Sunday, February 17, 2013

All Beings Are Without Blame (Part Eight)

At this point it’s worthwhile to address the question, “If there is no-self; if there is no absolute, acausal free will; if all is determined and conditioned, than who takes refuge? Who takes the five precepts, the foundational ethical training of buddhism? What does it mean to "be" or "take responsibility" if there is no apparent base for moral responsibility?

I’d like to begin by investigating those who argue for taking moral responsibility; question if doing so is possible, and then explore the possibility of there being other understandings of what it means to take responsibility. Harry Frankfurt has argued (with gendered bias) that, “To the extent that a person identifies himself with the springs of his actions, he takes responsibility for those actions and acquires moral responsibility for them.” He even goes on to say that “the question of how the actions and the identifications with their springs is caused is irrelevant to the questions of whether he performs the actions freely or is morally responsible for performing them.” (1975, 122).

This would mean that your past is irrelevant; once you take responsibility, the responsibility is yours by virtue of identifying with and accepting the responsibility as yours. Taking responsibility is seen as a key element of agency. Who can deny the desire to be an agent, taking responsibility for our actions, and not being under the control of others? But is taking responsibility a justification of moral responsibility? Is it true that I am morally responsible because I take responsibility for my actions?

As I wrote about in my previous post, taking responsibility has been shown to be healthy – physically and psychologically. But it is essential to distinguish two very different forms of “responsibility” because if we understand the deeper implications, I argue that we will see that only one form of taking responsibility actually can be taken and is the only form beneficially worthwhile to take! Moral responsibility cannot be taken, and the benefits we see from taking responsibility do not even apply to moral responsibility. In fact, the assumption of moral responsibility is an obstacle to taking responsibility!

The difference between moral responsibility and taken responsibility comes down to some very basic, and quite obvious observations, despite the wide-spread confusion. You can take responsibility for many things of varying degrees of importance. I can take responsibility for teaching a course on meditation, planning a  trip to the coast, for my financial planning, and for my health care decisions. But such “taken responsibility” is profoundly different from the moral responsibility that would open me to justified praise and blame. Perhaps the trip to the coast is a dismal failure, with cancelled and delayed flights, followed by storms that prevented anyone from ever getting into the ocean. If I were to say, “I took responsibility so I deserve blame for the dismal failure of the trip,” I think it clear someone would argue that given the air travel fiasco and the severe stormy weather, all of which was out of my control, I don’t deserve blame.

I am arguing that there’s really no difference between this and the failure of the course on meditation that I took responsibility for being a complete failure because I never advertised it and no one showed up! Yes, it was my responsibility and I royally messed up, but I am not to blame because my procrastination, forgetfulness and laziness are all part of my genetic inheritance from my father, as well as the poor parenting skills of my parents (which themselves were conditioned by their genetic and environmental conditions). Now, you may dispute that genetics – or even upbringing – has anything to do with my ineptness and insist that I am morally responsible and deserve blame. Fine, but the point I am making is that such a claim is still different from the claim that I took responsibility. The fact is, we can agree that I took responsibility and still differ over whether that makes me morally responsible or not. This clearly shows we are talking about two radically different concepts.

Just so it’s clear, the same is true regarding praise. Perhaps my course went splendidly! If I say, “I took responsibility for the course, so I deserve special credit,” you can now respond, “Well, you took responsibility for it, but it was Rachel, the yoga studio manager who did all the work publicizing it, getting the room set up and taking the registration fees. You don’t deserve any special credit and you are not morally responsible.” OR, you could say, “Yes, you took responsibility and you worked your ass off getting the word out, making sure the room was prepared and did a magnificent job of handling the administration. You certainly have benefited from your parent’s strong work ethic and you are quite fortunate to have the genes for such leadership behavior.” Again, the point of this example is simply to emphasize that we are talking about two different concepts when we talk about “taken responsibility” and “moral responsibility.”

This is a distinction ignored by those, like Daniel Dennet and Harry Frankfurt, who see a “need” to conflate moral responsibility with taking responsibility. However, the responsibility that one can take, called “take-charge responsibility” by Bruce Waller, is similar to the “role” responsibility described by H.L.A. Hart: “A sea captain is responsible for the safety of his ship…. A sentry is responsible for alerting the guard at the enemy’s approach; a clerk for keeping the accounts at his firm... whenever a person occupies a distinctive place or office in a social organization, to which specific duties are attached to provide for the welfare of others ot to advance in some specific way the aims or purposes of the organization, he is properly said to be responsible for the performance of those duties. (1968, 212)

This “role responsibility” is categorically distinct from moral responsibility. The sea captain is role responsible for the safety of her ship. She does a great job, but that doesn’t mean she is morally responsible and deserving of special praise. She is lucky to have benefited from exceptionally good training, and she has a top-notch first lieutenant who keeps things running smoothly. Again, you may like to argue that she is morally responsible and deserving of special praise just because she does fulfill her duties well, regardless of whatever conditions contribute to her stellar performance. For the moment, setting aside whether the claim that she is morally responsible is correct or not, the simple point I’m making here is that claiming she is morally responsible is an additional claim, beyond the question of her role responsibility. We can agree that she is role responsible and still disagree as to her being morally responsible.

Waller’s “take-charge responsibility” (1998) designates a broader taking of responsibility that includes taking charge of one’s own plans and projects and life as we see in the buddhist tradition of taking refuge, taking precepts and other forms of vow-taking. Just as the sea captain has role responsibility for her ship, you can have take-charge responsibility for your life values, goals, actions, practices… your life. It is possible that someone else could do a better job at managing your life. I often suspect that in my case it is most probable that someone could do a better job of it! But, I “take-charge responsibility” of my life because doing so is something I value and most times I enjoy exercising. As the Bhagavad-Gita says of sva-dharma, I would rather exercise my take-charge responsibility badly than turn it over to some life-manager who could run my life better! 

Just as the sea captain can take “role responsibility” without being morally responsible for exercising that role responsibility well or badly, I can assume “take-charge responsibility” for my life and not be morally responsible for whether I do well or not. Maybe I do indeed exercise my take-charge responsibility wonderfully; But I was lucky to have a loving and supportive family, a solid and advanced education that emphasized critical thinking skills and self-sufficiency, as well as a genetic disposition toward being a chronic cognizer and a strong internal locus-of-control. Whether or not I take responsibility well, it does not follow that I am morally responsible. Perhaps I am, but the very fact that there are cases where take-charge responsibility is clear while moral responsibility remains unclear shows that these are two different kinds of responsibility and thus one (take-charge responsibility) does not necessarily imply or establish the other (moral responsibility).

At this point, it is obvious that proponents of moral responsibility may argue that "if you took responsibility for setting up the classroom for the lecture, you are to blame if you fail to do so.” I’m arguing that that is not so. However, I end this post by simply stating, once again, that if you believe that take-charge responsibility results in moral responsibility, that assertion will require further justification because it is clear that there are cases where take-charge responsibility does not involve moral responsibility. Those who argue that taking responsibility justifies moral responsibility are confusing two different types of responsibility. Their argument is thus wrong or lacking in some essential aspect that would justify the claim.

Frankfurt, Harry G. 1975. Three Concepts of free action. Aristotelian Society Proceedings Supplementary 49: 113 - 125.

Hart, H.L.A. 1968. Punishment and Responsibility. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Waller, Bruce N. 1998. The Natural Selection of Autonomy. Albany: State University of New York Press

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