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Responsibility is a key concept in Why This Way. One of our core beliefs is that while in a healthy state, people take responsibility for their actions. In this context, "actions" can be assumed to include inaction, as it includes everything a person does. We also have a practice of not taking responsibility for other people's emotions or internal states.

The word "responsibility" has many different uses in society, and the way we use the word in our beliefs describes someone taking responsibility of their own initiative, which, while it fits with many common uses of the phrase "taking responsibility", can contrast with some legal definitions of responsibility, as noted below.


Defining responsibility

Responsibility is hard to define, but it involves a person taking on a certain degree of ownership for a situation, making themselves open to discussion about it, particularly, as pertains to the ways in which the person's actions affect other people. It is easier to describe what responsibility looks like than to define it in simple terms.

When a person is taking responsibility for their actions:

  • The person is open to discussing their actions with people involved.
  • The person admits their actions and describes them truthfully.
  • The person describes the constraints they were placed under, and the choices available to them.
  • The person avoids placing blame on others or exaggerating the constraints placed on them or their lack of agency in the matter.
  • In the case that a person's actions cause harm or damage, the person attempts to repair any damage done to whatever degree possible.

The question of whether a person is taking responsibility or not can be very subtle. For example:

  • "I had a tough decision to make, and I knew that X was not a good choice, but I thought it was much better than any of the other options I had." is taking responsibility, whereas saying: "I really had no choice." is not taking responsibility.
  • "The school's policies say that in these circumstances, I need to do X. I thought that these circumstances applied in this situation, and, although I personally see your point, because I've only worked in this position for a few months, I don't feel comfortable challenging a long standing policy that is widely accepted, so I chose to do X." is taking responsibility, whereas saying: "It's not my choice, I was just following rules." is not taking responsibility. This scenario is one example of hiding behind authority as a way of avoiding taking responsibility.

The point is that people always have some choice. Taking responsibility involves truthfully describing the degree of agency one has in a situation.

Responsibility and consent

Our core beliefs describe the healthy state of society as one in which people take responsibility for their actions, and in which all actions are consensual. It is important to note that, in this state, people do not have responsibility forced on them against their will.

Legal responsibility

Legal liability or obligations are usually enforced through power structures in society, and are thus not necessarily consensual.

Responsibility vs. blame

Responsibility is not the same thing as blame, and, in Why This Way, we see blame as being opposed to the taking of responsibility. Our rules of communication include a rule to not blame anyone for negative outcomes.

Blame can be seen as an attempt to force responsibility onto other people; it is thus coercive and non-consensual. It also can work against the idea of encouraging people to take responsibility from their own self motivation.

Responsibility for the actions of others

In some settings, people can take varying degrees of responsibility for the actions of other people, such as parents taking responsibility for their children's actions, supervisors in a workplace taking responsibility for the actions of the people working under them, or commanding officers in the military being responsible for the people serving under them. In these cases, people are indirectly influencing the actions of others, but still do not directly control them.

We would consider it healthy in most of these situations for a person to take responsibility in the senses discussed above, like being open to discussing the actions of the people they are supervising, describing these people's actions truthfully, and attempting to repair any damage done by their actions. We would also consider it important for the supervisor to acknowledge the influence they have or had over the people being supervised, and the choices they made about how to manage or supervise people in attempts to influence their actions. But we would consider it unhealthy if the supervisor were directly held responsible (in the sense of being punished) or held themselves responsible mentally or emotionally, for the actions of the people under them when these actions are truly beyond their control.

When people are held directly responsible for things that they do not directly control, it can drive them to act in harmful ways in order to find ways to influence the outcome that they are being held responsible for. One such way is that they may attempt to exert too direct control over the actions of others, in ways that can become coercive and go against the spirit of our belief that, in the healthy state, people are not coerced or deceived into doing things that they would not otherwise do. In the workplace, this kind of behavior can manifest as micromanaging. Another problem can arise in education, with standardized testing: if a teacher or school is directly held accountable (and threatened with loss of a job or loss of funding) for students' standardized test scores, even when the low test scores are a result primarily of factors beyond their control, this can create the incentive for "teaching to the test", or even falsifying test scores, both things that we would consider unhealthy ways of acting.

Our page on punishment also describes two examples that we consider unhealthy: a child being held responsible for the actions of their parents, and a class of students being punished for the actions of one or a few students in the class. We have discussed this issue and see a fundamental difference between group accountability when people choose to join an organization that uses a system of group responsibility, and situations such as students in primary school, where the students have little or no choice of whether or not to participate in their schooling.