Not so long ago, sitting in on a doctoral exam, I was struck by a distinction that I’d never given much thought to. I asked the candidate—a school principal who was earning an Ed.D. in educational administration—“To whom are you responsible?” Immediately she replied with the names of the upper administrators in her school district. “Not in a bureaucratic sense,” I interrupted, “but, you know”—I trailed off, waving my hands—“like, ultimately.” “The children,” she quickly said; “they are the ones I must answer to.”
I approved of her reply, but not her reason. She seemed to conceive responsibility as accountability—being answerable—and though this is the ordinary conception, I left the exam wondering whether responsibility and accountability are the same; and whether we do damage in assuming they are the same.
It is the ordinary conception. J. R. Lucas begins his philosophical study of Responsibility (1993) by observing that
But am I not responsible to you even before I am accountable to you? When you greet me, I must respond. I don’t mean must in the sense of ethical obligation. I mean that it is impossible not to respond. By cutting you I have responded to you, although perhaps in a manner intended to shirk responsibility. (If I don’t see you or hear you, that’s a different story. Then I am not accountable. If you ask, “Why did you ignore me?” I can reply truthfully that I didn’t see you or hear you. If I intended to cut you, though, and nevertheless answer in this way, my lie measures the extent of my irresponsibility.) If I see you and turn away from you, I have responded to you, but I have not responded in kind. I have shamed you, made you aware of your estrangement from me, and so I have refused to accept responsibility for not doing these things to you. Responsibility is prior to accountability.
But wait. There’s more. The question of whom I am accountable to is not the same as whom I am responsible to. Only some people can fairly demand an explanation from me. I do not have to give an account of myself to clerks and strangers, but only to those with whom I have already established a relationship. And in fact, I might speculate that a relationship is brought sharply to an end by the refusal of one person to give an account of himself to the other.
Yet I am responsible to you even if you are a stranger to me. Again, if you greet me I cannot not respond. Not to respond is to respond by not responding. And if you are in need—if you trip on the sidewalk and fall at my feet—my failure to respond is clearly a moral failure. Nor is what you want an account of my actions, except perhaps later; what you want is an immediate response of a certain kind. Thus I reveal my sense of responsibility toward you in how I respond to you. And responsiveness, then (to use Lucas’s language), is “the central core of the concept of responsibility.”
My etymological analysis differs from Lucas’s. “Responsibility” derives from the verb “to respond,” re- + spondere (to promise solemnly, to bind, engage, or pledge oneself). Now if a promise is an assurance to another with respect to the future, then a response is a reassurance, the restoration of faith and removal of shame. And unresponsiveness, then—the withdrawal into silence or refusal to help—is the lack, the defect state, of promising. Not to respond is not to pledge oneself. It is unreassuring; it does not restore faith nor remove shame. It leaves the defect state intact. It fails to answer to human need. In the face of damage it shrugs, “Not my responsibility.”
Accountability is what we owe to those with whom we are intimate. Responsibility is what we owe to the widow, the orphan, the stranger—in addition to our intimates. Thus responsibility is prior to accountability, but is not based upon a prior relationship. It is simply the basis of all further human relations.
Although he uses only one of the two terms, James seems to depend upon some such distinction between responsibility and accountability in The Portrait of a Lady. Isabel Archer reflects upon her decision to reject Lord Warburton’s marriage proposal:
The next time the word responsibility appears—in the same phrase, “great responsibility,” as luck would have it—Isabel has inherited a fortune from Daniel Touchett. She asks her cousin Ralph whether he thinks it is good for her to be suddenly so rich. He answers with a summa of his moral code:
She does not know how right she is. If anyone must answer for making her rich, Ralph is he. Although she is unaware of the fact at the time, Ralph persuaded his father to bequeath a fortune to Isabel—precisely so that she could indulge the free exploration of life. The trouble is that his moral example is as stimulating as the comfortable income. Isabel ends by imitating Ralph. She marries Gilbert Osmond so that her money might enable him to satisfy the requirements of his imagination.
But Osmond is a monster, and her marriage nearly destroys her. On his deathbed, Ralph is prepared to take responsibility for her unhappiness. “Is it true,” Isabel asks at last—“is it true?” “True that you’ve been stupid [to marry Osmond]? Oh no,” Ralph says in a weak attempt at wit. “That you made me rich,” Isabel presses him—“that all I have is yours?” In a flush of guilt, Ralph wails: “I believe I ruined you.” “He married me for the money,” she admits. In owning finally to being the agent of her fortune (and misfortune), Ralph is being accountable at long last.
His responsibility lies elsewhere. Thus Ralph seeks also to absolve Isabel of any guilt: “I don’t believe that such a generous mistake as yours can hurt you for more than a little.” But Isabel is not comfortable with absolution. After Ralph’s death, she takes the extraordinary step of returning to her husband—in order to protect her stepdaughter Pansy from him. Isabel could never be justifiably called to account for Osmond’s coercion of Pansy, but she can take responsibility for her. Another kind of woman would look first to save herself. But Ralph has taught her that pain is “not the deepest thing; there’s something deeper.” The deepest thing, the most profound exercise of human freedom, is responsibility.
And great fiction is great—not all of it, but much of it—because it greatly clarifies (by greatly exemplifying) such moral distinctions as this.