Politicians’ speeches are often peppered with the word ‘responsibility’. Take this speech by David Cameron in 2010. After telling us that responsibility ‘is central to my beliefs, my politics, the change I want to bring to this country’, he states that it ‘is the value that elevates a collection of human beings to a civilisation – and building this responsible society is the avowed mission of the modern Conservative Party.’ Shortly afterwards he claims that responsibility ‘is not a value that simply exists in the ether, or can be injected there by government – it is a value that can only find life and expression in the decisions and actions of individuals’.
As a political theorist, I find this kind of use of the word ‘responsibility’ interesting because of what it intimates. Most obviously, it seems to disclose the importance of the notion of personal or individual responsibility in contemporary political discourse. The increased frequency with which the word ‘responsibility’ is employed by politicians might be seen as a sign of a broader shift that marks the rise of the ideology of ‘neoliberalism’ in the last thirty or so years.

Yet I find myself sceptical of this view of the onwards (or rightwards) march of responsibility. While politicians may use the word ‘responsibility’ more often than in the past, it does not mean to say that it is because they are articulating a new or fundamentally transformed political language. Rather, the responsibility pandemic is an intimation of an ambiguity or confusion in the conceptual architecture of the modern Western world.

How is the concept of responsibility ambiguous? Let’s return to Cameron’s take on responsibility. There is something intriguing about the notion that the ‘value’ of responsibility only finds ‘life and expression’ in the decisions and actions of individuals. It prompts the question of what is the difference between the ‘value’ and the ‘decisions and actions’ that express it? Surely the value just is the decisions and actions of responsible actors, for in their absence the value is dead – it has no existence.

What I’m driving at here is the sense in which responsibility can be seen as a feature of conduct, and conduct is a relation that always takes place between people in concrete circumstances. Responsible actions are performed or enacted – our knowledge of them depends upon the expectation of a particular response from the person(s) in respect of whom we perform them. When Cameron talks of responsibility ‘living’ or being ‘expressed’ through actions and decisions, he is suggesting a view of responsibility as a characteristic of conduct according to certain conventions of acting.

But by saying that responsibility is a ‘value’ expressed in actions and decisions, he is articulating another view of responsibility. This view involves an understanding of the individual that runs deep in Western philosophical and political thought – that we are endowed with ownership of our actions and decisions, that we are possessed of ‘free-will’, and that we have a capacity for agency independently of our contingent attachments to others, etc.

However, what I’d suggest politicians like Cameron principally have in mind when they use the word ‘responsibility’ is a problem concerning conformity and obedience to authority or standards of conduct. Responsible conduct here is just ‘proper conduct’ and people need to be coerced or coaxed into its performance. As Cameron says, responsibility ‘is the word we give to people doing the right thing’.

Can this be right? Is responsibility just a word that applies to discrete actions or does it tell us more about the kind of people that perform such actions? Cameron’s claim that responsibility ‘is the value that elevates a collection of human beings to a civilisation’ seems to suggest the latter. Responsible people are ‘civilized’ people, so understood.

An interesting point that arises, then, from considering this kind of use of ‘responsibility’ in contemporary political discourse is how it points to both an ambiguity and some way of resolving that ambiguity. In what sense might ‘civility’ resolve the difference between responsibility as a feature of particular actions according to widely varying conventions and responsibility as a quality of the individual understood independently of such conventions of acting? It is a question not so much of what responsibility ‘is’, but rather who is responsible and in what conditions they are capable of practising responsible conduct. When we ask this question, we might come to see better the shortcomings of the understanding of responsibility as ‘doing the right thing’ and the kind of political sensibility that it reflects.

Dr Jason Edwards is Lecturer in the Department of Politics, Birkbeck College and

Programme Director of the BA Politics and Government