Critical Concepts

Assessing an agent's responsibility for his/her actions
and for the consequences of those actions


To assess responsibility -- in reading fiction as in participating in everyday life or in jury deliberations -- we have to consider motivations.  And this means we have to consider

A temptation we will want to be alert to, in order to resist, is to simply take for granted that the story is automatically working from the same framework of assumptions that we do.  For example, it is an axiom for some people (especially among middle class folks in America in the late 20th Century) that everyone is completely responsible for his or her own happiness in life.  If we simply suppose that the authors of all stories share that assumption, we will end up short-circuiting the inquiry a given story may be inviting us to make about the responsibility of one of its characters for what it presents as an outcome of that character's behavior.

Of course, the notion that everyone is fully responsible for one's happiness in life does indeed sum up one framework of assumptions that, as far as this course is concerned, one is entitled to adopt.

At the same time, just as we want to ask what the factors may be that contribute to a character's adopting the assumptions we see her acting upon, we might want to reflect on fact that this axiom is being energetically urged upon us from many sides today, on behalf of all sorts of political and moral agendas.  This might lead us to question whether it is indeed self-evident -- whether, if it is sound, its soundness would have to be argued for in a convincing way.

(The 19th-century American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson has had a great impact on the thinking of many of us.  One of his pronouncements, however, was:  "It is only I who can oppress myself" ().   If we reflect upon how this would have rung in the ears of people in slavery a few hundered miles to the South (or to their ancestors experiencing the Middle Passage), we may wonder whether this should count among his wiser observations or whether, if it should, it would have to be understood to mean something quite different from what it appears to say on its face.)

But the first relevant question for us as readers of fiction must be:  is this assumption one that the author of a particular story invites us to consider, in thinking through that particular story?

We are of course, at liberty to reject whatever framework of assumptions about circumstantial freedom and responsibility we detect that the author invites us to adopt.  But to do this, we need first to get clear as to what these assumptions favored by the author are.  This we cannot do if we simply assert our own axioms in the face of the particular facts made available for inspection in the actual story that the writer has chosen to compose for our inspection.

Two complications you will want to take into account in any case.

To the degree that knowledge of the relevant facts is a condition of responsibility, the question of responsibility for certain actions may be complicated if we allow for the possibility of "unconscious" motivation.  Since denial and repression (leading to avoidance of awareness of some of the factors in one's behaviors) themselves count as actions, it is not always clear, on the face of things, what should count as a fair assessment of overall responsibility for actions that stem from wishes, fears, and fantasies of which the agent himself is unaware.  This is especially so if we are convinced that people are so constituted that repression itself can somehow get carried through without the agent being clearly aware that it is going on.

In general, we tend to hold adults more responsible for "managing not to know" than we do children, since we attribute to adults greater resources for dealing with the painful than we do to children.  But the cases of repressions carried into adulthood from childhood and of repressions fostered by severe trauma invite especially careful consideration.  And persons who have learned to analyze behavior in terms of unconscious motivation, and to "decode" evidence of unconscious wishes and fears, might have less excuse for failing to see what they are up to than those who have never been introduced to the the idea of this sort of self-deception.

Responsibility for one's actions will not automatically translate into responsibility for all the consequences of one's actions, since some of these cannot possibly be foreseen.  Nevertheless, to the degree that an agent is responsible for his action, he will be responsible for some of its consequences.  In other words, that an agent is responsible for something he did is a necessary but not sufficient condition for his being responsible for a given consequence of it. 

We have to reflect carefully to determine, for any given consequence of someone's action, whether that person is properly to be held responsible for the consequence and, if so, to what degree.  Our court system, after all, regards these issues as so complicated, in both criminal and civil suits (for negligence, for example) that it takes them out of the hands of judges and refers them to juries.  One of the most serious challenges (and therefore enjoyments) of reading and reflecting upon fiction lies in developing our powers of acuteness in detecting and justly resolving the relevant issues on this sort of question.  Here, in spades, there are no cut and dried ways of getting a sound answer.  And, at the same time, we are convinced that the kind of arbitrariness achieved by flipping a coin, or by declaring anyone's opinion as ipso facto as good as anyone else's, would amount to the height of irresponsibility on our own part.

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  This page last updated 22 August 2004 .