Responsibility in a complex world

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Responsibility has many facets, and it is typical of our current moral system that those facets interact so that people can be held responsible for their individual choices. This makes it possible to bring individuality and a social collective together in an ethically sound way. Yet there are developments that challenge the prevalence of this moral system. Especially as it becomes easier for individuals to shift their responsibility, because of the increasing complexity of everyday life. However, it is precisely the difficulty of anticipating the consequences of your actions that makes it necessary to actively assume responsibility − it is your moral duty, not only to solve important social problems, but also to preserve our moral system.

What can you do as an individual about the climate problem? Why are rules so often more important than people? Should you blame someone for making the wrong choice under high pressure? Can you hold an inventor accountable if his innovation leads to misery?

These are all questions that have to do with individual responsibility. It is not surprising that there are questions, it is a concept that is difficult to grasp. This is mainly because there are different meanings that are related, but still imply something slightly different. The easiest way to interpret these different meanings is to distinguish between causal responsibility, accountability and moral responsibility.

Causal responsibility refers to the contribution of an individual to a particular situation. For example, if I kick the ball past the goalkeeper, then I am causally responsible for the goal. Even if I hit the ball wrong and passed my own goalkeeper, I am still responsible for that event.

Accountability concerns the possibility that I can be held responsible for my action afterwards. If my shot turns out to be an own goal, my fellow players or my coach will come to me with the question: ‘Why did you do that ?!’ I have to answer for my deed afterwards. I can do s0 by giving good reasons, for instance that I tried to kick the ball in another direction, but hit it wrongly. This is a reason that could be accepted. If I say that I ‘also wanted to score a goal’, then it will probably not be accepted. In such a case, I did not act responsibly.

Moral responsibility is about the intention with which you perform your action. Whereas causal responsibility is about the moment at which the action takes place and accountability is about the assessment of the action afterwards, moral responsibility is about estimating the action beforehand. The question is to which extent the choice you make enables you to pursue a goal, a value or a result, without crossing moral boundaries. The essence of a free, intentional choice is that you could have made another choice. This because there was no outside pressure or because there were realistic alternatives.

Intentionally scoring an own goal is an irresponsible act, but if there were three stronger opponents in my area and I could never have hit the ball properly, or if the fans of the opponent threaten to kill my family if I don’t score my own goal, I will not be held responsible.

The idea is that the three forms of responsibility coincide and thus ensure continuity between past, present and future, as well as continuity between the individual, her action and the group to which the individual belongs. This is especially important when something goes wrong, such as in the case of scoring an own goal, because moral responsibility for failure feels like a burden. First, there is the possibility of a penalty, for my own goal I get scolded by teammates or I’ll be substituted by the coach − an outlook that isn’t appealing. Above all, a wrong choice can give rise to regret, perhaps the most gnawing in the repertoire of human emotions. The realization that you have selected the wrong option from a variety of options irrevocably confronts you with your own weaknesses. We would rather not choose at all than run the risk of choosing wrongly.

Enough about football. What matters most is that in modernity, the era that arose with the Enlightenment, the threefold idea of ​​responsibility has become the starting point of moral thinking. This has become so normal that we often forget how revolutionary this is.

After all, it has always been completely common that no causal relationship between an individual’s action, a particular event, was needed to establish culpable behaviour. Until 1700, witches were prosecuted for misery they could do little about. Until the beginning of the 20th century, animals were tried for their actions, despite the fact that animals actually only act on the basis of instinct and therefore have little freedom in their choices.

Contemporary cases such as honour killings in which someone is punished for the things a family member has done or racism in which an individual is primarily seen as a member of a certain group are examples of a mismatch between the three forms of responsibility. On the basis of our current moral principles, we can therefore categorize these matters as wrong without further ado.

These moral principles have not only shaped our moral thinking, but above all they have been used as design criteria for the main institutional domains. The sphere of the law is paradigmatic here, with liability as a dedicated form of accountability. In this, an individual may be asked to answer in court for her actions. The judge or jury checks whether unwelcome outcomes of those acts are culpable.

Also parliamentary democracy, the free market and science function as accountability structures, in the sense that within these domains persons can be held accountable as individuals for their actions, respectively through elections, competition and peer review.

The existence of these types of accountability structures helps individuals to develop their moral responsibility. By including the possibility of punishment afterwards in the considerations of taking a particular action, individuals will behave more virtuously.

Such a punishment afterwards can be a legal sanction, but also being voted out, bankruptcy or rejection by a scientific journal. If you do something wrong, you can be held accountable for it, so you better do the best you can.

The relationship between causal responsibility, accountability and moral responsibility is an ideal. Reality, as always, is disorderly and very often it is all too difficult to reconcile intentions, causes and reasons.

It simply is a given that the world is extremely complex. It is often difficult to determine which action led to which outcome, usually it involves a combination of numerous interwoven actions. What exactly was the intention of your actions often remains hidden, also to yourself. Which reasons are accepted is often a matter of arbitrariness rather than reason.

For example, in many events it is impossible to determine the causal contribution of an individual person. This is because we often act as part of a larger whole, such as an organization, a group, a community. To what extent are you responsible if you do what you are told, if you do things that are considered normal within your group or if there is peer pressure to behave in a certain way? Take a look at the climate problem. As an individual you don’t produce a lot of CO2, but with billions of people who each produce an average of 4.4 tons, it becomes a huge problem. As an individual you may want to change, but this intention is of little use.

With all this complexity, it is also becoming increasingly difficult to oversee the consequences of your choices. Think of the inventor of the combustion engine, is he responsible for all CO2 emissions? Perhaps causally, because if he hadn’t, we might not have had the climate problem (but probably ended up with an enormous coal shortage), but it is certainly not reasonable to hold him responsible him for his invention. But what about the fake news on Facebook or YouTube? Unemployment among taxi drivers because of Uber? The inconvenience of tourists due to Airbnb?

Another issue is the extent to which you can blame people for doing what everyone else is doing. We are all part of economic, cultural and political systems that limit our freedom of choice. You may wonder whether the choice to go on holiday by plane is actually a free choice when the alternatives are so much more expensive.

You can also ask yourself to what extent our actions are genuinely intentional. Does our consciousness actually give orders to our brains? Or is it the other way around? Often the latter, in those cases we try to find out afterwards why we actually did why we did what we did.

In the long term it is not really a problem that accountabilitystructures do not function flawlessly. These structures work in a ‘counterfactual’ manner, we assume that they work, even if they sometimes don’t work. In comparison, think about the case of lying. Of course we don’t always speak the truth, but when we have a conversation with someone, we still assume that they are not lying – otherwise we would not be able to have a normal conversation at all. Similarly, most scientists know that the peer review system is far from perfect, but few scientists would want to do without it. Instead, they want a system that works better. And there is indeed room for improvement because within accountability structures, the relationship between causality, intention and sanction is continuously tested and adjusted if necessary.

Here too the judicial sphere is the most illustrative. The judge has to determine to what extent someone can be held responsible for an act. Is someone who kills another while sleepwalking a murderer? Causally, yes, but not morally, because there does not seem to be a deliberate action. But what about a mentally challenged person who ends up in a criminal environment? Can such a person give good reasons for his actions? And if not, is she culpable? It is a constant search whether causes and intentions can be related.

I have also stated earlier that it is not a problem that we often reconstruct our motives afterwards and very often, perhaps almost always, do not really act intentionally. After all, these retrospective reconstructions are the good reasons you can put forward if you are held accountable for something. In this way you learn what good reasons are, you train your subconscious moral intuitions and you will make better choices over time.


In the long term, institutions and our unconscious motivations can be adjusted, but in the short term the complexity surrounding responsibility causes ever-increasing problems. If it is not clear whether you are causally responsible somewhere and you know that you will therefore not be held accountable or will be held less accountable, then it quickly becomes easy to pass on the moral responsibility as well.

The fear of punishment or regret leads to risk-averse behaviour, aided by the pervasive complexity of everyday life. This changes institutions in an essential way, instead of structures that make it possible to test the good reasons that can be given for actions, they become structures in which rules take on a life of their own. Institutions become bureaucracies. This leads to a loss of trust in the institutions in their operation as accountability structures. As a result, people become even less willing to act morally responsible. When institutions no longer serve the goal of sharpening the intuitions of individuals, genuine regret disappears. Punishment is then the only thing left. A ‘sorry culture’ emerges, in which expressions of regret are mainly instrumental to receive less severe punishments.

If people are given the opportunity to pass off their moral responsibility, few will feel called upon to do something. This can mean that urgent crises, such as the climate problem, are not tackled effectively. It simply takes too long for our institutions to adjust and our behavioural patterns to change.

What can we do? Earlier I stated that we should restore the virtue of forgiveness. After all, that would mean that errors do not automatically lead to punishment. But more than that, it is necessary for individuals to take the moral responsibility to act, ready to be held accountable afterwards. In short, we have to turn things around: complexity cannot be used as an excuse for not taking responsibility, it is a motivation to take moral responsibility. After all, we cannot rely on causality and liability in many real-life cases any longer.

It is not about taking a gamble, where you run the risk of losing a lot, but where there is also the possibility of a lot of profit. That would make it all easier, but the possibility of a quick profit is usually not there. It is about the necessity, the moral duty, that someone feels to contribute to solving a problem. The regret for not doing anything should be greater than the regret of any failure. We must dare to admit the emotion of regret − no matter how unpleasant regret may be.

For example, we have to find out for ourselves how we can emit less CO2, however futile our contribution may be. We also have to face that we ourselves are the one looking for cheap excuses if we screw up. Don’t blame the other person. We must find out how we can deal with the unpredictability of the consequences of our actions in a different way.

It is not just about solving urgent problems. It is also a moral duty to uphold the moral principles that are important to us. After all, if trust in institutions continues to crumble, the entire moral system will collapse even further.

Further reading:

Bovens, M. A. P. (1998). The Quest for Responsibility: Accountability and Citizenship in Complex Organisations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jonas, H. (1985). The Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Owen, R., Macnaghten, P., & Stilgoe, J. (2012). Responsible research and innovation: From science in society to science for society, with society. Science and Public Policy, 39(6), 751-760.

Pesch, U. (2005). The Predicaments of Publicness. An Inquiry into the Conceptual Ambiguity of Public Administration. Delft: Eburon.

Pesch, U. (2015). Engineers and Active Responsibility. Science and Engineering Ethics, 21(4), 925-939. doi:10.1007/s11948-014-9571-7

Van de Poel, I., Nihlén Fahlquist, J., Doorn, N., Zwart, S., & Royakkers, L. (2012). The Problem of Many Hands: Climate Change as an Example. Science and Engineering Ethics, 18(1), 49-67. doi:10.1007/s11948-011-9276-0

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