A few weeks ago, I was walking across the parking area of a motorway service station when I spotted a glass beer-bottle standing upright in the middle of a parking bay. I had two main options. I could walk past, ‘tut-tutting’ about someone’s carelessness and stupidity, or I could picked it up and deposit it in the nearest litter bin. (A third option of seeing how far I could kick it didn’t enter my mind at the time.) Conscious of the perceived danger to someone else’s car tyres, I chose the second of the options, and thus, just possibly, significantly altered the path of some unknown person’s journey later that day. Why did I act in the way that I did? Purely and simply because I felt that, having perceived a risk to someone else, I then had a social responsibility to do something about it. The act was a simple one; but not to have performed it would have been as socially irresponsible as the act of putting the bottle there in the first place.
I would have thought no more about that episode if it hadn’t been for a recent home visit in my capacity as a GP. My patient was an elderly lady who lives on her own. She had been unwell for a few days and a (much younger) female friend had called the surgery. The patient does not have any family living locally, so the friend stayed and tidied the house for her whilst waiting for me. I hadn’t met either of the two ladies before, but was impressed by the care being taken by the friend, who was able to give me a good history and presented me with various hospital paperwork and a list of medication.
Having examined my patient and diagnosed her problem, I wrote a prescription and handed it to her friend on the supposition that she would kindly collect the medicine. It was as I was leaving, feeling sure that the elderly lady was being well cared for, that her friend said something that has had me thinking ever since. ‘I’ll collect the medicine, but of course I’m just a good friend; she’s not really my responsibility’ were her words. It was the bit about ‘not really my responsibility’ which mentally stopped me in my tracks. Just what was the unwitting message behind that phrase? Clearly, she had no legal responsibility for the elderly lady; at least not in the same way as a parent or guardian has over a child, or a carer has over a resident of a residential home. Neither did she have the professional and legal ‘duty of care’ that I had as a doctor. Was the friend expressing the view that her ‘good friendship’ was conditional and only went so far; and when the going got rough, she didn’t really care that much?
Responsibility can be a legally imposed state. However, it is also about being morally accountable for one’s behaviour. In a society such as ours, surely we are all morally accountable for each other? Is there really a time when we can morally turn our back under the cover of the phrase ‘not really my responsibility’? W.B Yeats wrote ‘In dreams begins responsibility’. On humanitarian grounds, that responsibility never leaves us.
(First Published in the Scunthorpe Telegraph, Thursday, 1st November 2012.)