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Lady Justice

Responsibility misused by politicians

The concept of responsibility is being used by politicians as a distraction from the real problems in society, which have to do with inequality according to research from the University of Exeter.

In the wake of the financial crisis there has been a renewed interest in issues of fairness and responsibility.  The political debate about equality of opportunity, holding people responsible for their choices and helping people out when they suffer from undeserved bad luck has formed the focus of a four-year research project led by the University of Exeter.

Perceptions of fairness have a strong influence on the current debate about what sort of society we should be trying to build, according to the Arts and Humanities and Research Council (AHRC) funded research.  The researchers found that over the past few decades the prevalent view is that if someone is disadvantaged by their own bad choices, then society has less of an obligation to help them out than if someone is disadvantaged by bad luck.  On the other hand, if someone is advantaged by their own efforts, then they owe less back to society than someone who is advantaged through unearned good fortune.

Terms for moral values like ‘responsibility’, ‘equality’ and ‘fairness‘ as a basis for influencing policy can be abused as much as they can be used to create a better, fairer society according to the research.   

Dr Keith Hyams a political theorist at the University of Exeter said: “There has been a lot of talk of responsibility in politics recently, which has been a bit confusing, because the term has been used in two very different ways.  It is used to say that we should act responsibly towards our fellow citizens and that we should bear their interests in mind alongside our own.  However, the term is also used to say that we should hold people responsible for their choices when thinking about how to allocate resources.  How to tax people and how to provide public services and welfare payments are an issue.

The usual approach is that inequalities for which people are not responsible are unfair and that inequalities for which people are responsible can be treated as fair.  However, I think when making policy recommendations this is a dangerous political strategy to take.”

The research looked in detail at what it might mean for someone to be responsible for something and ended up concluding that no clear account of responsibility can be given.  An example of this can be found in situations where, illness, redundancy and being born into different financial circumstances occur.

He added: “Our research found that as soon as you begin to scratch beneath the surface, most accounts start to crumble.  It’s clear that most outcomes are the result of a jumble of causes, some of which people might be responsible for, others of which they are clearly not responsible for.  I believe that rather than emphasising responsibility, we should be emphasising the many ways in which people’s lives are affected by structural inequalities beyond their control.”

To mark the end of the four year project on equality, responsibility and fairness a conference on 28 June at the Senate House, University of London has been organised to share the findings of the research with politicians, policy makers and influencers.

Date: 28 June 2012