The Age of Responsibility: On the Role of Choice, Luck and Personal Responsibility in Contemporary Politics and Philosophy

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The Age of Responsibility: On the Role of Choice, Luck and Personal Responsibility in Contemporary Politics and Philosophy

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Title: The Age of Responsibility: On the Role of Choice, Luck and Personal Responsibility in Contemporary Politics and Philosophy
Author: Mounk, Yascha B.
Citation: Mounk, Yascha B. 2015. The Age of Responsibility: On the Role of Choice, Luck and Personal Responsibility in Contemporary Politics and Philosophy. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
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Abstract: The value of “personal responsibility” increasingly stands at the center of contemporary discussions about distributive justice and the welfare state. While deep disagreements about who is responsible for which acts and outcomes persist, a wide range of thinkers accepts the normative premise that an individual’s claim to assistance from the collectivity should depend, in part, on whether or not they have acted “responsibly” in the past.

Drawing on the recent history of moral and political philosophy, the social sciences, and political rhetoric, I argue that the current consensus around what I call the “responsibility framework” is a new phenomenon. In the postwar era, a conception of responsibility-as-duty emphasized each individual’s obligation to contribute to the community. Today, by contrast, the newer conception of responsibility-as-accountability emphasizes each individual’s obligation, insofar as they are capable of doing so, to provide for their own material needs without outside assistance.

This changing conception of responsibility has, in turn, led to a significant—and normatively troubling—transformation of key political institutions. In particular, the welfare state, once conceived as a responsibility-buffering institution that was to provide a social safety net even to those citizens who have made mistakes in their lives, has been transformed into a responsibility-tracking institution, which denies citizens benefits if they are themselves “responsible” for being in a state of need.

Among left-wing politicians and egalitarian philosophers, the most common reaction to these normative shortcomings has been to accept the punitive interpretation of responsibility outlined in the responsibility framework, yet insist that the threshold for ascribing responsibility to most individuals is extremely high—thus making responsibility largely inapplicable to everyday moral and political life. However, this “no-responsibility view” ultimately overstates both the philosophical reasons to apply a high bar to ascriptions of responsibility and the political feasibility of convincing people to abstain from holding their fellow citizens responsible for their actions.

Instead of dismissing the punitive, pre-institutional account of responsibility altogether, I therefore argue that we should construct a positive, institutional account of responsibility. Drawing on T. M. Scanlon’s work about the significance of choice, I give an account of the important self-regarding, other-regarding and societal reasons why we need to give responsibility a real role in our moral and political world. Building on these reasons, I sketch an institutional account of responsibility that helps to empower people to gain mastery over their own lives, and draw out this account’s implications for the design of political institutions, including the welfare state.
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Citable link to this page: http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:14226053
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