The Prep School assemblies each term take a theme, and often from our school’s core values. Last term they explored curiosity; this term the theme is responsibility. Yesterday morning, as I took some responsibility at home and walked the dog round the park, sticking responsibly to the rules on dogs and taking personal responsibility for its behaviour, I also spent some time thinking about what responsibility looks like. I rather suspect that we all think we know instinctively that taking responsibility is a good thing, but it turns out that it is not as straightforward as you might think.
Let’s just look at some of the major news stories of the last few weeks. One of the most awful stories of the last few days was the Ukrainian airliner shot down just outside Tehran, killing all 176 people on board. If we take as truth the Iranian military’s admission that it was a terrible mistake, and personally I think we can, there was nevertheless somebody somewhere who had to make a critical decision at a crucial point, with very little time to make it, and to order the release of that missile. That person seems to me very clearly to have taken responsibility: extremely grave and ultimately disastrous as the decision was, he took responsibility – and is very likely to have done so, one hopes, in good faith. He will almost certainly now pay for taking responsibility. Of far less importance is the Prince Harry and Meghan Markle story this week. Prince Harry presumably thinks he is taking responsibility for his immediate family, for his wife and child, by attempting to remove them from the limelight – and indeed it must have been a very difficult decision for him, as he probably knew that it would cause all sorts of fuss. And yet, in his case, some people clearly believe that he neglected his responsibility to the Royal Family, or worse to the country, by doing so. So which show of responsibility takes preference? And then there are positions of responsibility. Scott Morrison, the Prime Minister of Australia, presumably felt he was taking responsibility for Australia’s economic future when he showed unwavering support for the country’s coal industry during his election eight months ago; hopefully, he feels rather silly now.
So the first thing to point out is that taking responsibility often ends up looking rather different from acting responsibly. Do you think that the Iranian gunner, Prince Harry and Scott Morrison were taking responsibility? Probably yes, in some ways at least. Do you think they were acting responsibly? Certainly not. Acting responsibly involves analysis, care and good judgement; taking responsibility, the way we casually use it, simply requires you to ‘step up’ and then to ‘face up’. Acting responsibly, it seems to me, is more important than assuming responsibility.
But then, acting responsibly is not always easy either! Take the ‘Trolley Problem’. The Trolley Problem is a famous ethical thought experiment from 1967, which many of you will have heard of. You have to imagine that there is a runaway train (or trolley) approaching a fork in the train track – and there are two routes it could take. It could simply go straight on. Ahead of the train, there are five people tied to the track, who will certainly be killed if the train advances over them. If the train forks to the left, there is one person tied to the track who will certainly die if the train turns that way. You are on the side of the track with a lever, and you have the power to divert the train to the left if you choose to pull it. What do you do? Most people instinctively say that it is better that one person dies than five, and therefore you must pull the lever. But the problem is that you must actually pull the lever – your action will therefore lead to the death of a human being; some people would say that taking any action to kill a human being is inherently wrong. You might feel it is easier not to do anything at all, on the grounds that it was not your problem in the first place. There are further variations to this problem, which you can look up yourself – for instance, what happens if the one person is your close relative; or what happens if you cannot see what you are about to do, because you are miles away in a control office, instead of right next to the track itself? Does that change your decision?
It is in interesting one, because how to act responsibly is not completely clear cut in this case; taking responsibility is not entirely clear either, as it may involve doing something which you do not ordinarily ethically agree with. It is also interesting because this thought experiment of 1967 is as live today as it ever was – those creating autonomous cars, for instance, have to grapple with this experiment as if it were a live decision – which of course it may be. What will an autonomous car do under such circumstances? And, using one of the variations on the Trolley Problem, is it preferable to kill your enemies by controlling a drone bomber from 6,000 miles away than it is by flying overhead yourself and opening the hatches?
In the end, I think it boils down to another of our core values, in fact. If having personal integrity, and trying your hardest (through your endeavours) to do your best for others, is at the core of your decision-making, then you deserve to assume responsibility, you can live with taking responsibility and you can accept the consequences of responsibility – you may not always get things right, but at least you tried to do so.