"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Personal Responsibility–Why It Matters In This Election

Colin Kidd has written an interesting review of the book Personal Responsibility – Why It Matters by Alexander Brown http://www.lrb.co.uk/v31/n23/colin-kidd/the-irresistible-itch. The subject is particularly important in an election year where the stark differences between Republicans and Democrats could never be more clear. David Watkins writing in The Guardian (8.18) has put it succinctly, referring to Ayn Rand:

To succeed in this task [of structural political reform], Ayn Rand argued, Americans would need to question and reject the alien idea of altruism. Altruism is the Old World doctrine that it's your duty to live for others and renounce your own self-interest. In one form or another, this moral doctrine has been the justification for every welfare program. Other people need money for their retirement or healthcare, it's claimed, and therefore they're entitled to that money from you. The individual's pursuit of his own happiness versus altruism – this is the choice facing America.

Personal responsibility is an integral part of this debate.  If an individual has the sovereign right to pursue his own happiness, then he has to take responsibility for all his actions, and not rely on the state to rescue him. Individuals can make ‘good’ or ‘bad’ choices and the consequences are theirs and theirs alone  Altruism, however – misplaced altruism in the minds of many – has long been the rule.  Under this Old World ethos, the state is responsible for its citizens, and its job is to direct them to good and positive behavior and be a lenient and tolerant parent if they stray.  David Cameron, British PM has articulated a more modern vision:

Cameron began to articulate a social conservatism which balanced compassion for the underprivileged with a call for ‘personal responsibility’. ‘We talk about people being “at risk of obesity” instead of talking about people who eat too much and take too little exercise,’ Cameron complains. ‘We talk about people being at risk of poverty, or social exclusion: it’s as if these things – obesity, alcohol abuse, drug addiction – are purely external events like a plague or bad weather.’

Bad things don’t just happen to people.  They are caused by their own actions.  The new social contract is simple – we, the government, are freeing you, the individual, from restrictive laws and policies; and you in turn must be responsible for the results of your own actions.

However, as Alexander Brown shows, the subject is more slippery than politicians imagine. How should society determine whether someone’s circumstances mean that they are deserving of its support rather than its condemnation? [How can one] distinguish carefully between ‘brute luck’ (over which nobody has any control) and the misfortunes (so-called) which arise, at least in part, through risk-taking or poor decision-making?

Must society assume the costs of caring for those who smoke, abuse alcohol, or grow morbidly obese?  What about motorcyclists who receive head injuries because they were not wearing a helmet?  Or from accidents caused by excessive speed, texting-while-driving, simple inattention?

The prevailing political philosophy has been that poverty is more a function of historical and environmental factors and thus the state has an obligation to reduce its incidence and mitigate its effects.  Yet, few can deny the influence of personal indifference, lack of ambition, family dysfunction, rejection of moral norms and values, and indiscipline in determining social and economic status.  Why should the state invest in communities whose families have not or will not adhere to majority norms and standards; and why should it not return all responsibility to them?

The slope is slippery because it is complicated by religious, philosophical, and ideological convictions.  True Christian charity, many argue, knows no distinctions.  All who find themselves in need of help deserve it, regardless of the circumstances which led to their need.  Others argue strongly that Man was endowed with free will and that only those who cannot distinguish between right and wrong should be considered for special consideration.  But what about the recent Aurora mass murderer?  If he is found mentally incompetent, should he receive special legal consideration and should his sentence be more lenient?

Free will – to the non-philosopher the conceptual bedrock of any policy to promote personal responsibility – turns out to be a marshy notion. Although, as it happens, some philosophers have found a way of establishing moral responsibility independent of the notion of free will, is that the sort of argument a politician could make to the electorate with conviction or clarity?

If it is impossible to determine where mental competence ends and social responsibility begins; or to agree on the relative importance of personal and social factors which contribute to poverty, then it is equally impossible or at least very difficult to develop a fair and objective social policy.

What is happening now is an attempt to revisit the issue and to redress the current imbalance.  For the last fifty years since relativism and historicism emerged in the Sixties, the belief that individual character and action are determined by social, historical, and environmental factors and that human nature is neither genetically nor sociologically determined has persisted; and that as a consequence, government has the ability and responsibility do correct deviations in an inevitable pattern of social progress.  Now, political philosophers and citizens alike are challenging this notion.  There is such a thing as human nature, they say, witnessed by the endless cycle of war, territorial expansion, ethnic conflict, regional rivalries, and family disharmony.  Accepting the inevitability of these inbred and ingrained human tendencies, and understanding that they can only be modified and not eliminated are the first steps towards a society of individual responsibility and accountability.

Many governments are retreating from their activist policies, and while most agree that the state has some responsibility for assisting those in need, they are tightening their criteria. 

The politics of judgmentalism also call into question the supposed neutrality of the liberal state. Should the state hold people responsible for ‘good’ or ‘bad’ lives? How should governments interfere when conceptions of the ‘good’ touch on ‘controversial assumptions about human nature’, some of which might be drawn from particular religious doctrines? Brown concludes that it’s not ‘incumbent upon the state to refrain entirely from espousing views about the good life’, but that the alternatives need to be clearly presented to the electorate.

This retreat can be seen in many ways.  More politicians question an absolute commitment to public education.  Private choices will allow the most talented and the least able to find the most appropriate educational environment, while the state may assist those who may never achieve intellectual success.  Policy-makers are also re-assessing health care and the role of the state.  A private system can more appropriately address questions of individual action and responsibility.  Health insurers have already begun to exact higher premiums from those who abuse tobacco or alcohol or who are obese.  Welfare systems are being reformed to remove those who can work or to exchange benefits for work.  Government regulations are being re-examined to determine those which are truly in the public good and those which are designed to protect individuals from themselves.

The election this year is more significant than most because it is focusing directly and squarely on issue of personal initiative and responsibility, the individual vs. the state.  The debate is no longer on related but disparate issues – gay rights, welfare, health care – but on the central philosophical issue of altruism vs. individualism.  This is a good thing.  The issue has been brewing for decades, and the election may be a defining moment in American history.  Either the social movements of the Sixties are finally put to rest; or they are continued. 








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