Recovering the ‘Duty of Care’

by Mark Gordon

This piece first appeared at Aleteia

My 27 year-old son Andrew recently alerted me to a “TED Talk” given last June by Lord David Puttnam, the British film producer (10 Oscars, 25 Baftas and the Palme d’Or) who retired in 1998 to work on public policy as it relates to education and media. The title of Puttnam’s talk was, “Does the Media Have a ‘Duty of Care?’” “Duty of care” is the legal concept that “you must take care to avoid acts or omissions which you could reasonably foresee would be likely to injure your neighbor.”  Puttnam’s point was that since an informed citizenry is essential to the smooth operation of participatory democracy, the media have a ‘duty to care’ that their reporting be sober, substantive, and accurate. Reporting that is sensational, insubstantial, or driven solely by profit can reasonably be foreseen to undermine the goal of an informed citizenry, which in turn harms participatory democracy.

This is a subject of particular concern to my son, a two-time Iraq War combat veteran. When he arrived in Baghdad with the 3rd Infantry Division in May 2007, he discovered that much of the media’s reporting about that conflict was indeed sensational, insubstantial, and inaccurate. Having seen the effects of American policy first-hand, he has ever since been trying to reconcile the gravity of the world as it is, as he’s experienced it, with the foolishness of the American media. He knows better than most of us what the stakes are when war is transformed into crass spectacle and co-opted by dime store patriotism. The same could be said for any of the serious issues that confront our nation and world, from the connivance of elites in the death of the middle class to the growth of the Surveillance State and questions of religious liberty.

Lord Puttnam is British and he speaks from that perspective, which obviously does not encompass the First Amendment to the US Constitution. Consequently, his proposed solution – that the State should assume a role in imposing a duty of care on the tabloid press – would clearly not be acceptable in an American context. But the objective – the widespread availability of serious, critical journalism leading to an informed citizenry – does argue for continued, even increased, government support of institutions like the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and National Public Radio.  There is a dimension to the media’s role in the body politic that reaches beyond either the exercise of liberty or the pursuit of profit, a dimension that affects the common good and therefore entails a duty to care.

Economists talk about ‘externalities,’ social costs or benefits incurred or enjoyed by third parties as a result of exchanges between two original parties. Pollution is the classic example of a negative externality. Technological advances resulting from research and development are often proffered as positive externalities. Puttnam’s expansive use of the duty of care concept extends well beyond specific instances of harm or benefit that typically define externalities. His conception of the duty of care suggests broader implications for the social compact, perhaps even including the very survival of civilization. That, at bottom, is what animates objections to, for instance, same-sex marriage: that the government, by licensing such unions in the name of ‘liberty,’ fails in its duty of care for the generations that will follow.

Does this wide conception of the duty of care comport with Catholic teaching about the common good? I think so. Consider the 2001 statement of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Global Climate Change: A Plea for Dialogue, Prudence, and the Common Good.” In the document, the bishops wrote, “The common good calls us to extend our concern to future generations” and “working for the common good requires us to promote the flourishing of all human life and all of God’s creation.” Though the specific subject of this statement was global climate change, the principles announced in it are universally applicable and consistent with Catholic Social Teaching. The duty of care – in other words, the common good – extends well beyond a deracinated conception of individual liberty and encompasses all human life, present and future, and indeed all of God’s creation.

It is a marker of our failing social compact that the United States no longer deals with even the most blatant negative externalities very well, despite the rivers of regulation that routinely cascade from Capitol Hill. To cite the most glaring example, six years after decadent bankers and their Washington retainers brought the economy to a screeching halt, we’re still waiting for the first criminal prosecution of a “legal person” actually composed of flesh and blood.

The United States doesn’t do the “duty of care” terribly well either, at least not by David Puttnam’s standard. Our public life is full of “acts or omissions” which could reasonably be foreseen to cause injury to our neighbors, both living and as yet unborn. These include everything from the production of pornography and the promotion of gambling to illicit war, a deteriorating public infrastructure, and the collapse of education standards. Ultimately, all of these are failures of government, a natural institution, “necessary for the unity of the State,” which is charged with ensuring “as far as possible the common good of the society” (CCC #1898).  But increasingly, our government represents only well-funded narrow interests rather than the common good. And in so doing it has become yet another institution, like the media, toward which the American people feel no “duty of care.”