Tag Archives: personal responsibility

Personal Responsibility

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┬áresponsibility 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.


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.