Responsible or Not?

You may have noticed that that the more we, as a society, try to force others to accept responsibility for this, that or the other, the less responsible we actually seem to become. News that Italian scientists who failed to evaluate and adequately communicate the potential risk attached to the L’Aquila earthquakes were to be charged with manslaughter was, inaccurately but almost inevitably, reported as a failure to predict the earthquakes themselves. One could say that the scientists had been negligent in doing their duty, irresponsible in the true sense of the word; but the reporting of their case was equally irresponsible, because it allowed half-truths to obscure the facts.

Whenever bad things happen, we look for someone to blame; and if there is no one else around, we blame God. The trouble with this kind of thinking is that it tends to keep us moral Peter Pans for the whole of our lives. We avoid responsibility by projecting it onto someone else. Of course, a civilized society should have laws which protect its citizens from murder, rape and so on; we should be able to assume that public servants will provide the services for which they are paid; but should we assume that every failure is one for which someone is responsible? Is there such a thing as an honest mistake? How far are we ourselves accountable? For example, if living in L’Aquila, how far would we ourselves be responsible for informing ourselves of the likely risks and making sure we took the most appropriate action? If we walk down a dark street in the middle of the night in a notoriously violent district, should we really be surprised if we meet someone with a knife or a gun who wants both our money and our life?

Today, in Britain, we have a host of enquiries being undertaken or soon to take place into the failures of the past. Hillsborough, Savile, the very names send shockwaves through the system. At the same time, my inbox is overburdened with offers from dubious firms to press charges for misselled insurance, accidental injuries and the like. The failure to distinguish between crimes and failures from which the public must be protected and the results of one’s own stupidity leads inevitably to a deadening of the sense of scale and of personal responsibility. Without a lively sense of personal responsibility, no institution on earth is ever going to be able to inculcate a sense of corporate responsibility in its members. That’s another problem we should be addressing, but who’s going to take responsibility for it? How often does one hear parents blaming schools for the conduct of their children and ignoring their own responsibility for instilling values? And so on and so forth.

I think there is hope in all this, however. It has been my good fortune to meet many people who DO take responsibility, who are honest, truthful and brave in situations where the temptation to hide or fudge the issues must be great. They shine like lights in a dark world; but they do shine, and we should be grateful for them. If only we were readier to learn from them!

Note: You can read about the case of the Italian scientists here.

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10 thoughts on “Responsible or Not?”

  1. *What* a timely post this is ! Thank you for it. Your phrase ‘Shining like lights in a dark world’ gently nudges us towards Matthew chapter 5. (There’s the complementary note struck in v. 20 of that chapter too : unless our righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and pharisees we will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Public outrage seems often to be tainted by a questionable sense of moral superiority : be we never so bad in some respects, at least we’re not as bad as X or Y or Z. Phew! …)

  2. If the Italian scientists did not make any predictions no one would have blamed them because it is acknowledged world-wide that earth quakes cannot be predicted. The problem is that those scientists, because they did not want to cause alarm, that is their excuse, predicted that there would be no earthquakes- in spite of the tremor warnings. So everyone went to sleep in their beds thinking they would be safe and sound… the next thing we know more than 300 were killed. Those people would not have been in their beds if those scientists had kept their mouth well shut.

    • Isn’t that what Digitalnun is alluding to when she wrote that the scientists “failed to evaluate and adequately communicate the potential risk attached to the L’Aquila earthquakes”? It’s also clear in the “Nature” article.

  3. This is correct, the members of the Italian Major Risks Committee have been accused for having let people believe that there was no danger. We cannot forecast earthquakes, nor the no earthquake option. I am so sorry for my country, Italy. And no one ever wants to feel responsible, in politics above all.

    However I think that we, men and women, are ridiculous: we rely too much on science and believe that scientists can predict future and even have control over life and nature.

    In this case, in L’Aquila, popular knowledge and awe for God would have done better.

  4. I’ve just checked Cinzia, there had been 400 earth tremors registered by the Major Risk Committee before they came up with the brilliant announcement that there “would be no major earthquake which could be dangerous”.

    • You are right, Eva. However bear in mind that more than 50% of Italian Regions are seismic. Every day we register somewhere earth movements. I do not live in a risky area, in Milano suburbs, but I could see more than once in my life my furniture and ceiling lamps moving, when there was a strong earth quake in a far region.
      It is our responsibility now to build and act with common sense.
      However, please come and visit Italy. The Pisa tower is still leaning but always there.

  5. Thank you for your comments. I seem to have diverted people from the main thrust of my argument to what was intended merely as a topical illustration!

    Just for the record, I did not say that the Italian scientists were jailed for failing to predict the earthquakes at L’Aquila. I emphasized that they were prosecuted for their failure to evaluate the risks and communicate the nature of those risks to others. The reporting of the case obscured the real nature of their negligence and suggested a false version, which would have been laughable had it not had such tragic consequences.

    The point I was trying to make may be more clearly expressed if I take it away from L’Aquila and suggest another illustration. Governments are responsible for the safety of our roads, but aren’t we also responsible, by ensuring that we drive in accordance with road/weather conditions to cut accidents to a minimum? And isn’t there room for the ‘honest mistake’, when really no one is to blame for what happens?

    • Good morning Sister. It is, in my opinion, always our responsibility, when we choose our representatives for example, when we decide not to speak up if we see something wrong, when we rely too much on science and forget God.

      In L’Aquila we did it all: we chose and paid wrong persons, we did not speak up when, for example, residencies for university students had not been built according to standard and accurate guidelines ( 55 students died that night), when we decided that our fathers advice (to be more cautious) could be surmounted by science.

      It is our responsibility to forget what happened and not to learn from it.

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