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Sunday, June 12, 2016

Accepting Personal Responsibility–How Refusing To Do So Erodes Personal And Social Integrity

I did that”, Brad Phillips’ daughter said, pointing to the jagged red crayon scorings on the frontispiece of an old edition of Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden Book of Verse. Her remark was certainly more pride in what she had done.  It must have felt good to make her mark with so much gusto; but she also knew that the books in the library were verboten. 
Whatever her real reasons, “I did that” was her first real admission of personal responsibility.  Baby steps to be sure – she was far from the Catholic Church’s age of reason – but steps towards a mature moral development nonetheless. 

Brad’s daughter turned out to be one of the most honest and responsible adults whom he knew.  She was absolute and certain about her principles, disappointed in the failings of others, but never arrogant or dismissive of them.  Moral rectitude came to her naturally.  It was as much a part of her character as her visual acuity, grace, and intelligence.  Either the Robert Louis Stevenson episode was an expression of a precocious moral maturity or the event helped to shape it.

Brad’s niece, Eleanor, was raised by a Nicaraguan nanny in Tucson.  His sister was a surgeon with a demanding practice and his brother-in-law an accountant handling major mining interests in the Southwest.  The nanny cooked, cleaned, and took care of his niece, and because Maria spoke no English, the little girl learned Spanish.

Eleanor learned quickly and well and for some reason took easily to the Latin American Spanish usages of Maria, especially to the frequent use of the passive voice.  There was something instinctively sensible  about a world without direct responsibility than one of blame.   Se me cayó – literally, ‘it dropped’ – was far more intelligent than ‘I dropped it’ because things do happen, no one is ever in complete control of one’s actions or even intentions, and life is nothing but coincidental events.

Of course Eleanor was too young to articulate her conclusions in this way; but Brad, whose experience with his morally punctilious daughter gave him a particular perspective on ethical development, was sure it was so.  There was nothing magic in Spanish phrasing – not subtle powers of transformation – but, as in the case of his daughter, was the right fit for the right moment in child development.

Eleanor must have already had a precocious sense of moral relativity – adults, after all, were very unpredictable and contradictory when it came to their own behavior – and had from an early age made up her mind about moral variability and degrees of responsibility.  Nothing was ever absolute and only conditional.

Whatever the cause-and-effect, Brad noticed that Eleanor would never accept responsibility but always first tried to explain it away.  This was a very precocious ability, involving as it did sophisticated concepts of conditionality, relativity, perception, and interpretation; but it was still unsettling.  He was concerned that such flexible ethics acquired at such an early age could prove damaging in the future.

Eleanor was smart enough to know that although it is easy enough to avoid responsibility or through deft and agile arguments deflect or minimize it, it is better to fess up than to be later caught in a lie or at best an obfuscation of the truth.  Ironically or logically she became a trial lawyer and a good one.  Her intuitive understanding of the relativity of truth stood her in good stead.  Antonin Scalia once remarked that the law was not about finding the truth, but determining which version of it was more compelling, and she was completely in accordance with his judicial philosophy.


Both Brad’s daughter and niece understood the importance of personal responsibility and although each of them concluded differently, they both were admirable models of rectitude.  They acted on principle, clear purpose, and insight; and could never be criticized for prevarication or worse moral hypocrisy.

Such, unfortunately, is not the general case.  Few public figures, it seems, are willing to take any responsibility for their actions, and are either enabled by an electorate which too has drifted away from the precepts of Cato the Elder and other moral philosophers, or by their actions encourage irresponsibility among their followers.  In either case dishonesty, lying, evasion of guilt, and a refusal to accept responsibility are common. 

Given our litigious, highly competitive society, one is almost expected to push ethical limits.  To admit guilt seems illogical, given the skill of lawyers to present extenuating or mitigating circumstances.  The more that we understand about human behavior and how it is conditioned by brain chemistry, genetics, upbringing, and social environment, the easier it is to deflect responsibility.  If alcoholism or drug addiction are health issues and not signs of weakened resolve, social indifference, and a selfish ignorance of the consequences of one’s actions, then how can one be personally responsible for one’s actions under the influence?

If chemical imbalance is responsible for a whole range of mental disturbances, then were does personal rectitude, discipline, and restraint come in? 

In other words, the more we learn about the factors contributing to human behavior, the more we conclude that individual responsibility is a chimera. The determinists were right after all.
The Sixties unfettered a new generation from the bourgeois ties to church, state, and community. Personal satisfaction – self-actualization, spiritual enlightenment, or doing your own thing – replaced duty, responsibility, obedience, and stability.  Community and religion did not disappear, but  became flexible collectivities of individuals.  Communes were loose aggregates of individuals who depended on each other for practical maintenance but who acted independently and respected the independence of others.

By dismissing the moral authority of established institutions, children of the Sixties generation were forced to come up with their own moral code, principles, and behavioral guides.  Such unmooring has been credited with advances in civil rights, peace, universal justice and the  foundation of movements for social change.  It has been criticized for leaving individuals morally adrift, dangerously without anchor in an increasingly complex world.

Yet there is more to the question of moral responsibility than just chemical imbalance and the Sixties.  Intelligent men and women, brought up right and with no particular social dysfunction nor any involvement in the revolutions of the recent past, still lie through their teeth, do everything they can do dismiss charges of duplicity, dishonesty, or lying.

Bill Clinton was a master at sophistry and legal argument.  His refusal to admit that he had sex with Monica Lewinsky was based on a torturously legal maze of definition.  It depends on how you define sex, the President argued; and for weeks he persisted in his specious arguments, assuming that his tight logic and intellectual agility would win the day.  It did not.  He finally came clean.

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Hillary Clinton, Democratic candidate for President (2016), taking a page from her husband’s playbook also refuses to come clean on a number of ethnical and legal issues.  By so doing she shifts responsibility for telling the truth to her investigators.  It is unlikely they will be able to find let alone prove any allegations, so why be honest up front?  She may be completely innocent, but her dodging and weaving does not bode well.


Wall Street bankers know that they are committing improprieties, but the rewards are so great and the likelihood of getting caught are so small, that there is no incentive to stop let alone to confess to ethical failure.  Detroit allegedly knew about the safety hazards of some of their cars, but were more than happy to pay the legal costs of law suits rather than retool and entire line of automobiles.  Why admit responsibility when it is not in your or your shareholders’ interests to do so?

Husbands have cheated on their wives ever since the invention of marriage; and the modus operandi has always been to lie when faced with even incontrovertible evidence.  Coming clean has few advantages particularly when wives – such as Hillary Clinton - are often willing to overlook male delinquencies. And why be quickly honest when prevarication can buy time? 

Most of us understand that the value of an untarnished record of responsibility and honesty pays long-term returns; and that short-term profits are nothing in comparison.  Yet we keep on lying, cheating, and avoiding responsibility until the handcuffs are on and the jail cell door slammed shut.
If American society is becoming more and more fragmented, it is due in part to the failure of individuals and groups to accept responsibility for their actions.  Pastors and civic and political leaders in dysfunctional neighborhoods must say, “I did that” and stop blaming others for persistent social ills. 

 Avoiding responsibility for failing public schools, inefficient public transit, high hospital infection rates or thousands of other incidences of social incompetence does no one any good and only adds to the contentiousness of the argument.  If a group refuses to budge from a self-serving posture of avoiding responsibility, the outcries for transparency and honest only become more shrill.

Accepting responsibility is key to individual moral development, social integrity, and communal understanding.

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