At an event in Liverpool last week, I was asked by Steve Fuller about what I understood responsibility to mean in a sociological sense. He was sceptical that I could support claims of responsibility given my understanding of human agency as situationally performative but biographically continuous. In essence I understood him to be asking: do I think there’s something about the human being in relation to which responsibility can be assigned? This is a question I’d never really thought about explicitly, though once I began to I’ve realised that it actually knits together the full range of my interests.
Part of my difficulty with the question is that I think ‘responsibility’ encompasses a number of different things which we need to unpack:
- Responsibility as moral agency: how an individual comes, through internal and/or external conversation, to assume a stance of responsibility towards their own actions. To me it seems obvious that this is a matter of what Charles Taylor calls disengaged agency. It’s a mode of engagement with the world that usually involves stepping back from social encounters in order to reflect on one’s own actions within them, though I do believe sometimes we confront these questions when in the flow of the social situation.
- Responsibility as interpersonal ascription: how an individual comes, through social interaction, to be held accountable for their actions. This can, but by no means necessarily does, lead to the first sense of responsibility as moral agency. This is about social judgement, holding someone to account in terms of putatively shared standards in relation to which their behaviour can be evaluated.
- Responsibility as structural enforcement: how an individual comes to be formally held responsible for their actions, in relation to codified rules and regulations which are sufficiently durable to be both enforceable and recognised as binding. Legal systems are the obvious example of this but I’d include disciplinary proceedings within workplaces within this category as well. The point is the process is formalised and the rules are codified. It’s not tied to the social situation, a term I use in Goffman’s sense, in the same way as the earlier forms of responsibility.
These are interconnected in complex ways. But by analytically distinguishing between them, we’re able to recognise how they can vary independently. Under contemporary social conditions, I would argue that we have seen the following changes:
- People are more likely to over-actively exercise moral agency, often to the point of blaming themselves for personal outcomes that are systemically produced. This individualisation contributes to the fragmentation of normative consensus, as individual reasoning acts as a vector of deviance amplification: the more intensively people think about these things, through the filter provided by their own particularity, the less likely they are to straight forwardly reproduce ‘common sense’.
- The interpersonal ascription of responsibility is becoming more contentious because of this fragmentation of normative consensus. If we can’t take ‘common sense’ for granted, interventions of this sort will tend to be experienced as arbitrary impositions of power. This leave them experienced as something inherently contentious, which I’ve written about as the ‘paradox of incivility’: when consensus breaks down, attempts to enforce civility are actually experienced as rude and aggressive.
- ‘Common sense’ supplies the intuitions upon which enforcement is grounded. In its absence, normativity comes to seem less binding, incentivising alternative penalty-based enforcement that doesn’t attempt to seek grounding in moral agency. Margaret Archer describes this as ‘anormative regulation’ in an upcoming paper.
Having only recently grasped quite how interesting case law is, thanks to the conversation with Steve and Joseph, I’d now like to start to refine the outline I’ve sketched above and apply it to thinking through the challenges posed by emerging technologies.