Conceptions of Responsibility

Lead Research Organisation: University of Glasgow
Department Name: School of Humanities


The notion of individual responsibility plays a central role in our legal system, in the allocation of liabilities and the justification of punishment. It underpins our everyday moral discourse, when we hold people responsible for their actions or their characters, or urge them to 'live up to their responsibilities'. It features in scientific practice, which seeks to explain the causes responsible for observable phenomena. And it is, increasingly, a buzzword in politics: the cure to capitalism's ills is to institute 'responsible capitalism'; preventing a repeat of the 2011 English riots requires that we teach people to be 'responsible'; and the problem with a focus on human rights is that it fails to recognise correlated 'responsibilities'. The notion of responsibility appears in myriad contexts, can be applied retrospectively or proleptically, and is used on different occasions to explain, exhort, vindicate or condemn - sometimes all at the same time. The intelligent observer of this muddle could be forgiven for thinking that the idea of a single concept of responsibility is hopelessly confused.

I propose to bring order to this chaos by offering a new philosophical analysis of responsibility. My theory involves a two-level distinction, as follows. There are two core concepts of responsibility, each of which is identified by the role that it plays in our theory or our practical life. An agent bears explanatory responsibility for a situation when she, or her action, plays a crucial role in the explanation of that situation (e.g. someone bears explanatory responsibility for a concert if she arranges it). An agent bears evaluative responsibility for a situation when she stands in a relation to it that grounds some normative consequences specifically for her (e.g. if she performs a burglary, then she is liable to be punished). Each of these two core concepts is stated at a high degree of abstraction, and admits of further specification, depending on how we flesh out the schematic elements they contain. This results in a theory that is both unified (since the analysis above exhausts what is meant by responsibility in whatsoever context the concept appears) and also pluralistic (insofar as it shows how multiple ways of understanding responsibility can be combined within the same theory).

This analysis will facilitate important interdisciplinary collaboration on the concept between those studying philosophy, law and politics, promoting dialogue that has previously been hampered by disparate and unclear understandings of the concept. It also has profound implications for public policy. To take a topical example, it reveals serious problems with the use of market mechanisms in the delivery of public services. Recent philosophical work has problematized the 'choice agenda' by expressing scepticism about the justificatory force of free choice. My theory supports and develops such scepticism by embedding it in a broader analysis of the grounds of evaluative responsibility (in particular, a proper assessment of the conditions under which free choice suffices for such responsibility). So, it provides a powerful policy tool for deciding when, and if, market mechanisms are appropriate in public life. This is an exciting opportunity to make an important principled contribution to the vital current political debate about the future shape and direction of our public services.

Planned Impact

The research I propose to undertake will benefit those who are responsible for formulating and delivering policy in a wide variety of areas, but especially in respect of the economy, health, education, and welfare provision. I plan to ensure that my research benefits these people by a number of mechanisms. I give further details in the attached document Pathways to Impact, but here is a summary.

1. I will produce a green paper aimed at people who are involved in formulating and delivering policy in respect of public services and the welfare system. This will be made publicly available through my institutional repository and also provide the basis for publicly-available events run through the Glasgow Human Rights Network.

2. I will produce a policy paper arguing against the deployment of market mechanisms in the delivery of public services, and deliver it at policy events run by the Social Liberal Forum (in Scotland and UK-wide).

3. I will make use of my existing collaborative arrangements to disseminate these two outputs, but also more generally to engage the public with the results of my research and bring it to a wider audience: it seems to me that making use of existing structures with a proven track record of successful public and policy engagement is the best way to maximize the likely beneficial effect of the research conducted during my fellowship. To be specific, I have plans (detailed in Pathways to Impact) to make use of the research through my work with local and national theatre companies; with the Social Liberal Forum; with the Stevenson Trust for Citizenship; with the Glasgow Human Rights Network; and with the Stuart Low Trust. These varied partners in the public arena will provide routes for my research to have impact with a wide variety of different non-academic beneficiaries.


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COLBURN B (2016) Hypothetical Insurance and Higher Education in Journal of Philosophy of Education

Description In my original application I proposed to investigate the multifarious uses of the concept of responsibility, to propose a unified philosophical theory of responsibility which can both unite and explain those uses, and to write a series of papers applying that theory to areas of real political and moral impact.

I am about half way through the award. So far I have given papers at international conferences and events which disseminate the drafts of three of the four papers I propose to write, with further conference appearances coming up in Paris and Graz. These papers will all be submitted for publication within the next few months.
Exploitation Route I plan to write a policy paper and a green paper on the use of my theory of responsibility for policy makers and deliverers of public services: this will be freely available on the web.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Creative Economy,Education,Financial Services, and Management Consultancy,Healthcare,Government, Democracy and Justice
Description My research has been impactful in two areas. The first is that the application of my theory of responsibility to higher education funding, published in the associated 2016 paper, has been picked up and used by educational policy analysts to argue for policy change in Scotland> The second is that my theory of voluntariness at end of life (not yet published) has led to an invitation to publish a blog post for the end-of-life voluntary organisation Living Well Dying Well, with further collaboration in the pipeline.
First Year Of Impact 2015
Sector Education,Healthcare
Impact Types Cultural,Policy & public services