responsiveness as a virtue

(Milwaukee) I’m at a conference about responsiveness, which uses the following as the opening definition, for discussion:

Being responsive (primarily to others, but we might also think about being responsive to the non-human world) involves being open to being moved or transformed by what others convey and do, especially in the course of the shared activity of living together (which includes working out the terms by which we live together).

I wrestle with two questions: 1) Is responsiveness a virtue? (Could we say that someone was too responsive?) 2) Should we understand responsiveness in terms of change? For instance, do we need to see a change in a person’s opinions—or at least in her understanding of another person’s opinions—to infer that she was responsive?

Both questions arise in cases when someone fails to change her mind at all when exposed to another person’s views. Could that failure to change reflect a reasonable lack of responsiveness? Or could we say that she was responsive, yet the other person simply failed to be persuasive, so there was no change?

There are also circumstances when people genuinely change their opinions, yet they don’t quite seem “responsive.” For instance, perhaps a person is deeply insecure or subservient and comes to believe what others say just because they have said it. I am not sure that counts as responsiveness—or if it does, then responsiveness is not a virtue.

For what it’s worth, I am inclined to think that responsiveness is a virtue—meaning that it is intrinsically worthy, even though it can be trumped by other virtues. For one thing, we can be wrong; so being responsive means being open to correction. In that sense, responsiveness shouldn’t be measured by whether we change; we must simply be open to the possibility of changing. But second, responsiveness is a virtue because it means receptivity to the world and to other people, or mindfulness. It is a condition of having a rich inner life and of enjoying the world around us. For that reason, I am inclined to think that responsiveness is a virtue for all people; even those who suffer worst from injustice are better off being responsive, to the degree that is possible.

Finally, I suspect that whether a person is responsive is probably a function of some combination of:

  1. The circumstances of the discussion. (How many people, how much time they have to talk, why everyone is present, who is represented, etc.)
  2. A person’s tendency to be responsive or unresponsive, which is perhaps a trait we can teach.
  3. The person’s views–for instance, Stalinists are less responsive than liberals.
  4. The topic: some subjects are more amenable than others to being discussed in responsive ways.
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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.