Never before have human beings had such far-reaching impacts on one another’s social, political, economic, and cultural lives. Never before have they possessed so much knowledge and so much power to change their environment. In spite of the immense possibilities opened up by these ever-increasing interrelationships, and in spite of the new skills which humankind has acquired, unprecedented crises are emerging in many areas.
The growing interdependence among individuals, among societies, and between human beings and nature heightens the impacts of individual and collective human actions on their social and natural environments, in the short and long run. And yet, the social institutions which should enable the new challenges of the 21st century to be met, are increasingly ineffective. The pervasive power of international markets is undermining the traditional role of states. Scientific institutions, pursuing specialized interests, are less likely to confront the global issues which challenge humanity. International economic institutions have failed to turn the rising tide of inequality. Business has often pursued its profit goals at the expense of social and environmental concerns. Religious institutions have not adequately fulfilled their role to provide responses to the new challenges faced by our societies.
In this context, every one of us must take up his or her responsibilities at both the individual and the collective level. New possibilities are opening up to play a role in the new challenges that face humankind: every human being has a role to play in redefining responsibility and has responsibilities to assume. The feeling of being powerless can be lessened and even overcome by linking up with others to forge a collective strength.
Although all people have an equal entitlement to human rights, their responsibilities are proportionate to the possibilities open to them. Freedom, access to information, knowledge, wealth, and power all increase the capacity for exercising responsibilities and the duty to account for one’s actions.
Responsibilities are related to the present and the future, as well as to past actions. The burden of collectively-caused damage must be morally acknowledged by the group concerned, and put right in practical terms as far as possible. Since we can only partially understand the consequences of our actions now and in the future, our responsibility demands that we must act with great humility and demonstrate caution.