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Ever since I first started to think about the processes
involved in the origins and experience of psychological distress, the
question of responsibility has over and over again forced itself upon
me. In this way, the view put forward here seems to have evolved through
a kind of dialectical process, itself shaped by changes and developments
in the socio-political context in which the phenomena of and explanations
for 'mental disorder' have been set.
At first, in the early 1960s (in Britain), the dominant philosophy in both
psychiatric and psychological spheres was crudely mechanistic and 'objective'
in the sense beloved of behaviourists. 'Mental illnesses' were illnesses like
any other, imposed on the hapless victim through events beyond his or her control
and largely devoid of meaning as far as his or her personal life was concerned;
or else they were the result of 'maladaptive' habits acquired through more
or less accidental processes of conditioning. Alternative views (as for example
psychoanalytic ones) were marginal and largely discredited, and treatment approaches
relied on the application of medical or psychological techniques based on biological
or behavioural assumptions which paid no attention at all to the patient's
In this setting, certainly, patients were not held officially accountable for
their difficulties (though the various forms of 'treatment' meted out often
contained a distinctly punitive element that, to the reflective onlooker, belied
the morally neutral stance of the practitioners). As responsible agent and
subject, the individual person was simply an irrelevance.
When, therefore, theoretical innovators arrived on the scene such as R.D. Laing
in psychiatry and Carl Rogers and George Kelly in clinical psychology, their
introduction into the picture of notions like meaning, subjectivity and responsibility
(often borrowed from European phenomenology and existentialism) brought fresh,
new perspectives which many of us seized on with relief and enthusiasm. The
'organism' that had been the object of the clinical gaze became a human being
whose troubles were to be understood as the product of a particular life.
This new 'humanization' was reflected clearly enough in my own thinking and
writing, and my first solo effort - Psychotherapy:
A Personal Approach - duly contained a chapter on freedom and responsibility
which draws heavily on Sartrean ideas. My concern in that book was to elaborate
a view that tries to acknowledge the person's subjectivity and agency while
rejecting any element of blame. These are themes which I have come back to
again and again in my writing, and while I would still not repudiate the view
put forward in that early work, it has since become modified to an extent which
renders it, I think, more or less obsolete.
For what seems to me to have happened over the years is that a mechanistic
and objectivist approach to people's distress that, while it didn't overtly
blame them, dehumanized them, has been replaced by a 'humanist' and
'postmodernist' one that interiorizes the phenomena of distress and
- often explicitly and nearly always tacitly - holds people responsible for
them. Even though the pendulum seems to have swung from an almost entirely
exterior approach to an almost entirely interior one, the problem of responsibilty
has not been solved: formerly we had people for whose condition nobody was
responsible while now we have people whose condition is largely if not solely their
own responsibility. The reason for this is to be found in what these two
extreme positions have in common: a studied avoidance of the social dimension.
It is true that, as the pendulum began to swing (for example with Laing's work),
the social power-structure did indeed become visible for a moment, even to
the extent of spawning 'radical psychology' movements. However, as far as the
mainstream is concerned, the possibility that emotional distress is the upshot
of the way we organize our society has never been seriously entertained and
at the present time is if anything further than ever from any kind of official
recognition. The imputation of responsibility is absolutely central to this
state of affairs.
'Responsibility' is, however, not a unitary concept, and is in fact used in
a confusing number of overlapping senses, usually depending for their interpretation
on the rhetorical ploy the utterer is seeking to adopt. The most frequent everyday
use is that of responsibility as blame: 'who is responsible?' is equivalent
to 'who is to blame?'. This is the sense in which people suffering emotional
distress usually understand 'responsibility', and I would maintain that for
the most part they are not mistaken in their anticipation that this is how
society also understands it in relation to 'psychological disorder'.
Once the concept of responsibility is invoked in this sphere it raises the
question of who is to blame for my suffering - I, or someone else? The message
of the therapeutic industry has been that the blame lies with the sufferer;
it is of course not stated as crudely as this, but is implied in the notion
that somehow the individual lacks the moral fibre to face up to his or her
difficulties and mobilize the necessary internal resources to deal with them.
Most sufferers feel this keenly without any overt prompting from those around
them: a guilty sense of weakness and moral inadequacy is one of the most frequent
and uncomfortable accompaniments of distress.
With the exception of legal responsibility, which largely concerns the external
imposition of clearly defined and codified rules and obligations that, it is
assumed, the individual may choose to observe or transgress, 'responsibility'
is usually seen as a kind of praiseworthy moral faculty internally available
to everyone who is not in some way exceptionally damaged, as for example by
brain injury or madness. 'Responsibility' is thus a kind of virtue (closely
related to 'will power') which may be appealed to, a 'sense' which may when
necessary be sternly invoked, or a capacity for resolve which may be stiffened
through therapeutic intervention.
It is important to note this virtuous quality of responsibility, for
while it may constitute a mark of maturity and an index of mental 'wellness',
it is not usually seen as something beyond the person's power to summon up
if absolutely necessary. Only in the most exceptional circumstances will a
healthy adult be considered 'not responsible' for his or her actions. The exercise
of this kind of virtuous, morally loaded responsibility is often seen as burdensome.
To act responsibly is to act with consideration and restraint; to act irresponsibly
is to be selfish, disobedient, disloyal.
There is enormous potential here for hypocrisy, sanctimony and manipulation.
For when 'responsibility' of the morally virtuous kind is most earnestly advocated,
it is usually by the advantaged for the disadvantaged. To say that someone
is irresponsible, 'has no will-power', etc., is not to commiserate with them
as having been somehow deprived of virtue, but at least tacitly to accuse
them of wilfully witholding conduct that they could enact if they chose. There
is, I suggest, a strong positive correlation between a) the height of the rung
occupied on the ladder of power, b) the strength of a sense of personal virtue,
and c) the firmness of the conviction that those lower down should act more
The sense in which therapists and counsellors advocate responsibility for their
clients probably derives from the existential view that, to achieve 'authenticity',
a person must embrace the inevitability of their own choice of action: your
fate is to be free and no one performs your actions but you. While this view
does have the merit of escaping the blind mechanism of orthodox (medical and
behavioural) approaches, it rarely manages to avoid the moralism which so easily
attends the notion of responsibility, and therapeutic practitioners quickly
find themselves in a familiar paradox.
For while they exhort their clients to 'take responsibility' for their lives,
they concurrently assure them that they know that 'pull yourself together'
is a popular prescription that doesn't work. The therapeutic notion of responsibility,
it is implied, is altogether different, more subtle, than crude advice about
pulling selves together. The trouble is, though, that in practice there is
very little difference between these two approaches, and indeed as far as clients
experience them they are virtually identical.
A further uncomfortable aspect of this paradox is that the role of qualified,
trained professional usually implies that a skill is being offered which does
not place the onus for its effectiveness on the client. Reasonably enough,
in consulting a therapist or counsellor, clients expect to be cured, not to
find that cure is a matter of their own responsibilty. Psychotherapy must surely
be the only profession to posit fundamental principles such as client 'resistance'
to account for its inability to deliver the goods.
To understand why therapists and counsellors have been locked in this contradiction
for so long one need look no further than their interests. Quite obviously,
they are unable to claim that their influence can reach in any significant
way beyond the consulting room, and if they are to justify taking fees for
their activities, it simply must be the case that clients harbour within them
the possibility of change. Therapy creates the crucible in which it is forced
thereafter to work its magic, and any theoretical consideration of responsibility
is inexorably limited to the (supposed) moral resources of the client.
But the paradox of responsibility is escaped easily enough, I believe, if one
extends the analysis beyond the walls of the consulting room. For responsibility
is inextricably bound up with power, and power is accorded from without, not
People cannot 'pull themselves together' not out of any wilful reluctance to
do so but because the power to do so is not available to them. Exactly
the same applies to 'responsibility. I can only be held responsible for what
I have the power to do, and if I do indeed have the power to choose, only then
can I reasonably be said to be responsible for my choices. No responsibility
without power; no power without responsibility. And we are not talking here
about 'will-power': the exercise of reponsibility in no way depends on the
application of any such mysterious internal faculty (see above, 'The Experience
of Self') but rather on the availablity of external powers and resources.
Our 'self-as-centre' culture makes it very difficult for us to conceive of
responsibility as anything other than the application of personal influence
which has its origin entirely within the individual agent. It takes quite an
effort of imagination to see the person - as I suggest we should - as a point
in social space-time through which powers flow. Though, as an individual,
I am indeed that point through which whatever powers and resources available
to me may be, so to speak, refracted back into the social world, I certainly
did not personally create them out of nothing.
Quite apart from our star-struck admiration of celebrity, we have an enduring
cultural tradition of fascination with and deference to power which induces
us to see it as an individual quality - even, as I have already suggested,
a virtue. We see 'great men' (and sometimes women) as preciously rare phenomena,
bestowed upon the world by some nameless providence, and we honour their occurrence
with a special kind of awed respect.
While there are clearly aspects of embodiment that contribute to some kinds
of exceptional ability - not everyone can be an Olympic athlete - it is altogether
an open question whether the kind of admiration we are ready all too often
to accord people who find themselves in the position of wielding social power
is justified by their personal qualities. It takes a Tolstoy (in War and
Peace) to see through the myth surrounding Napoleon and it is only in retrospect
that the absurdity of Hitler's status is revealed.
'The psychology of leaders,' Chomsky writes,
'is a topic of little interest. The institutional factors that constrain their
actions and beliefs are what merit attention.'1 And that is precisely the point: circumstances
choose the person, not vice-versa. Since circumstances decree that there can
be only one leader, we make the mistake of concluding that the leader who emerges
- Hitler, say - is unique, either (at the time we adulate him) in his virtue
or (after his fall from grace) in his evil. It is, however, the office (and
what sustains it) that is unique, not the person. Just look at the politician
who is voted from power or the pop star who falls out of the charts - victims
of instant ordinariness! Here, before our very eyes, we observe what happens
when social power ceases to flow through the embodied locus which constitutes
our individuality. In fact, as the cynical manipulators of the popular culture
industries well recognize, the 'unique star' can be elevated from a very wide
range of very ordinary people, but, having been selected, it takes a rare and
exceptionally balanced head for the manufactured celebrity not to believe in
his or her own image.
As I write
this, an outcry rages in the media about a little girl who
is brutally abused and finally killed by her deranged carers.
Yet another example of official failure, apparently. Who's
to blame here? The doctor who misdiagnosed her injuries?
The child's social worker? The social worker's managers?
The police? Dismay is widespread that 'the system' still
fails after all the previous enquiries and reports following
Absolutely nowhere have I seen in this discussion a cool appraisal of
the society in which this family was located, of the sheer weight and
number of desperate circumstances like these, of the fatigue and overwork
of those struggling to operate the under-funded and under-valued public
services. No one draws the obvious inference from the dreary repetition
of such cases that they are bound to be a regular feature of a
society which tolerates such high levels of deprivation. Books like Nick
Davies's Dark Heart2 are
vanishingly rare, and when they do appear seem hardly to be noticed.
The notion of 'responsibility' lies at the heart
of what one might well call our suppression of the social. Whatever
it is we seek to understand - ranging from the reasons for personal
distress to the 'evil' of spectacular crime or the failure of public
servants to avert some social disaster - it is always to an unanalysed
and unanalysable individual, internal world (where 'blame' is harboured)
that we turn our gaze. This evasion of the obvious - that it is the
way our society is organized and structured that constitutes the main
source of our difficulties - is understandable only in terms of the
extent of the powers which are deployed to maintain it. This can be
seen very clearly in current political discourse.
As essential cogs in the vast economic machine designed to extract profit for
the minority at the top of the social pyramid, politicians have an important
role in representing disadvantage as personal moral failure. How wittingly
they perform this role is open to question but, as a matter of 'commentary',
is a question of little interest. The distal pressures on the advocates of
the 'third way' to reinforce an interiorized view of responsibility are enormous.
Policies of 'naming and shaming', the imputation that inadequacies in health
and education are somehow due to the unwillingness of individual teachers,
doctors, nurses, social workers, etc., to apply themselves to the full, linkage
of 'rights' with 'responsibilities', and so on, all help to constitute the
political paradox that those in the position (or so it would seem) of being
most able to shape distal influences, expend the greatest energy in representing
them as proximal (indeed internal).
In typically Orwellian
manner, the conditions in which responsibility can and should
be exercised become inverted, and 'third way' politicians preach
responsibility for those who have no power while utterly disregarding
the duties to society of those who have. Entire communities
(miners, steel workers) can be thrown on the social scrapheap
in the interests of profit, and the only official talk of 'responsibility'
is for those whose lives have been shattered to accept whatever
scraps are thrown to them and sort themselves out as best they
can without disturbing the peace.
In fact, of course, national politics does not
so much exercise power as serve it. Where multinational capital dominates,
the local political role becomes that of obscuring the true sources
of power and the effects these have on the objective and subjective
wellbeing of the citizenry. 'Politics' has become a form of management that
itself actually destroys the public space in which political activity
can take place. Our possibility of playing an active part in influencing
those social structures that ultimately impinge intimately on our lives
is whittled away to nothing, while our relative immiseration becomes
internalized as personal fault.
Poverty, for example, is represented in 'third way' politics not as an evil
that causes social disintegration and personal emotional damage, but as an
unwarrantable 'excuse' for individual moral failure. The crumbling of public
services, increase in crime, etc., are represented as the result of the incompetence,
intransigence and irresponsibility of public sphere workers and of the 'evil'
apparently endemic in the 'criminal element' of society.
When it comes to trying to decide what people can be held accountable for and
what not, the subjective sense of 'responsibility' is almost entirely unreliable.
Everyone is familiar with liars and self-deceivers who claim that something
was not their fault when it obviously was. What presents more of a challenge
to psychological understanding is those people who claim and feel responsibility
for things that are in fact obviously outside their control. Perhaps it is
the greater authenticity of the over-conscientious person compared with the
deceiver that gives us a clue as to why any 'internal' account of responsibility
is invalid. The conscience, after all, does not lie: it reports (commentates)
faithfully enough on how it feels to be the instrument of wrong-doing. But,
as is clearly demonstrated by those in whom it is over-developed, the conscience
can be mistaken. What it is mistaken about is not the feeling of
responsibility, but the origins (or possibly the definition) of the
It is the feeling of responsibility (conscience)
that the powerful seek to exploit in others in order to divert attention
from the actual (distal) causes of their discomfort. I am host
to the powers that flow through me and, if I'm honest (authentic),
I cannot deny the sense of ownership that they
create in their passage. The person who does seek to deny this
sense of ownership, possibly by claiming 'it wasn't me', or 'it's not
my fault, I had a terrible childhood', etc., is indeed being inauthentic.
But not necessarily inaccurate from a causal perspective. As
a society we attach, in this instance, much greater weight to authenticity
than to accuracy.
For the purposes of understanding
how and why people experience and act in the world as they do, and
what freedom they may have to act otherwise, the concept of 'responsibility'
has become virtually useless. What we need is a psychology that switches
its attention from a metaphorical 'inner world' to try instead to
elaborate the ways in which powerful influences in the external environment
of social space-time serve to liberate or enslave us as well as to
shape our consciousness of ourselves. As things are, it is not at
all clear how far individuals are able to marshal and control the
influences that flow through them. Furthermore, in our attempt to
understand the processes involved we are constantly misled by the
assumption that our commentary refers directly to them.
1. Chomsky, Noam. 1989. Necessary
Illusions. Pluto Press, p. 19.
2. Davies, Nick. 1998. Dark
Heart. The Shocking Truth About Hidden Britain. Vintage.