Sunday, April 28, 2013

Real Responsibility

Taking responsibility for the consequences of what we do – or don't do – is often portrayed as optional, yet I would argue that responsibility, in the most basic sense, is synonymous with causality. The only thing that's optional is what we choose to do about it.

An observer of the consequences of my actions will, given the proper tools and enough time, be able to trace those consequences back to my actions, and to me, regardless of whether or not I choose to accept that my actions led to the consequences. That I took the actions makes me responsible for the consequences, just as not taking the actions would make me responsible for the consequences not occurring.

I may not have been aware of the link between my actions and its consequences, and may still not be. That's irrelevant in determining responsibility, but it does offer a way for me to decide whether or not to take the actions in the future. If I refuse to learn about the link, I am surrendering awareness and the ability to make conscious decisions about the events I cause, which risks my being responsible for far more than I'm willing to accept.

Because consequences can include damage and death, it is reasonable for any system (such as a society or ecosystem) that could suffer such consequences to restrict the ability and willingness of its members to take actions that cause them. Restricting ability can involve limiting access to the resources that enable the action. Restricting willingness can involve providing personal feedback that either makes alternatives more attractive or makes the taking of the action more unattractive (which in extreme cases can include pain or threat of death, which is on a smaller scale than the potential consequences for the system). Similarly, actions whose consequences have the potential to improve the condition of a system can be encouraged, by providing positive feedback to its members, making alternatives less attractive, and providing more resources for taking those actions.

This should be kept in mind any time someone says they are willing to assume "personal responsibility," implicitly asking for the freedom to act without interference from society. Are they capable of anticipating the consequences of their actions, as their statement implies? Are the consequences positive or at least neutral for the people experiencing them? If the answers to either of these questions is "no," then it is dangerous to let them proceed, and we will be just as responsible for the outcome if we don't stop them.

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