Responsibility Within Relationship

Tonight I attended a lecture by Stephen Darwall, a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Michigan. He gave a lecture this evening covering responsibility within relationships, specifically as to how we interact and respond to each other and what our moral basis for our actions toward the other person are inside of this relationship. First off, under modern philosophical thought it is not enough to if confronted with the choice to save a stranger and your significant other it is not enough to simply think, well that is my significant other and for that reason I will save them. This is the idea of there being “One idea too many.” The idea here is that the concern should be to a particular person rather than having to put your concern within the context of a relationship, the relationship is a mutal relationship and therefore there is no reason to add that you will save the person because of your relationship with that person. So the end goal of what Professor Darwall is trying to get is a moral basis under which responsibility inside and within relationships is explained along with the understand of how it relates to people with whom you have no relationship, ie. the stranger.


First, let us define what context under which we are discussing a relationship. A relationship as Darwall puts forward is one where there is an implicit understanding that you two are together, you both accept the relationship, and you both are free to voluntary leave the relationship. An example of this, is going for a walk with a person, if you are walking with someone, you expect to walk with that person, where they go, you go as well. Also when that person if at some point chooses to veer off and away from you, they acknowledge that they will do so and you accept them leaving. If you are not walking with a person you do not have any reason to tell the other person that you are veering off in a different direction. There is a basic understanding of mutual communication about the aspects of what the two of you are doing in the relationship or in the course of your walk. Now, these relationships can be romantic, or they can be strictly platonic, the importance is in the acknowledgment of what happens when one person leaves or steps away from the other person.


So we have a basic understanding of what a relationship is, next, we will define what occurs on the moral level within the relationship. The basic human moral instinct towards any single person is to care for that person. Care is defined in this context as wanting what benefits that person for the best. You do not particularly care about their actual wishes, their wishes are irrelevant because you do not have a relationship upon which to decide or know what their wishes may be. Rather you have a general concern for their well-being and wish for them to have what is best for them. I am not going to get into a full blown out argument as to why this is a basic moral idea of all humans, but I will make an easy example. Smoking is something that people do, and the majority of people acknowledge is dangerous and for this reason we wish for people to not smoke. Another example is when people are injured in a terrorist attack or natural disaster even though we in all likely hood do not know anyone even remotely effected by these events we are moved with feelings of concern and a genuine desire to help our fellow person. This is care for the basic human, whether we are in a relationship with that person or not.


When we come into a relationship with a person, we add a second level of concern to the relationship, while still keeping the first. It is at this point that we acknowledge and wish to promote the other person’s desires and wishes, this is respect. Respect is made up of what the other person desires. Now as to what this actually is, Prof. Darwall makes no claims to being able to fully define the other person’s desires simply because they can be widely varied from person to person. Respect creates a moral accountability where we accept the other person’s view of ourselves and wish to be kept in their good graces. This is due to the fact that the relationship is entered into mutually thus the obligation is mutual. The moral obligation is based on care but more importantly on respect. This respect reverberates among the two people, because one person cares for the other, the other cares for that person, and mutually they want not only what is best for each of them but they also desire for the other person what the other person desires.


Going back to our idea of a basic relationship with the walk, when you engage in a relationship you acknowledge that the other person is to be informed of your actions and desires. This also flows that each person is held accountable to each other. Here we come to the idea that Prof. Darwall is promoting, that there exists a Second-person authority and this authority should be the guide for our moral and also our immoral actions in a relationship. The idea of Second-person authority is that it is necessary to have within a relationship or else there is no relationship. No respect for the other person, no relationship and thus no Second-person authority. But what is meant by a Second-person authority, this authority is the idea that each person is held accountable to the other and there exists an implicit understanding that respect exists and is to be upheld inside of the relationship. In other words Second-person authority is the moral authority upon which a relationship is formed. It does not have to be expressly stated, and in most cases should neither have to be or need to be stated. Rather it is understood implicitly the same way that you understand that you and someone else are walking together, generally you don’t ask to take a walk together it just happens.


With this Second-person authority comes the understanding that all actions are if they are to promote the relationship should be with that person. For example, contempt for someone else is a Third-person action, an action that is not interacting with each other but rather with someone else or possibly no one else. When you roll your eyes at someone, rather than telling the person that their idea is stupid you are stating to everyone else around you that their idea is stupid. However when you glare at someone the understanding there is that the person did something wrong and they should correct their actions. There exists a basic understanding that the person should not only correct their actions but that they are accountable to you. If you have no relationship with the person, then you really don’t care what they do, because their actions have no real effect on you.


The main point of his argument with Second-person authority is that the biggest cause of relationships, intimate or not is a lack of respect for the other person. When you express contempt with someone rather than confronting the person about the problem, you show a lack of respect towards that person. You are not acknowledging the mutual understanding you two have to hold each other accountable to the the other within the context of the relationship. Because of the vulnerability inherent in relationships we have to accept that we are held to a level of mutual respect for each other. Second-person authority says that within a relationship we have a special responsibility to the other person unique to that person and thus we will make actions within the context of that responsibility.


So rather than saying oh that is my significant other, so for that reason I will save them, we instead don’t think about our actions because the moral decision has already been decided before hand, because that person would presumably wish to be save so we in turn do as they would wish and save them.


Note: I may be misinterpreting several of his arguments but I do not believe so and I defiantly didn’t put it as well as he did, if you are interested in this, Prof. Darwall is releasing a book entitled The Second Person Standpoint that more fully will explain this idea. Also, if you have any questions about this idea do not hesitate to leave a comment and I will answer your questions as best as I possibly can, however I do acknowledge that I do not study philosophy except as a hobby and defiantly this is not my own personal philosophy that I thought up of, so some questions I may not be able to answer. Also sorry about the long post, but try fitting a an hour and half long lecture on modern philosophy into something manageable, it just isn’t going to happen.


Edit:  Minor grammar mistake corrected, on Sept. 15, 2006 at 12:28 am.


Justin Yost is a full-time Software Engineer and a part time educator. A graduate of Texas Tech University with a bachelor's degree in computer science, Justin relishes programming and learning more about anything and everything. When not working, Justin occasionally gives talks at the local PHP Meetup. In his free time, Justin enjoys backpacking and reading science fiction books.

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