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Monday, June 29, 2015

The Ethic of Transparency


Recently I listened to Janice Stein reflecting on the notion of “accountability” which has all but replaced “responsibility” in our language. Since words not only express, but also shape thought and the worldview within which that thought has meaning, I found this a very useful reflection.

We have finally begun demanding accountability. And well we should, as presidents lead us to war on false premises, as financial institutions sell products with less than stated value, and religious organizations hide their officials’ wrong doings. We now speak of organizing  for public or private accountability and of holding our leaders and institutions accountable. We use less the word of the responsible leader or organization or of the responsible self and society. Or we simply use the words interchangeably. And there is a loss in that.

To hold accountable or require accountability has a different nuance than to be responsible or take responsibility. To account for something to someone has a different meaning than to respond to someone for something. Rendering account focuses on measured worth. Being responsible focuses on value, but not the kind that can be easily quantified. Accountability connotes an external referee and a balance sheet. Responsibility connotes a more internal judge, a conscience. An accountable politics is one of checks and balances and looks at forms, processes, and regulations. A responsible politics is one of social justice and looks at the substance of human freedom and equality.

Elsewhere I wrote of five metaphors for ethics. And here are two: the scale or balance in commerce (accountability) and the foundation of a building (responsibility). These two are important to each other: responsibility will require accountability, which in turn can measure and promote responsibility.

Yet there is tension when we look as the behavior of corporations and encourage their social responsibility, when we look at voluntary organizations not just in terms of what we get for the money, but for what kind of a community they embody and promote. There is certain a tension in a leadership that is directing and supervising according to rules and one that is trusting and encouraging innovation. Education that teaches to the test may be accountable, but may not be responsible and educing responsible citizens.


Another word is being used a lot lately: “transparency.” Maybe that could resolve the tension  between accountability and responsibility or make that tension constructive. Transparency does mean visibility—out in the open for all to see and judge. But it also means illuminating or glowing from within like a radiance you can see through.

Democracy requires a responsility where we quit shoving the blame elsewhere. Democracy requires accountability where institutions, public and private, can be called to account for their consequences. But above all democracy requires transparency where all of us are connected and know what each other are thinking and doing, not to hold back initiative and difference, but to celebrate it. This cuts both ways. It means letting Snowden do his thing, whistle blowing, and putting out there for all to see the secrets of government and corporations. But it also means letting everybody know what I'm thinking and doing without fear of reprisal if I'm not injuring anyone, including their life, respect, and value. 

The open society is here. Go ahead you can know what I'm thinking and doing insofar as it might affect you or even to be sure it won't affect you negatively. I don't mind if the NSA is snooping on me as long as I can snoop on the NSA. 

The key tension that must be maintained is that between individual accountability and social responsibility. Yes, you may learn about me but let me be me a unique individual. You may investigate us and our society and hold us accountable as long as you do not inhibit our creativity in carrying out our responsibility. And I want to know what you are doing to ensure that our being who we are is not curtailed. 

Let's take responsibility for holding ourselves accountable.


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