is surprisingly little – which is probably an indication of the strong briefing authors had as well as the sound editing of the volume.
The book is presented in three sections:
1) responsibility and selfhood
2) responsible roles towards other human beings
3) responsibility towards nonhuman beings and the earth
The structure makes sense, to examine the self, the self in relation to others, and then the self and others in relation to the wider world.
Having begun with such promise, I soon began to wonder why the first section had been placed first. While it contained many interesting ideas, it gave the book a slow and sometimes laboured start. The first chapter, "Responsible Fictions" discusses the continuation of a person's identity over time and relates this to responsibility. "In order to be held responsible, the agent must remain self-identical over time." (p.15). The issue is that causality requires an identifiable link between past events with the present, and needs to be able to be transferred to moral and legal realms. Chapter 2 "Responsibility without a self" carries forward the argument of the first chapter and explores the ways Buddhists respond to the idea of responsibility and the links this has with accountability. This leads to the third chapter where responsibility is explored as relational virtuosity and the fourth chapter where biblical perspectives on responsibility are explored. The first section of the book did not seem to grab the potential of the theme and to my mind lacked inspired insights.
Then I started on section 2 and the book took off and really grabbed my attention. Chapter 5 "Moral Responsibility in a Democratic Society" explores the relationship between responsibility and the political life of a democracy. The responsibility of an individual for their actions is explored and then carried into a discussion of rights and obligations, of collective responsibly of a community and of the ways agents (such as elected governments) may become vicariously responsible when exercising decisions in the name of their electors. Transparency and accountability (both immediate an ongoing) are among of the issues explored in this chapter. This leads neatly onto the exploration of an Aristotelian perspective on responsibility for others in chapter 6. Chapter 7 presents a historian's perspective and discusses a number of issues associated with how we read history and how sympathetic or critical our reading might be. The point is made that we need to exercise our responsibility to history by establishing a sympathetic reading while at the same time developing our responsibility toward the future by developing a critical interpretation of history. This poses a number of challenges, which are addressed through practical examples. Medical ethics arrives as "a new kid on the block" (p.129), a relatively new area for consideration of responsible action. Tauber argues that medical ethics "has been preoccupied with asserting patient autonomy as the crucial principle governing clinical care and subordinating beneficence and physical responsibility." (p.129) the argument is that in medicine responsibility is based and built on trust as a moral category, and this needs to be retained or even recovered. Chapter 9 provides a very personal story of corporate responsibility – how corporations are able to take leadership on issues in a responsible fashion and nevertheless satisfy their obligations towards shareholders, employees, customers, supplies and the wider public.
The diversity of material in section 2 of the book, and yet the obvious links between the ideas made this the strongest and most interesting part of the book.
Part 3 is focused on our responsibility to / for the non-human world. It takes its starting point from comments made by Heidegger and uses accounts given by Descartes and Thoreau to explore human interactions with the non-human world. This leads into Rockefeller's argument in Chapter 11 that we need to develop a new social and ecological responsibility. One way of achieving this is through the Earth Charter. Given both our personal and social freedoms and responsibilities, in the context of our global interconnectedness, we need to develop new approaches to moral issues. The story of the earth charter is presented and the charter itself is printed. Underlying this is the growing importance of the role of the United Nations in global politics and in addressing emerging global moral issues. The role of the United Nations could have been further explored.
For me, this third section could also have addressed some wider issues such as our specific responsibilities towards animals, our responsibilities in the ways we use animals, our responsibilities towards the earth's natural resources and the ways these impinge on other moral and political responsibilities. These are all issues open for debate and will not be resolved by a charter. A charter will establish areas of agreed principles which may be used to set policy directions.
Overall, this book was well worth reading for section 2 alone. Section 3 was interesting but could have been expanded. And, while I am well aware of the significance of issues discussed in section 1, it simply did not inspire my imagination in the particular way that the issues were presented.
© 2007 Erich von Dietze
Erich von Dietze (PhD), Manager, Research Ethics, Murdoch University, Western Australia
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