Axelsen, David V. (1,2); Nielsen, Lasse (2) (2016). 'CAPABILITARIAN RESPONSIBILITY' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Tokyo 2016.
Individual responsibility plays a prominent role in both the practice and theory of politics. Consider political debates about individual responsibility for smoking-related illnesses or policies aimed at unemployed citizens to incentivize them to take responsibility for their joblessness. Or, consider theoretical debates about the role of responsible choice in determining how much individuals are entitled to as a matter of distributive justice. As a concept, thus, responsibility has significant both political and philosophical traction. The specific value and content of this notion, however, is seldom clear.
An important conceptual distinction can be made between two such understandings. One emphasizes holding people responsible – that is, attributing an outcome or a certain state of affairs to an agent in a way that elicits a certain moral response. Following T. M. Scanlon, we shall refer to this as responsibility as attributability (attributability, for short). Another emphasizes the importance of being responsible and policies that seek to make people responsible. This second understanding centres on the value inherent in the choice itself and of taking responsibility for one’s life. Responsibility, on this view, is valuable – and, indeed, has central and constitutive importance in making a human life valuable – because it enables people to have authorship of their own life. We shall call this self-creative responsibility.
Attributability theories, first, have been accused of being unreasonably harsh. Thus, they are charged with suggesting that we should leave irresponsible choosers to their unhappy fate, even when their basic needs are threatened – exemplified by the helmetless motorcyclist left to die by the roadside. If justice requires that the distribution of benefits and burdens reflects people’s exercise of responsibility, it seems just to let people suffer the consequences thereof – even when these leave them very badly off. This critique is importantly connected to the distinction between the two different understandings of responsibility. The harshness (or abandonment) objection, thus, targets attributability but can simultaneously be understood as a complaint that such practices undermine self-creative responsibility. Thus, leaving irresponsible choosers in dire straits, while clearly an instance of holding them responsible, is a clear threat to their future prospects of being responsible. It jeopardizes (or even ends) their ability to exercise self-creative responsibility. The problem of harshness, on this view, arises not because responsibility-sensitive theorists focus too much on responsibility, but because they focus on responsibility of the wrong kind. In this way, the harshness objection can be reconstructed as a disagreement about what type of responsibility should win out as a matter of justice.
Second, focusing on responsibility has been criticized for entailing disrespectful intrusiveness in people’s personal choices in order to evaluate the degree to which they are actually responsible for their situation, leading to so-called “shameful revelations” (Wolff 1998, 2010). To determine whether or not people are actually responsible for their predicament, then, they will need to reveal whether the bad outcome has come about due to irresponsible behaviour or mere incompetence – either of which would be shameful to reveal. Again, however, the problem of intrusive policies which require people to reveal shameful personal shortcomings or irresponsibility stems from a need to evaluate whether people were in fact responsible – it is a problem of attributability. It is a concern with the stigmatization and the threats to people’s self-respect involved in having them reveal their causal role (or lack thereof) in bringing about their hardship. And this concern is not least about how such measures undermine peoples’ abilities to choose and act autonomously and responsibly – it is a threat, in other words, to their self-creative responsibility. The intrusiveness objection, then, can also be reconstructed as a worry about attributability coming in the way of self-creative responsibility.
Finally, it has been argued that responsibility is a problematic value around which to build one’s theory for strategic and political reasons. This is because the value of responsibility as attributability is already highly overemphasized in the current political context and is widely employed to discursively uphold an unjust distribution of resources. Theories which centre on this value risk upholding and strengthening this distortion (Anderson 2015; Wolff 2015). There is a widespread tendency in political discourses to blame, for example, immigrants, the unemployed, and the poor for ending up in their inferior societal position due to irresponsible behaviour – due to a lack of willingness to integrate, find a job, or apply oneself. Mirroring this is a prevalence among the well-off to feel entitled to their superior position, feeling that they have earned their position through good choices, hard work, and comparatively responsible behaviour. The worry is that responsibility-centred theories are liable to be distorted by and, thus, play into these injustice-engendering discourses (Bidadanure & Axelsen (forthcoming)). Importantly, though, this issue arises in connection with theories, which centre on attributabilityonly, rather than on the notion of responsibility more generally. And again, the problem concerns a clash between the two ways of conceiving of responsibility. More specifically, the overemphasis objection holds that disseminating theories which centre on attributability on a background, in which this view is already overemphasized, is highly liable to be distorted and undermine people’s self-creative responsibility. Attributability theories, focusing on holding people responsible, feed into political discourses that preclude immigrants, the unemployed, and the poor from having authorship over their own lives.
In this article, we argue that responsibility is valuable in this second sense and in this second sense only. Further, we argue that many contemporary disputes about societal justice can be illuminated by reinterpreting them as clashes between these two ways of understanding and responding to (ir)responsibility. Finally, we show that the value of self-creative responsibility can be rediscovered in and elaborated upon by theoretical insights at the core of the capability approach. Our aim, then, is to argue for the distinct value of self-creative responsibility and to show how this understanding can shed new light on both theoretical and political debates, as well as help point us in the direction of societal policies that encourage responsibility of the valuable kind.