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The Georgicks of Virgil, with an English Translation and Notes Virgil, John Martyn Ipsi in defossis specubus secura sub alta Otia agunt terra, congestaque robora, Pierius says it is confecto in the Roman manuscript. And Tacitus also says the Germans used to make caves to defend them from the severity of winter, .

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Bochenski [] who first defined responsibility in terms of the logic of relations. For Bochenski, however, responsibility was a two- or perhaps a three-place relation: Someone S is responsible for action A to another person O.

Perspectives on context

As an attributive, relational construct, responsibility is also an interpretative concept with social functions. It can be expressed as an attributive, relational norm controlling expectations regarding action and behavior. Responsibility further implies that a person S must justify actions, action consequences, situations, tasks, and so forth A in front of an addressee O and before an agent J in respect to which the responsible party has obligations or duties in accordance with standards, criteria, or laws N.

Responsible parties are accountable for their own actions or under specified conditions for the actions of others. Parents, for example, are liable for certain behaviors of their children, and corporations for certain behaviors of their employees. This tends to apply more to wrongdoings than to achievements.

The concept of responsibility thus structures social reality and social relations. One may further differentiate between the typical bearers of responsibility in terms of active roles and observer roles. Specifically, one may impute or attribute a particular responsibility to oneself as an actor or to others from the multiple perspectives of a participant, observer, or scientist, in relation to general rules and norms.

Particular cases of attribution instantiate general patterns of responsibility. The attribution of responsibility is an active process both in self-interpretation and in the interpretation of the actions of others. The concept of responsibility is thus implicated in self-understandings and projections of ideals for social order. Types of responsibility occur at three basic levels: individual actions, social roles, and universal moral principles. Such distinctions are justified by appeal to "ideal typ ic al" prevalence, similar but not identical to Max Weber 's Idealtypen or ideal types.

In what follows, diagrammatic schema are used to condense and illustrate hierarchical models of different types of responsibility, with different levels or strata referring to different dimensions of interpretation. The first diagram is more abstract and calls for more interpretative constructs, such as particular kinds of responsibilities, than the others. In general, the three levels are constituted by analytic and perspectival constructs that may overlap and all apply although in different ways to a single real case of responsibility.

That is, concrete instances of responsibility attribution may be analyzed not only on a formal or abstract level as illustrated in the first diagram but also from a more concrete point of view as with role or moral responsibility. Although usually any one analysis on a specific level is tied to a certain interpretation e. Within the different levels of these schematic constructs are further analytic constructs that are also able to be attributed to individuals or groups.

Even in their more concrete forms, constructs are to be understood as analytic distinctions. That is, collective or group responsibility seldom precludes individual or personal responsibility, although collective responsibility cannot be reduced to or derived from individual or personal responsibility alone. The same applies to institutional responsibility. Moreover, there are conceptual connections or analytic relations between some juxtaposed or subordinated subtypes. The most obvious and general level of responsibility is that which involves being responsible for the results or consequences of one's own actions.

This may be termed the prototyp ic al case of causally oriented action responsibility. A subject is held responsible for the outcomes of his or her actions in an instance for which he or she is accountable. A scientist is not responsible for the outcome of an experiment or research project but is responsible for the conduct of the research and the reporting of its results. Frequently, accountability questions are raised in negative cases, when one or more of these criteria are not fulfilled.

The breaking of a dam may be the result of such factors as honest mistakes in statics or dynamics analyses; careless, negligent, or even criminal misconduct; incompetence; and the use of substandard materials. The need to withdraw or revise technical reports in science may likewise be attributable to honest mistakes or malfeasance. In any particular case it is important to identify the particular negative action responsibility.

Professional scientists and engineers have responsibilities to the public to ensure high standards in their work, to avoid risks of disasters insofar as this is compatible with reasonable costs, and to report results fully and completely without fabricating or falsifying data. The responsibility to avoid mistakes, failures, and poor quality products, processes, systems, and so on is part and parcel of action responsibility. Different types of action responsibility are shown in Figure 1.

The most commonly discussed cases of action responsibility are individual action responsibility. But if a group is acting collectively or if individuals participate in joint group action, then what may be called coresponsibility arises as a distinctive phenomenon. Coresponsibility is the sharing of responsibility by participating members in a group action.

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Responsibility for group actions is also sometimes called collective or group responsibility, and the circumstances in which this can be legitimately attributed to groups—especially large ones such as a nation-state or ethnic classification—are highly contentious. Mostly such attributions are rejected or justified only under very special cases on the grounds that groups should not be punished or rewarded for the actions of individuals.

Social Responsibility Perspectives: The Shareholder and Stakeholder Approach

In practice, however, such punishments are quite common as in warfare where they may be apologized for as "collateral damage". A second level of responsibility is constituted by role and universal moral responsibility.

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In accepting a role or fulfilling a task e. Role responsibility is not opposed to or fundamentally different than individual action responsibility, but manifests action responsibility at a level other than that of human action as such. Indeed, as the examples already cited in discussing action responsibility indicate, most of these roles will entail individual action responsibilities, or can be thought of as constituting particular instances of individual action responsibility. These roles or duties might be assigned in a formal way or be more or less informal.

They can even be legally ascribed or at least legally relevant. Different types of roles and responsibilities, including legal responsibilities, are presented in diagrammatic form in Figure 2. In corporate or institutional settings, role patterns include leadership responsibility with respect to external and internal instances, addressees, and agents as a special form of associated institutional role responsibility. In addition, there is the corporate responsibility of firms, corporations, or other social institutions such as government agencies and even nongovernmental organizations insofar as these have special tasks to perform or obligations to fulfill with respect to clients, the public, or members of the organization or corporation.

This type of responsibility can also have a legal, moral, or neutral character, which may or may not coincide with group or institutional responsibility. Other examples of role responsibility that deserve explicit mention include not only legal responsibility but also pedagogical responsibility, religious responsibility, political citizen responsibility, and more. In an advanced scientific and technological society one might also speak of consumer responsibility.

Universal moral responsibility provides a different specification for the functioning of individual action responsibility than that associated with role responsibility. Not all action responsibility and role responsibility is specifically moral in character or moral to the same degree.

To have a responsibility to be on time for an appointment because of a particular role has more an efficiency than a moral character; it is a responsibility that keeps some particular organizational system functioning more smoothly than would otherwise be the case. Action responsibility and role responsibility take on a specifically moral character when an agent's actions and the results of those actions are directed toward persons or living beings including even the agent whose well-being is directly affected by the agent's activity.

As such the analysis of the responsibilities by the ethicists led to an improvement of the division of labor amongst the technological researchers and engineers, which in its turn led to an improved technological design. The responsibilities were not distributed on the basis of fairness criteria but on the basis of efficacy capacity, power, resources.

By making the technological research team aware of the responsibility issues, some of the technological researchers took the initiative to incorporate the secondary emissions in the research project. The ethical parallel research did not so much pose limits to the technology development but guided it. Summarizing, since responsibilities are ascribed according to the criterion of efficacy, the problem of many hands does not manifest itself or at least, not as severely as would be the case in a strictly merit-based perspective.

By taking a consequentialist stance, the ethicists encouraged the engineers and researchers to improve the technological design. If we compare the different approaches all three have their merits. The merit-based perspective emphasizes the fairness of a responsibility ascription. It takes seriously the moral question: who, from a moral point of view, is responsible? This moral notion of responsibility is in line with common morality, and especially in case of victims of irreversible harm, people will be interested to hear the answer. Kutz argues that as long as individuals are only assessed in terms of the actions they produce, the disparity between collective harm and individual effect results in the disappearance of individual responsibility Kutz And with the disappearance of responsibility, so goes the incentive for individuals to improve their behavior, he argues.

With its focus on compensation and consent, this approach put most emphasis on the interests of potential victims. However, it was also shown that this approach gave no or only little incentive to actually improve technological design. Moreover, this approach seemed to have a hampering effect on the exploitation of innovative new technologies.

The consequentialist approach, as a third approach, appeared to be most powerful in terms of the second point identified at the start of the paper: the ability to shape the direction of technology development. More than discussing who is to blame, they are guided by questions of how to prevent the re- occurrence of harmful events. When engineers design a new technology they want that technology to work under real-world circumstances and not only in a laboratory.

They therefore engage in extensive studies of errors and mistakes. As Davis puts is,. Whatever is true of other professionals, engineers consider it their responsibility to study any disaster that seems to arise from what they did — and to report what they find. To commit a certain mistake once, even a serious one, is something engineers tolerate as part of advancing technology ….

What engineers do not tolerate is that an engineer, any engineer, should make the same mistake. Once a mistake has been identified, the state of the art advances and what was once tolerable becomes intolerable a kind of incompetence. Davis We could say that the consequentialist perspective is most typical of the engineering practice itself. Compare this with the rights-based perspective that focuses solely on the question whether or not readymade technologies are harmful.

The rights-based perspective seems to influence not so much the direction but rather the pace of technology development. Second, the consequentialist approach allows for more fine-grained responsibility ascriptions. Since the merit-based perspective is often applied after the fact i. Some therefore argue that this merit-based perspective is about non responsibility: it defines excusing conditions that exempt people from responsibility Ladd However, recent insights from Science and Technology Studies STS show that before dramatic cases occur, often incremental small decisions have to be made that ultimately lead to undesired outcomes.

The consequentialist responsibility ascription is based on the capacity of each agent to contribute to the shaping of technology. After all, within the consequentialist perspective, with its criterion of efficacy, responsibilities ought to be ascribed according to the capacity of each agent to discharge them. For example in case of risky technologies, engineers, more than any stakeholder, have the knowledge of the risks and possible ways to reduce them. From the consequentialist perspective this entails the responsibility to address these risks. This responsibility ascription, then, is not derived from a merit-based view in which particular actions are deemed faulty, but rather from the set of obligations to see to it that a certain state of affairs is brought about i.

This approach to ascribing responsibility fits nicely with the insights from more sociologically oriented literature on the dynamics of engineering and technology development. However, efficacious as it may be, the fairness of the responsibility ascription cannot be ignored all together. It is unlikely that a purely consequentialist approach is psychologically feasible.

Basic Concept

The motivational force of responsibility ascriptions that are inconsistent with basic intuitions of fairness will therefore be undermined Kutz , p. This is in line with the point made in the section about the relation between forward-looking and backward-looking responsibility. The researcher in the GSBR project who judges his or her own responsibility within the project as fair will be motivated to act according to it, whereas the researcher that is assigned a responsibility unfairly will potentially be inclined not to act according to it or to do it less carefully.

Even if fairness is not the overriding criterion, we do not want a responsibility ascription that is morally unfair—both for the victims and for the people who are potentially blamed. Hence, even though fairness is not the ultimate criterion in the consequentialist perspective, it should still somehow be taken into account. Especially in case different people are involved there can be a tension between the requirement of efficacy and that of fairness.

Whereas the fairness requirement is somewhat restrictive in ascribing responsibility, the efficacy requirement seems to have the opposite effect. It broadens rather than narrows the scope of responsibility ascriptions. If we focus on the fairness criterion, we probably end up with an ascription of responsibilities which is undesirable from a consequentialist perspective. If we only stress the efficacy of the responsibility ascription, we probably end up with an unfair distribution of responsibilities.

Hence, we somehow have to incorporate both perspectives if we ascribe responsibilities. A possible way to reduce the tension between the requirements of fairness and efficacy, is to focus on alternative fairness criteria i. Insights from political philosophy show that fairness could also be achieved in a more procedural way. According to a procedural approach to fairness, a responsibility distribution can be rendered fair if it is established in a fair way i.

Further research is needed to explore this procedural approach to fairness. A possible starting point may be the Rawlsian approach of Wide Reflective Equilibrium WRE , according to which a procedure can be justified as fair if it fits within the individual set of background theories and moral principles of each relevant actor involved. The establishment of this procedural fairness could be part of an embedded ethical research Doorn forthcoming b ; Van de Poel and Zwart forthcoming. Questions as to which actors are relevant to include and how to assess such a WRE need to be further explored Doorn forthcoming a.


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The discussion above indicates an important role for the ethicist in the process of distributing responsibilities and identifying potential negative side-effects and consequences. The obvious question is then how this approach would work in case the technical work is not paralleled by an ethicist. I think we have to make a distinction between two situations. The first is one where a group of researchers have currently no embedded ethicists in their project but who have some experience with ethical parallel research in previous projects.

In this case the researchers have experienced how ethical research could be carried out. This is a challenge that somehow should be considered already during the ethical parallel research itself. The future will tell to what extent the impact of the past ethical parallel research will indeed lead to more permanent ethical reflection by the engineers themselves during their work.

It goes without saying that the ethicists aspire that their involvement is not just a passing phase and that they want an enduring impact on engineering practice. Further research into the different methods for doing ethical parallel research and possible ways to sustain its impact is therefore required. The most common situation, however, is one where the research team has never been paralleled by a team of ethicists.

How to make sure that ethical reflection is also incorporated in the work of these teams? Let me start by saying that there is a positive trend in requirements by funding organizations. It is nowadays often required to have a paragraph on ethical, legal, and social aspects ELSA in funding proposals. In addition to this requirement from funding organizations, prospective engineers should be trained in recognizing moral issues during their professional work.

Engineering ethics should therefore be part of every engineering curriculum. Whether this will make the role of the ethicists completely replaceable is doubtful, but it will probably make engineers more prone to inviting ethicists in their project if they need their advice. It was found that the merit-based perspective was rather powerless to the engineering practice because of the problem of many hands. As a result, opportunities for learning and improvement were not optimally used. The rights-based perspective appeared to be most pessimistic about technology development.

Due to its focus on monetary compensation, the effect of this approach on technology development was rather restrictive. Funding organizations and commercial partners would probably become reluctant to sponsoring innovative research. Moreover, it did not provide a strong incentive to improve the technology itself. The effect of the consequentialist perspective on engineering practice was most profound. This approach allowed for more fine-grained responsibility ascriptions and was found to fit nicely with insights from STS literature.

Although the consequentialist approach was found most powerful in co-shaping the direction of technology development, it was argued that the fairness requirement could not be ignored all together. It was shown that, for both moral and a consequentialist reasons, responsibility ascription should reflect our basic intuitions of when a particular responsibility ascription is justified.

Since there is a potential tension between the traditional fairness criteria and the criterion of efficacy, it was proposed to conceive of fairness in a more procedural rather than substantive way, in order to reconcile the two demands of responsibility ascriptions. The article has also profited from the useful comments of the reviewers. Open Access This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial License which permits any noncommercial use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author s and source are credited.

The metaphysics of moral responsibility, which is closely related to the free will debate, is outside the scope of the present paper. The reader is referred to the vast array of literature on this topic e. In the remainder of the text I focus on the consequentialist perspective in general, since the virtue ethics approach is primarily aimed at relations between people. This does not imply that there are no leads to apply this approach to the field of technology development and engineering, but until now this has hardly been done.

The elaboration of this relatively novel approach falls outside the scope of the present paper. Such a critic can only be effective because he is committed and involved Walzer , Alasdair MacIntyre questions the distinction between theory and practice. These are thoroughly intertwined, and as such, the search for the good life always develops on the basis of the embeddedness in a particular practice. By participating in a practice, people form their opinions of what the good life amounts to. Moral deliberation should therefore not be separated from the practice itself MacIntyre In reality hybrid approaches exist as well.

However, as an analytical concept it seems useful to separate the three approaches since they each serve a different purpose and as such they are distinct. Kutz, e. A good starting point might be the state of knowledge of peers in one's field. This classification does describe the moral theory most akin to a certain responsibility perspective. One could also think of a situation where people need to distribute a number of sub tasks to bring about a certain goal.

In case this distribution of responsibilities is not complete, for example because certain necessary sub tasks are overlooked, the problem of many hands manifests itself as well. If individuals act on overlapping participatory intentions, they can be said to be promoting a collective act and be responsible for the outcome. I think that the fairness of responsibility ascriptions is part of this shared system of morality, which is also reflected in penal law.

A common critique of consequentialism, as an ethical ideology, is that it is too narrowly focused on the promotion of one single value. If it is decided by majority rule but not consensus that the same person should always make minutes of the meetings, this distribution of responsibilities is efficacious in the sense that for all meetings someone is ascribed the responsibility of writing the minutes. However, after some time, this person might become less motivated to accurately write down the minutes because he does not consider it fair that it is always him who should do the writing.

However, if the person realizes that it is fair that he is given this task and that he will be blamed in case of sloppy minutes, he will most probably be motivated to come up with accurate minutes. More related to technology development, one could think of the responsibility related to the social impact or acceptance of the technology.

If this is not recognized by the researchers as fairly being part of their work, it is questionable whether it will be addressed adequately, even if someone is explicitly given the task to look after the social impact. National Center for Biotechnology Information , U.

Science and Engineering Ethics. Sci Eng Ethics. Published online Dec 1. Neelke Doorn. Author information Article notes Copyright and License information Disclaimer. Neelke Doorn, Email: ln. Corresponding author. Received Jul 9; Accepted Nov This article has been cited by other articles in PMC.

Abstract In the last decades increasing attention is paid to the topic of responsibility in technology development and engineering. Introduction In the last decades increasing attention is paid to the topic of responsibility in technology development and engineering. Three Perspectives for Ascribing Responsibility In this section, I discuss three approaches or perspectives for ascribing responsibility: a merit-based perspective, a rights-based perspective and a consequentialist perspective. A Merit-Based Perspective on Responsibility In the philosophical literature on moral responsibility, the aim for ascribing responsibility is mostly retributivist.

A Consequentialist Perspective on Responsibility The third perspective for ascribing responsibility is the consequentialist perspective. The Three Perspectives Compared In the overview presented above, a distinction was made between the goals that were aimed at in the different perspectives. Open in a separate window. Forward-Looking Versus Backward-Looking Responsibility Before continuing the application of the three perspectives on a real engineering case, some clarifications regarding responsibility need to be made.

Development of a New Sewage Treatment Technology: The Three Perspectives Applied Now we have clarified the different approaches to ascribing responsibility, we can apply these to the field of technology development. One drawback of traditional biological wastewater treatment plants is their large space demand or footprint, which is caused by the use of separate settling tanks and the slow settling velocity of the sludge.

In the aerobic GSBR technology both size increasing factors are addressed. By using high-density granules, the time needed for the sludge to sink to the bottom at the end of each cycle is substantially reduced. Subsequently, the shorter deposit time increases the throughput of the installation and reduces the footprint. Second, it is hoped that different ecological zones inside the granules will be able to take care for the entire treatment process in one reactor instead of several separate tanks The GSBR technology has been developed at the Department of Biotechnology, Delft University of Technology, the Netherlands.

After successful laboratory experiments, the Dutch Foundation for Applied Water Research STOWA was found willing to invest in the scaling-up of the three-liter laboratory reactor to an outdoor pilot plant of 1. In parallel to the upscaling of the pilot plant, funds were acquired for a PhD-project funding organization: Technology Foundation STW.

Finally, an international engineering and consulting firm, with water management technology as one of its main domains, showed interest in the commercial exploration of the GSBR technology. This firm was in charge of the research at the pilot plant, operated by a local water board. The results of the pilot plant have been positive and the firm anticipates a large demand for GSBRs. A Consequentialist Perspective on Potential Harm Caused by the GSBR Technology The third approach is the consequentialist perspective, which is in fact the approach that was taken by the ethical parallel researchers.

The Three Perspectives Compared If we compare the different approaches all three have their merits. As Davis puts is, Whatever is true of other professionals, engineers consider it their responsibility to study any disaster that seems to arise from what they did — and to report what they find.

Davis We could say that the consequentialist perspective is most typical of the engineering practice itself. Footnotes 1 In the present paper I will only discuss the ethical aspects of moral responsibility. Professions in ethical focus. An anthology. Peterborough: Broadview Press; Technological Forecasting and Social Change. Free will and determinism. New York: Harper and Row; Corporate manslaughter. Medicine, Science and the Law. The Bhopal gas tragedy—a perspective.

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The International Responsibility of the European Union

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