Actually Personal Responsibility

Dear reader, you occasionally hear people with conservative tendencies complain that the problem with Society today is that people lack personal responsibility: that the young and the poor need to take charge of themselves and stop mooching off their parents or the government: to shut up, do their homework, and get a job. I lack any sort of conservative tendency and would never say that sort of thing, but I would endorse a related-but-quite-distinct concept that I want to refer to using the same phrase personal responsibility, as long as it's clear from context that I don't mean it in the traditional, conservative way.

The problem with the traditional sense of personal responsibility is that it's not personal; it's an attempt to shame people into doing what the extant social order expects of them. I'm aware that that kind of social pressure often does serve useful purposes—but I think it's possible to do better. The local authorities really don't know everything; the moral rules and social norms you were raised with can actually be mistaken in all sorts of disastrous ways that no one warned you about. So I think people should strive to take personal responsibility for their own affairs not as a burdensome duty to Society, but because it will actually result in better outcomes, both for the individual in question, and for Society.

To the extent that good things actually get done in the world, it's almost always because somewhere along the line, a human mind designed that outcome. Valuable things typically don't grow on trees; fruit does, but in our modern civilization, it's because someone decided to plant that tree there, because a mind (not necessarily consciously, and not necessarily wisely, but all the same) generated a number possible plans, guessed at the probable consequences, and selected one to make real.

If you've been raised to believe that morality consists of obeying your parents or employers or schoolteachers, then it might seem like you don't have the right to make decisions, that decisionmaking (if it happens at all) is something done by committees of distant authority figures, not ordinary people like you, or that your right to decide things comes exclusively in the form of your right to vote, or buy consumer goods, or enroll in school courses. But it's not true; it can't be true; life itself does not emanate outwards from Washington or Wall Street or the Dean's office; with every thought and every breath, you are (implicitly, whether you realize it or not) controlling the tiny fragment of the world which is you, exerting an influence (however faint, however unpredictable) over the history of the universe outward and futureward from that tiny fragment.

Dear reader, I would not be so foolish as to advise you what you should do with this power, because I don't know anything about you or what situation you're in. I can't pretend to know what you should say or do, nor whom you should help, hurt, ignore, obey, or command. I just want to mention—because I wish someone had told me in so many words, this truth which still takes me an intense effort to keep salient—that it is a choice, that it is a responsibility. Not a responsibility to Society, or the moral law, or even to yourself. A responsibility over the outcome, whatever you make of that, or it.

2 thoughts on “Actually Personal Responsibility

  1. It was a pleasure to have met you today. I enjoy your distinction between conservative narratives of "personal responsibility" and an actual construct that would be liberating. Very enjoyable!

  2. You claim to be clean of conservative tendencies, but you just cut down the misrepresented bastard child of ignorance and conservative ideologues, and championed the intended meaning of personal responsibility. The meaning that is still taught by the wise.

    Thanks for putting words to my guiding compass concept, I never could.

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