What are the limits of my responsibility for others?

Recently, I was engaged in a fascinating discussion about the limits of my responsibility for others. We used a medical research example from a participant to frame the discussion and answer the question from a single point of view. Anne, the example giver, recounted her story of how she had taken part in 2 pieces of medical research in the past, but had refused to participate in a third one. On this occasion, she declined because would need to have repeated MRI scans and lumbar punctures, a painful needle in the bottom of the spine that can come with serious side effects.

The aim of the medical research was to find new ways of identifying people with the onset of early dementia and Anne felt particularly close to this disease, having known people who’d had it. Anne came to the conclusion that she ‘had a responsibility to help future generations, but not by putting [her] own life at risk.’ Anne’s comment brought up an interesting tension between the responsibility she felt to society, future generations and the responsibility that she had to herself to be healthy, which would also affect those closest to her, her family. It’s clear than Anne had a strong sense of responsibility for others, but who are the others? Is it everyone other than Anne? Or was it everyone other than Anne and her family?

Idealistically, as Anne put it, we would treat all others equally, but the reality is that we favour those closest, and particularly those related to us, which seems to be an evolutionary trait of being social animals. We drew a diagram to show how Anne viewed her responsibility:

In this instance, Anne felt most responsible for herself and less towards the outside of the circle. Hence, Anne did not want to feel the pain or take the risk of having continual MRI scans and lumbar punctures, and not even the idea that she would be helping science progress would convince her otherwise.

As a group, we then felt it was important to define what responsibility was in this particular example, i.e. was it a duty? My understanding was that having a duty towards participating in medical research is perhaps a step too far towards martyrdom. As such, I proposed a concept of ‘loose responsibility’ which is an inward pull to do good alongside a realisation that you can’t help everyone. In contrast, a ‘tight responsibility’ would be walking past an old lady who fell over badly in a deserted area. It is your duty to help and that, for me, is when responsibility turns into duty. To put it another way, your conscience won’t let you off the hook for not fulfilling your ‘tight responsibilities’.

For Anne, then, the limit of her responsibility for others was at the point at which she would have to ignore the responsibility she has for her own health and safety.


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