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Institutionally Divided Moral Responsibility*

  • Henry S. Richardson (a1)


I am going to be discussing a mode of moral responsibility that anglophone philosophers have largely neglected. It is a type of responsibility that looks to the future rather than the past. Because this forward-looking moral responsibility is relatively unfamiliar in the lexicon of analytic philosophy, many of my locutions will initially strike many readers as odd. As a matter of everyday speech, however, the notion of forward-looking moral responsibility is perfectly familiar. Today, for instance, I said I would be responsible for watching my nieces while they swam. Neglecting this responsibility would have been a moral fault. When people marry, they undertake responsibilities, of moral import, of fidelity and mutual support. When people have children, they accrue moral responsibilities to feed, rear, and educate them. Not all forward-looking responsibilities are moral. While finishing this essay, I have had to keep an eye on a number of my administrative responsibilities, and, while reading it, you may well be occasionally distracted by some of your own. The notion of a responsibility that we accrue or take on, to look out for some range of concerns over some range of the future, is, then, perfectly familiar. Because this common notion of forward-looking responsibility has not been integrated into recent moral theory, however, my philosophical discussion of it will initially seem strange.



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1 Sartre, Jean-Paul, Existentialism Is a Humanism, in Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, ed. Kaufmann, Walter (New York: Meridian-New American, 1956), 345–69. I owe the distinction between backward-looking and forward-looking responsibility to Michael Wolf, who suggested it as a way to make sense of Sartre's discussion of responsibility in this work.

2 See my “Beyond Good and Right: Toward a Constructive Ethical Pragmatism,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 24 (1995): 108–41.

3 I am grateful to Sarah Buss for suggesting the importance of thinking about taking responsibility for persons and things.

4 My stress that there are important moral rules constitutes my disagreement with the main emphasis of recent virtue ethics, which would otherwise provide an interesting way of translating my talk of taking responsibility for a range of concerns. I will not try to argue for this aspect of my view here.

5 Not even God has such authorization, as Leibniz argued against Hobbes and other theological rationalists. In “Three Concepts of Rules,” Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy 14 (1991): 771–95, Michael S. Moore calls this set of true propositions of morality the “real rules.” In addition to these, he suggests that there are also some “authoritative rules” which come into existence upon the valid exercise of certain “normative powers” (a phrase he takes from Raz, Joseph, “Voluntary Obligations and Normative Powers: Part II,” Proceed ings of the Aristotelian Society 46 [1972]: 79102); these are rules whose function is to modify the balance of reasons determined by the real rules. This pair of definitions strikes me as mutually incoherent. If the “real rules” state the truths of morality, then any modification of the balance of reasons that they determine would yield a moral falsehood, and hence would not represent a valid exercise of a moral power.

6 In presuming the bivalence of moral truth-values, I bypass issues of vagueness, which might be relevant to moral statements in, for example, the ways explained by Broome, John, “Is Incommensurability Vagueness?” in Chang, Ruth, ed., Incommensurability, Incomparability, and Practical Reason (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), 6789.

7 For the kind of view of moral truth that I would defend, see my “Truth and Ends in Dewey,” Canadian Journal of Philosophy, supplementary vol. 24 (1998): 109–47. The account I give there downplays the importance of a correspondence to true principles, while not giving it up entirely.

8 Dancy, Jonathan, Moral Reasons (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993). Arguing that “the behavior of a reason … in a new case cannot be predicted from its behavior elsewhere” (60), Dancy's particularism attacks the usefulness even of prima facie generalizations in ethics.

9 Such social rules are the third sort that Moore distinguishes in “Three Concepts of Rules.”

10 Because these moral rules reflect the moral reflections of a group of people at a given time, they have the sort of “historical” existence usefully flagged by Moore in “Three Concepts of Rules,” 776.

11 Habermas, Jürgen, The Theory of Communicative Action, trans. McCarthy, Thomas (Boston: Beacon Press, 1984). In the ideal speech situation, all participants are equally situated and all opportunity for the use of threats is removed, so that what may prevail is “the forceless force of the better argument.”

12 I should note that while I think that many of our best assessments of moral issues are framed as statements that do not name any particular individual, and in that sense are “general” I believe that few of them are rightly described as universal generalizations stating that all persons in a given situation should act in a certain way. Rather, I think most of them are best understood as saying that persons in situations of a given kind should, generally speaking, act in a certain way. I defend this claim in “Specifying Norms as a Way to Resolve Concrete Ethical Problems,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 19 (1990): 279310. Our moral norms, that is, already reflect our awareness of our fallibility and of the possibility that they might be revised.

13 While it would be a topic for another essay to explore the relationship between these positions about forward-looking moral responsibility and different positions on attributing moral responsibility in a backward-looking way, I will say something about this in the concluding section.

14 Schneewind, J. B., “The Divine Corporation and the History of Ethics,” in Rorty, Richard, Schneewind, J. B., and Skinner, Quentin, eds., Philosophy in History: Essays on the Historiography of Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984): 173–91.

15 In “Specifying Norms as a Way to Resolve Concrete Ethical Problems,” I described such a middle ground by developing the idea that norms may be progressively specified. There, however, I did not address the natural follow-up question, “By whom?” The present essay tackles this last question. While it would seem natural to associate the two conceptions of moral rules in the text with deontological and consequentialist theories of right action, respectively, this would be a mistake. To begin with, a rule-consequentialist might support an absolutist approach to moral rules. More significantly, as I have argued elsewhere, the distinction between consequentialism and deontology hinges upon separating, for the pur poses of deliberation, two classes of consideration, those pertaining to the good and those pertaining to the right. In “Beyond Good and Right,” I argued that the deliberative sepa ration of right and good cannot be maintained.

16 For the claim that we should not understand family relationships in terms of justice, see, e.g., Sandel, Michael, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, 2d ed. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

17 In chapter 5 of Utilitarianism (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1979), Mill argues that all of the common-sense precepts of justice submit, when they conflict, to adjudication on the basis of the good of all.

18 The moral objectivist, of course, can accommodate this sort of phenomenon by imagining that the principles which constitute the moral truth-conditions contain many condi tional clauses. Again, I am not concerned with this layer of metaphysics.

19 Ross, W. D., The Right and the Good (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1930; reprint, Indianapolis: Hackett, 1988), 4245.

20 Schneewind, , “The Divine Corporation and the History of Ethics.”

21 Cicero, , De Offiriis (On Duties) (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1975).

22 The so-called “paradoxes of deontology,” as exemplified by Machiavelli's argument, elicit from the defenders of some moral prohibition the admission that violating that prohibition is bad. Their antagonist then concocts a situation in which the agent would produce less of that bad by violating the prohibition. See, e.g., Scheffler, Samuel, “Agent-Centred Restrictions, Rationality, and the Virtues,” in Scheffler, Samuel, ed., Consequentialism and Its Critics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 243–60.

23 For the reasons given in Herman, Barbara, “Leaving Deontology Behind,” in Herman, , The Practice of Moral Judgment (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993), 208–40, I do not think of Kant as a deontologist.

24 Rawls, John, “Two Concepts of Rules,” Philosophical Review 64 (1955): 332. I am using “institution” roughly synonymously with Rawls's “practice.”

25 See, e.g., Margolis, Joseph, “Rule Utilitarianism,” Australasian Journal of Philosophy 43 (1965): 220–25; and Lyons, David, Forms and Limits of Utilitarianism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965).

26 Mill, , Utilitarianism, end of chapter 2.

27 Rawls, , “Two Concepts of Rules,” 23.

28 Ibid., 26.

29 Note 23 on pp. 25–26 of ibid, discusses the fact that although the existence of a practice depends upon the existence of instances of behavior, the descriptions of the relevant be haviors are nonetheless conceptually dependent on the practice.

30 Ibid., 28.

31 Ibid., 5.

32 Maggie Little suggested this example to me.

33 See my “Truth and Ends in Dewey,” for a characterization of Dewey on “success” as similarly avoiding giving a criterion of action.

34 I do not mean to imply that all human activities deserve deference; I am simply characterizing a stance intermediate between deontological quietism and consequentialist hubris.

35 See my “Democratic Intentions,” in Bohman, James and Rehg, William, eds., Deliberative Democracy (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997), 349–82, for development of this point.

36 Cf. Rawls, John, Political Liberalism, enlarged ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), 1522.

37 See, e.g., Warnock, G. J., The Object of Morality (London: Methuen, 1971).

38 There are other apparent possibilities. A Kantian view does not, offhand, suggest ways of dividing moral responsibility, in my sense, unless some specifically Kantian way of filling in the latitude of imperfect duties could be devised. An Aristotelian view, oriented in a not simply instrumental way around an ultimate end conceived of as activity, is perhaps more promising. I take the process I recommend in the text to be compatible with Aristotle's procedure.

39 This is to describe morality in pragmatist terms: cf. Putnam, Hilary, Pragmatism (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1995).

40 Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205 (1972).

41 Arneson, Richard and Shapiro, Ian, “Democratic Autonomy and Religious Freedom: A Critique of Wisconsin v. Yoder,” in Shapiro, Ian, Democracy's Place (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996), 137–74.

42 I realize that I have shifted, in this paragraph, from a first-person formulation to the impersonal. We start in medias res also with regard to the institutions (customary, legal, and otherwise) that are effective in changing our understandings of moral rules and the divi sions of responsibility that go with them. In the case of a conflict between parents' control over the religious upbringing of their children and the collective interest in raising just citizens, the U.S. Constitution has given the Supreme Court a pivotal role in the second- order division of responsibility, the division of labor within the U.S. government defining the process that governs how issues of our moral division of labor are to be regulated. Still, what various of us laypersons, parents, and pundits come to think about these matters is not without influence.

43 Rawls, , “The Idea of Public Reason Revisited,” University of Chicago Law Review 64 (1997): 765807.

44 Cf. my “Democratic Deliberation about Final Ends,” in progress; and Bohman, and Rehg, , eds., Deliberative Democracy.

45 For an explanation of the sense—admittedly attenuated—in which this can count as a standard, see my “Truth and Ends in Dewey.”

46 Arrow, Kenneth J., Social Choice and Individual Values, 2d ed. (New York: Wiley, 1963); Downs, Anthony, An Economic Theory of Democracy (New York: Harper and Row, 1957).

47 For a convenient summary of Dewey's far-flung views on the democracy of inquiry, see Putnam, , Pragmatism, 7273.

48 The Washington Post, 04 9, 1997, A7.

49 As Roderick Long has pointed out to me, there is a lot more that would need to be said here about the respective virtues of tacit evolution and democratic control. This is not the place to go into this debate, however; after all, I have not specified which issues should be subject to democratic control. I take it as obvious that some issues about what we should do—including among them some that will impinge upon moral institutions proper—should be democratically settled.

50 See note 12 above.

51 There are obviously difficult issues about cultural diversity lurking here. For a pow erful defense of the idea that some of morality's most basic truths are susceptible to multi cultural consensus, see Nussbaum, Martha C., Feminist Internationalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming).

52 I am grateful to Sarah Buss for raising this issue and example.

* Earlier drafts of this paper were presented at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics, the Phil-amore Moralphil Group, and the Toronto Chapter of the Conference for the Study of Political Thought. Those present on each of these occasions were most helpful. I owe special thanks to Ronald Beiner, Sarah Buss, Chad DeChant, Ezekiel Emanuel, Emily Hoechst, Agnieszka Jaworska, Joseph Kakesh, and Matthew McAdam—none of whom, of course, bear any backward-looking responsibility for what I say here.

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