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  • Writer's pictureRussell E. Willis

What Does It Mean To Be "Responsible"?

Being Responsible in the Age of Social Media, Cryptocurrency, and Smart Weapons/Cars/Phones

Episode 1

To be morally responsible is to be accountable for what one causes to happen (either through one's own agency, or through the exercise of one's authority) and to be obligated to act in relation to others appropriately. Responsibility requires:

  • the duty to be reasonably diligent in one's efforts (negligence is a form of irresponsible behavior),

  • the capacity for self-determination (the ability to have some control over one's actions in pursuit of one's goals),

  • reasonable foresight within the constraints of limited knowledge and perception,

  • moral reasoning -- reflection on the moral relevance of the agent's actions, and

  • acting in ways that foster responsibility (in oneself and others) and create and sustain an environment conducive to responsibility.

Human agency and responsibility

Human agency is fundamental to responsibility. Responsibility functions in the context of the expansion and limitation of what is humanly possible. An agent is capable of a finite range of possibilities. These possibilities are limited by physical, biological, psycho-emotional, social, and cultural conditions. For example, my actions are limited by the laws of physics, by my vulnerability to disease, by laws governing the uses of the Internet, and by my education, religion and politics. Changes in these conditions promote or restrict responsibility by:

  • broadening or limiting what one can cause to happen,

  • what foresight into the nature and consequences of one's actions are possible, and

  • how these changes affect the web of morally significant relationships.

In this series of blogs, technology will be described as the expansion and enhancement of human agency. This places technology at the heart of the notion of responsibility in an age of pervasive technology.

Self-limitation as an expression of responsibility

It is crucial to notice that responsibility involves broadening and limiting what one can cause to happen. Sometime responsible behavior requires an act of self-limitation. Therefore, self-limitation can be a choice for responsible conduct. This notion of responsibility as self-limitation flies in the face of modern ideologies based on 1) the ideal of inevitable progress (such as "manifest destiny"), or 2) that "freedom" is freedom from limitation. As we will see in later episodes of this series, the very nature of technology demands careful consideration of self-limitation as an act of responsibility.

Relationship and responsibility

Relationship is also a crucial aspect of responsibility. Responsibility makes no sense without reference to an "other". Responsibility entails obligation and accountability. We are obligated to others. We hold each other accountable. Even the language of responsibility reveals relationship. We commonly speak of having responsibility "to" or "for" someone or something. Therefore, we must view responsibility as functioning within a web of relationships. The web encompasses relationships of dependence and interdependence between the agent and other humans. This web also involves relationships between human beings and sociocultural and natural environments.

In the broadest sense, the various relationships of this web provide the basis for existence. This web is the context within which human life, including the moral life, is expressed and experienced. More specifically, this web embodies the causal relationships and patterns of obligation and accountability which form the basis of responsibility. Additionally, the web must itself be considered an object of responsibility. We are responsible for fashioning patterns of relationship that foster responsible behavior. A central theme of this series is how technology affects the web of relationships, and, thus, affects responsibility. [Spoiler alert--remember this when we speak of responsibility for the natural environment!]

Next time in Being Responsible in the Age of Social Media, Cryptocurrency, and Smart Weapons/Cars/Phones -- "Technology Revealed"


In this series

  • Introduction: Being Responsible in the Age of Social Media, Cryptocurrency, and Smart Weapons/Cars/Phones - June 1, 2018.

  • Episode 1: "What Does It Mean To Be Responsible?"- June 5, 2018

  • Episode 2: "Technology Revealed"

  • Episode 3: "Homo Technicus as the Responsible Self"


This blog is an edited and updated excerpt of "Complex Responsibility in an Age of Technology," in Living Responsibly in Community (p. 246-247), ed. Fredrick E. Glennon, et al. (University Press of America, 1997). Buy at Amazon.

© 2018 Russell E. Willis



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