We don’t need a philosopher to explain to us that we are living in extraordinary times. We have all had to reform our lifestyles to varying degrees. In a stark way, we are all considering the impact of our own, previously innocuous, choices upon each other. Our social obligations and responsibilities are at the forefront of our mind and our times. The threat we each pose raises feelings of (to name a few) guilt, fear, responsibility and moreover confusion: what should I be doing about now?
A risky question we face is: if others do not live up to the same standards of social distancing as me, do they undermine my efforts? Does it even make sense for me to bother if others are lax? “I can see everyone else is already in the park together this weekend; why should I stay home given that it will barely affect the overall transmission rate?”
The virus is not spread intentionally. We don’t necessarily even know we are harbouring it. We might ask ourselves, am I responsible if I spread coronavirus to someone else, knowingly or not? “It’s nobody’s fault”.
There’s a high chance that my going out is unlikely to cause an infection, “surely I’ve only done something genuinely wrong if I have transmitted the virus”.
I want to talk about how our understanding of responsibility can help provide answers to these questions, and perhaps relieve some of our inwardly directed uncertainty about what to do. I am basing this reasoning on the social connection model of responsibility that was theorised by Iris Marion Young: a philosopher, sociologist, phenomenologist, feminist and inspiration credited with reshaping our notion of responsibility.
Let’s move away from fault and blame
One of the many great insights of Young was to show us how easy it is to think of ourselves as individuals and forget the extent to which we are part of a vast social structure. Our actions and interactions often have collective results that none of us intend. Our choices depend on what many others do or don’t do. Our options are defined by the social processes that create them. Consider this: I can choose to buy a mask because someone in Taiwan sewed it, a purchaser paid them and marketed the product on Amazon, a courier is considered an essential worker, so he can bring it to me. I know that my purchasing the mask may minorly contribute to the global shortage, felt most keenly by frontline health workers. But, at the end of the day, I am just a small actor in this huge social process and my decision, whatever it was in the end, would do nothing to meaningfully change these circumstances. This is an example of how, by being confronted with the scale of our connected society, we quickly rationalise perpetuating and maintaining the existing structures by feeling futile to challenge them.
When we think about what it is to be responsible, we might initially imagine ‘who is at fault?’. Our legal system, rightly, is oriented this way and so is much of our understanding. To find out who is responsible, we look for a clear act which caused a problem. Tough then, when the problem is a virus which lacks any kind of character or intent. If we think the virus is responsible, it’s a big shame we can’t make it liable to solve this problem. However, responsibility is something we also associate with certain obligations or social positions we have – as a Deliveroo rider, you will be responsible for taking food to the homes of those who order it. As citizens, or even more fundamentally – as people, we have certain responsibilities too.
Let’s move towards social connection
Our responsibilities come from the fact that, while we can’t trace the outcome of our actions in a causal way along the vast social chain that we exist in, our actions form the links of the chain. We are together with others in a system of interdependent processes of cooperation and competition through which we seek benefits and aim to pursue our own lives. Even though we cannot trace our own particular actions to an outcome we may regret in a direct causal chain, we bear responsibility because we are part of the process.
So, even though it would not be our fault for passing on the virus, and moreover, even though we may not in any one action actually pass it on, we are responsible to some measure for the structure that enables its transmission.
The upshot of what Young provides for us here with her model of social connection, is that we can treat responsibility in a forward-looking way. If we focus on causation, blame or fault, we can at best trace those who ‘caused’ an infection. However, by seeing ourselves as an interconnected society, we have forward-looking reasons to all modify our own behaviour and to see the merit of each of us individually choosing to stay home.
So, what should we do about now?
Understanding responsibility as derived from social connection means that ultimately we have a political responsibility. As Young herself says, ‘where the issue is how to mobilize collective action for the sake of social change and greater justice, such finger-pointing and blame-shifting lead more to resentment and refusal to take responsibility than to a useful basis of action.’
We can discharge our shared responsibility together. That is to say, each of us is individually responsible for outcomes in a partial way. Since none of us determine an outcome alone, no one person can be isolated or identified as at fault. The responsibility is essentially shared.
Structural processes can be altered if many actors, in diverse positions, playing different roles, work together to intervene in these processes and to produce different outcomes. Our actions do make a difference.
We are socially connected and, in these times, we share the responsibility to be socially distant.