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If We Value Individual Responsibility, Which Policies Should We Favour?

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Individual responsibility is now very much on the political agenda. Even those who believe that its importance has been exaggerated by the political right — either because the appropriate conditions for assigning responsibility to individuals are rarely satisfied or because not enough is done to protect individuals from the more harmful consequences of their past choices and gambles — accept that individual responsibility is at least one of the values against which a society and its institutions ought to be evaluated. One might be forgiven for assuming, then, that we know exactly why individual responsibility is important. The truth is otherwise. Surprisingly little philosophical work has been undertaken to analyse and separate out the different rationales that might be in play. Several possible reasons are examined here including: utility, the social bases of self-respect, autonomy, human flourishing and fairness. However, once we adopt a pluralistic view of the value of individual responsibility we open up the possibility of value conflict, which conflict can make it harder to arrive at definitive prescriptions about which social policies best advance our concerns for individual responsibility. It is nevertheless possible to draw at least some conclusions about which policies we should favour. One important conclusion is that sometimes it is better not to hold individuals responsible for their past choices by denying them aid now, so that they might be better able to assume individual responsibility at a later date.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1University College London

Publication date: 2005-03-01

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