Niebuhr: The Responsible Self

Here’s a cool idea. We’re dealing in 2023 with 20th century Protestant writers, and we’re starting – we’ve started – with H. Richard Niebuhr, an American professor of Christian ethics. We looked through the latter half of 2022 at Niebuhr’s most famous work, Christ and Culture, and we’re starting now with his posthumously published work, The Responsible Self. I’ll just give you a general idea of what this book is about – because it’s a cool idea, I think, it’s an interesting approach to ethics that’s maybe a little outside what you’re used to with Kant and utilitarians and – you know, the standard introductory stuff.

So in the first chapter of The Responsible Self, Niebuhr outlines what he means by responsibility, which sits at the core of his ethics. He draws comparisons to deontology and teleology, which – I’m not really an expert in this stuff, but we’re roughly sitting in that familiar space of Kant and rules-based morality vs something more utilitarian, something more interested in the greater good. If you’re not familiar, we can start to explain these ideas with the image of, say, Robin Hood. If Robin Hood is out stealing money from the rich and giving it to the poor, a deontological approach might say that stealing is wrong, and it’s always wrong, and therefore Robin Hood is doing something bad. It’s about following the rules regardless of the outcomes. A teleological approach might tend towards the utilitarian. It might say yes, stealing isn’t great, but those people were starving, and so the outcome of this theft is broadly positive. Niebuhr describes these two positions as tending (respectively) towards the right and the good: “Teleology is concerned always with the highest good to which it subordinates the right; consistent deontology is concerned with the right, no matter what may happen to our goods.”

And, you know, all the standard criticisms lobbed between the two parties still apply. The rules people are too rigid, the utilitarians lack any sort of moral backbone and turn everything into a numbers game. Both of those critiques are fair. We can run through the basic sort of counter-examples for each position too – for instance, imagine a scenario where you had to tell a lie, and if you didn’t, there would be a war and millions of people would die. The deontologist, the rules person, would say Lying Is Bad, and therefore you shouldn’t lie, even if it means something terrible happens. You have to do what’s right. On the other hand, a utilitarian might say that if you had to choose between killing a million people and killing a million and one, the good option is killing the million. It becomes too much of a numbers game – it kinda just seems like you can get away with literal murder as long as the eventual outcome is positive on the whole.

Niebuhr’s position, then, is built around responsibility. If deontology is concerned with the right, and teleology with the good, Niebuhr is concerned with the fitting. “For the ethics of responsibility the fitting action, the one that fits into a total interaction as response and as anticipation of further response, is alone conducive to the good and alone is right.” For Niebuhr, responsibility is about our obligation to respond. It recognises that we are embedded beings, social creatures woven into the fabric of our culture and community, “who in all our actions answer to actions upon us in accordance with our interpretation of such action.” Niebuhr poses these three different theories through their responses to the question ‘What should I do’:

“Purposiveness seeks to answer the question … by raising as prior the question ‘What is my goal, ideal, or telos?’ Deontology tries to answer the moral query by asking, first of all: ‘What is the law and what is the first law of my life?’ Responsibility, however, proceeds in every moment of decision and choice to inquire: ‘What is going on?'”

I think we can see immediately some of the benefits of this ethical framework. In the Robin Hood example, advocates of both the right and the good maybe don’t have a lot of space to stop and think about the bigger picture. We can tussle over whether stealing is wrong, or whether redistribution of wealth should happen without the consent of the wealthy, but Niebuhr’s first question is – well, what’s going on here? We act in response to the things that are going on around us – we look around, and we interpret the things that are happening, and we respond. With Robin Hood, you know, you’ve got the Sheriff of Nottingham going around taxing all the poor people and taking all their money, taking away the means of their survival and propping up the wealth of that wanker Prince John. If our interpretation is that the powerful are using their power to be greedy, to exploit the weak and vulnerable, then our fitting response might be direct action. If they’re stealing, let’s take it back – let’s right the wrong.

And that response also takes place in anticipation of further response from the other side. When Robin Hood steals, Prince John is going to declare him an outlaw. The action will be met with reaction. For Niebuhr, that’s part of the process: “An agent’s action is like a statement in a dialogue. Such a statement not only seeks to meet, as it were, or fit into, the previous statement to which it is an answer, but is made in anticipation of reply.” We can’t interpret a single act as an “atomic unit”, Niebuhr says: “responsibility lies in the agent who stays with his action, who accepts the consequences in the form of reactions and looks forward in a present deed to the continued interaction.” It’s not about actions in isolation, or actions in themselves – we act in response to the things that happen to us, knowing that our actions will cause people to respond in turn. It doesn’t start with us, and it doesn’t end with us. We’re part of a socially integrated fabric: each action and reaction ripples throughout the whole thing. When Robin Hood steals, he does so knowing that he will be made an outlaw. He acts in expectation of a response. It’s part of a dialogue, part of communicating how he sees things. He steals because he sees the poor going hungry. He sees an injustice that he’s trying to correct – an injustice reinforced by the legal and political structures of the time, and one that he doesn’t have any other recourse to resolve. In that sense, the vision of ethics put forward by Niebuhr is political, in the sense that it’s about the polity. It’s social: decisions take place within a social fabric, in response to the actions of other agents and acting upon those agents in turn, with an eye to how they’ll react in their own right. It’s less about following the right rule and less about finding the optimal outcome, and more about – you know, who’s around, and what are they doing, and how does my response affect them? At least for Niebuhr, our ethics should start with our relationship to others.

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