Dr Dustin Tune – San Antonio College
Dr Tune is a faculty member in the philosophy department at San Antonio College.
Many of our instructors include service learning projects as part of their course requirements. After learning about various ethical theories, students must come up with a plan for how to put one or more of those theories into practice. For example, one student organized a pet adoption event on campus. This project promoted personal responsibility on two levels: first, the student who organized the event was thinking through and accepting the consequences of an ethical theory; second, anyone who adopted a pet that day had to take responsibility for the continued welfare of another living being.
In both my Introduction to Philosophy and Introduction to Ethics courses, we discuss (1) what personal responsibility is and (2) the degree to which any person can be responsible for his or her actions. In philosophy, personal responsibility is understood as a type of moral responsibility. To be morally responsible is to be deserving of praise or blame for one’s actions. The framework we use to discuss how responsible a person is for his or her actions is the “problem of free will.” The problem of free will, put simply, is: Given that we are part of a law-governed physical world, can we have any control over our choices – and, by extension, our actions? After surveying other philosophers’ answers to this question, I allow each student to come up with his or her own answer. Students explain and defend their answers either in a paper (prompt: “Is it possible to prove that you have free will? Why or why not?”) or an exam question (question: “How much (if any) free will do you have? Be sure to support your answer with evidence.”)
- One challenge is that ‘personal responsibility’ is ambiguous and therefore easily misunderstood. The label ‘personally responsible’ is often reserved for actions and people we approve of. This leads to confusion, however, because responsibility (in the philosophical sense which I described above) is about living with the consequences of all one’s actions, not just the morally right ones. Saying that a person is responsible tells us nothing about whether the action(s) in question were morally good, bad, or neutral. To be morally responsible is to be deserving of praise for one’s good actions, and also to be deserving of blame for one’s bad actions. To take moral responsibility is to accept praise for one’s good actions and blame for one’s bad actions. That is why I find it helpful to use the term ‘responsibility’ only in a morally neutral way.
- Another challenge is that personal responsibility is not a skill that can be broken down into discrete steps or represented by an algorithm. It is not only that one person cannot force another to be responsible; it is that one person cannot give another a recipe for becoming responsible. To the extent that anyone is responsible for anything, it is a result of their own free choice. Getting students to see that becoming personally responsible is something that they must do for themselves is not easy.
- One part of the solution is to hold students responsible for their actions in one’s own course. At the beginning of the semester, I make clear exactly when every assignment is due, I offer to help them with any assignment in any way I can, and I give students the ability to turn in their assignments as early as they would like. But I do not accept any late assignments, and I do not allow students to turn in the same assignment multiple times. Students need to learn that deadlines matter, and they need to get in the habit of doing their best work the first time
- Students must decide for themselves to take responsibility for their choices and actions. As a teacher, I can give students the tools (concepts and techniques) to allow them to think for themselves – the first step of taking responsibility – and examples of people being responsible and irresponsible. But this is not enough to make a student responsible. Becoming responsible is a long and difficult process. It takes time and practice. No one else can do it for you.
- I have found the Edsitement educational website to be very helpful with ideas and lesson plans on specific humanities topics. It is funded through the National Endowment for the Arts and has information and ideas that would be applicable to several disciplines.
- For an introduction to how philosophers view moral responsibility, follow this link to the entry on moral responsibility at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. To listen to a single podcast episode on this topic, listen to this episode of the Partially Examined Life podcast . And for many podcasts on this topic, listen to the Very Bad Wizards podcast.