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