Responsibility as Two-Sided

It is all too easy to judge others — to hold them unilaterally responsible for what we deem to be wrong. The saying “Judge not lest ye be judged” recognizes that there is something wrong with this.

I wanted to say a bit more about Brandom’s account of responsibility as inherently two-sided. This is related to the very simple — if uncommon — idea that there should be a correlation between the degree of one’s responsibility for something and one’s authority over it. This means that in ethical terms, no one has a monopoly on authority over anything, and no one is responsible for something without having some authority over it. Two-sided responsibility comes hand in hand with the sharing of authority.

In the Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel develops an allegory of the softening of the heart of a hard-hearted judge. For Brandom in A Spirit of Trust, this allegory serves as a kind of climax of Hegel’s monumental work.

Traditional views commonly define morality in terms of obedience or conformity to authority. What we should do is simply given to us from an external source. Brandom calls this the authority-obedience model.

At least from the time of Socrates, those concerned with ethics have recognized that mere obedience or conformity is at best only a very rudimentary level of ethical development, and therefore the same must apply to naked authority.

In diametric opposition to the authority-obedience model, Kant famously emphasized autonomy as a necessary basis of morality. For Kant, we are only truly moral insofar as we genuinely think our judgments through for ourselves, rather than relying on external authority.

While fully endorsing Kant’s rejection of the authority-obedience model, Hegel criticized the Kantian alternative of autonomy as one-sidedly individualistic. It would be a bit arrogant to claim that we really did think everything through all by ourselves. Moreover, there is a kind of symmetry in the all-or-nothing attitudes of the authority-obedience model and the autonomy model. It would be more reasonable to acknowledge that most things in life depend partly on us and partly on something or someone(s) outside of us.

As Brandom reconstructs Hegel’s argument, Hegel wants to say that genuine moral responsibility is always two-sided. The hard-hearted judge in the allegory, moved by a lawbreaker’s sincere confession, confesses in turn that she too is not without fault. I think this applies even more clearly to conflicts and people’s judgments of one another outside a judicial setting.

The point is not at all to obliterate distinctions or impose an artificial equivalence between the actions of the participants. It is rather just to recognize that nothing of this sort is ever completely unilateral, and then to systematically take heed of this in real life.