All Commentary
Thursday, November 1, 1962

On Responsibility


Mr. Cooley currently pursues his studies at the University of Chicago School of Business.

By a narrow majority, my fellow students at a small liberal arts college recently voted for adoption of an academic honor code emphasizing student respon­sibility.

Responsibility, however, has various meanings. Some say that it applies solely to individuals, whereas others speak of “corpo­rate” and “institutional” respon­sibility. Some see it as the very foundation of competitive private enterprise, while others think pri­vate businesses must be forced to be responsible through “social” legislation. And in the campaign for an academic honor code, some students obviously thought re­sponsibility to be the basis for truth, honesty, and integrity, while others considered it a “free academic ride” for those who elect to cheat. At any rate, the term is vague and often misunderstood by today’s students, and their at­tempts to establish academic re­sponsibility through various honor systems are apt to be shallow and misdirected.

Reserved to Individuals

A first principle of responsi­bility is that it is reserved to in­dividuals. It cannot be exercised on behalf of any other person. To be responsible is to recognize one’s own part in a given situation; no other person can rightfully take the praise or blame for that part; there is no way of “taking the responsibility for another’s ac­tions.”

Responsibility is acquired as an essential part of the growth proc­ess. Children are taught that acts have consequences and that all ac­tions are governed by the results they yield. Thus, the child learns to gauge his behavior to his wants and to become a responsible in­dividual. Responsibility does not arise out of the actions of others. Its exercise is solely the result of individual trial and error, and the acceptance of it does not occur un­less the individual is allowed to make mistakes. It is by succeed­ing or by making mistakes that each person gains the sense of his own “inner-direction,” his own unique place in the universe, a chance to be a strong contributing member of society.

Now, how does the academic honor code fit this basic truth—that responsibility can only be ex­ercised by each individual? The code recognizes “the rightful privilege [for the student] of full exercise of his honesty and in­tegrity in the fields of academic endeavor….” But it then goes on to provide for the apprehen­sion of academic cheaters by their peers: “Every student is morally bound to report an infraction of the Code.” In short, the professor is relieved of his duty of proctor­ing exams, but the students must carry on in his absence. Each must be a watchdog over his fel­low students.

In case of cheating, the student reporting the infraction is first required to offer the cheating stu­dent a chance to turn himself in. Then, he must check with the Academic Board to make sure the offender has confessed. This may seem to place responsibility on the individual student, but, in reality, it puts the burden on his class­mates who have to watch him. The student is still proctored. Only the proctoring authority has been changed.

Giving the individual the op­portunity to assert his respon­sibility is sound procedure, but to make each individual the keeper of his neighbor’s responsibility makes a mockery of the whole concept.

Aversion to Guaranteed Life

A second characteristic of re­sponsibility is its aversion to se­curity. Responsibility wants no part of “the guaranteed life.” The individual who has everything provided for him rarely develops a high sense of responsibility. This is not because someone else is exercising responsibility for him but because his productive actions are needless in an environ­ment that makes him secure. For example, a student’s responsi­bility under the academic honor code will not be enhanced one iota by substituting his peers as proctors in place of faculty proc­tors. The student’s honesty is still guaranteed by an authority. He need not practice honesty as a responsible person, but has his honesty guarded through coercion. The difference is plain. Coerced honesty gives the individual stu­dent security but deprives him of responsibility.

This analysis can be applied to the risk-taker in business who ex­ercises responsibility of the high­est order in the decisions that govern the future of his business. Upon his shoulders rests the suc­cess or failure of his enterprise. And the combinations of respon­sible entrepreneurial actions in the business world make for a sound economy. Governmental at­tempts to control these decisions only decrease the efficiency of free enterprise and destroy in­dividual initiative. The tragedy is that many businessmen also have succumbed to the lures of the wel­fare state and advocate further government intervention to pro­mote economic growth. “Why doesn’t the government do some­thing about labor unions?” “Why doesn’t the government improve the public school system?” “Why doesn’t the government protect Americans from foreign competi­tion?”

The road to government guar­anteed security is the road to ruin, for when the few begin sup­porting the many, the few ulti­mately join the many. The system collapses. Rome was not built in a day. Nor did it fall in a day. Its foundations were eroded by the quest for security, while individ­ual responsibility and initiative—which were its real builders—ceased to find expression in the play and frivolity of the Roman bureaucracy. Truly, individual re­sponsibility and “social” security cannot exist side by side. The ex­istence of one always spells the death of the other.

Maximum Individual Freedom

A third characteristic of re­sponsibility is that its most mean­ingful expression occurs under conditions of maximum individual freedom. If the individual is to be free to plan his life in his own way, he must accept his role as a responsible human being.

Looking again at our honor code, we can see that it affords no new grant of freedom to the stu­dents. It only transfers authority to them in academic matters, and cannot be said to increase individ­ual student responsibility. When the code says, “Every student is on his honor to fulfill the obliga­tions and responsibilities which the code places upon him,” it seems only to mean that each must watch his fellow students to see that they do not cheat and be careful himself, that he does not get caught cheating. Has this given the student more freedom—the opportunity to exercise in­creased responsibility? What about his peers? Are they freer with him as their proctor than they were with a faculty proctor?

Anyone who claims the human right of choice in his own affairs and destiny must also assume the responsibility for his actions. Freedom of will for the individual cannot exist apart from the as­sumption of individual responsi­bility. The two are inseparable, and a denial of one negates the other.

The fight for freedom, academic or otherwise, is first of all a fight for responsibility. And where bet­ter to pitch the battle than at the level of the student honor code?

 

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There are admirable potentialities in every human being. Believe in your strength…. Learn to repeat endlessly to yourself: “It all depends on me.”

Andre Gide