Accountability: a Virtue When it’s Involuntary, Phronesis When its Not

March 8th, 2018 by

Can accountability be a virtue? If so, how? C. Stephen Evans answered the first question with a resounding “yes” in a recent AT lecture entitled, “Accountability (to God and to Partner Humans) Understood as a Virtue.” (You can watch Dr. Evans’ talk here.) The talk was organized into five parts and was quite accessible. Here is a brief overview (The section headings are his).


  1. Is there a virtue of accountability? Evans suggests that all humans have duties for which they are responsible and answerable to others. If conditions are right (Part II) those who welcome this answerability to others exhibit a forward looking virtue. It counters individualism by helping us see the world through others eyes. Vis-a-vis others, it enrichens relationships. Vis-a-vis God, it is the beginning of wisdom. These changes are how accountability, like other virtues, leads to flourishing.
  2. Conditions for accountability to be exhibited. Six conditions should be in place for accountability to occur in a healthy way. (a) The one to whom an agent is accountable must have proper authority. (b) The goal of the activity one is accountable for must be good. (c) The person an agent is accountable to must will their good. (d) The person an agent is accountable to must have competence regarding the activity in question. (e) The one held accountable must be willing to give an account and accept feedback. (f) Certain more qualities must not be lacking in the agent (i.e. being responsible and conscientious).

III. Accountability, conscience, and duty. Accountability is related to conscience (a cognitive capacity to know right and wrong) and duty (an inner motivation or pull to do the right). Accountability can strengthen duty when duty’s ‘pull’ is strengthened by the social nature of accountability. Conscience is strengthened because accountability helps agents attune to the perspective of God and others.

  1. Three ways of understanding the relation of accountability. In part four, Evans describes three ways that moral claims (at the heart of accountability) gain a purchase upon agents. In Theistic accountability, God has rightful claims on human actions. In Metaphysical accountability, one’s moral responsibilities are grounded in an abstract transcendental non-personal ideal. In Secular accountability one’s oughts and duties are grounded in relationships to other humans.
  2. Christian Views of Accountability. Here Evans closed with some uniquely Christian perspectives on accountability.


Evans’s talk was helpful; however, there may be two referents of the word ‘accountability’ that should be distinguished given the way it is used today. Examples below attempt to illustrate this in terms of (a) Voluntary vs Involuntary Accountability. If this is right, then one might, as an alternative, consider (b) Involuntary Accountability as a form of – Phronesis.   (All that follows are my musings, not Evans’s)


Voluntary vs Involuntary Accountability. It is not clear how “accountability as a virtue” makes sense of two different states of affairs that accountability refers to. Involuntary accountability refers to a state of affairs in which A is answerable to B (or C) involuntarily for a duty she owes to B just in case she stands in a certain kind of relationship to B and or C.  Voluntary accountability refers to a state of affairs in which A volunteers to be answerable to B (or C) for a duty she owes to B regardless of the relationship she stands in to B or C.  Consider these examples:

Jones (A) may voluntarily choose to become a parent, however she does not voluntarily choose whether she has duties to her baby (B). Jones (A) can choose whether she will be accountable directly to her child (B). Later, as the baby becomes a child, Jones might voluntarily make herself accountable to her child (B) regarding the performance of her duties (e.g. being willing to be transparent and discuss parenting failures with B). By contrast, she is involuntarily accountable to the State (C) for how she executes her duties to her child (B). Furthermore Jones can choose to be accountable to a parent support group (C) for how she carries out her duties to her child (B).

Jetson (A)  becomes an employee of Spacely Space Sprockets (B). Here Jetson does not choose to owe duties to his boss Cosmo (B). He simply owes them. Unlike Jones (A), Jetson (A)  is involuntarily accountable to Cosmo, his boss. He can voluntarily make himself accountable to an employee effectiveness group (C) started by HR.

Smith (A), has involuntary duties to God (B). He is involuntarily accountable to God (B) regarding those duties. However, he may choose to make himself voluntarily accountable to his mentor (C) for help overcoming an anger problem (i.e. failing in a duty to God (B)).

Consider the tables below. (“Partner” means the other member of a duty generating relationship, not partner as in spouse.)

Duty Generating Relationship: Parent-Child (Superior to Inferior)

Duty to Partner
Accountability to Partner (child) Accountability to non-partner
( the state)
Accountability to non-partners (e.g. parent support group) Accountability to God






Involuntary          X           X         X


Duty Generating Relationship: Employee – Boss (Inferior to Superior)

Duty to Partner (boss) Accountability to Partner (e.g. boss) Accountability to non-partner (e.g. state) Accountability to non-partners (e.g. employee improvement  group) Accountability to God




Involuntary          X           X         X        X


Duty Generating Relationship: Spouse – Spouse (Equal to Equal)

Duty to Partner (spouse) Accountability to Partner (spouse) Accountability to non-partner (e.g. state) Accountability to non partners (e.g. marriage therapist) Accountability to God






Involuntary          X         X        X



Duty Generating Relationship: Friend – Friend (Equal to Equal)

Duty to Partner (Friend) Accountability to Partner (Friend) Accountability to non-partner (e.g. state) Accountability to non-partners (e.g. therapist) Accountability to God


    X (?)








Involuntary        X


Evans rightly suggests that both duties and accountability seem to be grounded in relationships. Contra Kant, they aren’t grounded merely in one’s rationality. Rationality about one’s relationships perhaps, but not rationality alone. Both accountability and duty are thus quite social. Evans also seems right in suggesting that accountability is broader than duty while remaining related to it. The tables above show this.

Evans’s presentation could have been clearer regarding how accountability as a virtue applied these different states of affairs (i.e. voluntary or involuntary). Is the same virtue in view when one is considering an agent’s (a) attitude to involuntary accountability, and (b) one’s willingness to engage in voluntary accountability. If this distinction is correct, consider the following.


Voluntary Accountability as Phronesis. Evans states that a person who is welcoming accountability “is attuned to the perspectives of others and regularly takes those perspectives into account.” This seems right. However, in situations of voluntary accountability, one invites third parties (i.e. C) to give feedback regarding personal goals and failures. Unlike involuntary accountability, this invitation can arise from other virtues, such as (a)  honesty regarding one’s own inability to carry out one’s duties, (b) humble willingness to expose this to others, and (c) a deeper hunger for righteousness than others might have. This seems different than merely openness to others’ input (i.e. involuntary accountability.) One does not normally make oneself accountable voluntarily to others unless one sees a need in one’s own life for that input.

If this is right, then voluntary accountability may turn out to be an example of phronesis rather than arete (virtue). If one knows that a better way of achieving self-control, courage, or moderation (all virtues in themselves) is through opening one’s self to others’ input (i.e. voluntary accountability) rather than self-reliance, then ‘voluntary accountability’ seems more a case of practical wisdom (phronesis) in this case and not a virtue all its own.

Jesse Gentile is a new PhD student at Fuller seminary studying systematic theology. He has interests in theological anthropology, epistemology, ethics, technology and pretty much everything else. Jesse is the father of two awesome elementary school kids and is the husband of Ella (who works as a wills and trust attorney). He regularly does itinerant preaching among plymouth brethren assemblies throughout the U.S. Jesse hold’s degrees in Biblical Studies, Philosophy, and Instructional Design.

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