Research Paper on Responsibility

This sample research paper on Responsibility features 3900 words (13 pages) and a bibliography with 29 sources.

Responsibility has emerged as a central ethical category, directing attention to human beings as moral actors. It highlights the importance for ethical understanding of self-conscious moral commitments, discretion in moral judgment, personal strengths necessary to effective action, a wise use of the power and authority of societal offices, and accountability to oneself and to fellow human beings, perhaps also to God, for moral judgment and action. Discussions of responsibility do not displace systematic treatments of moral principles, laws, and rules; neither do they set aside critical studies of values worthy of promotion in human affairs. They recast these inquiries in terms of the personal lives and social roles of human beings.

Themes associated with responsibility have long been prominent in philosophical and religious discourse, though in different conceptual forms. Especially important are accounts of the moral and intellectual virtues, of moral character, and of the obedient or resolute wills of the upright (Aristotle; Aquinas; Calvin; Kant; cf. Cohen). Also relevant are themes elaborated in conceptions of moral law, including natural law; in notions of the orders of nature or creation; in interpretations of divine commandments and ordinances; and in treatments of God’s covenant with Israel, or of the Christian idea of a new covenant in Jesus Christ (Aristotle; Aquinas; Brunner; Haring). Contemporary accounts of responsibility weave these classic themes together in ways that take account of modern social realities, and that utilize theories of action provided by the human sciences.

In regard to modern realities, the concept of responsibility corresponds to social complexity, which routinely generates problems with more features than any system of moral rules can encompass. It fits well with advanced technologies and high levels of specialization, where expert knowledge and skill are indispensable to moral judgment. Responsibility takes account of open spaces within democratic and free-market settings for individuals and groups to follow independent initiatives in the pursuit of cherished social goals. It accords with modern social theory, which conceives of social institutions—the state, business enterprises, special-interest associations, even families and religious bodies—as the constructions of autonomous individuals contracting for mutual advantage. Finally, responsibility can accommodate reflections on the moral ambiguities of the social and organizational contexts that structure human activity. In respect to each of these characteristics, themes relating to responsibility take on considerable importance.

The concept of responsibility enjoys prominence, then, because it can draw together a wide range of ethical ideas in a fashion pertinent to contemporary social existence. For some thinkers it serves as the unifying principle of a comprehensive ethical theory (cf. Niebuhr; Jonsen). Responsibility virtually becomes the first principle of ethics, so that the admonition “Be responsible!” conveys all that needs to be said about the moral life (Jonsen; cf. Glatzer). The theoretical task is to unfold the dimensions of responsibility in their bearing on personal and social processes.

The dimensions of responsibility appear both in the personal lives of individuals and in the roles, positions, and offices that order social institutions. All of these dimensions may not be explicit in a particular ethical theory, though most enter into discussion at some point. For religious thinkers, responsibility includes relationship to God, which uncovers a theological basis for ethical understanding.


At the most elementary level, responsible persons are those who recognize and carry out their duties. Duties define the moral requisites of human social existence: what we normally must do, no matter what else we might hope to accomplish, and what we normally may not do, regardless of our larger objectives. Moral duties can be qualified or set aside only when exceptional steps are necessary to secure the values they are designed to protect. Thus, medical procedures normally may not be performed without a patient’s informed consent, even if the patient’s life is at risk. However, in a medical emergency, they may be performed without consent, provided the patient is unable to respond and there is no one present with authority to decide on his or her behalf.

Duties are formulated as laws, regulations, and rules, perhaps in conjunction with underlying moral principles. Responsible persons abide by moral principles in their personal lives. They pay special attention to principles and rules linked to their social roles: parent, spouse, physician, research scientist, junior executive at a medical center, senator. They support collective efforts to uphold moral standards that order human activities in institutional contexts (cf. Beauchamp and Childress). For those who are religious, moral duties may derive their ultimate authority from divine purposes.


Within the constraints of moral principles and rules, responsibility consists in the reliable performance of assumed or assigned tasks. We may speak of our tasks as our responsibilities. Responsible persons know what needs to be done, they appreciate its significance, they proceed on their own, they get the job done, and they do it well (Jonsen).

Some tasks are broad and open-ended: sustaining a good marriage; bearing and nurturing children; promoting the public good as a citizen, public servant, or professional. Others are specialized, such as the practice of pediatric medicine. Some may be narrowly focused, for example, the execution of insurance claims. Even specialized tasks lack clear limits. When do physicians know enough to be confident that they are providing optimal care for their patients? When have they done enough to promote life, health, and healing? Responsible persons maintain standards of excellence in relation to expectations associated with their social roles. Those who are religious may further connect their tasks with a vocation to serve a wider, divine purpose in all areas of their lives.

General Well-being

In conjunction with explicit moral commitments and role-determined assignments, responsible persons strive for just, fair, and good conditions where they live and work. They seek to bring about and maintain states of affairs that favor human well-being, perhaps the well-being of all creatures. Similarly, they resist and, where possible, seek to change circumstances that do harm to fellow human beings, even to other living creatures. They strive to improve the execution of tasks, and to see that basic moral imperatives are honored in everyday social interactions. Those who are religious may be sustained in their quest for a greater good by their hope in the promises of God.

Thus, a physician’s responsibility does not end with patient care or with professional relationships wherein standards of quality care are maintained. It includes a public interest in the healthcare system as a whole, and in its ability to provide appropriate services for all people. More broadly, it embraces the promotion of human health in basic life patterns.


Responsibility is about personal commitment. It expresses human care about the moral life (cf. Fingarette). Those who are responsible claim their duties and tasks as their own, as ways of acting that are internal to who they have become and are becoming (Gustafson; cf. Jonsen).

Classic ethical theories dealt with commitment either in terms of moral virtues (Aristotle; Aquinas) or in terms of the resolute will (Calvin; Kant; cf. Novak). Moral virtues are habits, stable ways of acting that accord with the good. They derive their energy from passions that have been perfected through disciplined practice, until an actor is disposed to do the good as a kind of second nature. In terms of normative content, the central moral virtue is justice, the disposition to grant to each person what he or she is due.

In Judaism and in Reformed Protestant thought, the basic commitment to do the good has been defined not as habit or disposition but as volition, a self-conscious determination to do one’s duty in all things. Here the aim is not to shape the passions but to control them. Immanuel Kant gave these latter traditions philosophical form by speaking of the unqualified value of the “good will,” that is, the will ever ready to do what the moral law commands (Kant).

Modern psychological theories generally set aside accounts of the self that isolate discrete virtues or particular psychic functions, such as the will. They portray the self as a complex, dynamic process in which a centered unity can be only a relative achievement (cf. Wallwork). Post-Freudian thinkers place special emphasis on the formative power of human relationships in these complex dynamics (cf. Erikson; Winnicott; Kohut; Chodorow). Thus, our moral commitments are integral to the relational bonds that form and sustain us as human beings. We come to understand these commitments through our life stories, including both family stories and the stories of communities to which we belong. It is by means of narrative that we apprehend and claim our moral identities (Taylor; Ricoeur).

Psychological perspectives substantially inform ethical discussions of responsibility (cf. Fingarette; Rouner; Wallwork; Taylor). They render more intelligible seemingly irrational features of human behavior: individuals acting in socially inappropriate ways or in ways that work against their self-conscious purposes (cf. Fingarette). They help us grasp dynamics that leave some persons virtually incapable of consistent care for the good, and hence unable to respond to concrete situations with moral sensitivity. In other instances, persons may profess moral concern, yet find themselves internally torn, deeply ambivalent, or emotionally empty. They lack focused energy to carry out the good they claim to honor.

In classic thought, such cases either revealed bad habits, called vices (Aristotle; Aquinas), or they represented the bondage of the will to sinful inclinations (Augustine; Calvin; Luther; cf. Kant). Modern perspectives introduce notions of pathology to account for this “irresponsible” behavior. They offer neither moral admonition nor judgment but therapy, a supportive relationship wherein a skilled professional helps a patient gain insight into the internal conflicts that impel him or her to destructive behavior. Therapy provides resources for self-discovery that open the way to mature moral concern (cf. Fingarette; Wallwork). Through processes of self-discovery we reconnect with values and relationships that give identity and significance to human life.

Moral commitment involves social roles and offices. Responsible persons incorporate into their personal identities moral principles and values that are linked to positions they occupy. Social roles, like social institutions, are invariably marred by moral ambiguities. They gain their moral import from the fact that despite their ambiguity, they serve a greater good, at least by minimizing harm. Responsible actors seek to advance the moral promise of their offices while resisting their morally questionable tendencies.


Responsibility presumes that we have the personal strengths and the requisite skills to carry out our duties and to perform our tasks. Classic traditions of moral virtue and volition focus on distinctively moral strengths. In volitional approaches, the pivotal strength is willpower, the determination to control any fears, desires, even natural inclinations, that might distract us from our duty. Those who are religious seek divine support for moral rectitude.

In theories of virtue, moral strength derives from an ability to harness the passions in the service of purposive activity (Aristotle; Aquinas). On the one hand, responsibility requires personal toughness, perseverance, courage. These strengths stem from a natural, organic combativeness that through practice has been shaped into a virtue. If we lack such strength, the pressures, threats, and risks common to social existence will force us to shrink from the proper performance of basic tasks and duties. For example, a physician might remain silent after witnessing a senior colleague’s failure to observe minimal professional standards in practice. Although the physician cares about standards, he or she cannot bear the stresses of a formal complaint. Courage equips us to follow through on our commitments, even those that entail danger.

On the other hand, responsibility requires self-control, the ability to restrain our wants, desires, and feelings when they dispose us to betray our commitments. Here, too, we develop self-control or temperance through practice. We learn to shape our wants and desires to accord with the larger good toward which we aspire. Without self-control we are unreliable. Our desires continually override good judgment, perhaps even impelling us to harmful actions (cf. Aristotle; Aquinas).

Because of an attraction to a patient, a psychiatrist violates sexual boundaries that define professional relationships. A research scientist falsifies research data or makes improper use of the findings of others in order to advance his or her career. In the interest of increased income, a specialist in internal medicine proposes medical procedures of dubious merit to a dying patient. Responsibility requires the discipline to restrain our wants for the sake of our moral integrity.

Modern psychological theories deal with similar phenomena, although with greater emphasis on the complex dynamics, including interpersonal relationships, that figure so prominently in our makeup. As a result, moral strengths appear less as matters of personal accomplishment and more as functions of self-formation in relationships. As inherently social beings, we derive both courage and self-control from human bonds that cohere with our moral purposes (cf. Kohut; Chodorow; Rouner; Glatzer).

Personal strengths are not limited to emotional resources or volitional restraints. They embrace intellectual capacities, general and specialized knowledge, competence in oral and written communication, self-confidence, self-esteem, the mastery of skills crucial to typical tasks, physical strength and agility, energy, stamina, and manual dexterity.

We may not associate all of these elements with the moral life, yet they profoundly affect a person’s ability to act. The responsible life includes, therefore, a commitment to cultivate native talents and abilities, and to devise ways of mitigating disabilities. Similarly, social responsibility requires policies that enhance human potential for effectiveness: opportunities for education and advanced training; specialized equipment and physical arrangements for persons hampered by “handicapping conditions”; nondiscriminatory practices regarding race, gender, ethnic origin, age, religious identification, and sexual orientation.

Responsibility for personal strengths includes self-care and discipline in holding personal and professional commitments to manageable levels. Mistakes, indiscretions, intemperate and abusive behavior, even addictive and self-destructive patterns, are more likely when we habitually overextend ourselves. Personal strengths are indispensable to the good we are disposed to do. They also allow us to broaden our moral commitments, perhaps to assume leadership in promoting the common good.


The human capacity to act derives from social offices and positions as well as from personal strengths (cf. Brunner; Bonhoeffer). Responsible persons are attentive to power dynamics that operate in their interactions with colleagues, associates, and employees, as well as with patients, clients, customers, and users of services. They resist abuses of power in these interactions and draw upon the resources of their offices to promote justice and the common good. They model fairness and concern for general well-being in their own activities; they commend similar practices by others.


Responsibility involves sound judgment about the good to be done in concrete situations. Our ability to judge depends upon stable moral commitments and personal strengths to act on those commitments. It is affected by the perceptions of those to whom we are closely related, and also by interests that structure our business, professional, and political activities. Yet judgment is still a distinct skill, a “practical intellectual virtue” cultivated through practice (Aristotle; Aquinas).

Moral judgment operates in a number of ways, all of which involve the creative imagination and accumulated practical wisdom of morally mature individuals. It consists in the interpretation and application to concrete cases of laws, regulations, and rules that define moral duties (cf. Ramsey). These regulations may be borne by the common culture or the culture of professional practice; they may also be codified in public law or in the operating procedures of complex organizations, such as hospitals. The task is to discern what is at stake in these regulations so that they can appropriately inform particular moral judgments. Interpretation generally leads to a search for principles that disclose what is morally at stake in various regulations, for example, the claim that these regulations protect conditions essential to human existence and well-being.

By their very nature, principles, laws, and rules are abstract. It is not uncommon, therefore, to confront cases that are not adequately covered by existing regulations. Moral judgment may then consist in the construction of new rules that can inform our responses to these problem cases. The new rules may represent reformulations or extensions of familiar standards. They may consist of novel directives derived from elemental moral principles. The goal is to furnish stable guidelines for dealing with an emerging class of cases in the context of changing social circumstances. Bioethics continually confronts such challenges as it responds to enlarged technical capacities within biomedical practice.

Some cases are sufficiently distinct that they are best treated as exceptions to the rules. Moral judgment then entails adapting the rules to take account of variables that define the exception. Through experience, we learn to distinguish genuine exceptions from sets of cases that expose problems with existing rules. For the latter, we must rethink the rules, devising fresh formulations suited to the new cases.

In many life contexts, such as biomedical practice, we regularly deal with so many specific variables that general principles and rules cease to prove helpful as guides to moral judgment. Especially important are cases where conflicting values and disvalues are likely to result from any conceivable course of action, such as the treatment of the terminally ill or experiments with promising medical procedures that invariably have negative side effects. Practical wisdom for handling such cases emerges through experience accumulated in the treatment of similar cases. By evaluating a significant number of cases, we increase our ability to isolate variables pertinent for assessing each new case. This pattern of moral judgment is continuous with classic traditions of casuistry, or case reasoning. Casuistry locates moral judgment in the comparative study of recognizable classes of cases that require human decision and action (cf. Jonsen and Toulmin). Medical centers now institutionalize casuistic thinking through case conferences and regular consultations with specialists and advisers.


H. Richard Niebuhr dramatizes the social matrix of action. We act in response to actions upon us and in anticipation of further responses to our own actions in ongoing social interactions. In this interactive framework, moral judgment involves responsiveness, self-conscious attempts to draw upon the perceptions and experiences of others in our own deliberations (cf. Gilligan). Responsiveness is best realized in conversation among representative actors in a situation. The conversation is not primarily an occasion for debate, in which the stronger positions defeat the weaker until the most cogent prevails. Its purpose is to facilitate vision. It may confirm widely held judgments, yet it may uncover matters that have been concealed, clarify phenomena that have been obscured, and bring to awareness considerations previously passed over.

Responsiveness begins with the attempt to understand what is going on. It does not presume that the morally important issues in a situation are obvious. Through conversation we surface the pivotal issues and construct ways of portraying them to ourselves and others. Historical studies and social analyses inform these efforts. The account we provide of the situation sets the stage for a consideration of appropriate responses.

Responsive judgments are guided by the notion of what is fitting. The fitting action may be largely self-evident once we have grasped what is morally at stake in a situation. Yet it may emerge only gradually, through the thoughtful balancing of multiple variables with their negative and positive features. Moral imagination and discernment are as important to this balancing process as are conceptual precision and logical rigor. The reasoning involved, moreover, is often more akin to weaving a tapestry than to forging a chain. Various strands of thinking supplement, complement, and perhaps clash with one another within a complete configuration. A fitting response is integral to that configuration. It consists of the most promising means of negotiating multiple considerations. For Niebuhr, fitting actions are also responses to God, the center of values that bestows authority on all values.

Responsiveness gains moral urgency from the partial, even distorted, nature of all human viewpoints. Biases rooted in special interests plague our most sincere efforts to promote justice. For example, a white male medical establishment gave lower priority to breast cancer than to prostate cancer. In studying heart disease, it focused on male rather than female subjects. Exalting scientific advances and technical achievements, the U.S. healthcare system institutionalizes almost unlimited care for those with comprehensive health coverage while failing to offer basic care for the poor. Other biases—racial, ethnic, religious—have distorted biomedical practices from time to time. We overcome socially mediated biases by responsiveness to the voices of those previously left out of the conversation.

Responsiveness is not merely a personal trait. It can be incorporated into professional, organizational, and institutional practices. We can create contexts for exchanges of views among peers, colleagues, coworkers, support staff, and volunteers. We can regularly seek information from those who receive medical services: patients, clients, consumers, constituents. Within a particular organization, these exchanges promote collaboration on common projects, facilitate coordination among interrelated activities, and enhance both quality and efficiency in performance. As a dimension of responsibility, responsiveness contributes to good management. Similarly, professionals routinely respond to peer judgments through associations, convocations, conferences, and publications, as well as through regular consultations and case conferences. Ideally, they also elicit the active participation of clients to whom they offer their services.

Responsiveness in moral judgment is especially pertinent to the formation of public policy, such as debates about healthcare reform. These debates begin with attempts to interpret “what is going on” and move to proposals for the “fitting” response (Niebuhr). In the United States, controversial policy issues are rarely resolved by a new public consensus on the proper treatment of pressing social problems. Practical accomplishments require compromise. To gain support for new directions in policy, public actors accommodate the special interests of competing groups. In so doing, they consent to measures that fall short of their larger goals. The search for acceptable compromises is crucial to public responsibility.


Responsibility embraces accountability for judgments and actions (cf. Jonsen). Because our actions affect the lives of fellow human beings, we have to answer to others for what we do. We must be able to give an account of our intentions and of their moral bases that is credible within the relevant conversational context, whether it be familial, communal, professional, or public. Responsible persons seek feedback from others because they are conscientious about quality performance. Structures of accountability may be formalized in well-defined review processes, including disciplinary hearings, and civil and criminal actions. Yet they also operate in everyday human interactions.

The morally committed have a strong sense of accountability to self. Conscience names the dynamism whereby we answer to ourselves for our fidelity to our commitments. If we violate our own normative standards, we feel guilt. If others have been disadvantaged or harmed by our actions, we recognize a need to apologize, perhaps to make restitution. In religious contexts, accountability involves answering to God as the source and ground of the moral life. We confess our failures, seek forgiveness, and pray for strength to renew our commitments.

Responsibility includes a readiness to hold others accountable for their actions, in the interest of the common good. It will not suffice to be conscientious only about our own actions. Because substantive moral commitments are requisite to human existence and well-being, we must hold one another accountable to those commitments. Accountability is especially important for professionals, who alone are adequately equipped to assess the performances of peers. Likewise, we are obliged to promote mutual accountability in the organizational and communal contexts in which we normally live and work; this includes support for appropriate disciplinary hearings and criminal proceedings.

The notion of accountability directs us to revisit all of the dimensions of responsibility, though with a focus on our obligation to nurture, model, encourage, cultivate, and teach responsibility to fellow human beings, especially the children, youth, and young adults of a coming generation.

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