Philosophy, a term probably coined by Pythagoras (c. 570 – c. 495 BC), derives from “philosophia“, literally “love of wisdom“. It is “the study of general and fundamental problems concerning matters such as existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind and language“. It sounds rather more grand than it is perhaps because classic philosophical questions include such gripping breakfast-table discussions as, “Is it possible to know anything and to prove it?” However, philosophy also poses more practical and concrete questions such as: “Is there a best way to live?“, “Is it better to be just or unjust (if you can get away with it)?“, “Do humans have free will?“, “Is political utopia a hopeful dream or hopeless fantasy?” Historically “philosophy” encompassed any body of knowledge, investigations related to art, science, politics or other pursuits. For example, “Is beauty objective or subjective?

Such theoretical enquiries may however appear to have very little practical application. Nonetheless there are certain topics which lend themselves to philosophical research, for example the subject of accountability which is currently the focus of much political attention.

Early in my law career I learned the imperative of accountability.  It wasn’t enough simply to do the work and expect my client to be satisfied.  An explanation of what I did was required.  It was equally important that the explanation was in terms that could be fathomed.  If there were no accountability, the client was left to rely entirely upon trust which to a point is tolerable but ultimately answerability for specifics was something to which my client was entitled. Furthermore accountability is not discretionary even if not mandatory. It is now expected. In fact accountability is an unwritten essential of any relationship. It is sometimes dissected as “moral, administrative, political, managerial, market, legal/judicial, constituency relation and professional“. Whatever the analysis, accountability is an underlying code between you and those with whom you interact whether individuals in particular or society in general.

Accountability isn’t merely disclosure; it is ultimately responsibility. In terms of governance it is liability or blameworthiness, a common example of which is accountability for expenditure of funds by public institutions or charities. In terms of leadership roles (both public and private) accountability is “the acknowledgment and assumption of responsibility for actions, products, decisions, and policies including the administration, governance, and implementation within the scope of the role or employment position and encompassing the obligation to report, explain and be answerable for resulting consequences“.

In the context of our daily endeavours (apart from associations with bankers, financial advisors, lawyers, accountants and medical advisors whose requirement of accountability is well known and frequently mandated by legislation), there are many other instances where accountability arises; viz., political governance, unregulated business relationships, casual engagements beyond the scope of contract or common law, day-to-day encounters with friends, lovers and family and even accountability to one’s self (the so-called “alter ego“). Accountability is sometimes confused with aggressive one-sided attack made solely for the purpose of registering disfavour not for the purpose of enquiry. That is, the object of accountability can be ill-disguised vengeance or dissatisfaction. In such an adversarial environment the attempt to deflect accountability abounds with taradiddle.  Taradiddle is a polite form of “lying through your teeth” (telling someone something you know is false but exculpating the assertion on a “technicality“). Though Messrs. Webster and Oxford may prefer to define taradiddle as a petty lie or pretentious nonsense I think its meaning is far more sinister. Taradiddle is the deliberate manipulation of fact and authority to subvert the effect of one upon the other.  In the plainest of terms, taradiddle is a calculated deception, a device which can for example characterize binary politics. At its least offensive, taradiddle is a “little white lie“, a fault more of omission than commission. At its worst, taradiddle is chicanery rife with corruption.

Too often accountability is confounded with excuses, justifications, rationalizations, apologies and other forms of account-giving behavior by individuals and corporations. These are ploys designed to distract the investigation from disinfecting sunlight. Such ploys succeed only to remove the enquiry from its simple objective. Neither should we lose sight of the personal basis of accountability: Freedom of choice, freedom of action, freedom to bear the results of action. These are considered the freedoms that constitute personal responsibility. These elemental freedoms should similarly characterize our activity in any forum, whether private or public, personal or corporate, big or small. Like most basic principles the strength of accountability is augmented by force of being not only axiomatic but also rewarding. Accountability (even if sometimes painful) is relieving, akin to catharsis. It is a penetration into one’s actions, one’s mind, perhaps even one’s soul.  It does of course carry with it the obligation of responsibility but that is a mantle far more desirable to assume than artifice no matter how cunning. Do not underestimate the value of a peaceful night’s sleep. Certainly it is possible to bamboozle others but it is risky business and it will never afford the mitigation of distress which follows upon the heels of subterfuge.

Normally accountability is viewed as a one-sided obligation. It isn’t however in my opinion sufficient merely to insist upon accountability.  I think each of us has a parallel responsibility to encourage accountability not only in ourselves but in others. That encouragement is not confined to insistence upon commitment or duty; it includes a discussion of the mutual value of accountability. It achieves nothing to create a stratagem to distance oneself from accountability.  To take a gross example, consider the accountability of the World Bank or International Monetary Fund.

Because there is no global democratically elected body to which organizations must account, global organizations are often criticized as having large accountability gaps. The Charter 99 for Global Democracy, spearheaded by the One World Trust, first proposed that cross-sector principles of accountability be researched and observed by institutions that affect people, independent of their legal status. One paradigmatic problem arising in the global context is that of institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund which are founded and supported by wealthy nations or individuals and provide grants and loans to developing nations. Should those institutions be accountable to their founders and investors or to the persons and nations they lend money to?

If therefore we accept that accountability is not a unilateral imperative, then it behooves us to nurture the expression of that burden. This means we must engage with others but first remind ourselves that accountability is a two-edged sword and its business end is never pointed in one direction only, much less at others only. The day may well come when the same duty is upon us. How our confrères have been treated by us in a moment of reckoning may well dictate how they handle us when our time comes (as inevitably it will).  Make no mistake none of us can avoid accountability. It is but idle dalliance to imagine that accountability is limited in its application, that it is confined to business people or conglomerates or that it has no place in the most humble person’s life; it affects us all. How we achieve that recognition is a matter for each of us to determine, part of the freedom of choice and action. Our corporate responsibility is to counsel accountability, not to counsel mischief. The admonition will at times entail the further freedom to bear the results of our action, not always a cherished alternative but nonetheless a choice which I earnestly believe is ultimately beneficial.

The bottom line of accountability is nothing more glamorous or less splendid than a divulgence of humanity itself. Accountability can be both a dirty business and an uplifting experience. It is at once private and public. It has all the ramifications of confession. To apply the theorem of accountability to our everyday actions is to afford a conduit for examination and expiation. If we avoid or compromise accountability we effectively deny ourselves and others its illuminating and purging benefit. I cannot imagine that any behaviour for any reason is better for lack of accountability. It restores equilibrium. Keep in mind also that while we shun excuses for failure to account, most people will extend mitigating qualities for offending revelation. The legal system for example conjoins accountability with the benefit of diminished punishment for misbehaviour, sometimes including what is called a “suspended sentence” which is very close to dismissal while preserving the sting of guilt. Outside the formality of adjudication, accountability lends the advantage of making a clean breast of it on the one hand and warranting forgiveness on the other. Small wonder accountability is often closely aligned with apology though it is only a corollary not a substitute.

As a final comment upon this weighty subject I believe we must preserve the solemnity of the process which means being both candid and kind; there is no room for selfish capitalizing upon tactical positions. Accountability reflects both self-respect and respect for others. It therefore warrants dignity, elevated human response and even handedness.