Being Responsible

Professionals want to act responsibly: we want to show that we are virtuous persons. But what are my responsibilities? The fact is that I am at one and the same time responsible for ensuring compliance insofar as it is possible and also responsible for the moral quality of the relationship I have as a professional with my client. In so doing, I lay myself open to the depth of moral concern required for the personal well-being of the client and his or her interests—and not only the client’s interests but mine too. We know that there is more to being a virtuous professional practitioner than accepting an obligation for responsible professional practice: we want not only to act responsibly but to be ethically responsible persons and to be recognized as such. But can I know what I am responsible for? In the last resort, our responsibilities are likely to be unending and ultimately indefinable, but at least we can begin to think them through.

I am, for example, responsible for what I do and for the consequences. But “what I do” is too vague. Certainly, I am responsible for my behavior, but the vagueness of the reference may tempt me to define it and thereby limit the range of that for which I am accountable. This can lead to a culture of compliance, which we know is ultimately unsatisfactory and unsatisfying. However, there is a dimension to codes of practice for which our moral perception can encourage us to share responsibility: we can set about understanding what underpins the regulations and contribute to improvements. The process is ongoing at the moment in the regulation of banking and financial services: personal dissatisfaction with the system gives us a sense of where we want to be, but we are unclear about how to get there.

More important, I am also responsible for who I am, my emotional temper, my attitudes, and my character. Emotions are an important aspect of our moral lives and clearly a subject of increasing interest to both philosophers and psychologists, since they are not without cognitive content. They will not be entirely under my control at all times, but they are influenced by relationships, particularly those with parents and teachers, and have a role in the formation of character and the self that is lifelong. My emotions will be shaped through unpredictable experience: this is inevitable because the future and the consequences of past choices are beyond my control.

Our emotions are, as Roberts says, perceptual construals, nonempirical but related to empirical data: they show us to ourselves in virtue of what we value as worth doing. Bernard Lonergan, in one of his last writings, states boldly that “feelings reveal values to us. They dispose us to commitment. But they do not bring commitment about. For commitment is a personal act, a free and responsible act, a very open-eyed act in which we would settle what we are to become. It is open-eyed in the sense that it is consciously a decision about future decisions, aware that the best of plans cannot control the future, even aware that one’s present commitment however firm cannot suspend the freedom that will be exercised in its future execution” (Lonergan, 1985, p. 169f.). Hence my feelings influence my habits, my interests, and above all, therefore, who I am—my character. None of these is completely in my hands, but I can, through choosing some experiences rather than others, have some influence upon them. I can, for example, choose my friends and what I read, both of which are likely to be influential.

I will also benefit from advice. As a member of many communities, societies, voluntary organizations, and professional bodies with a shared concern for the public good, I will have friends and colleagues on whom I can call for honest advice. Friends may criticize my behavior, attitudes, or feelings, but if offered compassionately, I shall listen to what they say. I may also enter imaginatively into the experience of others and be caused to think by reading novels or poems. These are ways in which I can influence my emotional life, discipline my habits, and improve my character. Recognition of failure in any of these dimensions of my life may stir my conscience and prompt a desire to do better—more particularly, to be a better person—in order to be a better professional. And that is the point: the personal character of the professional is of central importance to his or her professional practice. Happily, there always remains the possibility of moral reform, personal renewal, and therefore the restoration of integrity in professional practice.

We cannot, of course, be responsible for the circumstances of our births: we may simply have inherited social disadvantage, lack of educational opportunity, and poor health. Yet in each case, we can work hard to take responsibility for them. It may be very demanding because of political and socioeconomic factors, not to mention the inhibitions with which some religious traditions handicap their followers. But it is possible at least to improve the circumstances in which one finds oneself by working with others to stimulate change for the better; we would be morally irresponsible if we chose not to.

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