The ethics of responsibility: Fallibilism, futurity and phronesis


  • Anton van Niekerk University of Stellenbosch



In this article, I deal with the issue of a possible ethics of responsibility (ER) from a philosophical perspective in general, and bioethics in particular. My aim is to explore whether an ER is able to incorporate or integrate some, if not most, of the valid (and valuable) aspects of utilitarianism and deontology, without succumbing to most of the glaring shortcomings of these two famous frameworks. If such an enterprise could be successful, I would venture to infer that the ER could indeed be highly relevant for the time in which we live. I develop three central ideas of the framework of the ethics of responsibility. These three ideas are, firstly, that an appropriate framework for moral decision-making requires us to make room for the possibility of failure; secondly, we must see the implications of Jonas’ emphasis on the need for an ethics of futurity for taking cognisance of the consequences of acts, and, thirdly, that although consequences of actions may be important, as utilitarianism has always insisted, consequences are not enough. Moral actions are also of necessity guided by rules and principles when making moral decisions. It is particularly in this respect that I shall, at the end, draw on the insights of Aristotle in respect of his notion of phronesis. The crux of my argument is to be found in what Aristotle identifies as the essence of moral knowledge. Moral knowledge respects and often builds upon the norms and action guides that pervade social life. However, merely drawing on deep-seated norms and conventions is not enough. These norms and conventions require application in a host of practical situations. Exactly how they are to be applied, is far from self-evident. That is something that we learn in the practice of daily life by the deliberation that essentially characterises phronesis or prudence (practical wisdom).






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