I must admit that I am confused with these two words. For so long a time, I have been using them interchangeably. I have consulted the dictionary (of course) but I can't seem to pinpoint the glaring difference between the two (if there is any). This may be similar to this question.


4 Answers 4


In many ways they are the same thing, but the "angle" is slightly different. Responsibilities are more intrinsic, as opposed to obligations. The latter, I think, is more something you have towards your environment, society,... surrondings basically. Allow me to explain why I see it like this:
If you have children, you are responsible for them, and therefore, you have the moral obligation to take care of them to the best of your abilities.
Note that you are responsible and this results in an obligation (in this case, a moral one).
Equally so, taking good care of your kids means good education, which in turn results in your being obligated to get them ready for school, help them if they need help, and, of course, pay for the tools the need (books, bills and the like)

In that respect, responsibilities are somewhat intrinsic to life: you are responsible for your own health and well being (eg: smoking is being somewhat irresponsible/reckless towards your own health).
If you, like me, are a smoker and have kids, I'd say you are obligated to smoke outside of the house, in order not to damage their health.

Your responsibilities are yours, but they result in obligations towards both yourself and your environment, or even society.
Sure, you might be given responsibilities. At work, or by people you care about, but these situations suppose a contract of sorts: a social or legally binding contract, which implies, in turn obligations. Basically: Responsibility and Obligation "go together like Horse and carriage, love and marriage": you can't have one without the other.

The inverse applies here, too: you are obliged to obey the law, if you don't, that causes harm to the society. If you get caught, and appear in front of a judge, you'll be held accountable for your actions (you are responsible for your actions, if you're a sane person).

So, a responsibility is something you can be held accountable for. How much you actually take responsibility for thinks, is evident from how you deal with your resulting obligations.


Being responsible means you have a sense of moral or ethical duty to something or someone which may imply an obligation to do something.

An obligation is simply a mandate to do something that does not connote any moral or ethical dimension.

  • Not according to AHD, for instance. Commented Dec 19, 2013 at 9:46
  • Isn't there a case to be made to say that, when you're obliged to do something (given your definition), that automatically translates to responsibility? An elected or appointed gouvernment official is given a mandate, and with it comes responsibility/moral duty. That's why I feel as if they are intertwined, and even though an obligation alone does not imply morals or ethics per se, an obligation translates to responsibility when applied to a person Commented Dec 19, 2013 at 11:52
  • you could be obligated to do something against your will or better judgement, could you not?
    – Brad
    Commented Dec 19, 2013 at 12:00
  • Yes, like an impounder might feel sorry for the people he meets during his working hours, and feel as if he has to do something "morally gray" from time to time. He/she does have a responsibility towards his employer, the people who are owed money and indeed his family. The obligation is the factual aspect, devoid of any moral or ethical dimensions, yes. The moral and ethics of the situation are perhaps better described as that persons responsibilities. You've got to bring home the bacon Commented Dec 19, 2013 at 12:34

AHD includes these senses for 'obligation':

  1. a. A social, legal, or moral requirement, such as a duty, contract, or promise that compels one to follow or avoid a particular course of action. b. A course of action imposed by society, law, or conscience by which one is bound or restricted.

Thus in some cases, because one has a social or moral requirement but not a legal one say to perform some service, it could be argued that the person has and has not got an obligation to do it. The confusion of 'polysemy + hypernymy'. Sometimes, the compounds / collocations 'moral obligation', 'legal obligation' and 'social obligation' are used to specify the sense intended.

The senses of 'responsibility', as you infer, overlap to a large degree with those of 'obligation', but carry a little less of a legal flavour. Though if a contract you've signed says 'It is the client's responsibility to . . .', certainly don't assume that's not a legal requirement / obligation.


I think that a responsibility is usually something you can take up or are given the duty of:

She had the responsibility of locking the doors.

An obligation is something that you may not refuse to do.

He had the obligation of paying a 5% carbon tax for his fuel.

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