Random Ruminations on Personal Responsibility

When I was doing research for my book God and Country, I began to really appreciate the impact of Calvinism on American culture. Calvin taught that people were either “saved” or not, and that personal success (wealth, acclaim) could be a sign that one was one of the elect. (Before religious historians post blistering responses, I know this is a very superficial description of the theology.) What intrigued me was the way in which this particular belief continues to influence our very American perspective on merit and personal responsibility.

I thought about that Calvinist influence when talking last week to a student who was disdainful of his classmates who had yet to find employment. “They should have done what I did,” he told me, explaining the extra efforts he had put into his own search. And those efforts were laudable, no question about it. But he is also blessed with a high intellect, lots of energy, the means to dress well for interviews and other advantages he takes for granted.

A contemporary of mine who runs a political think-tank is an exemplar of this attitude. He is a white, straight, Anglo-Saxon Protestant male, over six feet tall, and athletic. His parents both graduated from one of the nation’s best universities, and while they were not wealthy, he had a comfortable, intellectually enriched childhood and adolescence. He has enjoyed good health. He was born with a quick mind. And he has withering contempt for people who need public assistance of any kind. After all, he “stood on his own two feet.” Why can’t they?

I think this attitude is common among bright people who have worked and achieved. It takes some thought–not to mention humility and compassion–to recognize the role privilege plays in our lives.

My friend grew up white, straight and male in a society that privileged such things. He had good health, a good mind, and he didn’t encounter social or economic barriers to the tools he needed to succeed. I know that he–and my student, and others–also displayed admirable personal characteristics and diligence, but what they and so many others fail to appreciate is the extent to which privilege made it easier for them to “make it.”

The noted philosopher John Rawls asked an important question: What sort of system might we devise that would be fair to everyone if we operated behind “a veil of ignorance”–if we didn’t know beforehand what place we would have in that system? If we didn’t know whether we would be born rich or poor, black or brown or white, disabled or healthy, mentally impaired or brilliant…If we had no way of knowing whether we would be born to privilege or mass despair. What sort of system could we create that would reward effort and achievement while still recognizing and ameliorating “luck of the draw” disadvantages?

I don’t think a fair system would deny health-care to poor people or those with pre-existing conditions. I don’t think it would “save” money by cutting back preschool programs, or insisting that women bear children they are unprepared to raise. I don’t think it would deny laborers the opportunity to unite to bargain for safer workplaces.

I don’t think that insisting that people exercise personal responsibility requires us to ignore the role luck plays in our achievements.

We can insist on personal responsibility without being mean-spirited or willfully obtuse.


  1. Thanks Prof K
    I know those things were all true in my life. I came from a clean warm house where there was always food to eat and clean clothing to wear. My schools were clean warm and well run. AND, when I wanted to start my company, my father was willing to go to his CREDIT UNION at the Post Office to borrow the 10,000 need as seed money. Yes I was very successful, but I sure as heck did not do it on my own. Luck along the way helped but the accident of birth was a big help too.
    Thanks for another good read.
    Your Friend

  2. This is one of the truest and best posts or articles you have ever written – and that is saying a lot.

  3. Well said, this is the other side of “personal responsibility” that unfortunately is only rarely acknowledged or understood by those who enjoy the priveleges you describe. Equally confounding are those who characteristically underestimate those from more “humble stock” and their potential to succeed.

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