Our Responsibilities: Dworkin

The fact is that responsibility is not only a key dimension of professional practice but, more generally, an aspect of personal life. Ronald Dworkin remarks, “Responsibility is an indispensable concept across our intellectual life” (Dworkin, 2011, p. 102f.). No aspect of life is excluded: our reasoning, intellectual life, acceptance of public duty, interpersonal relationships, or professional practice. This was absolutely clear to Dworkin. In his opinion, the US Constitution, the basic framework of American life, must be interpreted through consistent moral principles, including justice and fairness. Ronald Dworkin’s point is that without a clear sense of public and personal moral responsibility, there can be no reasonable account of justice and human rights. As he says, without such an approach, we would not “take rights seriously” (Dworkin, 1977).

Moreover, he argues in his book on the theory and practice of equality that since each person’s life has equal importance to every other person’s life, each person “has a moral obligation always to act with as much concern for the fate of everyone else in the world as for their own fate or that of their family and friends.” Two principles, he argues, are widely accepted in Western democracies: “The first of these principles holds that once a human life has begun, it is of great and objective importance that it be successful rather than wasted, and that this is of equal importance in the case of each human life. The second holds that the person whose life it is has primary and nondelegable responsibility for that success” (Dworkin, 2000, p. 240).

Each person is free, within reason, to choose the kind of life he or she lives. Moreover, what one does influences the way one will behave on future occasions, for one’s actions confirm or challenge one’s habits. What is more, to act responsibly clearly involves accepting that choices affect everyone: professional behavior impacts not only the client but the reputation of his or her profession and, more broadly, the integrity of public life. The fact that some bankers treated client money as if it were their own has led to the loss of respect for all bankers. Not only that, but it has undermined the trust that citizens have in the moral character of society per se. This is consistent with Jesus’s teaching: “Treat others as you would wish them to treat you” (Lk. 6:31).

Dworkin usefully distinguishes between responsibility as a virtue and responsibility as a relation. Responsibility in the virtue sense implies that a person acted responsibly or irresponsibly in a particular circumstance or that he or she behaved in an uncharacteristic way when failing to behave responsibly. Responsibility in a relational sense implies that a person was or was not responsible for the financial failure of his or her company or a road accident. In the latter case, a conclusive answer to the question of responsibility is possible. Thus investigation of the car accident in which one was involved may establish the causes. The driver may have been driving carelessly or failed to maintain the vehicle. The investigations concern compliance. However, while legal responsibility would be determined by empirical inquiry, the investigation would impinge upon the driver as a person. Is he or she to be regarded as a responsible person?

Responsibility as a relation is important, but my concern is focused on responsibility as a virtue. A responsible person will take all reasonable steps to become response-able in order to act responsibly and be a responsible person (see Chapter 4). I am an irresponsible driver if I fail to undertake due maintenance of my vehicle according to the manufacturer’s recommendations. The doctor is irresponsible if he or she prescribes drugs before checking the patient’s medical record; the civil engineer is irresponsible if he or she neglects to check that the contractor is using the appropriate quality of steel and concrete in building a bridge. In all these cases, the “errors” of judgment are linked with failures to become response-able that imply deficiencies in the character of the agent; he or she is an irresponsible person. So how can those in error come to terms with failures that are not simply errors of fact but personal failures of their moral character? Interestingly, as I have mentioned, Dworkin remarks that “responsibility so understood is impossible to achieve fully.” I agree with him. But we could apologize. Would that be sufficient?

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