Rethinking Responsibility

Until very recently, I took something like what Brandom calls the alienated “contractive” view of responsibility more or less for granted. Aristotle and Kant agree that responsibility should be “contracted” so as not to apply to unintended consequences of actions. What could be wrong with that?

Actually, it’s not so much that something is wrong as that there is a better alternative no one seems to have thought of before. Brandom’s ingenious reversal of common wisdom on this subject is but one product of a monumental labor. He spent 40 years writing A Spirit of Trust, devoted to Hegel’s Phenomenology. Around a quarter of the final version’s 800 pages are devoted to a comprehensive exposition of the concluding eleven ultra-dense paragraphs of the Phenomenology’s chapter on Spirit, involving a hard-hearted judge, confession, forgiveness, and the breaking of the hard heart, which Brandom considers to be the climax of Hegel’s book.

He seems to have found/made something there that to my knowledge no one else saw before — an ethical way to complete the overcoming of the subject-object dichotomy, and thus an ethically grounded approach to an actually attainable Hegelian Absolute. As an added bonus, the recommended approach is itself compelling in purely ethical terms, independent of all of that.

To abbreviate in the extreme, the solution is to return to taking responsibility for unintended consequences, with the difference that everyone shares responsibility for all of them. Since unintended consequences were the last missing piece, everything whatsoever thus ends up included in the field of overlapping responsibilities, leading to what I have started to call normative monism. All determination can then be uniformly located at the historicized transcendental level. Brandom is the most thorough philosophical writer I have ever encountered; his argument is as large and many-faceted as those of Kant and Hegel, and a good deal more perspicuous. (See also Expansive Agency; Brandomian Forgiveness.)

Brandomian Forgiveness

Forgiveness is the process by which immediacy is mediated, by which the stubborn recalcitrance of reality is given conceptual shape.

A Spirit of Trust, p. 612.

Confession, forgiveness, and trust are what we must do, recognitively, in order to find objective, determinately contentful conceptual norms being applied cognitively in judgment and practically in action.

p. 628

[F]orgiveness and trust embody an expansion strategy, by which self-conscious individuals identify with actual goings-on over which they exert some real, but always only partial authority, identify themselves as the seats of responsibilities that outrun their own capacity to fulfill.

p. 623

The final chapter and conclusion of Brandom’s A Spirit of Trust include a strong ethical message about mutual forgiveness, interwoven with his reading of Hegel’s resolution of the subject-object dichotomy. Sophoclean tragic heroes encountered fate as an uncontrollable alien force that changed the meaning of their actions against their will, but still took responsibility for their actions anyway. Aristotle and important strands of the Christian tradition already anticipated what Brandom calls Kant’s contraction of responsibility to a responsibility for intentions only. Brandom sees in Hegel a novel suggestion that instead of thus contracting responsibility to commitments alone, we should expand it and make it mutual.

Instead of blaming the actor for the action’s unintended consequences or contractively saying no one is responsible in such cases, Brandom sees the “postmodern”, “expansive” Hegelian alternative as consisting in the actor taking responsibility for unintended consequences, while the recognitive community also takes responsibility by forgiving the actor. Aristotle and the aforementioned strands of Christian tradition both already explicitly recommended forgiveness of the actor for unintended consequences and unwilling actions generally, even if they grounded it in what Brandom calls a contractive model of responsibility. In terms of concrete ethics, the results are similar. (See also Willing, Unwilling; Blame and Blamelessness; Evaluation of Actions.)

The gain from Brandom’s expansive model of responsibility lies rather in its consequences for the project of treating meta-ethics as first philosophy. Brandom wants to nudge us to move from an implicit normative/factual dualism toward a purely normative monism, in which all facts are what they are by virtue of their place in the normative synthesis of reasonable explanations.

When we fail to come up with a charitable interpretation of someone’s action, commitments, or reasons, Brandom recommends we trust that someone else eventually will be able to do so. “Where our normative digestion and domestication of immediacy, contingency, and particularity shows its limitations, when (as in each case at some point they must) they outrun our recollective capacity to incorporate them into the mediated, normative conceptual form of governing universals, that failure of ours is properly acknowledged by confession and trust in the forgiveness of that failure to fulfill our responsibilities, by more capable future recollectors” (p. 756).

For Brandom, what I above called normative monism is the final step in the long process of resolving the subject-object dichotomy bequeathed to us by early modernity. Simultaneously, it offers a new concept of community, in which “each member identifies with all the others, at once expressing and sacrificing their own particular attitudes by taking coresponsibility for the practical attitudes of everyone” (p. 757). He cites Hegel’s invocation of the “‘I’ that is ‘We’, the ‘We’ that is ‘I'”. Though it has a historical dimension, this is the universal community of rational beings participating in the transcendental field, not an empirical community.

It is worth noting that forgiveness applies to individual people, who potentially could participate in concrete acts of mutual recognition. Insofar as we tend to hold actual people responsible for what we deem to be bad circumstances, institutions, or organizational behavior, we should be forgiving toward those people.

But there is still such a thing as injustice, and as long as we are forgiving of individual people and exercise appropriate interpretive charity with respect to their motives, in the formation of normative syntheses we are under no obligation to be similarly tender toward circumstances, institutions, or organizational behavior. On the contrary, if we have an obligation in this case, it is to right what is wrong. Circumstances, institutions, and organizational behavior are not people deserving sympathy, and not participants in any recognition process. Any or all of them may be deeply unjust in actual cases. Here, critical thought about what is good and the consideration of impacts on people should have full sway. (See also Justice in General; Honesty, Kindness.)

Ethos, Hexis

Ethical character or culture (ethos) for Aristotle builds on hexis. The latter is most commonly translated as habit. Earlier, I called it emotional constitution. It is an acquired, active disposition to respond or act in certain ways that seems to be centered in the emotions.

Actions, reactions, and choices — as well as many things that just happen to us — cumulatively contribute to the formation of a more long-term emotional constitution that then becomes directly responsible for the tone of our responses to things, and that we can only change with major, prolonged effort, if at all.

People respond to situations based on a combination of emotional disposition (hexis), their constellation of commitments (ethos), and deliberation and choice. It does not generally make sense to blame someone for acting in accordance with their acquired disposition, but at a broader level, people are partly responsible for the formation of their disposition. People are responsible for their choices, unless they are coerced or misinformed. People are in principle responsible for their commitments; bad commitments usually involve more than simple misinformation. But misinformation, lack of good opportunity for learning, and emotional disposition should certainly be taken into account in charitable interpretation of commitments, too. (See also Willing, Unwilling.)

According to Aristotle, a disposition favoring reasonable emotional responses is a prerequisite to higher ethical development, and this needs to be learned from childhood. (See also Feeling.)

Epistemic Conscientiousness

I see something like epistemic conscientiousness as almost the highest value, only potentially surpassable by what I will broadly call concern for others. This principally involves a commitment to understanding, which means always seeking deeper and better and more nuanced understanding. But equally, it involves taking strong personal responsibility for our acceptance of claims.

If I have accepted a claim — especially if I have acted on the basis of that acceptance, or encouraged others to accept it — and then encounter reason to question that claim, I have a responsibility to resolve the matter in some appropriate and reasonable way. If I accept a claim, I have a responsibility to also accept its consequences. I have a responsibility not to accept materially incompatible claims.

An epistemically conscientious person will also naturally care about the acceptance of claims by others. Particular concern for particular others will naturally tend to accentuate this. We also want to treat those others with respect and kindness, and combining this with questioning claims they have accepted can be delicate. (See also Things Said; Honesty, Kindness; Intellectual Virtue, Love.)