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Sharing Responsibility and Holding Responsible



Who, in particular, may hold us responsible for our moral failings? Most discussions of moral responsibility bracket this question, despite its obvious practical importance. In this article, I investigate the moral authority involved and how it arises in the context of personal relationships, such as friendship or family relations. My account is based on the idea that parties to a personal relationship not only share responsibility for their relationship, but also — to some degree that is negotiated between them — for one another's lives. In sharing these responsibilities, we grant people a particular authority to respond to us. By highlighting the responsibility that we assume when we hold someone responsible, I also suggest that this analysis contains important lessons for thinking about responsibility in other contexts.

‘A friend is another self.’1

In daily life we normally suppose that only some persons are in a position to blame us or hold us responsible for certain forms of vice or misconduct. This implies that questions of responsibility are not settled by considering only the deeds or character, the capacities or opportunities of the person who acted. There is also a question of standing. Just as lawyers may ask who has standing to bring a case before a court, we may ask who stands in the appropriate position to rebuke us or otherwise hold us responsible. This is a question of moral rather than legal authority, and it raises vital questions of practical judgment. In this article, I would like to address these problems of standing, authority and judgment by considering one important class of cases — those involved in personal relationships, such as family relations, friendship and romantic partnerships.

The key idea I will explore is that these relations depend on — are constituted by, in a contemporary term of art — people's sharing responsibility for one another's lives. From this sharing of responsibility arises a particular sort of authority to hold responsible. In developing this idea, I will not endorse a specific account of personal relationships. Instead, I will rely only on a few intuitive and widely accepted features. Personal relationships are forms of sustained interaction that involve a distinctively personal form of mutual concern.2 As Hugh LaFollette puts it, ‘a relationship is personal inasmuch as each person relates to the other as a unique individual’3 — a point I will develop below (§3), by distinguishing the more impersonal concern that may be involved in organisational or other roles.

Questions of holding responsible concern things that go wrong and our decisions to confront them. This emphasis may be doubly unfortunate when we think about personal relationships. Not only are these vital sources of meaning and support in our lives. In addition, personal relationships involve a fundamental aspect of acceptance. We relate to the person as a unique individual, and this means the person as a whole — imperfect and limited as we all are, with flaws that often seem inextricable from our virtues. In this article I will be concerned with the standing to confront our faults. But I hope my argument will also do justice to the commitment that underwrites this standing — a loyalty that more often forbears than confronts our failings.

1. Questions of Standing in Recent Discussions of Responsibility

That questions of responsibility often arise in the context of personal relationships was a crucial plank of Peter Strawson's seminal paper, ‘Freedom and resentment.’ However, while Strawson distinguishes the resentment that an injured party might feel from the indignation that another might feel on the injured party's behalf,4 he does not explore further questions of standing to respond or reproach. For the most part, the literature on responsibility also sets aside this question, and says even less about the relations involved than Strawson does.

Perhaps the most sustained discussion to raise questions of standing is T. M. Scanlon's.5 Scanlon understands blame as essentially a response within a relationship, when that relationship has been impaired in some way. The proper mode of holding responsible (or at least, of blame) therefore varies depending on the relationship and wrong at issue — be one a friend who feels betrayed, a citizen aware of her compatriots' misdeeds, the victim of a stranger's carelessness, or simply a fellow member of the moral community aware of a wrong. I will not take a stand on Scanlon's particular account of blame here, and Scanlon mentions different sorts of relationship only as examples, rather than exploring them on their own terms.6 But I think that a specific strength of his approach is its attempt to explain why different people should respond differently to a person who acts badly, and agree that such an explanation should invoke the nature of different persons' relations to a wrongdoer, as well as how the wrong concerned bears on a particular relationship.

More recently, Linda Radzik has forcefully argued for the importance of norms of standing in response to Stephen Darwall's ‘second personal’ theory of ethics. As Radzik understands it, this has the implausible implication that everyone has equal standing to hold anyone responsible, whatever the wrong in question.7 While Radzik accepts that each of us has a ‘prima facie standing to sanction moral wrongs’,8 she also offers three important suggestions concerning the normative basis for differentiating this standing in many cases: ‘the importance of liberty in self-regarding behaviour, the moral significance of special interpersonal relationships, and the interests victims have in asserting their own authority.’9 In line with Darwall's Kantian approach these are based, not on desirable effects that differentiated standing may have, but rather on how such norms manifest respect for agency.10 I will also suggest that we should approach these norms in non-instrumental terms — that is, as inherent in the structure of human relationships and its division of responsibilities, rather than as useful means to sustain those relationships or to achieve some other end. Since my account specifically concerns personal relationships, Radzik's second suggestion actually represents my starting point; I will comment below on the role that her other suggestions play in this context.

Questions of standing to hold responsible are also posed by a different area of philosophical enquiry, that concerning joint action. One of the best-known philosophers of social action, Margaret Gilbert, has explored the sorts of mutual commitment that are involved in people's acting together, with the core idea that each party incurs obligations to the other(s). Gilbert sometimes refers to these as ‘directed obligations’, in that they are clearly owed to particular persons, not to the world in general. While her principal concern is not with cases where a party fails to ‘do her part’, Gilbert observes that, ‘If you owe me your action … I am in a position to demand that action as mine and to rebuke you when you fail to perform it.’ As she helpfully adds, ‘One may have the standing to demand something of someone, yet not be justified in doing so, in the circumstances.’11 All sorts of considerations — especially in a personal relationship — might mean that it would be callous, overbearing or otherwise inappropriate to exercise my standing to rebuke. To speak of standing is just to make clear that it is my place to respond, if anyone's. In what follows, I will draw (though not rely) on the idea that relationships are forms of shared activity12 constituted by directed obligations. Naturally, this interaction may be quite sporadic and need not involve physical proximity — good friends may go long periods without contact, for example, or their interaction may take the form of communication across long distances.

There are two fairly obvious reasons why — in our theorising, if not in practice — we might ignore people's differential standing to hold responsible. Both reflect the ease with which we may use the words ‘responsible’ or ‘blameworthy’ as adjectives describing a culprit. First, these locutions may tempt us to confuse holding responsible with moral judgment per se. But to judge that someone has acted wrongly or deserves a response (be it blame or otherwise) is an act of the mind only; any form of holding responsible must involve an actual, outward response.13 Second, we may suppose that some feature of the wrong-doer — his ill-will or bad character, or more abstractly his ‘blameworthiness’ — suffices to justify whatever response he ought to suffer. On this view, who should respond would be a merely pragmatic question — of convenience or likely effectiveness, say. That is, distinctive questions of standing would not arise.

However, if we contrast forgiveness, as another sort of response to wrongdoing, we get a first hint that there may be something odd about such a view. Here the positionality of our responses to people is obvious. I cannot forgive someone for the slight he dealt you — only you can do that. The question of opportunity is plainly secondary, while the question of effectiveness only arises inasmuch my attempt to forgive would be, as Austin had it, infelicitous. Hence there is no such general term as ‘forgiveability’:14 whether a person may be forgiven is only a question for his victim, or perhaps those persons who are closest to the victim. We are dealing with a fact about relations between persons — one that would be obscured if we tried to analyse it as an individual attribute.

Admittedly, the linguistic clues around responsibility are less clear: the words ‘culpable’ or ‘blameworthy’ may seem to point to just such an attribute. However, there are reasons to think these terms do not indicate the structure of our moral practices.15 Instead, they serve a distinctive purpose for moral discourse: they mark out wrongs where no excuses or justifications apply, while bracketing practical questions about who should respond and in what way. Hence, they are not everyday terms. ‘Blameworthy’ largely belongs to philosophy, where (as I am complaining) these practical issues are often set aside, while ‘culpability’ belongs to law, where liability before the courts is already assumed.

2. Distinguishing Empirical Considerations from those of Normative Standing

There is another, more practical set of reasons why we might think that questions of standing are inessential to practices of holding responsible. Note first that there are cases where differentiations in standing do not seem to arise. Think of infringements against norms for public spaces, for example — anti-social behaviour such as littering or risky conduct such as careless driving. In such cases, we usually suppose that anyone present may rebuke the culprit. Rather than raising questions of standing, the only issues might seem to be the pragmatic ones alluded to above. Those present have clear knowledge of the particular wrong and good opportunity to respond.16

If we think of the wrongs and vices that mar personal relationships, similar considerations may also seem relevant. Often, only those persons who are close to someone will know enough to reach an informed judgment of her actions or character. Similarly, only they will tend to be in a position — in terms of location and opportunity — to do something that really counts as holding her responsible. No doubt, such empirical and practical considerations matter, since without them there could be no question of holding responsible. I would like to suggest, however, that deeper questions of authority and dividing responsibility are at work here, which in turn derive from more basic normative features of human relations.

To make the point, it may help to give an example.17 Suppose that I have been unfaithful to my partner — something that we would normally understand as a wrong to a particular person rather than the wider community.18 In his distress he has disburdened himself to a sympathetic stranger. In order to set doubts about the stranger's knowledge to one side, let us also suppose that she has other knowledge that corroborates the tale of my sorry conduct. (My partner didn't realise it, say, but she lives in the opposite flat and has noticed my comings and goings.) However certain she may be of the wrong I have done, there is still one thing she lacks, which is the standing to blame me. Again, we need to distinguish moral judgment from practices of holding responsible. It is clear that the surprisingly well-informed stranger should judge my conduct badly. It may be less clear how widely she should discuss that judgment with others. It would, however, represent an extraordinary intervention on her part if she were to accuse me to my face. If she were to do so, I would surely tell her to mind her own business. We can see that this would not be mere rationalisation on my part when we consider how likely my partner — however grateful for the ‘moral support’ — would be to say something similar. She would, as we say, be ‘getting between’ two people, by taking action that is not hers to take — that is, disrupting a division of responsibilities implicit in our established relationships. Whatever knowledge or opportunity may come her way, these do nothing to alter the fact that my affairs are not hers.

Another way of seeing the same point is to consider the case of a person who has been wronged by a friend or loved one, but lacks the knowledge or opportunity to hold her responsible. In this case, his standing to hold responsible appears first of all as a right to know what is going on and to an opportunity to respond as he sees fit.19 Thus, the stranger has no right to demand further information. By contrast, my partner plainly has a right — a rather costly one, to be sure, since it bespeaks a suspicion that is inimical to the relationship we are supposedly engaged in — to ask me what I have been up to.20 A similar point applies as regards opportunity. Many of us have avoided friends and loved ones when we sense that they have reasonable cause to reproach us in some way — and thus compounded our wrong. The resulting practical difficulties in getting hold of a guilty party do not imply that anyone else with knowledge and opportunity should hold the person responsible. Rather, such empirical difficulties are normatively relevant within an existing structure of relationships and division of responsibilities. They appear as the culprit's duty to ‘face the music’ and the other party's right to ‘have it out’ with him — or more broadly, in the claim that the conduct in question is indeed ‘our business.’21

Looked at in one way, it is unsurprising that only some persons have the standing to respond to certain sorts of wrong. As Scanlon emphasises, only some persons are involved in particular relations with a given person. So only some persons have the standing to interact with him in various ways — where interacting obviously involves both initiating and responding to the other person. Even more straightforwardly, Gilbert's analysis suggests that structures of joint action depend on our honouring particular obligations to one another. Thus one way to account for norms of standing would be to develop Gilbert's suggestion that the person to whom such obligations are owed is the person who may respond when they are breached. In our context, this would essentially amount to the claim that the parties to a personal relationship are the ones who should take responsibility for it.

While I am sure that this captures an important truth, there are reasons to think that matters are more complex than this. To start with, the ‘directedness’ of obligations is not a simple idea and — despite some recent discussions22 — largely awaits philosophical elucidation. Even if we accept this way of putting matters, that an obligation is directed to someone does not always imply that she is the only or principal person who should hold responsible. I owe you respect for your bodily integrity. Nonetheless, police and courts claim the authority to hold me responsible if I assault you.23 Setting criminal wrongs to one side (I will suggest one way of framing those issues in a moment), there are other ways in which we are involved in the lives of our friends and loved ones, so that more is at stake than the particular obligations we have to one another. Our concern is for the other person herself — for the person as a whole, and not only for how she may act by us or for our relationship — and so it naturally extends to other spheres of her life. I will therefore suggest that it is not only a question of directed obligations or who takes responsibility for a relationship. Odd as it may sound, it is also a matter of who takes — or rather, shares — responsibility for a person's life.

3. Framing Matters in Terms of a Person's Responsibility for Her Life

I would like to propose that the normative structure involved can be understood if we begin with the intuitive idea that each of us bears special responsibility for his or her own life.24 More simply, each person's life is hers to lead. This idea need not invoke demanding ideals of self-mastery or autonomy. More modestly, it is a relational idea, animated by the fear that other persons might dominate us or otherwise make choices for us that are ours, not theirs, to make. Equally, while this idea requires that our choices must have risks and consequences if they are to be meaningful, it need make no claims about how great those risks or costs should be.25 As such, the idea is compatible with a wide range of interpretations of liberalism and equality. Nonetheless, it enables us to distinguish wrongs to which the state responds from those that we must confront as private individuals, and to appreciate the sort of mutual support — and accountability — involved in personal relations.26

To bear responsibility for one's own life depends on familiar powers and protections. These include rights to choose how one disposes of personal resources such as one's time, energy and possessions. As regards personal relationships, we have the power to choose with whom we interact and the terms on which we do so. Standard liberal protections — above all, criminal prohibitions on force and fraud — may be interpreted as upholding this title to lead one's own life. They prohibit others from depriving someone of the opportunity to take responsibility for his life (by taking control of, or negligently damaging, his person and property) or commandeering this responsibility (as in various forms of paternalism). The authority to respond to such wrongs is vested in the state.27

To note the obvious, these protections limit individuals' responses too — persons who are not liable to coercion by one another may not employ coercive modes of holding responsible. Nonetheless, a great deal remains within each person's gift, and may be drawn into our responses as we judge our own cause: the words one says or omits, the effort one makes or shirks, the personal resources one shares or withholds, the contact one invites or disallows. Moreover, nothing compels us to maintain a relationship with someone — even if we can rarely contemplate a total break, we often take some form of distance.

These powers and protections allow each of us to choose what mode of life she wishes to pursue, and hence make it meaningful to speak of the special responsibility that she bears for her own life. Yet this may also seem an overwhelming responsibility: indeed, I think, none of us could bear it if we tried to chart our lives in independence from others. All of us use our freedom, more or less wisely, to pursue personal relationships, be it as friends, family members or romantic partners. In doing so, I suggest, each of us shares responsibility for our life with others. We accept some responsibility for how others' lives go, as they do by us.

The ways in which we do this are familiar aspects of our everyday interaction. Friends, partners, family members, support us in the courses of action and modes of life that we are pursuing — by different forms of practical assistance, by emotional and moral support, and simply by the assurance that ours is company they are willing to keep. They may suggest, advise, or act as sounding boards. Often they bear some consequences of our judgments and actions; metaphorically and just occasionally literally, they bail us out when things (or we) go wrong. In these and other ways, their decisions about what they should be doing with their lives become bound up with the lives we are leading. The life that is mine to lead becomes, to some degree, part of yours, and vice versa.

To underline the personal aspect, it may help to contrast organisational or professional roles, where we relate to someone as a client or patient or colleague. This often involves sharing responsibility for an aspect of a person's life, such as his investments or health care or performance in the workplace. Nonetheless, however devotedly we perform such roles, our concern is bound by professional norms and institutional responsibilities. Among other things, those norms — to put the matter coldly, that is, to set aside the personal aspects by which we humanise more impersonal relations28 — hold us to be replaceable by another person. By contrast, in a personal relationship each party has a place in the other's life just as the particular person who she is. To suppose that one might deliberately replace the other person would betray an instrumental view of the relationship and a lack of commitment to the person.29 While we do not, in most personal relationships, open up every aspect of our lives to one another, there are no impersonal norms to specify how close we should become or which aspects of our lives will be central to our interaction.30

To speak of ‘responsibility for someone (else)'s life’ may sound paternalist or frankly illiberal. But these matters are always subject to mutual negotiation; they are about sharing rather than taking responsibility. Nothing compels someone to accept our company or counsel or support; except in the rarest cases, ours is one of several close relations a person enjoys; as mentioned, different parts of our lives may have greater or lesser prominence in different relationships. Nonetheless, there is a genuine responsibility, and it goes to the person, not just to what we habitually ‘have in common’. In the first place, our involvement is not a matter of caveat emptor. We aim to be someone on whom our friends and loved ones can rely: it would, for example, be no friend at all who tried to wash his hands with the words, ‘Well, it was your decision to heed my advice’.31 Likewise, the shared concerns — leisure or family life, for example — that are the normal focus of a particular relationship are always liable to be disrupted by the many contingencies that affect our lives. In the face of events such as illness or job loss, a lottery win or birth of a child, an unexpected revelation or something more drastic still, it is sometimes said that we ‘find out who our friends are’. Without moralising, I take the point to be that such contingencies disrupt our habitual ways of parcelling up our lives and relationships, and often reveal new aspects to a person. So it becomes clearer to both parties how they are committed to the other person, as a whole and unique individual.

In these ways, then, we divide and share responsibility for how someone's life goes: how the person fares, how she acts and sees herself, and — in small part — who she is becoming. The fundamental division of responsibility consists in the special responsibility each of us bears for her own life. This is overlaid by a further division of responsibility, as we share this responsibility with our friends and loved ones. This sharing is a matter for negotiation and sometimes, as I will stress in a moment, a bone of contention. It does not detract from each person's special responsibility for her own life.32 But it does make that responsibility bearable, rather than inhuman and overwhelming.

4. The Moral Authority to Respond

This is to speak in quite general terms of the authority and responsibility that people bear, as they pursue personal relationships subject to mutual consent. We may now return to standing to hold others responsible. If we think of two persons in a relationship, there are three structural possibilities for misconduct that might prompt the first party to respond: (i) The second party's conduct within the relationship; (ii) The second party's conduct outside the relationship; (iii) Conduct by a third party that affects the second party. (For simplicity, I put these in terms of misconduct, but we could frame other issues, such as failings of character, in similar ways. Following the previous sections, I also set aside wrongs such as violence in which the state or community takes an interest.)

I already suggested that Gilbert's fundamental insight concerning joint action may help us understand the first case. If two persons act together by virtue of a normative structure of directed obligations, this already indicates how a particular standing to respond arises. Although there is also much room for negotiation between the parties, they obviously cannot agree on any old obligations. There will be basic requirements of mutual cooperation, such as honesty regarding matters of joint concern. Others will be requirements of a certain sort of relationship — without endorsing a specific account, I have emphasised that personal relationships are constituted by particular forms of care and concern that the parties owe to one another.33 Still others will be matters of mutual agreement, such as particular commitments or degree of intimacy. While we often forbear to respond to particular failings, not least out of commitment to the relationship and the other person,34 it clearly belongs to the parties involved to judge when actions or omissions do fail in some way — and respond accordingly.

Nonetheless, I do not think this is all that is at stake, even when we limit matters to how two people act by one another and set legal wrongs to one side. Consider the situation where the first party believes that her grievance also points to something awry in the second party's wider moral sense or deeper commitments. In this case, the matter becomes personal in a quite distinct way. It concerns not just the first party or the relationship, but who the (second) person is or may become. As I have been stressing, if anyone else may share responsibility for this, it is her friends, family and intimates. Our reproaches or other responses enact this responsibility: this is neither the disembodied voice of abstract moral judgment nor the victim's defence of her own standing. Rather, it is the intervention of someone who is party to the other person's life and concerned for who that person is.

This is not the only source of complexity, as we can see if we turn to wrong-doing outside a given relationship. Consider first the case where we disapprove of a friend or loved one's conduct in another relationship, or in some other part of his life. Depending on the specifics of the case, we may blame him in quite strong terms — just as he may feel let down if we keep our counsel. So someone may say or think after the fact, ‘Why didn't you tell me that I was behaving stupidly (hurtfully, jealously, etc.)?’ The same point applies to a person's self-regarding wrongs — over-working or disregard of health, for example.35 Here, a standing to respond does not follow from the simple possibility that we may be affected by whatever tendency the second party has to act in such ways. This is clearly true of many self-regarding wrongs, and it is also clear if we think of forms of misconduct that are unlikely to affect us. For example, we might feel that a friend is perfectly generous in most of his interactions, but discern a particular streak of meanness as he relates to his family. In such cases, a standing to reproach cannot follow from a concern for self or for our relationship, but rather from our place in his life and a concern for him as a person.

The other structural possibility concerns our standing to respond where a third party's misconduct or vices affect someone to whom we are close. Clearly, this often becomes ‘our business’. Friends and loved ones may turn to us for advice as to how they should respond, when they perceive problems or injuries in another relationship or in another field of activity such as the workplace. In the opposite direction, we might seek to persuade a friend or loved one that someone is acting badly by her — for example, that her partner's behaviour is overbearing or demeaning. These possibilities reflect the general fact that in personal relations we look to one another's moral sense and practical help, to help us lead a worthwhile life. So when someone to whom we are close seeks to hold a third party accountable, we may offer moral, emotional and practical support. Nonetheless, it would normally be quite out of place for us to make any direct intervention vis-à-vis a third party.36 As in my example of the surprisingly well-informed stranger, the second party might welcome this as recognition of the wrongs she perceives, or as a sign of our concern for her; but that would not be the point. As regards the second party, it would imply that she is unable to stand up for herself — or even to judge her own will or interest.37 As regards the third party, it would represent a misplaced attempt to take responsibility for the way he conducts a relationship to which you are not party — or rather, to which you are party only as regards your friend or loved one's place within it.

While structurally distinct, it bears saying that these possibilities often flow into each other. This is just because of the familiar fact that ‘it takes two to tango’. One person may be acting badly by another, but to the extent that they freely maintain the relationship, the other assumes some responsibility too. Compare magazines' agony columns. These are full of advice to people who thought they could alter the habits and character of their beloved, and if the advice is reasonable it is always the same: granted all condolences about the vices and misconduct of your loved one, granted that you have applied all reasonable blame and forms of pressure — now you must face the fact that you cannot change the person, and you must decide for yourself whether you are prepared to live with her as she actually is. This need not be the heartless advice that you have made your bed and must lie in it. Instead: that is how the bed will be, and it is your decision whether you wish to lie there. If you stay — or at any rate, if you try to maintain a particular type of relationship or degree of intimacy — then that is your responsibility; that is, you are effectively agreeing to relate to her on such-and-such terms. Just so for friends and loved ones, who hear and acknowledge our complaints: so far as they are concerned, it is your life and conduct that is at issue. In terms of who is to hold whom responsible, there may come a point where their place is to blame you for accepting such treatment, or failing to challenge it.

These familiar dynamics may also suggest a worry for my account. Where there is shared responsibility, is there shared guilt too? Certainly, we are often complicit in the misdeeds of those to whom we are close: to be attached to someone is to risk taking their side when that is the wrong side. If a friend or loved one wrongs a third party, might that person not reasonably blame me for whatever support I gave? No doubt a third party may hold me responsible if I have actively collaborated in some course of action that wrongs him: I have staked my own claim to act by him in a particular way. More normally, however, I act only through the second party — for instance, by encouraging a friend's misplaced sense of grievance or entitlement. This helps to show the import of a person's special responsibility for her own life: each of us is finally a distinct person in the web of human relationships. However much a person relies on others' counsel and support, she may not allow herself to become — or to be treated as — a mere conduit to the actions and opinions of others. ‘But he told (encouraged, advised …) me to!’ is, as all children must learn, an excuse that will not wash. By the same token, if the third party were to accuse me on the basis of the counsel I lent my friend, she would be ‘going over the head’ of the person who had actually wronged her. She would thereby insult my friend's specific standing and impugn the dignity that is won by assuming — and being granted — responsibility for one's actions.

Perhaps it goes without saying, finally, that to hold others responsible is often awkward and troubling; especially when we are close to someone, difficult questions of forbearance, compromise, and distance arise. To respond appropriately demands tact and judgment, and depends on trust that may be hard-won or fragile. Naturally, it is difficult to support a person who is, as one but not the other party sees it, the author of his own woes (not to mention others' woes, or even one's own). From the other perspective, it can be hard to accept that a friend or loved one will not share our way of making sense of our actions and our life,38 or believes he can judge a relationship or other aspect of our lives better than we can; indeed, we might reproach him in turn for misjudgement or interference. Mutual acceptance may be strained, and some sort of distance may result.39 — None of these difficulties alters the fact that this is part of what it is to share in responsibility for someone's life. They may, however, serve to emphasise that a special responsibility remains with the person — a responsibility that is always hers and can only be shared, not borne, by others.

Conclusion: Sharing Responsibility Rather Than Holding Responsible

This account of the standing to hold responsible is based on the claim that personal relationships possess a normative structure, whereby persons act together to divide and to share responsibility for one another's lives. It opposes a common tendency in the philosophical literature, to use ‘responsible’ or ‘blameworthy’ as adjectives without any mind to who should hold responsible. To ask who has the standing to respond is to make it clear that these are matters of practical judgment, that involve the exercise of authority and the taking — or sharing — of responsibility.

Naturally, there are many different things that we assume responsibility for. This helps to explain why questions of responsibility and standing are so complex. Earlier, I mentioned cases where everyone seems authorised to respond, such as littering or other anti-social behaviour. In such cases, the rebuker assumes responsibility for norms upholding public space, by insisting that the culprit has a responsibility to abide by these. Plainly, legal or organisational practices of holding responsible need different analysis again: in particular, we would have to ask what responsibilities different organisations should assume and how they should divide these among their members. While legal and institutional practices are like personal relationships in that they involve differential standing, I think one contrast is especially revealing. Setting aside the obvious fact that states may use coercion to hold responsible, note that both organisational and state modes of holding responsible involve collective action. Police, judges, managers and union officials are empowered by their position as role-holders engaged in routine cooperation. This enables powerful modes of accountability, such as disciplinary measures, grievance procedures and terminations of employment or membership. Even if they do not involve coercion, these practices assuredly merit the title of holding responsible.

By contrast, not only may neither party to a personal relationship use coercion to hold the other responsible; in addition, neither may act together with others to do so.40 As a result, the parties stand on an equal footing. One party cannot do something to the other, as a legal system does to an offender or an organisation does to a delinquent employee. In a personal relationship, there is — if I may be pardoned this way of putting it — no getting hold of the other person, unless he consents to remain in one's grasp. One might therefore feel that it is not apt to speak of holding responsible at all. Even where matters come to light with the bitterest of reproaches, there must be a back and forth of interpretations and responses. This represents a particular form of joint action that aims at shared judgment. Both parties must, in order to sustain their relationship, find a mutually agreeable way to deal with whatever wrongs one or both of them perceive. To revise my initial phrasing, the standing involved is not quite the authority to hold responsible, but rather to share responsibility.

I have not said anything here to confront the sceptical worries that philosophers have often raised about responsibility. Nonetheless, when we observe these practices within human relationships many of those worries — as Strawson noted41 — do not appear relevant. For what would a relationship be, if the parties did not respond to each other's conduct and character? If the parties to a relationship are deciding how they will relate to one another, then nothing could be less a matter of indifference than their conduct within that relationship. Similarly, if they share a concern for one another's lives and the particular person who each of them is, then many more aspects of each party's life may be no less indifferent. This is not to deny that we often forbear to respond and may accept many faults as part of who a person is; we may even see our commitment as quite unconditional. It is only to argue that the standing to respond to one another is presupposed as friends, intimates and family members negotiate the ways in which they share responsibility for one another's lives, and renew their willingness to do so.

In closing, let me note how strongly this account is anchored in the social and political constellation of modern liberal societies. Clearly, norms of standing vary widely between societies. In smaller and more cohesive communities, to effectively treat someone's life as if it were her own to lead might constitute an insult or exclusion. I have been stressing that, however unwelcome they may be on particular occasions, practices of holding responsible are modes of sharing responsibility: we treat someone's conduct — and in the case of personal relationships, to some extent her life — as our business, too. Whether this seems oppressive or reassuring, demeaning or inclusive, paternalistic or familial may depend on personal circumstances and the culture that is one's home. In some cultures, more relationships may be personal than is usual in a mass society — where most people are strangers, which divides social roles and types of relationship to an unprecedented extent. But however large the scope for legitimate cultural variation, in no constellation has everyone an equal right to respond to conduct and character traits that she holds to be faulty. This cannot be, so long as human beings form different sorts of relationships and associations that involve varying degrees of joint action and shared responsibility.


For comments and discussion on this article, I owe many thanks to Dave Archard, Kyla Ebels-Duggan, Morris Kaplan, Kasper Lippert-Rasmussen, Felix Pinkert, Graham Smith and Alison Stone, to anonymous referees at this and another journal, as well as audiences at the Philosophy Work in Progress seminar at Lancaster University, Lancaster University's Philosophy Society, and the Society for Applied Philosophy's annual conference.


  1. 1

    Aristotle says this several times in the Nicomachean Ethics (1166a, 1169b, 1170b), but the maxim was attributed to Pythagoras long before this (as David Wootton points out in ‘Friendship portrayed: A new account of [More's] Utopia’, History Workshop Journal 45, 1998: 2947, at p. 33).

  2. 2

    For simplicity, I discuss only mutual relations among adults.

  3. 3

    Hugh LaFollette, Personal Relationships: Love, Identity and Morality (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996), p. 4.

  4. 4

    Originally in Proceedings of the British Academy, 48, 1962: 120; cited here as reprinted: P. Strawson, ‘Freedom and resentment’ in G. Watson (ed.) Free Will, 2nd edn. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), pp. 7293, at pp. 83f = §V.

  5. 5

    T. M. Scanlon, Moral Dimensions: Permissibility, Meaning, Blame (Cambridge MA: Belknap Press, 2008), chapter 4, ‘Blame’, especially pp. 122f, 128, 137, 145, 175.

  6. 6

    This is also true of Angela Smith's insightful remarks in ‘On being responsible and holding responsible’, Journal of Ethics 11, 2007: 465484, especially pp. 478–483. Christopher Kutz, ‘Responsibility’ in J. Coleman and S. Schapiro (eds) The Oxford Handbook of Jurisprudence and Philosophy of Law (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), pp. 548587, also emphasises the question of standing, but his main focus is on legal debates. The problem of hypocrisy, whereby a person's own wrong-doing undermines his standing to reproach, has been taken up by R. A. Duff, ‘Blame, moral standing and the legitimacy of the criminal trial’, Ratio 23, 2010: 123140; R. Jay Wallace, ‘Hypocrisy, moral address, and the equal standing of persons’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 38, 2010: 307340; and G. A. Cohen, ‘Casting the first stone: Who can, and who can't, condemn the terrorists?’, Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement 58, 2006: 113136.

  7. 7

    L. Radzik, ‘On minding your own business: Differentiating accountability relations within the moral community’, Social Theory and Practice 37, 2011: 574598; Stephen Darwall, The Second Person Standpoint: Morality, Respect and Accountability (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2006). As Radzik notes (pp. 584ff), it is not entirely clear that Darwall endorses a universal standing to hold responsible. My own suspicion is that Darwall does not see the question because, ironically, his account is pitched at too abstract a level to appreciate the structure of relations within which second personal concepts operate (cf. R Jay Wallace, ‘Reasons, relations, and commands: Reflections on Darwall’, Ethics 118, 2007: 2436, at pp. 27ff).

  8. 8

    Radzik op. cit., p. 598; see also p. 592.

  9. 9

    Radzik op. cit., p. 597. The first two points are also suggested by Ferdinand David Schoeman, Privacy and Social Freedom (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

  10. 10

    Radzik op. cit., p. 592.

  11. 11

    M. Gilbert, ‘Shared intention and personal intentions’, Philosophical Studies 144, 2009: 167187, at p. 177. Gilbert makes the same point about standing to rebuke throughout her work: e.g. ‘Walking together: A paradigmatic social phenomenon’, Midwest Studies in Philosophy XV, 1990: 114, esp. pp. 3ff; or A Theory of Political Obligation (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2006) e.g. pp. 103f). Cf. also Bennett Helm, ‘Plural agents’, Noûs 42, 2008: 1749, esp. pp. 41ff, and Facundo M Alonso, ‘Shared intention, reliance, and interpersonal obligations’, Ethics 119, 2009: 444475.

  12. 12

    Following Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1157b.

  13. 13

    Or, perhaps, a meaningful omission to act. Compare Gary Watson's well-known distinction between attributability — corresponding to judgments about the moral qualities of character revealed in some course of action — and accountability — when another person responds to someone on the basis of those judgments (G. Watson, ‘Two faces of responsibility’, originally published in Philosophical Topics 24, 1995: 227248, reprinted in Agency and Answerability: Selected Essays (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), pp. 260284).

  14. 14

    We may refer to acts as unforgiveable. Unlike its opposite, this represents a specific claim about everyone's standing: no one could or should forgive the doer.

  15. 15

    Compare Christine Korsgaard's distinction between theoretical and practical approaches to responsibility. To understand responsibility, she argues, we need to think about practices that go on between people. By contrast, ‘theoretical’ approaches assume that the proper form of these can be derived from moral or even metaphysical facts about the culprit (‘Creating the kingdom of ends: Responsibility and reciprocity in personal relations’, in her Creating the Kingdom of Ends (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 188221, at pp. 197ff).

  16. 16

    Interestingly, this seems to be a case where forgiveness is not relevant: the wrong is against the community to whom the space belongs, rather than one or a few persons. For this reason, the example is probably more complex than the pragmatic analysis admits: someone who does not belong to the community — a tourist, for example — is less well placed to hold responsible.

  17. 17

    Offered in the spirit of Kant's injunction: ‘examples … only illustrate but cannot prove anything’ (Metaphysics of Morals, 6:355).

  18. 18

    Clearly, this judgment is culturally relative — an issue I return to in the last paragraph of this article.

  19. 19

    I use the term ‘right’ in a broad sense, to indicate a moral entitlement — as mentioned in my brief discussion of Gilbert above, this may be overridden by other considerations and cannot be treated legalistically.

  20. 20

    I will not pursue the question of how far this right extends (would he be justified in reading my diary, or engaging a private eye?) — the point is only that it belongs to him, not to others.

  21. 21

    This is not the only way in which the empirical difficulty is normatively relevant, since it may give rise to a duty on the part of others to assist in some way. The scope of such duties is a complex and contestable matter which I will not attempt to delineate here. For instance, what duty does a friend — as opposed to a stranger, however well informed — have to tell me of her suspicions regarding my partner's infidelity?

  22. 22

    Michael Thompson, ‘What is it to wrong someone? A puzzle about justice’, in R. J. Wallace , P. Pettit , S. Scheffler & M. Smith (eds) Reason and Value: Themes from the Moral Philosophy of Joseph Raz (Oxford: Clarendon, 2006), pp. 333384; Darwall op. cit.; David Owens, Shaping the Normative Landscape (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), chapter 2, ‘Wronging’, pp. 4467).

  23. 23

    Perhaps this is because a duty to respect bodily integrity may also be directed to the community or has a non-directional aspect — my point is only that ‘directedness’ is not straightforward enough to base our analysis on.

  24. 24

    As Arthur Ripstein puts it in ‘Three duties to rescue: moral, civil, and criminal’, Law and Philosophy 19, 2000: 751779, esp. pp. 756ff and in Justice and responsibility’, Canadian Journal of Law and Jurisprudence XVII, 2004: 361386, at p. 369.

  25. 25

    Thus, I leave aside how far persons should be protected from various consequences of their choices, a question familiar in debates about luck-egalitarianism and in right-wing critiques of the welfare state. Here, the point is only that to lead one's own life depends on a relative independence from others' choices and a relative efficacy in one's own choices. With regard to the latter, I am concerned with effects in terms of one's relations with others — something that debates in political theory are less concerned with. (For a partial exception, see Samuel Scheffler, Boundaries and Allegiances (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), esp. chapter 3, ‘Families, nations and strangers’, pp. 4865.)

  26. 26

    My discussion concerns mutual, adult relationships. Obviously parents take responsibility for how things go with their children; but (younger) children should not be expected to bear responsibility for how things go with their parents.

  27. 27

    I am following Arthur Ripstein's Kantian framing of the issues (Ripstein op. cit.). But the key point is that there exists a domain of personal interaction — including various possibilities for transgression — which is not subject to state regulation or punishment, and (hence) for which we must take responsibility as individual persons.

  28. 28

    Cf. Alasdair MacIntyre, Dependent Rational Animals (Chicago, IL: Open Court, 1999), p. 117.

  29. 29

    I say ‘deliberately’, since happenstance may take a person from our lives, and someone else may, in a sense, come to take their place. Contrast also Aristotle's category of relationships ‘where the person is loved not insofar as who he is, but insofar as he provides some good or pleasure’: Nicomachean Ethics, 1156a, trans. R. Crisp (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

  30. 30

    Except for norms, such as those against incest, which separate family and romantic and friendship relations from one another.

  31. 31

    Which is not to deny that a friend might use the same words as a rebuke, if I were trying to disown my own responsibility in the matter.

  32. 32

    Compare individual responsibilities to report crime, to bear witness, or even to protest if the police fail to deal with a crime: citizens share responsibility without undermining the state's special responsibility to uphold the law. Or to look at the same matter in reverse: the state shares responsibility for ensuring that people respect one another's rights; this does not detract from each person's special responsibility to respect others' rights.

  33. 33

    Here I follow Kyla Ebels-Duggan, who argues that there are norms that are constitutive of certain sorts of relationship: ‘Against beneficence: A normative account of love’, Ethics 119, 2008: 142170.

  34. 34

    As Cheshire Calhoun argues, sometimes ‘we must choose between treating [people] as persons by resentfully making moral demands or treating them as persons by forgivingly understanding how they have [to our minds, wrongly] made sense of their lives’; and sometimes we do the latter: ‘Changing one's heart’, Ethics 103, 1992: 7696, at p. 96.

  35. 35

    Radzik (op. cit., p. 593) mentions self-regarding wrongs as one case where a universal standing to blame is quite implausible. Here others' blame may well seem paternalistic, so that it requires special justification. I am suggesting that personal relationships may provide this.

  36. 36

    Using the word ‘intervention’ may recall one strategy for dealing with persistent damaging behaviour, especially alcohol abuse — where many family members, friends and even co-workers act together to confront a person with supposedly irrefutable (because so widely shared) testimony of the damage that the abuse is causing. That such interventions, even if successful or defensible, frequently cause great resentment is readily understandable, since they fundamentally contradict our normal assumption that we negotiate our relationships on a one-to-one basis, even where the relationship is situated within a family or other group. Another sort of intervention, no doubt more frequent, is when we tell a friend or loved one how someone to whom we are both close is feeling about something that has gone on between them. This goes in the direction of pointing out a person's responsibilities, even if it is not readily describable as holding him responsible. Again, we all know how delicate a matter are such interventions. For my purposes, the point is that such cases are so problematic: they are exceptions that prove the rule; that is, they point up how fundamental these norms are to our relationships.

  37. 37

    Here I echo Radzik's (op. cit., p. 596f) point that it is part of respect for a person's agency that (depending on the wrong concerned) we recognise the victim as having a special authority to respond. (An analogous point is made by Owens op. cit..) But I am treating this point as having a wider extension: amid the complex back and forth of everyday interaction, it often lies within a person's authority to decide whether he has been wronged.

  38. 38

    Cf. Calhoun, op. cit., for this way of framing matters.

  39. 39

    Cf. Ebels-Duggan op. cit., pp. 159162.

  40. 40

    Cf. note 36.

  41. 41

    Strawson op. cit., p. 87 = §5.