William James Defines ‘Social Responsibility’

Harvard University: Sever Hall with Memorial Hall in Distance 12/3/09

A New York Times op ed by Rebecca Harrington on the Harvard cheating affair quotes William James, one of the founders of psychology as a discipline.  In a letter to the editor of the Harvard Crimson in 1888 about the treatment by a faculty committee of his proposal to address cheat­ing, James wrote:

The impression this episode gave me of the debilitated tone of social responsibility here was startling. By social responsibility I mean the willingness to act for the social ideal, no matter how much obstructive individuals have to suffer. In this sort of civic courage our race has led history; and why it should be so lacking here I do not know….

 This disquieting standard deserves a place in our continuing debate about what we do and stand for.