On Responsibility and Ethics
Tibor R. Machan
The basic task of ethics is to answer the question, “How should I act?” “What standards apply to me as I conduct my life?” “What are the fundamental principles that I should follow?” Those are pretty much equivalent questions but the answers are extremely complicated and multi-faceted. There are a lot of thinkers who have answered it in very different ways.
Almost every major philosopher throughout the history of philosophy, east and west, has advanced an ethical theory or ideal; a theory about or ideal of how human beings should conduct themselves. This is one thing that philosophers do. Some even contend that ethics is but a branch of politics which is prior to it, although the opposite is how most view it today.
There are, however, also philosophers and other thinkers who deny that there is anything like ethics. In fact for many philosophers, as well as many social scientists and natural scientists, the entire field of ethics is bogus. It’s kind of like astrology--though I don’t want to step on any toes here but I regard it a bogus field--and a lot of social scientists and natural scientists feel the same way about ethics. There is no such thing as ought. Ought is an incoherent concept. There is no such thing because most of the time those skeptics about ethics deny that there is any choice we have about our lives that we can make decisions as to what we will do, and thus for them ethics is a non-starter (like astrology). But the bulk of philosophers (and I would say the bulk of human beings) have a concern with ethics and they take it seriously. They don’t dismiss it as bogus. They tend to think there is some answer to the question, “How should I act?” “How should I conduct my life?” “What principles should guide me?” I’m sure that’s true for many of you although some of you probably are skeptics about this.
One of the reasons that ethics arises for us (not uncontroversial) is that we don’t have instincts prompting us to behave as we need to in order to survive and flourish in our lives. Other animals (and I’m not going to get into the big debate as to whether there are some borderline cases) have these instincts, these hard-wirings, so that say, in winter they fly south. Human beings on the other hand have to figure out what they should do, how they should conduct themselves. When you’re a parent you have to make a choice too be a good one. The issue of what are the right things to do and what are the wrong things to avoid doing always faces us. That is what editorials are about, that is what all the plays and novels are about. Almost anything interesting in life tends to revolve around ethics.
Responsibility underlies any school of ethics whether utilitarian, altruist, egoist, Aristotelian, Kantian, Christian or Hindu. However one answers the question, “How ought I conduct myself?” the issue of responsibility is central. What does it mean?
There are many uses of the word responsibility. Sometimes crop failures are ascribed to the weather so the weather is responsible for them. Buildings collapse because of earthquakes so earthquakes are responsible for them. In this sense what we mean by responsibility is merely that these are the causes of certain happenings. Some things happen because of this or that.
There's a relationship between this use of the term “responsible” and the one that bears on ethics, a controversial one, because in the case of human beings, ethics tends to assume one of the most contentious ideas, namely, that human beings have what's usually called free will, that we can act one way or the other and it is up to us how. It is one of the earliest ideas of ethics in any region of the world whether it’s east, west, north, or south. Wherever people write about ethics, it is understood that we have to do the right thing of our own free will. You don’t have to be an academic philosopher to appreciate that when human beings worry about their lives they worry about something over which they believe they have a say. Both ethics and morality concern themselves with right as distinguished from wrong conduct.
The famous German philosopher Immanuel Kant coined a motto, “Ought implies can.” It just means that if you ought to do something, it has to be something that you can do. It is nonsense to say you ought to jump 30 feet into the air unassisted because that is impossible. You couldn’t very well have a moral responsibility to do the impossible. But not only must one be free to do the right thing so that one isn't not compelled one way or another but what is the right thing to do has to be knowable because obviously if there is no answer to the question, “what is the right thing for me to do?” or “what ought I to do?” then one can’t do it. So if ought does imply can, then it also requires that there be some standards of proper conduct, of proper behavior.
Moreover, if one ought to do one thing rather than another, one may not be forced to do it. Forcing people to do the right thing, other than to abstain from interfering with others, renders them morally impotent. People have to be free and there has to be some standard by which their conduct is to be evaluated. Otherwise there is no ethics.
Ethics is bogus without responsibility and liberty, if you cannot be free to choose the right course and if you cannot determine what the right course is.