The limits of responsibility

(The multi-month hiatus here on Monomorphic has been due to me working on my thesis. I am now able to, briefly, return to this and other indulgences.)

Life presupposes taking responsibility. It presupposes investing people, objects and matters around you with your concern.

In particular, democratic society presupposes that we all take full, in some sense, responsibility for society itself, its decision making and its future.

However, he who lacks information about some matter cannot take responsibility for it. And thus we often defer to authorities in practice. Authorities allow us to specialise our understanding, which increases our net ability to understand as a collective, assuming that we have sufficiently well functioning interpersonal communication.

There are whole categories of problems that routinely are assigned to specific, predefined authorities and experts; for instance legal matters, constitutional matters, whether some person is mentally ill, medical matters, nuclear and chemical hazards, and so on. Fields where some degree of extensive training is generally required. (However, under the right conditions, these authorities could probably also be called into question by the public opinion.) The opposite is those categories of problems that are routinely assigned to “public opinion” and all of its voices and modulating contraptions and devices, its amplifiers, dampeners, filters, switches and routing mechanisms.

Responsibility aside, in order to maximise an individual’s prospects for life, and by extension society’s prospects for life, it seems important that the individual possess just the right knowledge that they need in their situation. Adding more knowledge is not always a benefit; some kinds of knowledge can be entirely counterproductive. Nietzsche showed this (“On the use and abuse of history for life”), and we can easily apply the idea of computational complexity to see how having access to more information would make it harder to make ┬ádecisions.

This is especially true for some kinds of knowledge: knowledge about potential grave dangers, serious threats, monumental changes threatening to take place. Once we have such knowledge we cannot unlearn it, even if it is absolutely clear that we cannot act on it and that we do not have the competence to assess the situation fully. It ┬átakes effort and an act of will to fully disregard a threat on the basis of one’s own insufficient competence.

On the other hand, knowledge about opportunities, about resources, and about problems that one is able to, or could become able to deal with, would generally be helpful and not harmful. However, even this could be harmful if the information is so massive as to turn into noise.

Even disregarding these kinds of knowledge, one of the basic assumptions of democracy – that each individual takes full responsibility for society – seems to be an imperative that is designed never to be fulfilled. An imperative designed to be satisfied by patchworks of individual decisions and “public opinion”, and whatever information fate happens to throw in one’s way. Out of a basic, healthy understanding of their own limitations, individuals generally assume that the democratic imperative to know and to take responsibility was never meant to be taken seriously anyway, but one does one’s best to match one’s peers in appearing to do so.

It seems to me that the questions we must ask and answer are about the proper extent of responsibility, and the proper extent of knowledge, for each individual. For the individual, taking on no responsibility seems detrimental to life; taking on full responsibility for all problems in the world right now, here today, would also be an impossibility. There would be such a thing as a proper extent of responsibility. One’s initial knowledge and abilities would inform this proper extent of responsibility, and the two might properly expand and shrink together, rather than expand and shrink separately.

In a democratic society, in so far as one wants to have one, we should ask: what is the proper level of responsibility that society should expect from each individual, and what level should the individual expect from himself as an ideal?

More generally, empirical studies of how public opinion functions and how democracies function in practice are needed. It is inappropriate to judge and critique democracies based on their founding ideals when the democratic practice differs sharply from those ideals – as inappropriate as it is to critique and judge economies based on the presumption that classical economic principles apply to economic practice in the large.

Category: Philosophy | Tags: , , , , , , 3 comments »

3 Responses to “The limits of responsibility”

  1. Fri intellektuell

    Are you familiar with the idea of Representative Direct Democracy (RDD)? It is a mixture of representative democracy and direct democracy where every citizen decides how much responsibility to delegate to those who know more and how much to keep for himself. Then nobody would have to pretend to take full responsibility.

    Another question: Is there really any facts that you would like to unlearn? Personally I can’t think of any fact about the world that I would like to be unaware of. Indeed there are pictures and movies I wish I had never seen, but there are no pure facts that I would like to forget. I guess people are different in this case, some want to know everything and some want only to know what is necessary to know for people like them. Which makes it difficult for society to give people the right amount of information.

  2. johan

    Thanks for your comment.
    I was familiar with that idea, but I didn’t know the name RDD. That’s actually a very interesting system to consider in this context. I would need to think more about whether or not it could solve all the difficulties in our current system. An immediate implication is probably that accountability would need to be more severe than in our current system, and if there are severe problems in an area that only a few people took responsibility for, maybe there would need to be a way of identifying those people and holding them to account?

    As for unlearning facts: I don’t have a problem with the implications of facts for conscious thought and there are no facts that I would like to unlearn from my consciousness. But the unconscious is different. To take an interesting example (which I’m still not completely sure how to relate to), there was a severe nuclear disaster in Japan on March 11 this year, and there has been and is still a lot of conflicting information going around from many different sources. To the extent that you can do something to protect yourself, having accurate information is very valuable. But if there is nothing that you can do at all, or if the outcome is not dangerous to you, then the mere fact of worrying about the implications of the disaster will be a heavy weight on your everyday life, a direct cost in terms of your overall capacity for life. I find, personally (and I assume that many are like me in this regard), that even when you decide to consciously put certain thoughts like this out of your mind, the subconscious thought will remain and keep popping up for a long period of time. I’m absolutely convinced that there is a huge hidden cost in terms of unconscious fear.

  3. Fri intellektuell

    I think you’re right that unconscious fears are a serious problem. That is the reason why I prefer information. With enough information, unconscious fears could become conscious and thereby possible to handle. When we think we know how dangerous something is, we can decide whether the risk is worth taking or not. When we are only able to guess how dangerous something is, we are constantly in doubt whether the risk is worth taking or not. I guess that is the case with the nuclear accident in Japan. Wouldn’t it have been better if the authorities tried to give citizens the most objective information that was available, instead of trying to convince people to draw certain conclusions?


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