Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics didn't make it on to the Conservative Party's summer reading list, which is a shame. It's the book that could make the difference between their 'responsibility revolution' being a disguised neoliberal justification for abandoning the poor, and a genuine reappraisal of the ethical dimension of human behaviour. If it is the latter, I think it is sufficiently grand a notion and ambition to provide them with the sort of big idea they conspicuously lack.
Taken seriously, the challenge is vast. Here are a few things the 'responsibility revolution' mustn't do to avoid being a neo0liberal scam. Firstly, it must, contrary to New Labour, re-imagine social, civic and domestic spheres in ethical-political terms, rather than economic terms. But by the same token, it must accept the economic character of the economy. The scam pulled by neo-liberals is very often to defend the market in normative terms (as the safeguard of freedom) and to analyse society in economic terms (as governed by rational self-interest). If the Tories aren't doing this, the 'responsibility revolution' must not be extended to areas where people are vulnerable to economic forces they can do nothing about.
Secondly, it can't be outcome-oriented. If the Tories start talking about individual responsibility 'working' or 'delivering', they will have eliminated ethics. The point about Aristotle is that an ethics oriented around happiness is not necessarily utilitarian, indeed utilitarianism is not really ethics at all. If you inject a load of seratonin into my brain to make me happy (with or without my permission), that is a different ethical state of affairs from the happiness I get from taking charge of my own life. Responsibility may or may not create utility, but it will be accompanied by happiness or eudaimonia of a form that Richard Layard would not compute.
Thirdly, and this is the trickiest bit, it has to become more agnostic towards causes as well as effects. At the moment, Andrew Lansley is saying that human agency is a more important causal mechanism in the obescity epidemic than biological and environmental factors. I doubt he can win this argument scientifically, so he will have to do so on ethical and metaphysical grounds. But what to do in the face of a postivist attack on the Today programme? The point about ethics (in contrast to policy) is that actions themselves are imbued with value. This not only diverts attention from outcomes, it also casts a sceptical eye on the very notion of causes. A certain existentialist account of freedom is implied. This leads to a subsequent risk of arbitary evaluation - responsibility for oneself could lead to all sorts of anarchic action. How do you defend that on the Today programme.
The greatest challenge the Tories face will come from biological evidence and expertise. We don't generally apply Aristotelian analysis to hospitals - a causal, naturalist account of the body is one patients are more than happy to go along with. Ethics is suspended as a human subject temporarily becomes a human object, before then reverting to a position of agency and self-government. The huge task for the Tories, if this isn't neo-liberal abandonment in disguise, is to shore up this primacy of human subjectivity, in an age when biological advances risk making society a vast hospital, with civic and domestic spheres as the play areas and cafes within it.