Responsibility is a flexible and useful word – one that we all learnt to use in argument with our parents and other adults in arguments, often passionate and heated, about responsibility, responsible behaviour, rights and duties. You will probably find rich pickings in your own memory of arguments with your parents and teachers about responsibility or from experience as a parent.
Part of the power of the language of responsibility and irresponsibility is our intimate knowledge of its use in argument and the emotional weight attached to the words because of the legacy of those family arguments. The concept of sustainability has none of those advantages.
What’s in a word?
Reported as first occurring in English in 1599, responsible is defined in the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (1983) as
- “correspondent or answering to something”; “answerable, accountable … liable to be called to account”
- “Morally accountable for one’s actions; capable of rational conduct” 1836
- “Capable of fulfilling an obligation or trust, reliable, trustworthy 1691
- “Of respectable appearance” 1780
- “Involving responsibility or obligation” 1855
Responsibility is reported a first occurring in 1787 “the state or fact of being responsible”; 1796 “a charge trust or duty for which one is responsible.”
The etymology of the word is from the Latin responsabilis and respondere and it continues to carry the sense of obligation from the Latin along with the sense of moral purpose which resides in the idea of taking responsibility – of being amongst those – or the one – who does not look away or pass by on the other side.
There are three clear elements in the concepts of responsible and responsibility and of course, language evolves and meaning change subtly, and not so subtly, over time.
- The capacity, willingness or obligation to respond – the idea which lies behind the quotation often falsely attributed to Edmund Burke All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good man do nothing’.
- Obligation, accountability, liability and blame – responsibility is imposed on us – the sense we don’t like – it is this sense responsibility which gives rise to guilt and shame.
- Empowerment, respons-ability, the opportunity to take responsibility – to demonstrate our good character, to feel good about ourselves.
Visser (2011) in his book on The Age of Responsibility discusses responsibility; he places it in the context of “our ability to respond”; as a counterbalance to rights, and points out that
“Taking responsibility, at home or in the workplace, is an expression of confidence in our own abilities, a chance to test our limits, to challenge ourselves and to see how far we can go. Responsibility is the gateway to achievement.” (Visser 2011:4)
Visser also argues that
“Taking responsibility is a way of taking ownership in our lives, of acknowledging our own hand in the shaping of destiny. Responsibility is the antidote for victimhood. …..
Responsibility, if we manage it well, should never be like the curse of Sisyphus, eternally rolling a rock uphill, but rather a blessing gratefully received. For what can be more joyous than making a positive contribution in the world, or making a difference in someone else’s life?” (Visser 2011:5)
Kramer and Porter (2006:84) advocate ‘Responsive CSR’ which they define as comprising
“two elements : acting as a good corporate citizen, attuned to the evolving social concerns of stakeholders, and mitigating existing or anticipated adverse effects from business activities
Language & Culture
Responsibility is a highly nuanced word. It is about how we respond individually and collectively to the issues which we see around us. Do we respond willingly, decide this is something we should and can do something about and take responsibility OR do we have responsibility placed upon by an employer or by legislation? In either case we are accountable but in different ways. Responsibility is not spread evenly around society, we expect children to take less of it than adults – we expect more of those in positions of public office, those who are legally accountable and those who received salaries because of the responsibility they carry than we do of ‘ordinary people’. We admire those who take responsibility and make great personal efforts and sacrifices to tackle a particular injustice or issue. This is in the tradition of wanting to make a difference.
The linguistic and cultural context changes meaning.
The Charter of Human Responsibilities was first proposed in 1999 the Alliance for a Responsible, Plural and United World. As they point out
“the notion of responsibility is found among all human groups. There are differences, though, in the way in which responsibility is assumed. In some societies, responsibility is assigned by the group to one individual, rather than taken up by one person or another at his or her own initiative. So the way in which each person is held responsible for his actions in practice varies. And cultural differences are even more marked when it comes to giving a legal context to the concept of responsibility.” 
Recognising this Edith Sizoo edited a collection of papers about responsibility and culture providing a set of reference on the meaning of responsibility in a range of linguistic and cultural traditions. As Sizoo points out in her introduction
“the idea of responsibility does resound everywhere, although it is often expressed with more than one word, depending on the various relationships between people on between human-beings and the non-human living world.” (Sizoo 2010:21)
As she points out “in concrete behaviour, people are not always sure where the line is drawn, what is still to be considered a manifestation of [responsibility] and what is not.” (Sizoo 2010:22) On non-western languages Sizoo argues responsibility means not only ‘carrying a change’ it is “often also synonymous with the ‘burden’ (literally and figuratively)..” (Sizoo 2010:23) She quotes Hans Jonas who wrote in The Principle of Responsibility (1976) “We have become more dangerous for nature than nature has ever been for humanity. The danger are we.” (Sizoo 2010:40) Sizoo argues that human beings are part of a “woven universe” and that responsibility “not only transcends one’s own place of residence on the earth, but also transcends out own lifetime to that of future generations.” (Sizoo 2010:43)
There follows a brief consideration of the values and attributes attached to the word responsibility in a number of countries and cultures. These are drawn from only one source in each case and it should be remembered that there will be a varied understanding of the concepts within cultures and linguistic groups, They are presented here to remind us all that interpretation and translation is an art form and that words cannot simply be translated – particularly when, like responsibility, they carry embedded value, attitudes and meaning of considerable significance.
Arab-Islamic Culture: the discourse of responsibility “is to a great extent an ambiguous and problematic discourse.” (Al-Noman 2010:135) Responsibility is “negatively associated with questioning/interrogation and the fear of being asked”; “associated with the exercise of power in a way which does not allow those subjected to it to ask questions”; and, “responsibility is generally felt to be a burden.” (Al-Noman 2010:152)
Brazil, Portuguese: Brazilian dictionaries “agree on their definitions of responsabilidade as an obligation to answer for one’s own actions and those of others.” (Traiber2010:214) Responsibility is a burden.
China, Confucian Thought: responsibility in Chinese has two characters ze and ren. Ze means to tax, entrust with a duty, to ask, reprimand of demand and it also has the meaning of to chastise or punish. Ren “assume the role”, “shoulder the responsibility” – trust, faithfulness and sincerity. In Chinese culture the relationship of responsibility is rooted in subordination: it means “entrusting a person worthy of confidence with a responsibility, or demanding assumption of a responsibility from a person worthy of confidence.”(Sijan 2010:157)
France: ”two complementary etymologies: the Latin verb spondere, to promise, to undertake to be responsible for someone or something, and respondere, to answer or answer for.. a commitment to oneself …. and commitment to others in terms of taking action.”(Eberhard 2010: 116-117) Citing Brémaud responsibility is a weight and a burden; the person who carries responsibility is distinguished from the common herd – they are “lofty, true, exceptional, important, absolute, major and even eminent…” (Eberhard 2010: 118) The French civil code makes an “explicit link between responsibility and fault” (Eberhard 2010:123) This trends to make Responsible Tourism less attractive as a concept in France.
Germany: Verantwortung, responsibility, can be used retrospectively or prospectively. Retrospective responsibility is concerned with the attribution of fault and guilt. Prospective responsibility by contrast are concerned with professional roles, duties and responsibilities linked to particular tasks. (Ranson 2010:194-5) Bonhoeffer participated in a failed assassination attempt on Hitler and was executed for it, Bonhoeffer argued that civic courage and responsible action “could only come from a free sense of responsibility in a free man”. Bonhoeffer distinguished between duty and responsibility: “In the end, the man if duty will have to do his duty even if towards the devil.” (Ranson 2010:200)
India: Uttardaitva and zimmedari are both compound words used in India combining “reply, response, answer” with “responsibility or duty: it has to do with what we must ‘give’ others, what we owe them , wheat is due to them”. In many Indian languages the conjunction of response and burden is common, in many modern Indian languages” it is linked to action, ‘kartavya’: valor, courage, skill in action.” (Paranjape 2-10: 83-4)
New Zealand: Emphasis on response-ability, “responsiveness rather than a judicial approach and burdensome sense of guilt.” (Royal & Martin 2010:48). Ability meaning both taking action and the ability to act – they quote the Charter “our responsibility is proportional to the knowledge and power which each of us holds.” (Royal & Martin 2010:49) The Maori principle of Kaitiakitanga “requests that humans take responsibility for their actions and interventions in the natural world” and “responsibility between individuals and between people.” (Royal & Martin 2010:55,56).
In Spanish responsibility translates as “la responsabilidad”. The meaning overlaps with common English usage – but the order in the online dictionary is liability, duty, obligation, authority, accountability and last maturity “to show some responsibility”, the usage which involves taking a lead, standing out from the crowd, ‘stepping up to the plate’ is less prominent in the Spanish usage.
USA: responsibility “has the double meaning of accountability and being in charge” (Christians 2010:65). In a nation founded on individualism “collective responsibility is extraordinarily difficult”( Christians 2010:74).
 Those who dissent may be seen as totally irresponsible
 to take responsibility for doing something; based on the baseball meaning of step up to the plate (move into position to hit the ball) http://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/step+up+to+the+plate accessed 30 July 2014
 http://www.spanishdict.com/translate/responsibility accessed 30 July 2014