Are You a Responsible Person?

The factors that play a role in these interpretations and our behavior.

Posted Jan 06, 2020

Sharon and Nicole were on their way to their cousin’s wedding when they stopped at a red light and saw a driver make an illegal left turn, hitting an oncoming vehicle. It was dark and from what they could tell, Sharon, Nicole, and the two male drivers were the only people in the area. The two other drivers seemed uninjured when they approached each other and engaged in an apparently animated discussion. Sharon wondered whether they should wait for the police to arrive or at least give the drivers their contact information. Nicole said no. She was concerned because they were in a dangerous part of town, she didn’t want to get involved, and she didn’t want to be late for the wedding.

The above scenario can serve as an illustration of whether Sharon and Nicole acted responsibly. Although there is no legal obligation to remain at the scene of a traffic accident and get involved, they could have assisted as witnesses. By not coming forward to those involved in the accident, were they acting irresponsibly?

Individuals who choose to belong to a group acknowledge their dependence on each other. This dependence relies on interconnectedness where the group members accept responsibility in meeting the needs and wants of the others in the group. According to Williams (2008), this form of social responsibility requires “mutual accountability,” wherein an individual not only holds others responsible for what they do, but the individual also understands that he or she will be held accountable for his or her actions and their consequences.

Being responsible is often viewed as a virtue and characterized as a person who is reliable, conscientious, trustworthy, and meets moral obligations. Yet, defining what responsible behavior is may not always be straightforward. There are several factors that can influence an individual’s behavior and thus his or her accountability. These include characteristics of the individual and the group, such as:

  • Ability to act
  • Individual’s role in the group
  • Culture
  • Religion
  • Form of government
  • Mores of the group
  • Sense of belonging

Living among others is a way in which we can be exposed to acting responsibly. We see how the group interprets irresponsible behavior; however, we may also develop an internal sense of who we are and our values that may differ from that of the group. Consequently, one of the biggest dilemmas regarding “responsible behavior” is in its interpretation. Who determines this—the individual or the group? The ambiguity is intentional so as to force conclusions based on the actor’s reasoning as to what to do as well as that of the group’s assessment. Determining accountability may be biased (such as the actor engaging in self-punishment derived from feeling undue remorse for her actions). Accountability may be assigned to accomplish a certain motive (e.g., the need to find a scapegoat). It may also be affected by characteristics of the evaluator(s); such as being reluctant to cast aspersions or blame or having exceptionally high standards. Moreover, the interpretation of “responsible behavior” can change over time. Therefore, judgments made by the actor or others in the group regarding what to do are fluid, which in turn impacts accountability.

The purpose of determining the accountability of responsibility is to reduce irresponsible behavior. When the group informs the actor of what she or he did that was wrong and why, the intent is to educate and change the actor’s behavior. It can also serve as a lesson to others in the group. The assignment of blame and punishment can have rehabilitative effects; however, this is not universally true. The type of remediation used is critical if it is to be effective for the actor as well as serve as a model to others. The actor’s characteristics may also play a role in effecting change; if the actor does not believe a wrong was committed despite education and punishment, assigning blameworthiness will have little impact. It is also important that the punishment be proportionate to the irresponsible behavior.

The aim of people acknowledging their irresponsible behavior and making changes is that they admit to the act they committed and the effect it had on others. Although it may be understandable for excuses to be made or for one to highlight mitigating factors, doing so is not accepting responsibility for the outcome regardless of one’s intentions (Williams, 2003). Moreover, being a member of a group and its demands regarding the dependence its members have for each other over their own self-interests emphasizes how important it is to act responsibly.

The murder of Kitty Genovese may serve as a case illustration prompting “responsible behavior.” In 1964, Ms. Genovese, 28, was raped and stabbed in New York. The case drew national headlines and a myriad of commentaries. It was reported that more than 30 people were aware of her assault, but no one chose to get involved (e.g., offer her aid, call the police). This led many people to criticize the witnesses as being callous and apathetic. It also spawned a number of psychological experiments that were identified as studying the “bystander effect” (i.e., if others are present, the likelihood that one will respond is decreased due to the belief that the others will likely offer aid. Interestingly, however, a meta-analytic review published in 2011 found that “when the bystanders are faced with real emergencies…additional bystanders can lead to more, rather than less, helping.” (Fisher et al., 2011, p. 534).

It is important to note that in 2016, a documentary about the investigation of Ms. Genovese’s death conducted by her brother revealed that some of the witnesses that night did act—calling the police, running out to help her. Whatever judgments the witnesses made about how they should respond was clearly an impetus for society to re-examine “responsible behavior.” It also led to the establishment of the “911 system” (Abate, 2017; Kurson, 2017).

People encountering situations that provoke “responsible behavior” will have to decide whether to act or not and if they decide to act, what should they do? Whatever they decide, they may be held to answer, either by others and/or by their internal moral compass, for the consequences of their decision.

References

Abate, C. (2017, January 19). History of 911: America’s emergency service, before and after Kitty Genovese. Politics & Government. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/blog/history-of-911-americas-emergency-service-before-and-after-kitty-genovese

Fischer, P., Krueger, J. I., Greitemeyer, T., Vogrincic, C., Kastenmuller, A., Frey, D., … Kainbacher, M. (2011). The bystander-effect: A meta-analytic review on bystander intervention in dangerous and non-dangerous emergencies. Psychological Bulletin, 13, 517-537. DOI: 10.1037/a0023304

Kurson, H. (2017, January 5). The Kitty Genovese story was the prototype for fake news. New York Observer. Retrieved from https://observer.com/2017/01/the-kitty-genovese-story-was-the-prototype-for-fake-news/

Williams, G. (2003). Blame and responsibility. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, 6, 427–445.

Williams, G. (2008). Responsibility as a virtue. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, 11, 455–470. DOI 10.1007/s10677-008-9109-7