Responsibility for One's Actions
Take the case of a man in business. We shall say that he is an intelligent man with reasonable moral sensibilities, has a family to which he is devoted, plays a moderately active role in certain areas of the public life of his community, enjoys a normal social life with his friends, and has a responsible position with a business firm but works below the top-policy-making level. In the course of his work he is called upon to do something about which he has raised serious ethical questions in his own mind. He is aware that the consequences of this action will be unfair and injurious to other persons. He understands that the particular thing he is asked to do is a matter of accepted policy in the operation of the business and that it is a practice which gives a proven competitive advantage to his firm.
He finally chooses to do the thing that is asked of him as part of his job, and he justifies his action on the ground that he cannot afford to give up his job and that in order to keep his job and, perhaps, be advanced to a better position in the firm, he has no alternative but to do what his employer asks and expects of him. Our friend asks the question, "How can you expect me to be responsible for the consequences of the choice I have made? What else could I do? If I had chosen otherwise, I should almost certainly have lost my job--and in that event I did not want to be responsible for the consequences to my family."
Now, I am not presuming to solve this man's problem for him. But I should like to suggest some of the considerations that seem to me to be involved. In the first place, there is an apparent ambivalence in this man's attitude toward his responsibility. He does not want to beheld responsible for the unfairness and injury to other persons--which will be the consequence of the thing he has chosen to do. But he does want to undertake responsibility for keeping his job and caring for his family, which is also part of the consequences of his choice. The choice he has made reveals his judgment that keeping his job and caring for his family comprises a greater value than acting to avoid injury and unfairness to other persons. The circumstances are such that he cannot act so as to achieve both values--or so he believes--and, therefore, he sacrifices the lesser value for the sake of the greater value. He separates these two sets of value-consequences, is willing to be responsible for the one, but refuses to be responsible for the other.
But are we morally justified in thus arbitrarily selecting those consequences of a choice for which we will he responsible and those consequences for which we will not be responsible? Consequences flow from our actions with a kind of inexorable objectivity, following an irreversible law of cause and effect. Part of the difficulty in making a moral choice is the effort to gain the completest possible knowledge of the consequences of the choice and of the consequences of alternative choices. By reasonably evaluating the consequences of two or more alternative choices, the moral judgment is made in terms of that choice the consequences of which will tend to achieve the greatest value relevant to the particular situation. This, of course, is an extremely difficult thing to do, since it depends on one's knowledge and imagination, insight, and one's capacity for reasonable evaluation. But once having made a choice, all of the consequences flow from it objectively and with a kind of equality and inexorability. If one is responsible for any of the consequences of his choice, he is responsible for all of them. Arbitrarily drawing a line at some point and saying that for these consequences I shall be responsible, and for those I shall not, simply makes a mockery of the whole concept of responsibility for one's actions.
I mentioned a moment ago that this man's choice revealed his judgment that keeping his job and caring for his family comprise a greater value than acting to avoid unfairness and injury to other persons. Assuming this to be a valid judgment, does this justify his refusing to take responsibility for the unfairness and injury as the price for achieving the greater value? It seems to me that if he is to be responsible for consequences which achieve an important value, he must also be responsible for the price that is paid for it--that is, the price of unfairness and injury to his firm's competitors, or whatever the particular case may be.
Making a responsible moral choice is almost always a matter of compromise. We are rarely, if ever, confronted with clear alternatives between good and evil. It is, rather, a choice between greater and lesser goods, which is a much more difficult choice to make. Choosing for certain values in almost any concrete situation involves choosing against certain other values. Acting to achieve the greater value in a particular situation may mean denying the achievement of a lesser value. And in such case the denial of the lesser value is a legitimate cost of the moral act. But what I am emphasizing here is that this cost is part of the consequences of the choice for which this man must be responsible. He cannot justifiably use the high cost of his action as an excuse for evading his responsibility for that high cost.
However, another important consideration is illustrated at this point. Our friend probably never seriously questioned the crucial value judgment which was the basis of his choice: namely, that keeping his job and caring for his family was an appreciably greater value than avoiding unfairness and injury to other persons. The ground of this judgment, in the last analysis, is the implicit assumption that the care and well-being of his family is a greater value than the care and well-being of anyone else's family. In terms of all that might be covered by the phrase "unfairness and injury to other persons," the consequences of the kind of choice this man made could conceivably involve serious effects upon a competitor's business, for example, and thus upon the means of caring for his family.
The assumption that what affects me is of greater value than what affects others is an assumption that cannot be reasonably justified. Its justification can rest only upon an appeal to my own subjective feeling--an appeal which ultimately destroys any basis for an objectively valid ethics. Objectivity is a basic principle of reason, and no justification can be reasonable if it rests upon my making an exception of myself. If it is right for me to act in a certain way in a particular situation, then it should be right for anyone else to act in the same way under the same circumstances. If it is right for our friend to choose the action he did, then it is right for any of his competitors to act in the same way in the same kind of situation. One cannot surrender responsibility for his action by simply making an exception of himself. This undermines the whole concept of responsibility.
One further consideration is illustrated in this case. Responsibility for the consequences of one's choices implies that one shall be responsible in making his choices. On one side of the coin we read "free choice"; on the other side of the coin, "responsible choice." A choice that is not responsible is not genuinely free. What do we mean by a by a responsible choice? Responsibility in making a choice seems to me to mean, first, responding to the total situation in which the choice is made. This involves the widest possible inclusiveness in one's consideration of alternative courses of action. We usually tend to consider alternatives in the least inclusive rather than the most inclusive terms--and it is, of course, much the easier course to do so. The discovery of the alternative possibilities that are open to one requires an intelligent and sensitive effort, subject only to the limitations of one's knowledge, awareness, and vision. If we do not seek to discover all of the possibilities of action in the situation, one of the alternatives which we have overlooked may prove ultimately to have been the wiser choice.
The man in this case has, perhaps, been irresponsible in coming too quickly to a conclusion of the alternatives that were open to him. The consideration of his choice was restricted to a less inclusive range of possibilities. The decisive value for him was the care and well-being of his family, which was served by a regular and sufficient income. The regular and sufficient income was identified exclusively with his present job. But if the choice of what he would have to do to keep that job involved consequences which raised ethical questions in his own mind--consequences that were at least questionable enough to cause him to refuse responsibility for them--then one alternative might be to change jobs. Let us assume that very real difficulties and uncertainties would be involved in such a choice. At what point does a measure of the difficulties justify his excluding consideration of this alternative? Certainly no sane moralist will presume to say that living a moral life is anything but difficult. And a further examination of the case might reveal still other alternatives in the man's responsible consideration of his choice--that is, in his most inclusive consideration of the possibilities open to him in the total situation.
This document is part of a larger document, Understanding Ethical Religion edited by Howard B. Radest.
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