I was recently looking at philosophy of responsibility, and something interesting which I had not thought about before, was that the way we use "responsibility" includes things not necessarily caused by you.

Let me explain with an example: You're responsible for doing your homework and if you choose to stay home and play video games, then you still are responsible for doing the homework for the lecture you missed. But you're also responsible to borrow someone's notes and make up for things you've missed if you happened to get an illness (through no fault of your own) or have car trouble (quite unexpected for a brand new car) or many other ways that circumstances can contribute/cause you to miss that same class. Assigning faults of course will be different but responsibility seems the same.

Now for some reason that brought to my mind the idea of commitment, which then made me wonder how it's different from responsibility.

Commitment is defined to be a kind of promise or pledge to do something in future. And responsibility is being accountable. But both are about obligations.

Now it could be merely semantics, in which case I can imagine some suggesting I ask this question in a language section but my own feeling is that I'm struggling with understanding the concepts these words represent.

I would appreciate if someone can help me distinguish these concepts perhaps by making reference to philosophical articles or resources that can be helpful.

  • 1
    I would say that a commitment is an agreement to having a responsibility. Because of that, commitment implies responsibility, but responsibility doesn't imply commitment. If you commit to do something, then you are responsible to do that thing. C -> R
    – monster319
    Jan 4 '17 at 4:06
  • Some times a simplistic answer is the "correct" answer. Therefore, here is mine.helps clarify
    – Guill
    Jan 11 '17 at 7:41
  • A commitment is A PROMISE to do something desirable (or not do something undesirable). A responsibility is AN OBLIGATION to do something desirable (or not do something undesirable).
    – Guill
    Jan 11 '17 at 7:53

Both concepts are vague and often used interchangeably, and their dictionary definitions are almost indistinguishable:"the state or fact of being accountable or to blame for something" vs. "the state or quality of being dedicated to a cause, activity". Yet, there is a touch of a more passive voice in the first than in the second, and this distinction seems to be sharpened by some philosophers. This impression is confirmed by del Corral's analysis in Commitment and Responsibility:

"Responsibility is a very broad concept. Moral and legal philosophy have provided many different definitions of what responsibility is, as well as different set of criteria an agent has to meet in order to be held responsible. The claim I will defend here is that responsibility can be understood in a non-moral and non-legal sense, as a relation between an agent and an outcome to another agent, who attributes responsibility. This relation is basically explanatory: an agent is responsible for an outcome if it is possible to explain the outcome in terms of the agent's authorship."

To put an emphasis on it, one makes a committment, oneself, but is held responsible, by others. Of course, one can hold oneself responsible too, but usually after the event, and there is an air to it of treating yourself "in the third person", as it were. Del Corral also discusses the responsibility-for-omission problem that you mention:

"Agents are often held responsible for something they have not done, such as preventing an outcome. Omissions are problematic because the relation between the agent and the outcome is not evident: there has to be a link of some kind that connects agents with outcomes. However, it is not clear whether that link is necessarily causal, or on the contrary, causal effectiveness is not necessary for responsibility."

This is only one of several problems with demanding a causal link between agents and what they are responsible for. See also the IEP article on Responsibility:

"The responsible person can be relied on to judge and to act in certain morally desirable ways; in the case of more demanding ("more responsible") roles, the person can be trusted to exercise initiative and to demonstrate commitment; and when things go wrong, such a person will be prepared to take responsibility for dealing with things." [emphasis mine]

Again, there is this active/passive duality between "demonstrating" commitment and "taking" responsibility, "initiative" and "dealing". According to Clemence's Existentialism: A Philosophy of Commitment this active aspect of commitment assumes even grander proportions in existentialism:

"Commitment can mean many things: a promise to keep, a sense of dedication that transcends all other considerations, an unswerving allegiance to a given point of view. In existentialism, commitment means even more: a willingness to live fully one's own life, to make that life meaningful through acceptance of, rather than detachment from, all that it may hold of both joy and sorrow."

Brandom, a leading contemporary pragmatist, made commitments (and entitlements) in the "game of giving and asking for reasons" into the central concepts of his philosophy of meaning, language and social behavior. They serve as bases for "scorekeeping" by various participants in the game on other participants, thus enforcing the normative use of language and reasoning that makes them meaningful. Brandom's sense is more specialized, but it also emphasizes the active aspect, see Standefer's blog on Making It Explicit:

"Brandom tells us that the primary normative concept for inferential articulation is commitment. When we move to the social picture involving more than one agent, there is a shift to multiple primary concepts. They are commitment and entitlement... Commitments have a sort of double life. Not only are they undertaken, but they are also what one is entitled to. To put it awkwardly, one can be committed and entitled to commitments... Brandom should probably have said that the fundamental normative status for the game of giving and asking for reasons is entitlement, and commitment takes on its content role."


In the Bergsoninan tradition one would say that the difference between the two have to do with the source and quality of the obligation. Responsibility seems to correspond to what he would call "closed morality", meaning what you're asked to do is so because of the good of "society" or the "tribe", the "group", the "family", the "relationship" etc. Closed morality is static. It is also the basis upon which most traditional static religions are based. There is an order of things which must be obeyed.

He would perhaps consider "commitment" as a brand of "open morality", called open because it presupposes a dynamics, an option to assent/agree or no. It presupposes the ability to be creative in your response to a situation to which you are presented. Commitment is the quality of saying yes to an open option of responding to a situation. It presupposes seeing time dynamically and you're in a continual negotiation with it.

There may be situations however in which a commitment, once made, comes to be seen as an obligation and can carry the same type of social weight of condemnation should it not be fulfilled. E.g. you have a change of heart. Someone else comes up and suddenly your commitment becomes a burden. There it changes from open to closed morality. Optionality and the possibility of being creative in your response to a situation becomes now weakened. I think for this reason I think the distinction between the two remains tied to the quality or the disposition one holds in a given moment, of a response, and not simply to the nature of the pronouncement of the responsibility or commitment at the moment of it being made (or assumed, as is the case most often with responsibilities).


Responsibilities are things you are bound to do, like it or not. Commitments are things a person does against all odds, no excuses allowed.

  • I made an edit. You may roll it back or continue editing especially if I misrepresented what you were trying to say. It might be good to edit this and add references to strengthen the answer. Where, for example, did you find the definitions of "responsibility" and "commitment"? It would be good to quote those definitions to make the answer less of an opinion. Jul 24 '18 at 3:14


If you are responsible (R1) for doing your homework then this means that you are an autonomous agent who can decide whether or not to do your homework. It is up to no-one else to decide but you.

If you are responsible (R2) for doing your homework and do it, then you have acted responsibly - sensibly, prudently, reliably - in doing it.

If you are responsible (R3) for doing your homework and don't do it but copy it from somebody else, then you have a retrospective moral responsibility in the sense that you are blameworthy for a state of affairs which you have brought about, i.e. copying somebody else's homework because you had not done your own.

If you accidentally knock a previous vase off the table, you are responsible (R4) but only in a causal sense. You did not intend to damage the vase and you are not in normal circumstances blameworthy.


This appears always to involve intention and can take the form of a promise, a contract, a resolution, a vow, an attitudinal stance (e.g., to give money to beggars even when one dislikes them) or a life-shaping stance (e.g., to live honestly or to remain single).

All these forms of commitment connect with R1 : you make a commitment - a promise, a contract and the rest - as an autonomous agent who can decide whether or not to make a promise or contract.

There's also a connexion with R3. If you make a commitment and fail without valid excuse to fulfil it, then generally you are blameworthy for a state of affairs which you have brought about, i.e. failing without valid excuse to fulfil the commitment. That's right in the round but there are cases where failure to maintain an attitudinal commitment or a life-shaping commitment involves no blameworthiness : I might be persuaded in good faith that I am not helping beggars by giving money to them or I might decide that I don't care for the single life anymore. In neither case would any blame attach to my dropping the commitment unfulfilled.


Matthew Braham and Martin van Hees, 'An Anatomy of Moral Responsibility', Mind, Vol. 121, No. 483 (July 2012), pp. 601-634.

Cheshire Calhoun, 'What Good Is Commitment?', Ethics, Vol. 119, No. 4 (July 2009), pp. 613-641.

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