Normative Responsibilities: Structure and Sources

In Kristien Hens, Daniela Cutas & Dorothee Horstkötter (eds.), Parental Responsibility in the Context of Neuroscience and Genetics. Cham: Springer International Publishing. pp. 13–33 (2016)
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Attributions of what we shall call normative responsibilities play a central role in everyday moral thinking. It is commonly thought, for example, that parents are responsible for the wellbeing of their children, and that this has important normative consequences. Depending on context, it might mean that parents are morally required to bring their children to the doctor, feed them well, attend to their emotional needs, or to see to it that someone else does. Similarly, it is sometimes argued that countries that emit most greenhouse gases are responsible for preventing catastrophic climate change. This responsibility might imply that these countries are morally required to take necessary steps individually and jointly to come to an agreement on and implement a workable plan, and to avoid steps that worsen the situation. More trivially, the grading of your student’s essays might be your responsibility, as might making sure there is wine at tomorrow’s picnic, and you might thus be required to see to it that essays are competently graded and suitable wine brought to the picnic. -/- Though attributions of normative responsibilities are legion, such responsibilities have received surprisingly little philosophical attention compared to its normative relatives, obligations and reasons, and compared to retrospective responsibility. This chapter hopes to improve on this situation by taking on two main tasks. The first, attempted in section 1, is to spell out the general structure of normative responsibility, in particular the relation between normative responsibilities and corresponding obligations and demands. We suggest that normative responsibilities are constituted by normative requirements that the responsible agents care appropriately about how well things go in certain regards, and that obligations generally can be seen as straightforward upshots of requirements to care. -/- The second task, taken on in section 2, is to provide an overview of prominent sources of normative responsibility and its distribution among agents. Why would the children’s wellbeing be the parents’ responsibility? Why not the neighbor’s, or the state’s, or everyone’s? Here we discuss a range of possible sources, including agents’ abilities, costs involved in taking on the responsibility in question, retrospective responsibility for the situation, promises or contracts, and certain social relationships.

Author Profiles

Bengt Brülde
University of Gothenburg
Gunnar Björnsson
Stockholm University


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