A responsibility is a particular obligation for which an individual is to be held accountable, in order to remain upstanding member of a group or community. Good examples of responsibility, include the requirement for a student to complete all of the necessary coursework to graduate on time with the rest of his class, and the need for a parent to provide a good home for his or her children.. To explore this concept, consider the following responsibility definition.

Definition of Responsibility


  1. The state of being accountable for something or someone that is under one’s control.
  2. An instance of being responsible; a burden of obligation.
  3. The person or thing for which another is responsible.


1780-90            Latin respondere

What is Responsibility

Responsibility is the burden someone is obligated to fulfill in order to meet a particular need. Someone’s level of meeting his responsibilities shows how trustworthy he is, particularly if he consistently meets his responsibilities. The act of an athlete showing up on time for football practice is an example of responsibility. Responsibility can also be used to describe the person or thing for which someone is responsible. For instance, a child is his parent’s responsibility, or keeping track of a company’s finances is a bookkeeper’s responsibility.

Social Responsibility

The idea of social responsibility is a theory in which everyone in society must fulfill their civic duties. What this means is that the actions of each person in any given society should be motivated by a desire to benefit society as a whole. Social responsibility is founded on a system of ethics, in which any decisions made, or actions taken, should be ethically considered. Undertaking an action or decision that is harmful to society or the environment in any way, would be considered socially irresponsible.

Morality helps people draw a line between what is right and what is wrong. Social fairness, then, is determined by the majority to be “right,” though what is considered to be “right” does not always equal “fair.” Ultimately, however a person chooses to act in the face of social responsibility, the overall outcome must be beneficial to society. The individual must accept the fact that the action he takes – or the decision he makes – may not be  beneficial to him personally, but so long as it is beneficial to his peers, then that is the right thing to do.

Corporate Responsibility

Examples of responsibility include a business giving away a portion of the company’s profits to charity, or taking on “greener” initiatives in an effort to benefit the environment.

Businesses find that having a strong sense of corporate responsibility actually attracts more business. Customers are drawn to companies that are passionate on similar issues. If a customer cares about the environment, and a company has just announced its intentions of pursuing “greener” methods of doing business, then that customer will probably be drawn to doing business with that company.

The environment, in particular, is a major focal point of corporate responsibility because it affects all of society. Businesses, no matter their size, tend to leave larger carbon footprints than any other group, so whatever measures they implement in order to reduce that affect are beneficial to the society surrounding that business, as well as the world as a whole.

Personal Responsibility

Personal responsibility is self-explanatory, in that it is the act of taking responsibility for:

  • The things one says or does
  • The actions one undertakes
  • Taking care of one’s business and obligations

Those who have a strong sense of personal responsibility do not blame others for things that go wrong, depend on others to do the things that they should be doing, or attempt to justify the things they’ve done wrong with an excuse. Responsible people own up to their mistakes, and accept full responsibility for their obligations.

Personal responsibility can also be described as a person’s “response-ability,” meaning their capability of responding to, or meeting and fulfilling, the challenges that are presented to him. Someone who is said to have a high level of personal responsibility is also considered to be a person of good character, with high moral and ethical standards. When someone has a low level of personal responsibility, he may play the victim, and blame others or circumstances for how he felt or acted in a situation.

Victims tend to feel powerless, dependent on others, entitled, apathetic, fearful, and doubtful in difficult situations. People with a higher level of personal responsibility are more likely to stand up to and conquer trials of adversity. The victim is at the mercy of the events that happen around him, while another who approaches such situations proactively, in order to defeat them, are considered to have a greater sense of personal responsibility.

Fiduciary Responsibility

Fiduciary responsibility is the legal obligation that a person or organization has to act in the best interests of another person or organization. A fiduciary is any person or group that is legally responsible for controlling and managing another person or group’s assets or other interests. Those who have fiduciary responsibility include such people as investment managers, stockholders, partners in business, bankers, attorneys, trustees, and even parents who are responsible for their children’s finances.

For someone to accept fiduciary responsibility, he acknowledges that he is being given the highest possible level of trust, as he takes on the handling another person’s finances or assets. While fiduciaries are legally responsible for those assets, the assets do not belong to them. Instead, fiduciaries are provided with a legal document that allows them to manage the assets for a specified period of time, or for a very specific purpose.

Fiduciaries must act solely in the principle’s, or clients’, best interests, rather than their own. Fiduciaries must ensure that they are working to avoid any potential conflicts of interest, and that they do not receive any profits whatsoever from the relationship, no matter whether those profits would be direct or indirect. This is not to say that there cannot be some form of pay or reimbursement built into the contract, but the fiduciary cannot undertake any actions in his role as fiduciary for his own benefit. Fiduciaries must consistently act in harmony with the standards imposed on them by society, and the law.

Civic Responsibility

Civic responsibility is the responsibility imposed on societal members, simply by belonging to that society. It is directly tied to a person’s involvement with the community’s functioning, in its government, and even in its associations. People show civic responsibility when they take action on matters relating to politics, the environment, and the economy, for instance.

The strength of a society directly correlates to the effectiveness of the democracy and philanthropy that exists within that community. These things are related to the civic responsibility undertaken by its members. In the United States, it is because Americans participate in civic responsibility that everyone is able to uphold the democratic values written into the Constitution’s Bill of Rights.

These values include freedom, justice, equality, tolerance, and due process of law. The point of civic responsibility is to encourage citizens to participate in social issues, and to become willingly responsible for matters that affect the community and the government.

Fiscal Responsibility

Fiscal responsibility is a difficult term to define because it means different things to different people, depending on the circumstances involved. However, the one thing that everyone can usually agree on is that fiscal responsibility almost always involves the developing of strategies for managing debt and minimizing spending, to create a balanced budget.

Some believe that fiscal responsibility is knowing when and where to cut debt, while others feel that it’s about eliminating debt entirely while simultaneously making financial plans for the future. Still others believe that fiscal responsibility is the ability to control debt, and that the debt does not necessarily need to be reduced, only managed. While people can be fiscally responsible at an individual level, the term is more often applied to the bigger numbers involved in corporate spending and government finances.

Corporate Responsibility Example in a Human Rights Violation

In the 1990s, Royal Dutch Petroleum Co., which had previously proclaimed its strong commitment to corporate responsibility on its website, came under fire by the people of Nigeria. The company, in league with several others, was accused of helping the Nigerian government to violate international customs law.

Esther Kiobel was one of several peaceful protestors who had organized to object to Royal Dutch’s presence in the Ogoniland region of Nigeria. Kiobel and the other petitioners alleged that they or their relatives were killed, tortured, held prisoner, forced into exile, and deprived of their property by the Nigerian government because of their protest efforts.

Kiobel and the others accused Royal Dutch of being in agreement with the Nigerian government’s alleged violation of the protestors’ human rights, filing a civil lawsuit attempting to pin responsibility on Royal Dutch and the others. The companies’ response was that the law used to bring the company before a U.S. Court, the Alien Tort Statute, should not apply to this case, and that Kiobel’s attempt to tie the alleged events that occurred in Nigeria to the United States was weak at best.

Kiobel and the others lost in District Court, so they appealed. Royal Dutch fought the appeal, arguing that corporations should not be held responsible for civil liability. Kiobel argued the exact opposite, that corporate actors should be held just as liable for what had allegedly happened as private parties could have been. The Second Circuit Court, however, affirmed the dismissal of Kiobel’s lawsuit.

The case eventually made its way up to the Supreme Court. The Court issued a unanimous decision affirming the Second Circuit, reasoning that there was nothing within the “text, history, or purpose” of the Alien Tort Statute that indicated that it could be applied to matters that took place outside the U.S. This meant that Kiobel would only be permitted to sue in the U.S. if she and her fellow protestors could provide strong evidence as to why the United States should be directly tied to their claim.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Philanthropy – The practice of offering charitable donations of money and time to help make others’ lives better.
  • Carbon Footprint – The total amount of greenhouse gases emitted due to use of fossil fuels by any one person, group, or company.

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