Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Neatee Koun Khmers: Exploring the concept of responsibility

It has been a heart wrenching experience for Cambodian people and observers all over the globe to witness the recent, paradoxical event when a Cambodian celebration of water, an essential element of life, resulted in unexpected losses of life and well-being. Millions of Khmers had converged at the country’s capital to celebrate the annual water festival, but the celebrations turned unexpectedly grievous when, at the end of the festival, 352 persons lost their lives and 395 other people were injured in a stampede accident at the bridge to Koh Pich Island.

Current technology added a special dimension to this tragedy when the pictures and videos of those who trapped and struggled to catch, for many, their last breath were made available almost instantly. The Internet made the experience very graphic and real even for those who were viewing the incident from separate continents. Martin Johnes (2004) understood the impacts of such events. “Disasters have powerful emotional, psychological and social impacts. They bring home the realities of risk in a way that abstract possibilities cannot. This creates expectations and demands for action to ensure there can be no repetition. Yet the extent to which expectations are fulfilled, and the force with which they are demanded, depends very much on the political circumstances of the tragedy and those affected” (p. 134).

Although November 22, 2010 will be remembered as one of the most tragic events in Cambodian history, the debate in the aftermath has shifted now that the government completed the investigation of the accident and held no one responsible or accountable. To assist in this debate, Neatee Koun Khmers proposes to replace its scheduled topic of discussion from Exploring the Concept of Political Institutions to Exploring the Concept of Responsibility. Meanwhile, allow me to look into existing literature about responsibility. Upon reviewing the literature, I found a few definitions of responsibility that may assist and/or complement our dialogue. As a way of introducing the concept for our discussion, I will briefly take you through Heider’s (Bordel et al. 2006) five levels of responsibility, Hagiwara’s (1992) discussion of responsibility in Japanese context, McKeon’s (Harmon, 1995) view of moral responsibility, and Kaler’s (2002) definition of accountability.

To understand the levels of responsibility, Bordel et al. (2006) incorporated Heider’s definitions of responsibility in their research. There are five levels of responsibility -- association, causality, previsibility, responsibility, and justification:

  • Association means that an individual is responsible for any action having a link with himself, even if he did not commit this act. “In this way, direct causality is not a necessary condition for the allocation of responsibility: So a parent can be seen as being responsible for the actions of his or her children on the simple basis of the link which unites them.”

  • Causality refers to the notion that a person is considered to be responsible for any action which he/she has committed. “In this sense causality here encompasses responsibility.”

  • Previsibility can be attributed responsibility to any individual who could have foreseen the consequences of an act which he or she did not prevent happening.

  • Responsibility refers to the intentional nature of the act. “A person is responsible for the action which she or he intended should happen.”

  • Justification predicts that an intentional action cannot be entirely attributed to the person if that person carried it out under the constraints of environmental factors. This globally refers to circumstances which are said to be attenuating. (Bordel et al., 2006, p. 229)

Shigeru Hagiwara (1992) examined the concept of responsibility in Japanese context. The term responsibility which equates to “sekinin” in Japanese usually refers to liability or blame. Accordingly, sekinin is used widely in two distinctive ways:

1) To describe duties or obligations pertaining to that person’s role or position, as in the expression: “It is the parents’ responsibility to raise their children;” and 2) to assign blame or sanction to someone when an untoward occurrence is observed, as in the case of: “Who is responsible for the accident?” (p. 145)

While Alexander Bain (Harmon, 1995, p.15), equated responsibility as punishability in the sense that “a men can never be said to be responsible, if you are not prepared to punish him when he cannot satisfactorily answer the charge made against him,” McKeon viewed responsibility as a moral concept:

The idea of moral responsibility originated and developed in the context of the evolution of political and cultural responsibility. There was no moral responsibility until there were communities in which men were held accountable for their actions and in which actions were imputed to individual men. There were no moral individuals prior to the development and recognition of moral responsibility. (cited in Harmon, 1995, p. 16)

Finally, I would like to throw the term ‘accountability’ in the mix here because I have seen and heard people use this word interchangeably with responsibility. According to Kaler (2002), accountability has to do with providing answers, as with reporting or, more obviously, `giving an account'. Accountability in this sense is viewed as being honestly informative in relation to responsibility:

What we are being informative about when we are accountable in this way is our conduct and, more particularly, our conduct with respect to the carrying out of our responsibilities. We are, in other words, being `answerable' in the sense of providing answers to questions about how well or badly we have carried out our responsibilities, with the very strong implication that it is the latter which is of prime concern (hence, of course, the categorization of accountability as causal responsibility for bad situations in the previous section). (p. 328-329)

In conclusion, we have looked at levels of responsibility, responsibility as liability or blame, responsibility as a moral concept, and responsibility as it relates to accountability. As we carry on this dialogue, Habermas reminds us that we, too, carry responsibility in our deliberation. We have to be responsible for each other. Our collective deliberation will enhance our ethical and moral standing in our community and our nation. A deliberative citizen, according to Habermas, “is one who engages in a public discussion on an issue of public concern, takes the points of view of all relevant parties seriously as well as any other relevant norms and aspects of the situation, makes a decision in light of these reflections, and then has the moral strength to accept the decisions” (Doheny, 2007, p. 409).

It will take both responsible citizens and government to mitigate, or hopefully prevent, the impacts of the next incident or disaster. It takes all of us to be conscious of our ideas and our actions to get to where we want to be as a nation -- a prosperous democratic nation. Once again, I thank you for participating in this forum. We did a great job in our previous discussion. Let’s do that again.


Bordel, S., Guingouain, G., & Somat, A. (2006). Objective and subjective responsibility in a judicial context. Swiss Journal of Psychology/Schweizerische Zeitschrift für Psychologie/Revue Suisse de Psychologie, 65(4), 227-235. doi:10.1024/1421-0185.65.4.227.

Doheny, S. (2007). Responsibility and the Deliberative Citizen: Theorizing the Acceptance of Individual and Citizenship Responsibilities. Citizenship Studies, 11(4), 405-420. Retrieved from E-Journals database.

Johnes, M. (2004). 1 'Heads in the Sand': Football, Politics and Crowd Disasters in Twentieth-Century Britain. Soccer and Society, 5(2), 134-151. Retrieved from E-Journals database.

Kaler, J. (2002). Responsibility, accountability and governance. Business Ethics: A European Review, 11(4), 327-334. Retrieved from E-Journals database.

Hagiwara, S. (1992). The Concept of Responsibility and Determinants of Responsibility Judgment in the Japanese Context. International Journal of Psychology, 27(2), 143-156. Retrieved from E-Journals database.

Harmon, M. (1995). Responsibility as paradox: a critique of rational discourse on government. Thousand Oaks, London, and New Delhi: Sage Publications


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