I noticed a letter to the editor this morning that sounded a familiar theme. The writer dismissed the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators, characterizing them as whiners wanting handouts, and ended by lecturing them to take “personal responsibility.” Clearly, in his view, “personal responsibility” means taking care of oneself and not expecting anyone else to lend a hand.
There’s a lot wrong with this diatribe–ironically, the major complaint of the OWS protests is the distortion of our social structures that makes it difficult, if not impossible, for many people to exercise that sort of personal responsibility–but for some reason, I was struck by the fact that we rarely hear anyone explain what they believe is involved in taking personal responsibility.
At a minimum, personal responsibility is understood as taking care of oneself. (In this sense, it always reminds me of the 15th Century English poor law that prohibited giving alms to the “sturdy beggar.”) In America, the able-bodied are expected to work. But doesn’t personal responsibility also include a responsibility to work for a system where work is available?
In other words, doesn’t personal responsibility entail responsibility for our communities? And if it doesn’t, how are we different from the “state of nature” described by Hobbes as “nasty, brutish and short.” This nation’s founders were heavily influenced by John Locke’s theory of the social contract; surely that contract demands a measure of social responsibility of our citizens.
This morning’s letter-writer uses “personal responsibility” much as the English used to use the phrase “I’m all right, Jack.” In other words, I’ve got mine and I expect you to get yours, and if you can’t, tough. Don’t whine to me.
I think that is a crabbed, unsatisfactory and ultimately self-defeating definition of personal responsibility. I believe the correct interpretation of responsibility is that I have a duty not just to take care of myself and my family, but to contribute to my community: to work for good government, to assist those who are less fortunate, and to work with others to create a society where all people have an equal opportunity to be personally responsible.
When we participate in the ideological babble that substitutes for civic discourse these days, we really need to define our terms.