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January 4, 2020 / Congau

Beyond Responsibility

Naturally we ought to fulfill our responsibilities. Whatever we have committed ourselves to doing must be done, or else we will be directly to blame for the bad consequences that will follow. Once you have taken a job, given birth to a child or just made a promise, you have created duties for yourselves and it would be bad to neglect them. Most people would agree with this.

But our direct responsibilities, important as they are, are not the limit of ethics; far from it. Beyond responsibility there’s an infinite gray area of duties that are not really duties but nevertheless a part of the ethical domain.

Some think that once they have fulfilled their immediate obligations they can retire into their private sphere of superior righteousness and have no more concern with the well-being of the world. “It’s not my responsibility,” they say, and that’s the end of that.

It’s not your duty to be nice, is it? The grumpy citizen who meticulously obeys every minor regulation, sneers at cats and children and quarrels with his neighbors, thinks himself a responsible and moral person, but he is hardly a good man.

It’s not your responsibility to help a stranger who has collapsed on the street or to rescue a drowning child, but I hope we can agree that you would be doing something bad if you just ignored them.

When do we have to step beyond the borders of our immediate responsibilities and do a good deed? How close should a suffering person be for us to lend him a hand? There are no rules that can give an answer to these questions; we have responsibilities beyond our responsibilities, but no independent judge can tell us how far.

We are neither guilty nor not guilty. Ethics is much more complicated.

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