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Responsibility and uncertainty: new perspectives upon responsible action

by Redazione FGB [1], 6 September 2008

A conversation with Maria Antonietta Foddai [2].

By Nicole Lozzi [3]

Maria Antonietta Foddai is professor of the Philosophy of Law in the faculty of law at the University of Sassari in Italy.
She was awarded her degree at the same faculty, with a thesis in civil law entitled "The Functions Of Civil Responsibility". She continued to study this theme during her PHD in the Philosophy and General Theory of Law at the University of Padua analysing the philosophical and legal problems regarding responsibility.
This theme has become the fulcrum of Foddai's intellectual reflections and a large part of her studies has been taken up researching responsibility, its contradictions and its limits in the face of the pressing demands of science and technology. Her latest research is oriented towards the construction of a complex model of responsibility, defined on several levels and modes, imaginable as a net in which each knot represents a centre of participation that is both of understanding and at the same time decision making.
Through her publications on the theme notably: "I percorsi della responsabilità" (in F. Cavalla, a cura di, Cultura moderna ed interpretazione classica, Padova Cedam, 1997), "Le ragioni della responsabilità" (in L. Lombardi Vallauri, a cura di, "Logos dell'essere, logos della norma, Bari, Adriatica, 1999), "Ragioni della scienza ed etica della responsabilità" (in Senatore - P. Funghi, a cura di, Bioetica a scuola ... a scuola di bioetica, Milano, Franco Angeli, 2002), "Agire eticamente. Jonas e le nuove responsabilità", Sassari, Moderna, 2005.
In her last work, Sulle tracce della responsabilità - Idee e norme dell'agire responsabile, Giappichelli, Torino, Maria Antonietta Foddai conducts an investigation into the modern concept of responsibility and its philosophical roots that explain its inherent contradictions.The research is presented in two parts: the first part is dedicated to the ideas that have constructed the modern idea of responsibility in modern times, the second is a reflection upon the norms that regulate the world of extra-contractual juridical responsibility and their inadequacies in a post-modern setting.
In this conversation with the author she offers her thoughts on several vast and important themes such as science, technology, responsibility and society and upon their ties within the democratic dimension.

In this context what do you intend, today, by responsible technology?

To respond to this question we can make reference to a passage of the report "Taking European Knowledge Society Seriously [4]", written by the expert group commissioned by the European Union to look into the reasons behind the public mistrust of technological and scientific innovation. The proposals of the commission can be summarised in this phrase: "(...) We must take shared responsibility, without being forced to lay blame nor claim full control" (p.16). Sharing responsibility, abandoning sanctionary blame criteria and the pretence of having full control of the consequences of our actions are the three criteria that have to underlie the new system of responsible innovation.

Starting to explore the theme of responsibility, which meanings do you hold that emerge from modern behaviour.

In this difficult decade for humanity, responsibility is the most evocative and celebrated of all human qualities, so much so as to be defined as the founding principle of ethics in the technological era. I often have the impression that the term is used as a sort of plea, or even more so that it is taken as a vague and general call for prudence and reflection more than as a project of regulating actions that requires an adequate theoretical explanation.
Because of this we can say that responsibility reflects a contradiction in our contemporary culture: on the one side it calls us towards a principle that can guide our actions, but on the other we are extremely uncertain about its meaning and scope.
Winston Davis [5] cites a nice anecdote that tells the story of a small American Christian society devoted to "Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility". This idea of perpetual responsibility, that is more similar to a nightmare than the serene Christian vision, seems a paradox: If on the one hand we are ready to kneel down in front of responsibility, perceived as divine, on the other we don't really know in which direction to send our prayers. What does perpetual responsibility mean? That we will be eternally punished? That we will be pushed into considering the consequences of our actions before making them? That we will be called to answer for those actions whose consequences we cannot see in advance? I believe that we have to think deeply about the multiple meanings of responsibility and about the need to elaborate new models, better geared to the mutated nature of human actions to use an expression of Jonas.
The first job to face up to therefore is to pose the problem of responsibility.

What do you mean by pose the problem of responsibility?

When we say 'responsibility' we are referring to its common meaning: "the need to face the consequences of actions that we have taken in violation of a legal or moral norm". This meaning, that we can define as sanctionary, is that referred to by our juridical and ethical codes, but it is not the only one. The need to answer as a guarantor of a debt or promise to another, the obligation to suffer sanction or punishment, preventative consideration of the consequences of our future actions, even the need to take care of the fragile or vulnerable are only some of the models of responsibility promoted by ethics and law. This plurality was born through the responses that humanity has given in the course of history to the problem of the conservation of an equilibrium of relations within a community. I do not think I would be wrong if I said that responsibility cannot be expressed as a monolith, but as a plural and fragmented concept, created by numerous meanings that have been stratified in time and that do not create a coherent system but a grouping that is both a force but at the same time contradictory.
It would be a mistake to look for its single possible meaning, having to choose the meaning most adequate from many possibilities with the intent of classification or ordering. We must view the ideas that underlie responsibility as a whole and see the relationships, the contradictions and the deep reasoning that they have generated. And bring to light the limits of the present system so that we can construct new models of responsible action.

But what then do we mean by responsibility? And where do these contradictions emerge?

Hart, in his Punishment and Responsibility [6], shows the different meanings that the word responsible can assume, telling the story of the captain of a ship who due to his irresponsible behaviour (getting drunk every night) loses his ship and suffers the legal consequences of his actions.
He sites four conceptual nuclei that represent the principle meanings of responsibility. The first is responsibility of role, that corresponds to the obligations derived from a public post or socially important job (as captain of the ship, X had to guarantee the security of his passengers and crew), the second is causal responsibility, that is derived from the connections between two material phenomena (the captain claimed that the winter storms were responsible for the loss of the ship), the third is that of subject responsibility that consists in the possibility of being subjected to a penalty or generic form of sanction when our actions violate juridical or moral norms (the captain is deemed responsible by the judges for the loss of the ship and the death of several passengers and is forever held morally responsible for the death of numerous people); finally, the last meaning that is also the most recent is that of responsibility-capacity, that consists in the ability to understand the meaning of the norms and the critical choice and reflexivity required to adhere to it (some people said that the captain was mad, but the doctors that examined him decided that he was responsible for his actions).
What we can see is that these meanings do not design a coherent system. Sometimes, as Ingarden notes, one could be responsible in the sense of pondering a decision that goes against juridical or moral norms. The personal concept of responsibility that is subject to external control is very different than that of a person who is responsible in as much as they are capable of autonomous decision making and guided by internal control. The two meanings could find themselves in contradiction.

Other than in the semantic field, is it possible to see some of these contradictions in the moral and juridical system?

In ethics the conflict emerges in the contraposition between an ethic of conviction and an ethic of responsibility. In his famous conference on the theme of politics as a profession and vocation in 1918 Max Weber [7] asked which is the ethical model most suited to a politician with government responsibilities and concluded demonstrating two different and opposing models of action. The first is that of Gesinnungsethik (ethic of conviction), that consists in an action based upon the moral principle that provokes it without worrying about the consequences that may derive from it.: our action will be good or bad , right or wrong in relation to the moral principles that determine it. The second is that of Verantwortungsethik (ethic of responsibility) that requires that to act we must bear in mind the consequences that the action might have on ourselves and others: the action will be good or bad and right or wrong if the moral principal on which the action was based is coherent with the effects of the action. Weber chooses the ethic of responsibility, saying that he or she who has power must assume the responsibility of his or her decisions, preventatively considering the consequences that they might provoke, but he is quick to note that it is not possible to establish through rational argument if this is preferable to the ethic of conviction.
Demonstrating the radical alternatives between which an ethical decision can oscillate, he maintains the impossibility of a rational choice that remains faithful to a moral intuition. In law one of the strongest contradictions emerges from the difficult co-existence between a model of objective responsibility, evident in the system of extra contractual responsibility, and one of subjective responsibility, derived from the eighteenth century theorisation of individual responsibility based upon the moral capacity of the subject.

To return to the criteria that have to cement the new system of responsible innovation, how can we represent the abandon of the sanctionary model?

When the word 'Responsibility' first appeared in Great Britain in parliamentary discussion it was 1769, and this new word represented the need of the king's ministers to answer for the acts carried out while exercising their public power. One or two years later, 'Responsabilité' appeared on the French political scene indicating the need of the public functionaries and ministers to answer for the acts carried out while exercising their public power. With the same meaning it appeared in Italy where it has been used since 1760.
The common nucleus of meaning between the three terms is that of being answerable to an authority for actions taken in violation of pre prescribed norms. This meaning was deeply rooted in nineteenth and early twentieth century law. Its individualistic roots, born from gius-naturalistic thought, exclude objective responsibility and include the presence of blame as a necessary condition. John Stuart Mill [8]'s celebrated phrase "Responsibility means punishment", explains the prevalence of the sanctionary concept of responsibility.
Both in law and in morals, being responsible means being punishable, subject to penalty or sanction. Responsibility is translated into the judgement of an action carried out in the past on the basis of facts and the pre-established order of juridical and moral norms. We can say that responsibility was born with certainty, almost as a revelation of facts and norms. Responsibility is discovered, not decided.
But cracks in the system came to light in the second half of the twentieth century in relation to a radical change in human behaviour and the growing power derived from technology. The mutation is both quantitative, for the new dimensions assumed by collective human action, and qualitative, for the capacity to effect natural equilibrium, and on the 'nature' of things, on those "unforgettable experiences of passivity" says Ricoeur [9], derived from being born and being created.
The traditional concept of responsibility was challenged in the face of problems posed by the new scientific movement. The most important, as Jonas noted, is that of the consequences of our actions: even if we know when and where are actions are born, in many cases we cannot know where and how their consequences will occur, and above all if they will be good or bad.
New objects such as the biosphere, and new subjects such as future generations will begin to design the base upon which the new theory of responsibility will be etched.

In the passage from the modern to the technological era you speak about two models of responsibility; one simple and one complex.

Yes, this passage is very important. It was really then, after Hiroshima e Nagasaki, with the nuclear problem, and after with bio-technology, that the frightening doubt that even scientists at work are not proctected from moral judgement was raised in the once clear conscience of those who study nature. While we discover that our ethical guidelines are completely inadequate to the new challenges, a new concept of responsibility emerges: added to the concept of punishment are those of care and relation, as opposed to the rigid idea of recipricality we see one of asymmetry and vulnerability. Future dimensions overrule our temporal view of the past with the hope of sanctioning behaviour that compromises social equilibrium. Preventing irreversible damage and conserving a natural equilibrium that can guarantee the survival of the species stand together as an overriding force. Responsibility becomes a shared action. In relation to this passage we can consider two models of responsibility: one simple and the other complex.The first relates to the traditional meaning, based on a group of needs derived from the norms to which we feel we must adhere to. According to this model, if I say that a person is responsible I mean that s/he has a strong sense of obligation, is trustworthy and prudent.Today we can see this model as inadequate: a conscienscious person that possesses a strong sense of obligation can behave in a highly irresponsible way when they are not aware of the negative consequences that can derive from their observance of obligation. Paradoxically, it is when we push into unknown territory, where there are no 'road signs' of common ethics that responsibility seems to assume its most appropriate meaning.It is here that we see the need for a new model, definable as complex or reflexive, because it requires several different critical capacities that on the one hand celebrate our individual autonomy but on the other demonstrate our moral solitude.Davies says that being responsible in this sense means being able to see the consequences of our acts; to know when to consult other people or to make our own decisions; to have tha capacity to modify our projects towards other equally valid objectives and to have the will to have a realistic understanding of our actions.

The third conceptual key that you cite for the construction of a system of responsible innovation is the abandoning of the pretence of having full control. In which sense can we consider this abandoning as a resigned predisposition to the inevitable incertainty that surrounds the consequences of our actions? And which relationships can we draw between the loss of "full control" and a "shared responsibility"?

No, we are not speaking about the passive acceptance of technical illusion, for which we banaly do everything that we can because we have the power to do it and then we cross our fingers and wait to see what happens.I believe that the expert Group had something very different in mind, that consists in the fact that abandoning the pretence of full control redefines the modality of the action. It is the appreciation of the possibility of the unexpected or unforeseeable, in its grading, that goes from uncertainty to unknown, that requires a different design of action. This condition of uncertainty, now a theme entrenched in the conceptual apparatus of modern science, represents the new epistemological path for responsibility and forces us to invent new modalities of action with courage and humility.Keenan says "it is when there is a lack of knowledgable rules that we can trust, and when we don't know exactly what we need to do and don't have a place to go go to ask,....that we meet something like responsibility". What this makes us see is that the real difference between an enlightenment and postmodern responsibility is in the passage from a view of certainty to one of incertainty. The first, that from which we have drawn our culture, was born in an ordered society, constructed on certain rules and a strong concept of truth; the second finds its conditions of thinking in the uncertainty that underlies our moral actions and new epistemological statute.

But doesn't it seem a paradox that we are called to take responsibility for consequences that we cannot see, often so spread through time that they regard future generations?

The paradox is generated by the fact that we continue to reason according to the traditional model that attaches the idea of responsibility to individual behaviour and its possible sanction. In this sense it is coherent to exclude responsibility from a context governed by incertainty and from the individual possibility of seeing and controlling the course of action. The only coherent action in this sense is to apply the brakes, to stop. The eucharist of fear of Jonas is a beautiful example.I believe that we need a sort of logical leap, and as I said at the beginning of our conversation accepting the apparent contradictions of responsibility, moving from a system governed by the certainty of fact and norms, vertical, based on the concept of authority, to one designed through the framework of incertainty, horizontal and based on participation and sharing. To go beyond the contradictions we have to look at one of the oldest conceptions of responsibility, expressed in Roman law it is that of guarantee. The person responsible is the guarantor of the future course of action. In our case being responsible means being ready to confront, to "be", with all our strength, critical capacity and wanting. "I will be" is tied to my person and to a project of action for which I am the guarantor.It is around this conceptual nucleus that we must elaborate a complex model, structured on many levels and forms of responsible action, that reflect the problems of the social terrain and political structure, like the rules of the island of Lesbo.The four principles that compose the complex model of responsibility, that imply forsight, flexibility, critical thought, relationality, sincerity and finally creativity, demonstrate that responsibility is not only created by a web of meanings but also by a group of subjects that work together to produce responsible behaviour. Maybe we can say that we are speaking about a procedural concept, that brings with it a way to bring human capability to its peak, to transform our moral resources into a new and necessary virtue for the technological era. A conversation that addresses the relationship between science, innovation and responsibility, must consider civil society as an indispensable actor in a more complete analysis. To what point can we include civili society in the new models of responsibility?
The antique idea of guarantee is only one of the conceptual keys needed to confront the contradictions of the "responsibility of incertainty in incertainty". The other is the idea of plurality.Hannah Arendt [10] said that our condition as human beings is a plural and not an individual one. In order to draw out the concept of public participation and shared responsibility we must see the limits of a responsibility explained within the concept of the individual, and on premises that exclude the relationality of responsible action.As long as the relation between two or more people represents the condition of responsibility, because response always requires someone to whom we respond, then the modern construction of the concept both in law and morality must exclude responsibility for unwanted actions, those not proposed by the subject or that do not directly come from them. All the evidence against this assertation represents exceptions that are thrown up by the modern system of judicial and moral responsibility. Responsibility is seen as a moral quality of the subject that is confirmed in law. And this is the great limit of our present model. The new subject of responsibility is a "we" not an "I".It is this plural condition that requires a new concept, at least for me, that of the construction of responsibility. Responsibility is constructed, it is a common project.In this sense it goes beyond the idea of of a shared-responsibility. This implies that responsibility is something pre-existent, that is divided amongst the explorers like a heavy weight; but I don't believe that it is a weight to carry on your shoulders, but a project that is constructed every night in front of the fire. To get away from metaphor, we need to abandon the vertical system that "assigns" responsibility but also that based on "assumption", to invent that of the construnction of responsibility.

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  1. 1] /schedabiografica/Redazione FGB
  2. 2] /it/pagine/2008/07/maria_antonietta_foddai.html
  3. 3] /it/pagine/2008/07/nicole_lozzi.html
  4. 4] /it/eventi/2008/02/science_and_governance_il_rapp.html
  5. 5] http://search.barnesandnoble.com/Taking-Responsibility/Winston-Davis/e/9780813920511
  6. 6] http://www.oup.com/uk/catalogue/?ci=9780199534784
  7. 7] http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Max_Weber
  8. 8] http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Stuart_Mill
  9. 9] http://www.filosofico.net/ricoeur.htm
  10. 10] http://www.filosofico.net/arendt.htm
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Maria Antonietta Foddai
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