Ethics of Responsibility
Sometimes when I am dealing with students, I encounter some who are not very responsible. If it were that simple, we would have narrowed the range of the problem. However the problem is bigger than the student population. Certainly in my past I have been irresponsible. And I am still all-too-capable of not being responsible, even in my ripe old age! And clearly, there are other adults with whom I deal who are not very responsible.
But it does not even stop there. We all can cite examples of businesses, which did not operate responsibly. We know some banking establishments in the mid-2000s that were involved in shady practices that cost thousands of people much, if not all, of their life savings. We know major sports programs that have cheated on grades---obviously not responsible behavior. So when we talk about the ethics of responsibility, we are dealing with a real issue in peoples’ lives and interchanges.
The way I want to use the idea of responsibility differentiates it from a requirement. Requirements are obligations. We are required to follow the law. It does not matter how we feel about it or, even, whether we agree with a particular law. The same thing goes for contracts that we may sign. If I sign a contract, then I am obligated to obey the rules and stipulations contained in that contract. Requirements are actually obligations---requiring obedience. In a sense requirements have nothing to do with my own willingness.
Responsibility, as I want to use the term, presupposes that my choice is present. To become responsible for something or somebody means I willingly take on the task---I agree to a commitment or call on my life, my time, my money, etc. There are many examples we could bring forth. But let’s start with my responsibilities to my friendships. I do not have any friendships, which I would characterize as requirements. I am not put into any friendship by virtue of some law. No one has required me to be friends with any of my friends.
And none of my existing friendships come with rules and regulations. I did not sign a contract with any of my friends. In fact, most friendships I have do not have a specific beginning point. Of course, I can probably recall the first day my friend and I met. But my definition of friendship is not so shallow as to say the day we met, we became the best of friends. As I understand it, friendships are a result of relationship development.
Hence, I do feel like I have responsibilities to my friends---responsibilities, not requirements. I am responsible to care for them. I am responsible to be on the lookout for their welfare and to make their lives as rich as I can possibly do. A simple way I like to put it is to claim that the ethics of responsibility of friendship is an ethic of love. If I have a friend, I willingly take on the ethic of love. That means in every situation I intend to be as loving as I can possibly be in that moment. That is a choice and I willingly choose it.
My ethic of love---the responsibility of friendship---is different than perfection. I am not perfect and, unfortunately, my loving will not be executed perfectly. It would be absurd for me to commit myself to love perfectly. But I can commit to love responsibly—to do the very best I can do in every situation. My friends rightfully expect that of me. There is an appropriate level of expectation that comes with the ethic of responsibility. If I commit to be responsible to you or to some situation, then there are appropriate expectations that go into place.
All this is true and could be sufficient for a treatment of responsibility. But there is one more step for me. The ethics of responsibility also characterize my relationship with God---the Holy One. Of course, I know there are things like the Ten Commandments that sound very legal. They are apparently laws and God rightfully thinks we owe obedience on those. I don’t dispute that. But I do understand my primary relationship with God to be one of responsibility rather than obligation.
I say this because my understanding of my relationship with God is a relationship where God honors and respects my free will. This is based on my assumption that any authentic love relationship has to honor the free will of the lovers. This holds true for God and me. God is an enticer, not an obligator. Certainly, my view of God is that God does not coerce. God invites, implores, desires---but God does not trick or coerce.
Since my relationship with God is one where I willingly have entered and keep that relationship, I keep it by virtue of an ethics of responsibility. And I believe God is acting on that same ethic of responsibility. But thankfully, along with this ethic of responsibility God often adds a touch of mercy and grace!