Responsibility, Positive and Political

Rather than being concerned with taking responsibility, whether for ourselves or for others, the final reason to embrace responsibility has to do with thinking of others as responsible.  Part of the problem with a denial of responsibility, I pointed out, is that it makes us incapable of relating to others, and especially to the neediest members of society, as people capable of real agency.  This shapes how we see and treat them.  If we think of others as incapable of agency we may pity them, or even rush to hand out charity to them — and yet we will be unlikely to think of them as social equals.  Nor are we likely to protest when they are given few opportunities to better their lot.  For that reason,  a society in which we genuinely grant all members equal status requires us to think of other citizens as capable of real agency.

A positive conception of conception of responsibility needs to build on this newfound appreciation of the reasons to value responsibility.  In the next step, it has to transform the way in which politicians and philosophers give weight to the past choices of individuals in determining their entitlements — and to allow more far-reaching values, like the desire to live in a community of equals, to inform the design of the welfare state institutions.  The way to do this, I argue, is to shift from a “pre-political” to a “political” justification of the welfare state. (23)

Yascha Mounk: The Age of Responsibility: Luck, Choice, and the Welfare State



Any account of responsibility subtle enough to be plausible from a normative point of view is likely to be unfeasible from a practical point of view — especially in a realm, like the welfare state, where case-workers need to make scores of decisions in a relatively limited amount of time.  Since, in reality, the subtle account of responsibility favored by most philosophers makes relative ascriptions of responsibility difficult, if not altogether impossible, it should hardly come as a surprise that the concept of responsibility which tends to win out in real political debate is simplistic (and normatively implausible).  We should thus give up on the idea that we could ever integrate a philosophically subtle notion of responsibility into political practice.  Realistically, there are only two options on the table.  The first is to avoid invoking responsibility in making distributive decisions whenever possible.  And the second is to give central importance to a crude notion of personal responsibility that even most of those philosophers who are, in principle, sympathetic to responsibility ardently reject.

This catch-22 is indicative of one of the core problems with the age of responsibility: most appeals to the importance of choice and personal responsibility are based on a sleight of hand.  Appeals to personal responsibility sound persuasive in the abstract.  At a general level, the thought that people should take control of their life, and try to make something of themselves, really is as blandly inoffensive as apple pie.  But when those appeals are put into practice in the context of specific policies, the effect is anything but bland.  Once the appeal to responsibility is translated into the cold bureaucratic logic of the welfare state, policies inspired by the rhetoric of personal responsibility deprive particular individuals of particular benefits for particular reasons.  And yet, the actual reasons that guide these decisions — and deprive particular individuals of urgently needed help — don’t track the normative intuitions that supposedly justify this focus on personal responsibility in the first place.  (12-13)

Yascha Mounk | The Age of Responsibility: Luck, Choice, and the Welfare State