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Fault and Responsibility

They're not synonyms.

by Everett Wilson
November 3, 2007

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Fault and Responsibility

I have been thinking about fault and responsibility, and how they are not exact synonyms. I don't know that  it is statistically  possible to know how often they converge, but I know from experience, and you probably do too, that their convergence is more often an ideal than an experience in real time. Several scenarios come to mind.

You can be at fault, and admit it, but your taking responsibility beyond this admission is out of your reach.   Such is the situation of a toddler who ignores the command to "be careful," followed by a trip to the doctor for stitches. He can assume fault for the incident  but can no more take responsibility for getting to the emergency room than he can go to the moon. He may "learn a lesson" from it, but his memory may not yet be conditioned to do even that. 

On the news as I write this  is  the unsurprising report that a child in California has confessed to starting a 30,000-acre fire in the recent spate of disasters.  It's unsurprising because many more children play with matches than start tragic fires; but when a fire results the guilty child cannot begin to take responsibility for the consequences. His fault is no greater than that of the child who often plays with matches but has escaped starting a fire. His  responsibility may be greater, but he hasn't the resources to assume it.

Just yesterday I saw a poster advertising a benefit for the victim of a stabbing who has no insurance. Theoretically, his attacker should bear the responsibility, but realistically the victim and his neighbors must do that if it is going to be done. ..

Another scenario is in Dave Barry's wonderful comic novel Big Trouble, in which some mischievous teenagers on a lark stumble into a criminal situation not of their making. What do they do? Deeply frightened, they take off in their car, and go looking for adults who will take responsibility—responsibility not for the crime, but for them.

American society is hung up on responsibility as a consequence of justice, but such responsibility is often no more than symbolic—fines that emphasize the fault do not address the actual responsibility in the consequences that  crime,   accident, carelessness, etc. create. 

The actual responsibility is assumed by the parent or neighbor who makes the trip to the emergency room;by the Good Samaritan who takes care of the stranger; and by the state government that takes actual  rather than symbolic responsibility for addressing  human need. 

 


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