Friday, October 11, 2013


The idea of personal responsibility has posed major problems for me.  I believe strongly that we do not have free will.  (See my essay on “A Matter of Choice,” posted on 8/25/13.)  If that is the case, how can it be said that individuals nevertheless have personal responsibility for their actions?  If all of our actions are ultimately the result of causes that we do not have control over, then personal responsibility would seem to be just as illusory as free will.  Put another way, how can individuals be held responsible for actions that are, at the most fundamental level, beyond their control?

Even so, I have a strong sense that failure to assume responsibility for one’s actions and for one’s circumstances will lead to a self-destructive world view.  I have an acquaintance who, by all accounts, has had a difficult life.  Born into a poor family that couldn’t afford to provide him nice clothes or even regular health care, he also had certain emotional issues that interfered with his ability to make or keep friends or to relate well to social situations.  As a result, he was continually teased and bullied as a child.  As an adult, he had trouble getting or keeping a job.  In retirement, he has very limited income that has compromised his quality of life.  He has told me that I have been extremely lucky--to have gotten a good education, to have had rewarding work, and to have a relatively secure retirement.  (Of course, at the same time I have been comparing myself to those better situated than I and have been bemoaning my fate, but that’s a different matter.)  The implication behind my acquaintance’s comments is that his straitened circumstances are simply the result of his being unlucky; it’s not his “fault.”  

Now here’s the thing: I have a strong sense that my acquaintance’s attitude is at least partly responsible for his difficulties.  His comments imply that my relative good fortune is simply the result of “luck.”  My feeling is that whatever success I have had has, in the main, been because I assumed personal responsibility for my actions and my future and as a result worked hard to succeed. That’s not to say that factors beyond my control--luck, if you will--did not play a part in my modest successes as well as in some of my failures.  But my sense is that the attitude of accepting personal responsibility has played a major role in the life that I have enjoyed (or not).  And my feeling is that the converse has also been true, that my acquaintance’s attitude of helplessness has contributed to his problems.  His unwillingness to accept personal responsibility has prevented him from taking those steps needed to improve his circumstances.  The result has been a vicious cycle.

With respect to the issue of freedom of choice, I have long been comfortable with the fact that, while I have a compelling feeling that my actions are the result of choices that I  make freely, intellectually I realize that that freedom is illusory and that we in fact do not have freedom of choice.  On the other hand, getting past the idea of personal responsibility has been much more daunting.  But here’s the distinction.  Freedom of choice is a personal matter.  We either have it or we don’t, and it turns out we don’t.  How we handle that fact is personal.  However, responsibility is a societal matter.  It is how society treats individual behavior.  As a member of society, we are held responsible for our acts, despite the fact that we do not have freedom of choice over those acts.  Society either rewards or punishes those acts, and the rules by which society treats individual behavior, in turn, have an influence on how individuals act.  Considering that the individual doesn’t have any true freedom to act, it might seem unfair for society to reward or punish him, but that system of rewards and punishments is critical to the functioning of society.  

Bottom line:  Responsibility is not a personal matter; rather, it is a societal one.  Strictly speaking, individuals are not responsible for either their failures or successes in the sense that they had the freedom to choose their course of action.  However, to the extent that they assume an attitude of personal responsibility, they are more likely to make choices that will be rewarding.

© 2013 John M. Phillips


  1. There is a logical gap here that you seem to recognize but not ever overcome: one the one hand, there is no free will so we have no control over our actions; on the other hand, because society holds us responsible for our actions and attitudes, we must MAKE EFFORTS to choose the right course of conduct or attitude.

    If we truly have no free will, as you insist, why have you offered us all these active verbs? For example: "...failure TO ASSUME responsibility for one’s actions...", "...whatever success I have had has, in the main, been because I ASSUMED personal responsibility...and as a result WORKED hard...", "How we HANDLE that fact is personal.", and "However, to the extent that they ASSUME an attitude of personal responsibility, they are more likely to MAKE CHOICES that will be rewarding."

    Why is it that your acquaintance's rags-to-rags biography is the result of his attitude and other emotional impediments to a handsome salary, and your rags-to-moderate-riches autobiography is the result of having a somehow better attitude...yet he considers himself lucky and is stated to have appreciated his work as rewarding while you imply that you have not enjoyed your career? As a pure Determinist, shouldn't you hold that every day, every moment!, is a purely lottery? Stepping into a Free-Will mindset, one might say that perhaps you formed certain habits early on that made certain events non-issues, while your acquaintance did not have those habits and so had great battles within himself on various details of day-to-day life. Arguably, you had it VERY easy under this view. For example, let's say at age 20 you had formed "Good Habit X" (e.g., not smoking, drinking, or gambling), and your acquaintance had not. At every point from age 21 forward, you did not have to make difficult choices regarding those issues, thanks to your 20-year-old self. Your acquaintance did not ever have Good Habit X, so his life from 21 forward involved much more mental struggle.

    I think a self-proclaimed Determinist would hold that neither you nor your acquaintance had anything to do with your current positions, just like you had nothing to do with the conditions of your birth.

    1. Thanks for your comment.

      First, as to your fundamental question regarding the apparent inconsistency in my point of view between lack of free will, on the one hand, and personal responsibility, on the other, that is exactly what I have been struggling with. I felt I had resolved the issue by saying that because we lack free will we also are not personally responsible for our acts. However, society assigns responsibility in the sense that it rewards or punishes behavior based on societal standards. Of course, societal standards and actions are ultimately “determined” also, as you point out. So in the end there is no freedom and no true responsibility. But it makes me feel better to remove responsibility from the individual and assign it to society. Am I just fooling myself?

      And you are correct that ultimately my friend was right in saying that I was “lucky” and that he was “unlucky” in the sense that I wound up better off than him, not by free choices that I made but by reason of a more favorable inheritance and environment. It is unfortunate that the factors contributing to his problems are also responsible for his attitude of helplessness and bad luck, and that attitude in turn exacerbates his problems. As I said, it is a vicious cycle.

      With respect to my preference for active voice, I guess I would argue that we do in fact act--”assume,” “handle,” “work hard,” etc.--but those acts are not the result of free will but of the host of factors that led up to that action.

      With respect to the comparison between my experience and my friend’s, I meant to say that he considers himself unlucky and me lucky. He did not enjoy his working life and I generally did. Sorry if I didn’t make that clear.

      As to whether I am a “pure Determinist,” I am not in the sense that, at least currently, our best understanding of physics is that there is an element of indeterminancy at the quantum level. Of course, that doesn’t mean that we have free will; it just means that there is some randomness--quite the opposite of personal control. (This relates back to the Niels Bohr/Albert Einstein debate where experimental results have largely favored Bohr’s position of indeterminancy.)

      Life is a lottery in the sense that we don’t have control over the outcome. But I don’t think it is a lottery in the sense that all events are random or uncaused.

    2. Just luck...that's interesting, paired with responsibility within society. What if there was no society? You were on an island, alone? What affects your actions there?

      Another thought on this sentence: As a member of society, we are held responsible for our acts, despite the fact that we do not have freedom of choice over those acts. Society either rewards or punishes those acts, and the rules by which society treats individual behavior, in turn, have an influence on how individuals act.
      What about natural consequences? Much suffering is the result of the choices we make in that they have consequences....punishment isn't necessary. You touch a hot stove, you get burned, you smoke you have health problems, you cheat on your spouse, your marriage falls apart, you over eat and you get fat...the list goes on and on. Even your unlucky friend suffered the results of his choices through natural consequences...not punishment. When we live outside the law of love we hurt others, we hurt ourselves, and we live in fear and anxiety.

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    4. Lisa,

      Generally speaking, "luck" is simply shorthand for lack of knowledge. When there is a "lucky" roll of the dice, for example, it is not because of luck; rather it is simply a reflection of our lack of knowledge of the exact dynamics of that roll.

      As to the second comment, please keep in mind that I am saying that whatever acts we perform are not the result of true choice but instead are caused by the physical events leading up to the situation. Those events may be the result of societal action or they may be the result of "natural" causes. It doesn't matter.

      I honestly don't know what you mean by the term "law of love."

  2. It is the law of giving, basically the living things in nature give, selfishness kills, viruses are an example of this.
    For me living the law of Love is acting selflessly and sacrificially to promote, assist, and defend others in need without regard for self-interests, self-promotion, or self-defense, in the best interest of others, even to the extreme of allow another to kill you during the commission of such acts, for their benefit. This is not limited to direct, person-to-person interaction, but what you do "behind their backs."

    As a christian one would say this is the character of God.

    1. Lisa,

      I'm trying to understand your first sentence. Are you saying that living things are about giving? What about, say, clams? They are living. Are they "giving"? Are you saying that viruses are examples of selfishness? I don't get it. One of the things we were taught in grammar school was that pronouns should have clear antecedents. I'm not sure what the antecedent of "this" is, and that uncertainty is probably what is confusing me.

      By "law of Love" are you saying that this is how we should live--a life of complete denial of self-interest? I don't think anyone truly lives that sort of life. People, like all animals, are ultimately driven by self-interest. Or are you saying that this is an indirect reference to Christ's sacrifice and that we need to live within that circle of love, if you will? If so, then I will tell you that, as a nonbeliever, "living within that circle of love" is not what I do. As strange as it may seem, one does not need to be a Christian to be a good and loving person who does not hurt others or oneself and who does not live in fear and anxiety, as you put it.

    2. Am I correct Lisa, that you believe that love /giving means you should give yourself passively over to a violent attack or abuse and not defend a child or yourself from a murderer or rape even if it meant a fight to that person's death? Is that what you were saying?

    3. Clams are giving especially when they're in chowder! Lol

    4. I think Lisa is trying to describe a life of total self-denial, but not one that would allow harm to happen to another, e.g., a child. She references a life of “acting selflessly and sacrificially to promote, assist, and defend others in need.” Not something that I can agree with, but then Lisa is welcome to weigh in on the meaning of her own comment.