Tuesday, November 22, 2011

What Does It Mean to "Accept Full Responsibility"?

In the wake of the unprovoked spraying of peaceful demonstrators at the University of California at Davis with pepper spray by a police officer associated with the campus, the Chancellor, Linda Katehi, said,

"I am deeply saddened that this happened on our campus, and as chancellor, I take full responsibility for the incident. However, I pledge to take the actions needed to ensure that this does not happen again."
The word "however" in that utterance is odd. It functions logically as a conjunction, that is, like the word "and" in saying that what comes before and after the "however" will both be true. But "however" is different from "and" in that it also connotes that the two sentences connected are not ones that one would expect to be linked. Consider a more normal use -- "I am not feeling well, however, I will make it into the office today." The idea being conveyed is that both the clauses are true, but that given the truth of the first, my being ill, that the second, my coming into work, is unexpected. But if Chancellor Katehi is accepting "full responsibility," then it should be expected that she would make sure this never happens again. No?

I suppose it depends upon what one means by "taking full responsibility." What does that mean? It is a phrase we demand people utter. Anthony Wiener took "full responsibility" after his misdeed was exposed. Chevron just took "full responsibility" for an oil spill off the coast of Brazil. Richard Nixon, after the release of the smoking gun tape, said "This was a serious act of omission for which I take full responsibility." Lots of people do it...or at least say they do it. But what is it that they are actually claiming to do?

Sometimes saying is the same as doing. There are what ordinary language philosophers call performative utterances. When you say "I promise to do x," you have done something -- promising -- by saying the words. Similarly with making a bet, taking an oath, or pronouncing "I do." In this case, to say is to do. We tell out children that they must say "please." They must write thank you notes for gifts. They must say "excuse me" when they accidentally bump into someone. In all of these cases, the saying IS the doing.

Is that the case with taking full responsibility? In basketball when a player is called for a foul, he or she has to face the scorers' table and raise a hand. Is taking responsibility the same sort of act where one stands up and acknowledges one's role in bringing the unfortunate act about or is it more?

There is a difference between "excuse me" and "I'm sorry." "Excuse me" says, "It was me who did it and I know it displeased you." "I'm sorry," on the other hand not only points out one's own role in something unpleasant, but also implies that the displeasure was significant, that I am empathetic, will try to stop it henceforth and make whatever amends are necessary to repair the damage of the act. To mean less is not to apologize, but -- to play with a phrase from "All the President's Men" -- to offer a non-apology apology.

"I take full responsibility" seems more like I'm sorry than excuse me. But what is entailed by it? Does it mean to be the one solely accountable for the act? The officer who sprayed the students is on administrative leave, so she did not accept his share of responsibility. He may be fired, but she might not resign. If the act was worthy of losing one's job, would that be accepting full responsibility?

What responsibility is it that is being accepted? Is it not a question of accepting all of the retribution, but rather accepting full responsibility for changing the system moving forward? Is that the case, then when one leader is fired for misdeeds and another takes over the new leader who may have had nothing to do with the situation would take full responsibility in this sense. But that does not seem appropriate. Surely, that's not what we mean.

But what then do we mean? When someone accepts full responsibility, what is it they are now responsible for? Is it something they were not responsible for before? Some they already were responsible for but they are now publicly acknowledging it? The negative effects of their actions? Changing the way they act or the system that brought this about? What does it mean to "take full responsibility"?...if anything.