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Responsibility is a duty or obligation for which a person is held accountable. It is the human condition that people are responsible or held accountable for the things they do or cause to happen, according to certain norms. Responsibility is accompanied by three essential elements: 1) Norms that determine accountability, 2) freedom or free will to act as a rational agent, and 3) results that can be either praiseworthy or blameworthy.

Responsibility with respect to these three elements is essential to being human. Freedom, which is the ability to know right from wrong and regulate one's conduct in view of norms, is an essential attribute of human beings, one that distinguishes them from other creatures. Likewise, norms, in view of which one regulates one's conduct, are also essential to human beings. The exercise of responsibility furthers the development of character, bringing forth praiseworthy results; it is the means by which human beings participate in their own creation as moral beings; it is also the way human beings can live in community as social beings. Thus, responsibility endows human beings with value and nobility, as compared with animals that reach their mature form autonomously by the operation of instinct. In this regard, the major world religions understand responsibility as an important component of the process of liberation or salvation. The philosophical tradition in the West since the time of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle has treated responsibility as something indispensable in social life.

In classical religious and philosophical treatments of responsibility, the three elements of responsibility (that is, norms, freedom, and praiseworthy results) are not arbitrary or accidental, while essential to human beings. They are rather considered to be rooted in a transcendent Reality—dharma, Dao, Heaven, God, Forms, or Unmoved Mover. For example, the reward for praiseworthy conduct, which is liberation (moksha or nirvana), salvation (paradise), or eudaimonia (happiness), is ultimately God-given, either endowed by divine grace or written in the fabric of human nature, revealed in the workings of conscience.

Among the treatments of responsibility, philosophical treatments have elaborated on the subject in detail for practical use in the legal field, helping human legislation to craft the laws to safeguard social peace and the common welfare. The Catholic Church also has a highly developed moral theology that deals with human responsibility in relation to eternal law, natural law, and civic law.

Responsibility in world religions

Indian religions

Indian religions such as Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism talk about responsibility in terms of the law of karma. Karma literally means "deed" or "act," and this concept is inextricably associated with the doctrine of reincarnation. According to the law of karma, a person's individual and collective actions determine, and are therefore responsible for, the nature of his or her future existence in the present life or in a future life, depending on whether or not these actions are in accord with dharma (the path of righteousness). Karma is not necessarily punishment or retribution, but rather an extended expression of natural acts. The doctrine of karma and samsara (the realm of reincarnation and karmic retribution) provides causal explanations for the phenomena of life, serves as a foundation for ethical and religious understanding, and rationalizes the commitment to seek liberation (moksha in Hinduism and Jainism and nirvana in Buddhism) from a painful and unsatisfactory worldly existence.

Responsibility presupposes freedom. So, the doctrine of karma implies that every soul embodied in a human being has the free will to make decisions and choose what actions to take. Those decisions and actions generate karma, which determines the future circumstances of that soul's earthly existence(s), but which does not determine how the person, with his or her free will, will act in those circumstances. Human beings can still choose what ways they act. While Hinduism mostly places God in the position of administrator, supervisor, and even mitigator of karma, Jainism and Buddhism regard karma as an impersonal force operating by natural law.

Chinese religions

Confucianism defines responsibility in the context of a person's familial and social relationships. A person occupies a position in each of wǔlún (五倫; "five relationships")—parent and child, husband and wife, elder and younger sibling, ruler and subject, and friend and friend; and each is an arena for responsibility. As a person fulfills the responsibilities and duties of each position, he or she develops a virtuous character. This principle is expressed through the conception of zhèngmíng (正名; "rectification of names"), which means that each person should act according to what he is expected to do in his position and station in life. In the words of Confucius, "Let the ruler be a ruler, the subject a subject, the father a father, the son a son."[1] If everyone takes on the responsibility of acting in accord with the natural principle that defines his position in life, then there will be social harmony. A person who fulfills his responsibility in this regard is a person with the virtue of ren (仁; "humaneness" or "benevolence") in connection with the ming (命; "ordinances of Heaven"). Confucianism seems not to have a doctrine of future retribution beyond this life. Rather, it teaches that rewards and punishments accrue to the whole family, often manifesting as blessings or hardships in the lives of one's descendants.

Daoism expects a person to return to nature through the lifestyle of wu-wei (無為; non-action) with detachment and calm, which results from his or her cultivation of the Dao (道; "The Way"). Daoists avoid letting their own raw emotional responses come to the fore irresponsibly; so, they do not initiate action but wait for events to make action necessary. When required by events, however, they practice humility, modesty, and non-aggression to harmonize with all things and all people. Here lies the sum of human responsibility in Daoism. Daoists do not exercise responsibility towards intentional social ends, but rather allow events to take their course. Their actions are considered to naturally flow properly and bring good results. The American Taoist scholar Russell Kirkland calls it "responsible non-action," because Daoists are "to govern their emotions, and to learn to behave in a responsible manner, according to principles that are morally correct, whether or not they are emotionally satisfying."[2]


Judaism defines responsibility in terms of the covenant that God made with the people of Israel at Mount Sinai. God's steadfast love for Israel, which he demonstrated by the Exodus from Egypt, is to be reciprocated by obedience to the commandments of the Torah, the law which God revealed to Moses. Orthodox Judaism has determined that the Torah contains 613 commandments (including the Ten Commandments). They define the halakah, the way of life that each Jew is responsible to observe.

In addition, the prophets of the Hebrew Bible spoke of social responsibility. The covenant required that Israel's kings govern the land with justice, equity, and consideration for the poor. For Reform Jews in particular, the teachings of the prophets translate into the imperative to be agents of social responsibility wherever they live.

Judaism regards responsibility as accompanied by God-given freedom. Freedom is a fundamental attribute of the human race as the image of God (Genesis 1:26), and it gives us a power and dignity that other creatures do not have. Freedom and responsibility are implicit in Israel's covenant with God. God gives us freedom as the foundation of responsibility, so that we may choose to keep God's commandments and live in accordance with his will.

Judaism's stress on personal responsibility mitigates against the traditional view that we are accountable for the sins of our ancestors, despite the Bible's depiction of God who "punishes the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation" (Exodus 20:5). The key text is Ezekiel 18, which states that children are not judged for the sins of their fathers, but everyone is accountable for his own sin. The Hebrew Bible also supports the notion of collective responsibility of the whole nation, according to which Israel's exile was the consequence of its former sins, and its redemption comes when the people collectively repent (2 Chronicles 7:14).


According to Islam, humans are endowed with free will (ikhtiyar) from Allah as trustees of his resources on earth. They freely steer their own lives unlike other creatures. Related to free will, however, is the axiom of responsibility (fardh). Free will does not go freely but only with responsibility. As God's trustees, therefore, humans are supposed to responsibly and voluntarily observe the ethical norms stipulated in the Qur'an such as making social harmony and taking care of the least privileged in society. All humans except sick people, children, and women, are responsible and held accountable for all that they do: "Whoever supports and helps a good cause, will have a reward for it: And whoever supports and helps an evil cause, shares in it burden: And Allah has power over all things" (Qur'an 4:85).


Christianity agrees with Judaism that responsibility comes with freedom that is a God-given gift. Humans are to take responsibility to observe God's norms when they freely choose to develop their personal relationship with the God of love. But, while God's norms in Judaism are various commandments, in Christianity they mainly refer to Jesus' teachings. When he proclaimed the blessing of the Kingdom of God for free human beings, Jesus called them to responsibilities such as repentance (Matthew 3:2) and the qualities of meekness, mercy, and righteousness, etc. shown in the Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount. Whether or not one fulfills these responsibilities through Jesus will determine one's future: Paradise or hell.

Catholic understanding of norms

In its moral theology, the Catholic Church has a highly developed set of Christian norms, to which responsible humans are answerable: 1) eternal law, 2) natural law, and 3) civil laws. They are placed in the order of closeness to God. The eternal law is the law of God, and the natural law is the participation of rational creatures in the eternal law. Civil laws clarify the content of the natural law in concrete situations.

  • Eternal law

The eternal law of God is his plan about what the world he creates is to be directed for, just like a definite plan of a house-builder about what a house he constructs is to be used for. According to Thomas Aquinas, the eternal law is "nothing else than the type of Divine Wisdom, as directing all actions and movements" in the created world.[3] All creatures carry out the eternal law of God. Non-rational creatures carry it out necessarily, guided as they are by natural forces. Rational creatures, by contrast, are expected to carry it out voluntarily by their freedom. No one except the blessed, who can see God directly, knows the eternal law as it is in itself. People usually know it only indirectly through its radiating effects upon the created world. There is however a more direct aspect of the eternal law, and it is what Aquinas called the "divine law." The divine law is the will of God as revealed in the Old and New Testaments.

  • Natural law

The natural law is defined by Aquinas as "the rational creature's participation of the eternal law."[4] It is therefore the eternal law of God as it governs human beings. The natural law is natural because it is set up concretely in human nature God created with its faculties (such as reason and freedom) necessary to achieve a definite purpose. When people act in accordance with their human nature, therefore, people also act in accordance with the natural law and therefore with the eternal law. In other words, people act rightly. The natural law is to be distinguished from the so-called "laws of nature," which refer to the order that governs the activities of the material universe. The natural law has a strictly moral application, referring to universal, unchanging, and permanently valid dictates of morality.

  • Civil laws

Civil laws are ordinances of reason promulgated by public authority for the common good of society. They are to bring order to society. Civil laws clarify the content of the natural law as applied to concrete situations. They are supposed to penalize the violation of the natural law by imposing a penalty for theft, for example. They are penal laws, so to speak.

Protestant ethics of responsibility

The Reformation anchored a personal sense of Christian responsibility in the free forgiveness of sins. Martin Luther expressed this, by saying: "A Christian man is the most free lord of all, and subject to none, a Christian man is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to every one."[5] This sense of responsibility, although applied to everyday responsibility for the neighbor and for the world, was basically freed from the Catholic Church's teaching on the natural law, and it gave rise to the idea that each individual is his own supreme teacher and arbiter in matters of faith and morals with the Bible as the real source of revelation. God is, of course, the unconditional source of moral truth, but the revelation of moral truth continues to be approximated and interpreted in our moral experience and ethical thinking as we try to be authentic and true to ourselves in search of fulfillment. Perhaps, this more flexible approach of Protestantism can address a common criticism directed to the Catholic approach based on the natural law—a criticism that says that the Catholic approach holds onto moral absolutes, not open to the personal, relational, and historical character of the moral life in which the certainty of specific norms is more difficult to attain.[6]

Philosophical treatment of responsibility

Norm and praiseworthiness

Responsibility is an important topic in philosophy. It is dealt with in connection with norm and praiseworthiness (or blameworthiness). A norm is a rule or standard against which some agent can be judged. People are normatively responsible when they are answerable to some particular normative standard. Corresponding to various kinds of norms to which a person is answerable, there are different species of normative responsibility, such as legal responsibility, parental responsibility, professional responsibility, and moral responsibility. A person may be legally responsible for failing to pay his taxes and is then held answerable to a set of legal rules, against which he is judged. Parental responsibility refers to the potential or actual liability of parents for their children's illegal behaviors. Professional responsibility encompasses the duties of practitioners of various sorts, such as lawyers and doctors, to act in a proper manner, obey the law, avoid conflicts of interest, and put the interests of clients ahead of their own interests. Moral responsibility involves the moral laws and rules by which a person is bound not to harm other people.

If a person fails to observe the moral laws, by killing another person, for example, he may then be held morally responsible for this action. In this case, it can be said that his action is blameworthy. By contrast, if he is morally responsible for doing something commendable, it can be said that his action is praiseworthy. Being morally responsible is therefore a matter of being worthy of praise or blame, depending on whether one has done right or wrong. These two responses of praise and blame exist also in legal responsibility, parental responsibility, and professional responsibility.

Portrait of Socrates, Roman marble, Louvre Museum

Ancient Greek philosophers such as Socrates and Plato, in disagreement with the moral relativism of the Sophists, decided that norms, to which we are answerable as responsible human beings, come ultimately from eternal truth rooted in the Forms. Regarding the praiseworthiness of action, they believed that it is eventually to receive happiness or well-being (eudaimonia) that originates from the Forms, especially the Form of the Good. According to Aristotle, the praiseworthiness of our action receives happiness as the highest good, which, although it is not a transcendent Form but something immanent in people, can be found perfectly in the contemplative life of God: "The activity of God, which surpasses all others in blessedness, must be contemplative; and of human activities, therefore, that which is most akin to this must be most of the nature of happiness."[7]

Volition as rational self-control

Detail of The School of Athens by Raphael (1509), showing Plato (pointing upwards, as if to the Form of the Good) and Aristotle (holding his hand palm down to Earth, favoring material evidence).

Philosophers also deal with responsibility in connection with volition or rational self-control on the part of the agent. All and only agents who possess volitional capacities of rational self-control can be bound by normative responsibilities. Rational self-control may be described as the ability to understand reasons, and to regulate one's behavior by these reasons. For example, someone who can fairly be held accountable to legal norms must have the capacity to understand the law, and to control his or her behavior in accordance with its prescriptions. According to Aristotle, a person is morally responsible for an action if and only if he acted voluntarily. A voluntary action is an action that is done with knowledge of what one is doing (that is, not in factual ignorance), and with a "moving principle" inside the agent under control.[8] In other words, Aristotle specifies knowledge and control of an action as the conditions of moral responsibility. Volition in this sense, according to Aristotle, is the function of the soul, which stands to the body as form to matter. Hence, the soul with its volition moves itself as well as the body. But the soul is not an absolute self-mover; even its self-motion ultimately requires the "Unmoved Mover" (God) for its continued motion.

Young children, the mentally impaired, and non-rational animals lack volition in the above sense. So, they are excluded from the scope of responsibility. These individuals may themselves fall under the protectorate of other rational beings, whose responsibilities they will then be. This implies that, for example, although non-rational animals do not meet the requirements for normative responsibility, their protection may be specified as the prospective responsibilities of other agents who do.

The conditions for moral responsibility are more demanding than the conditions for legal and professional responsibility. This is clearest in cases of so-called "strict liability offenses." In criminal law, strict liability is liability, for which the mens rea (Latin for "guilty mind") does not have to be proved in relation to one or more elements comprising the actus reus (Latin for "guilty act"), although intention, recklessness, or knowledge may be required in relation to other elements of the offense. The liability is said to be strict because defendants will be convicted even though they were genuinely ignorant of one or more factors that made their acts or omissions criminal. The defendants may therefore not be morally culpable in any real way; that is, there is not even criminal negligence, the least blameworthy level of mens rea. A clear example of a strict liability offense is provided by traffic violations. A person may be entirely ignorant that he is traveling slightly over the speed limit: While ignorance of what he is doing may be an excuse for moral responsibility, it is not an excuse for legal responsibility.

The scope of moral responsibility

Omissions as well as actions

On Aristotle's analysis, a person is paradigmatically responsible for his voluntary actions. In agreement with common sense, Aristotle's analysis also covers the topic of omissions, saying that a person who voluntarily omits to act is morally responsible for these omissions as well. One type of omission may be called an abstention. An abstention is a deliberate refraining to act. This seems to be what Aristotle has in mind when he says: "Where it is in our power to act it is also in our power not to act."[9] An abstention of this sort is a voluntary act; it is voluntarily refraining to act. If someone, standing on the edge of the sidewalk, deliberates about whether to help an elderly lady cross the street, and then decides not to do it, then that is an abstention. Aristotle's analysis holds persons morally responsible for such omissions of voluntary abstentions.

There is a second type of omission, which does not require this level of self-consciousness. For example, if someone has simply forgotten that he has made a promise, he may fail to fulfill the promise by omission. However, this omission is not strictly voluntary, since the person may be entirely ignorant (at the time of the action) that he was breaking a promise. In this respect, his action is not voluntary, since he does not knowingly do anything wrong. Whether or not this sort of example provides a counter-example to Aristotle's analysis depends on whether the person's breaking a promise is in some extended sense, voluntary. Aristotle himself seems aware of this problem when he points out that in some cases ignorance is no excuse from responsibility. His strategy is to accommodate this fact of culpable ignorance within an extended framework of intentional wrongdoing. "Indeed, we punish a man for his very ignorance, if he is thought responsible for the ignorance."[10] The point is that although a person might have been ignorant at the time of his action, he was the cause of becoming that way, and consequently bears responsibility for acting as he did. This diagnosis accounts rather nicely for instances of the ignorance which might result in drunken wrongdoing.

It is worthwhile to note that omissions provide the clearest instances of cases in which moral responsibility does not involve causal responsibility. If a person fails to check the brakes on his car, he may be morally responsible for the injuries of someone driving in it. But he will not have been causally responsible for these injuries. This is so even if his failure to check his breaks was something that it was in his control to do or not to do; for having something within one's power is not the same as causing it.

Unintentional actions

On the traditional view arising from Aristotle, people are morally responsible for their voluntary actions and omissions. But, some later philosophers have preferred to express their views in terms of intentional actions rather than voluntary actions, in order to make the discussion sharper. The concept of intentional action is, on one important analysis, narrower than the concept of voluntary action because voluntary actions include unintentional actions besides intentional actions.

An unintentional action is an action which a person foresees but does not intend, and although it is not an intentional action, it is still a voluntary action. This distinction, originating in Thomas Aquinas' discussion of killing in self-defense,[11] is arguably of crucial significance to moral theory and is sometimes referred to as the principle of double effect. Aquinas holds that in killing in self-defense, the death of one's assailant will be unintended even if it is foreseen, so long as one intends only to use force necessary to save oneself. "Double effect," therefore, refers to the two foreseen effects of actions: The good effect (saving one's life), which the agent intends; and the bad effect (injuring or killing someone), which the agent foresees but does not act in order to bring about. Assuming the principle of double effect, although the killing of one's assailant is a voluntary action—it originates within the doer, and is done wittingly—it is not an intentional killing.

Collective responsibility

Up until now, it has been assumed that ascriptions of responsibility are targeted at individuals. However, people also often speak of the responsibility of organizations, groups, and companies. Responsibilities are ascribed to, for example, corporations, universities, governments, and nations when they are conceived as agents—capable of purposive action—and hence as being potentially answerable for what they do or fail to do. The question of whether the actions of organizations are capable of being analyzed into descriptions of individual actions of individual agents is a difficult and unresolved question in the philosophy of social science.

Some important questions within the domain of collective responsibility include whether people can be held morally responsible for the actions of groups with which they were affiliated, without having actively collaborated in these actions. Ancient Greek, as well as ancient Hebrew, thinking appears to answer "yes" to this question by supporting concepts of contamination and "inherited guilt," which make individuals responsible and punishable for the actions of others to whom they are in some sense related. For example, in Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, the inhabitants of Thebes suffer the ill effects of the pollution caused by Oedipus' parricide and incest.


From above, it can be understood that responsibility is an important topic in major world religions as well as in philosophy especially in the West. What is interesting is that when these religions and the Western philosophical tradition treat the conception of responsibility, they all seem to have commonly found at least three key ideas in connection with it: 1) norm, 2) freedom or volition, and 3) praiseworthiness. It, therefore, seems to be universally true that there is no responsibility without any norm to be answerable to, no responsibility without the volition of the agent, or no responsibility without the praiseworthiness of the result of conduct.

Another striking commonality is that the three key ideas of norm, volition, and praiseworthiness are considered to be rooted in something ultimate or divine. In the religious traditions, norm is from dharma (Indian religions), Dao (Daoism), Heaven (Confucianism), or God (Judaism, Islam, and Christianity). Volition is implied in karma (Indian religions), the non-action of Dao (Daoism), or the ordinances of Heaven (Confucianism), or constituted by God-given freedom (Judaism, Islam, and Christianity). The praiseworthiness of the result of conduct receives good retribution in the attainment of moksha (Hinduism and Jainism), nirvana (Buddhism), unity with Dao (Daoism), ren in connection with Heaven (Confucianism), God's promised land (Judaism), or paradise (Islam and Christianity). In the philosophical tradition that started from ancient Greece, norm is eternal truth rooted in the Forms (Socrates and Plato), and the volition of the soul requires God the Unmoved Mover for its continuation (Aristotle). And the praiseworthiness of conduct receives the reward of well-being (eudaimonia) that originates from the Form of Good (Socrates and Plato) or from the highest good basically immanent in humans and found completely in the life of a divine being (Aristotle).

Perhaps one difference between the religious and philosophical treatments of responsibility is that the philosophical tradition has elaborated on the subject in much more detail for practical use in the legal field in the secular world than the religious traditions.

The Catholic Church, too, has formulated a highly developed legal system, and it begins with the eternal law of God and the natural law. According to some critics, however, the Catholic approach, because of its categorical way of involving theology, may have tended to make responsibility a heavy sort of obligation. Since the time of Protestant Reformation by Martin Luther, who brought forth a new definition of responsibility, the meaning of the natural law has been undergoing a process of reformulation, therefore.


  1. Confucius, Analects, XIII, 11. Retrieved October 27, 2008.
  2. Russell Kirkland, "'Responsible Non-Action' in a Natural World: Perspectives from the Neiye, Zhuangzi, and Daode jing," in Daoism and Ecology: Ways within a Cosmic Landscape, ed. N. J. Girardot, James Miller, and Liu Xiaogan (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001). Online. Retrieved October 28, 2008.
  3. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I-II, Q. 93, A. 1. Retrieved October 12, 2008.
  4. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I-II, Q. 91, A. 2. Retrieved October 12, 2008.
  5. Martin Luther, "The Freedom of a Christian." Retrieved October 13, 2008.
  6. Charles E. Curran, The Catholic Moral Tradition Today: A Synthesis (Georgetown University Press, 1999).
  7. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, X, 8. Retrieved October 30, 2008.
  8. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, III, 1. Retrieved October 29, 2008.
  9. Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, III, 5. Retrieved October 12, 2008.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II-II, Q. 64. A. 7. Retrieved October 12, 2008.

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External links

All links retrieved December 8, 2022.


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