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.