“I did that”, said the young daughter of a friend of mine pointing to the scribbles she had made on his first edition of A Child’s Garden of Verses.
She was proud of her work, and it felt good to do her own illustrations right on and over those on the printed page.
She was too young to be assuming responsibility – her smile alone showed that she had no idea what she had really done, defacing a book that had cost her father thousands – but it, he hoped, was the first step in a long moral evolution.
Why is it so hard to say, “I did that”? To acknowledge an error, an indiscretion, a moment of meanness? Some critics blame our moral demurral on the ethos of American individualism. Society is but a regulating context for individual actions where one starts from the premise of personal right and challenges anyone to prove otherwise. Where the expression of self is the only validation of being in a complex, overwhelming life.
Others cite the invasive influence of government which has evolved from the guarantor of civil liberties to the engineer of civil society. In an unequal society it is the principal task of government – or so the argument goes – to recalibrate it, make it more equal, just, and promising.
Public schools not only must educate students, but convince them of their self-worth. There are many intelligences, ways of learning, and valid means of expression. Cognitive skills are not the be-all and end-all of education. Every child is unique and uniquely qualified to go into the world.
Public welfare programs assume the inability of the underclass to get ahead. Given the unfortunate circumstances of their birth or their environment, they cannot make a go without help. They need financial, economic, and social support to give them a leg up on poverty.
In other words the modern liberal State has assumed the responsibility that once was only that of the individual; has overreached its authority, overstepped its bounds, and has created a culture of entitlement and dependency.
Still other critics have blamed parents for their solicitousness. They have bought entirely into the culture of self-worth and the coddling begins at birth. Their children, no matter how they measure against others, must have all the access, rights, and opportunities as anyone else. They refuse to accept that their offspring may not be quite up to snuff and push, maneuver, and manipulate with chutzpah and their own ambition.
Because Johnny can do no wrong, then any moral or ethical failing must be excused and attributed to circumstance or the failure of teachers, priests and their institutions.
Whatever it is, the failure to assume responsibility is epidemic in the United States. It is expected that politicians lie, distort the truth, or fabricate exonerating stories; and when they are caught, the offer vain and calculated ‘apologies’, feeble, unbelievable acts of contrition.
Those who take to the streets to protest unfair, unjust, or discriminatory treatment refuse to accept any responsibility for their failure to negotiate the complexities of American society. They cannot possibly be blamed for low levels of achievement, employment, or education because the system is at fault. Capitalist oligarchs, white elites, and the business-political Washington cabal are responsible.
Perhaps the most exaggerated example of collective lack of responsibility is the anti-vaxxer movement.
Those families who refuse to immunize their children directly affect the well-being if not the lives of others. Although one might argue that their irresponsibility will simply come back around – i.e. they will be the only once to contract, suffer and even die from measles – it does not excuse it. As long as the anti-vaxxers persist in their refusal to vaccinate against measles, the disease will remain active and virulent; and like most viruses may well mutate into an even more dangerous strain.
The anti-vaxxers do not believe they are acting irresponsibly. On the contrary, they believe they are acting most responsibly. They are willing to take the risk of what they consider minor childhood illnesses to prevent much more serious ones, especially autism, a condition which affects entire lives.
Or course doing the right thing is never absolute. The executives of companies who log old world forests believe that the benefits of jobs, higher stock earnings, and providing necessary resources for the heart of the American economy – housing – far outweigh any environmental concerns.
Conservative politicians who reduce social benefits and leave many without the lifeline formerly extended to them are not acting irresponsibly. In fact their steps to eliminate dependency and financial waste are very responsible indeed.
In fact every political decision is challenged on the basis of irresponsibility.
In a society without any moral anchor and an environment of individualistic relativism, how can anyone be expected to act responsibly consistently?
Moral relativism is complicated by revisionist history. A hundred years ago, parents routinely spanked their children believing that such discipline was necessary to teach an unforgettable lesson about right and wrong. That behavior is not rejected out of hand as immoral and irresponsible. The treatment of women, slaves, immigrants was all ignorant and ill-founded. Now that we know better we can act responsibly.
Yet each era’s social, ethical, and moral imperatives had a reasonable and understandable basis; and to condemn them is even more ignorant than their supposed dereliction.
Society then has become a confused mish-mash of relativism and absolutism. On the one hand individuals and groups are convinced of their absolute, unshakable, and inalienable rights; but on the other, we live in a tolerant society respectful of diversity and inclusivity. One man’s right is not necessarily another man’s wrong; but that man will disrespect, antagonize, and aggressively confront those who challenge it.
The Ten Commandments are not good enough any more. Every one of them has many caveats. Covetousness is no more than over-aggressive ambition. Killing in gang wars is an expression of legitimate defiance, identity, and the defense of the little social territory available in disadvantaged communities. The death penalty is still law. The universal right to abortion – considered killing by many – is the law of the land. Stealing is commonplace. Adultery is routinely excused.
Where does that leave us? Some observers have suggested a return to Giuliani’s Zero Tolerance approach to NYC crime. Prosecute minor offenses – turnstile jumping, graffiti, public nuisance – and a greater respect for social probity and the law in general will be promoted.
Easier said than done. How to promote a zero tolerance approach to unethical behavior in a society such as Wall Street which trains its executives to skate on and stretch the perimeter? How to reinstitute the classical precepts of honor, compassion, honesty, courage, respect, discipline, and responsibility in communities which have either disregarded them or distorted them for their own ends? How to convince politicians to fess up when the next election and the millions of dollars in rewards for office is around the corner?
One way is perfectly clear. Parents, preachers, and educators should give no ground and refuse all compromise. Lying is always lying. Stealing is always stealing. Cheating will always be cheating. All immoral or unethical acts harm others and ultimately one’s self.
Another is to reject the pervasive, almost universal sense of entitlement – the idea that one is owed something. While society will always be unequal, it should never be unequal in opportunity. Everyone should be able to adjust one’s trajectory.
A third is to challenge the philosophical premise of ‘diversity’. The more citizens are encouraged to believe that they are individuals first and Americans second with no race, gender, or ethnicity attributions attached, the more mutual respect can be encouraged.
That is, if one adheres to the same universal moral and ethical principles, acts accordingly, and respects individual integrity only as part of a larger social community, then respect should come easily.