Free Will and Changing Your Mind

There was a very good question posed to Sam Harris on his podcast which was:

“If free will is an illusion, why are intentions morally relevant?”

Sam Harris’ answer was very good, but I wanted to throw in my own answer as well.  This also brought to the fore questions I have been asking for years and has led me on a path to learn about the brain and cognitive science: “How effectively can we change our own minds about things?  And what is the manner in which we can change our mind?”  Now perhaps to some, the question posed to Sam Harris doesn’t seem related, but I think there is a very important connection here.

Whether or not you agree that free will is an illusion or not, isn’t something I want to debate with right now.  I haven’t heard a compelling reason in favor of the idea of free will in some time.  I think what the more interest question is to understand why people are against the idea of free will being an illusion.  Sure you could argue that religion is part of that reason, but even secular people are uncomfortable with the idea.  The question posed to Sam Harris says it all.  If there is no free will, how is anybody responsible for their actions?

The word responsible is the word that doesn’t belong here, and this is what most people seem to miss.  This has important consequences for our justice system.  So then why do intentions matter?  The reason why intentions matter is because of what it says about your brain.  Let’s say I’m driving and I accidentally hit a cyclist, what does this say about me as a person?  I may be careless on the road.  Maybe I need to take some more driver training classes.  Maybe I need glasses.  Maybe if I’ve gotten into numerous accidents it means I probably shouldn’t drive any more.   What if I feel genuine remorse for what I’ve done?  Doesn’t that say something about how my brain works as well?  Do I belong in jail?  I don’t think so.  But if on the other hand I see that cyclist and get a sinister grin on my face and speed up and mow that cyclist down, what does this say about me?  It says that I am a person who takes joy about causing harm to others.  I might not feel remorse…maybe I do…but there would be something troubling about my mind that speaks to what future actions I am likely to take.  What if I know the cyclist and hate the person and that’s why I mow them down?  This also says something troubling about future actions I might make.  Because who might be the next person I hate, and what might I do to them?

I have talked about the idea of “personal responsibility” before and as I write this post it becomes even clearer why that phrase confuses me.  Having a party centered around personal responsibility seems to be an even bigger mistake.  We are a social species and it’s easy to say we are responsible for ourselves, but I don’t think that’s really the case.  It is the environment which shapes the individual and we have laws in large part not to control individual behaviors but to protect society.  It seems to me that it is we as a society, as other people in a person’s life that intervene to impact someone’s behavior.  And when a person does change their behavior it is a response to what society values, or through some personal experience in interacting with society or their environment that changes one’s mind.  If I am going around running people down with my car, whether accidentally, or on purpose, it is society that in some way says hey you can’t be doing that and finds an appropriate way to make me less of a danger.  If I take it upon myself to make changes, it is because of some emotional reaction to what I’ve done that is the impetus for change.  Rather than a decision to change, my body, my mind doesn’t want to feel a certain way and thus pushes me in a direction to not feel that way again.  My consciousness of that motivation is what gives me the illusion of free will.

Change in an individual seems to be a result not of an individual’s decisions, but rather the environmental context in which we live.  If society hasn’t shaped us to be more receptive to changing our mind, it is actively intervening to try and convince us to reform our views.  Sometimes successfully, sometimes not.  It seems that there is no real reason for me to want to change my mind about anything when I think about it.  I mean if what I believe has kept me alive so far, to be of an age to reproduce and raise children to a sufficient age so they can reproduce then what I believe must be pretty reasonable.  Now for a social species it could be that what I believe is very counter to surviving well with the people around me.  But as long as I generally believe what the “group” believes I’ll probably be alright.  Whether those beliefs are true or not makes no difference.  It really doesn’t even make a difference if they are harmful, providing that harm doesn’t lead to any consequences that would significantly reduce my chances to reproduce.

As we realize the global society that we live in, and that more and more of us are infringing on each other cultural and intellectual space, as we become more acutely aware of the harm of certain beliefs and values, not just in our community but over the entirety of the planet, I feel it’s important we start asking how can we all get along?  What values should this global community have?  What differences can we afford to maintain and still get diversity?  Does diversity’s value diminish over time if we hope for unity among humankind?  And given how difficult it seems to be to change one’s mind, what are some beliefs we could have that would provide a backdrop to growth for a better future where less humans suffer, and well being is increased?  It is this last question I want to explore a bit more in future posts.  I think tied to this is the area of human emotion which I have become more intrigued with of late.  I think that our emotional and reasoning side are more tied together than we think and that without emotions, at least for humans, growth isn’t possible.

It All Hangs in the Balance

One of the problems I revisit regularly in my mind is the one of individualism versus collectivism.  It has been brought back to my mind as I finally concluded reading Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. His final two books in the series look at the idea of having individual consciousness or a more global consciousness which is inspired by the Gaia hypothesis, in which humans participate in self-regulating consciousness cooperatively with each other and all other life to create a state of perfect balance.  Asimov too struggles with the loss of individuality in favor of the common good.  Asimov seemed to be in favor of the latter, although I believe he tried to argue that a global consciousness doesn’t mean there is no individuality only that at times we must put that aside for the greater good.

The United States is a highly individualistic nation and it’s no surprise why so many nations with throngs of people forced to conform into a faceless, impoverished mass would envy the American way of life and freedom.  It occurred to me that many of the debates I seem to have about politics and ways of life are often have, at the heart, the issue of the greater good (collectivism) vs. individual freedom.  I guess it seems that I also side with the collectivist philosophy, but I also recognize the value of individuality to make that collective dynamic and adaptive to a changing understanding of our universe.  Whether it’s capitalism versus socialism, gun rights, globalism vs nationalism, justice and law, these debates often rest on arguments on what benefits the greater good and how much freedom we should have as individuals.  There is a balance to be had, and most critically thinking people I know agree on this, even if we disagree where that balance should be.

Freedom in itself is a strange concept because it doesn’t seem possible in the absolute as a social species.  How free am I to make any of my decisions? I should be free to buy my own clothes, but what if those clothes are made in a sweatshop?  But what if, even that meager wage allows people to live instead of starve, or at least a few more are able to break from that impoverished life.  When I simply provide for my family I make a thousand decisions that can impact positively and negatively others in the world, and though it may seem like I am living a quiet life causing no harm this may not be necessarily true, even if that harm is indirect.  How much does my lack of struggle in life come at the expense of someone who must struggle more?  It’s easy to ignore that which is not in front of your face and that which does not feel like part of your community.

Our species is a social one, and there is no getting around it.  Regardless of whether we are shaped as a hunter-gatherer society or “civilization” everybody has a role and can play a part.  And even if age or some accident in life, or a random birth defect we even have the ability to carry that small fragment of population along with us, and even find a way to find a use for them, even if that use is only to increase our capacity to have compassion.  As a result whatever values we hold will shape who we are as a species.  Too strong of a value on individualism over the greater good could leave us with vast degrees of inequality, decreased value on cooperation, and dysfunction in the ecosystem.  Too much emphasis on the collective can lead to greater conformity, loss of diversity of thought and ideas, and thus stagnation from individual growth and growth as a society.  The question becomes how can we promote individuality while at the same time convince people to work together and be in harmony with their environment?

If we remove humans from the Earth we would find a very self-sustaining organism.  Barring some large collision with an asteroid, life would persist until the sun went nova.  However it would be a mistake to think that there was a global consciousness such as described by the Gaia hypothesis.  I think it’s always a bit of a myth that other organisms live in balance with nature, whereas humans do not.  If you studied population dynamics in school you perhaps learned about cycles of rabbit and wolf populations.  The wolf is not conscious of the fact that it must conserve how many rabbits it eats or that it should hold off on having babies this year because if all the wolves in an area increase in population there will suddenly be a rabbit population in starve.  It thrives according to the food it can gets, and if can no longer get food, it starves, and there are less wolves, allowing the rabbit population to rebound.  Rabbits that evolve better evasion skills pass on their genes, and wolves with better hunting skills pass on theirs. And the population of both rabbits and wolves oscillates about an equilibrium, an average value that both populations of rabbits and wolves do not know they are maintaining.  One of the values of our intelligence should be that we can discover these equilibriums and we are best adapted at maintaining it.  We always haven’t been conscious of our place in the ecosystem, but we are now, and understanding more all the time.  It’s not surprising we could be so destructive, but as we learn more we also have the ability to extremely great stewards.

Annotation of the PREDATORS-PREY Relationship

Of course Asimov’s Gaia world, just as proposed by Lovelock, is likely a pipe dream in reality, because in his idea there was a collective consciousness that made decisions only in proportion to maintaining balance.  Such a reality for humans would mean that we would have all make sensible decisions about how many children to have, what to eat, and how to live peaceably in our environment.  But what’s interesting to me is that we also see examples of this in our human histories.  Many groups that ended up on islands learned how to conserve rather well.  Spacing out how often and how many children we had, techniques at preserving and storing food, techniques for domesticating plants and animals were all attempts to have ample food supplies for harsh seasons and changes in the environment.  But like any form of life, when abundance is presence, there is no thought to be conservative in terms of population.  We became masters of farming and population exploded as we began to be able to seemingly provide ourselves with food at will.  As it turns out we were only fooling ourselves, because our powers were still not limitless, although it made sense how it might seem so in the short term.

What I do see when I look at humanity is a potential for a march towards that ideal of global consciousness.  We may never truly have a global consciousness with each other and all life on the planet, but what we do have is empathy.  We have the ability to be conscious of the damage we do to our environment and other life, and what the long term impacts of that damage will be.   We have the ability to recognize that we might all be different pieces in a puzzle, but that we have equal value to the whole.  Just like each piece has uniqueness and is still integral to the puzzle, we can maintain our individuality while also recognizing what we are all a part of.  In this sense there would be no difference to an actual global consciousness and all acting in a way as if there was one.  We have a long way to go, but I believe it all begins with humility and compassion, and acceptance of the idea that all humans are part of the same tribe, the same community, the same species, and that we all have value.

The War on the Poor

We have a lot of people living in poverty in this country and through various conversations on Facebook and on blogs you see a lot of arguments against providing a social safety net, raising the minimum wage, and helping them in general that I thought I would compile a list of my least favorite and most fallacious arguments I hear.

  1. I know some people that actually think the government owes them, doesn’t look for a job, and these people are just lazy freeloaders.  Throwing money at them just supports a dependency culture.

Some variant of this argument is often used so let’s dissect it.  Whenever you hear someone say “I know some people…” or “I know this person who…” this argument can already be dismissed based on being anecdotal and not necessarily a representation of how things are.  We all have our own experiences that shape our views, nobody is saying your own experience didn’t happen, only that you may not be understand your experience properly in the context of the bigger picture.  There is no question that some people cheat the system.  But this happens across the board at every level of society, and I would argue that the rich cheat the system by a far higher percentage rate than the poor, the only difference is that the rich can change the laws so what they are doing is legal.  They can afford better lawyers.  More importantly is that we do tend to focus on the negative, and this is what we tend to see.  There are so many poor in our country that even if 2% of the 50 million living in poverty in the U.S. were cheating the welfare system that still 1 million people and FOX news could run 100 stories a day focusing on a different cheater of the system and still not be done in a year, but that doesn’t really give you the reality of the situation.  What if there are a lot of people on welfare who are trying to get a job, or who actually work a job but it doesn’t pay well enough to make ends meet?  What if most people are actually embarrassed that they are on welfare and are trying to get out of it and don’t get very vocal about it.  Do the rest of our time really take the time to talk to all the poor and find out which ones are on welfare and are honestly trying to get out of their situation?  Nope.  And especially if the freeloaders anger us, not surprisingly we are going to take You-Pay-Taxes-So-the-Rich-Dont-Have-tospecial notes on those people and they are going to stick in our memory and support our views about wasted taxpayer money.  I have also yet to find anybody post some actual data on how many of these welfare freeloaders are.  They are always anecdotal.

I would agree that throwing money at the poor is not always the solution that we also need to do better to help people out of it so that they can support themselves, but the conversation always seems to be welfare, or not welfare.  There is a 3rd option and that is to improve welfare.  To say it doesn’t have value is an insult to many people who have depended on it when times were lean.  Not all people on welfare are on welfare for the rest of their lives.

And concerning the subject of wasting taxpayer money if we want to play the “I’m not supporting things I don’t like game” with my taxes, then I would also not like any of my taxpayers to go to foreign wars that I disagree with.  You pull your money out of the freeloader driven welfare system, and I will pull my money out of military spending, and I guarantee I will be much richer at the end of the day.

  1. I have never had to work a minimum wage job in my life. If you can’t live on minimum wage, go find a better job.  Ask for a raise.

Once again we have a point that rests on anecdotal experience.  I find these statements also come from white people.  I’m not saying their racist, but perhaps the people who hired you are, and preferential chose you.  That’s a light argument though, so let’s get a little deeper.

Let’s just look at it by the numbers.  In a capitalist society I think conservative and liberal alike we can say that businesses want to make money.  They will definitely maximize their profits by selling some product for the highest possible price that gives them a large base of customers, and they will try to cut costs on expenses.  People that work for them are part of those expenses.  So we would expect that just like there are always a very small amount of really rich people in the country, there are also going to be a lot of low paying jobs and then less and less jobs that are higher paying.  The more special skills you have, and this could simply being really strong and doing hard manual labor, trade skills, or this could be, being highly educated, you are of course are going to garner a higher wage.  The types of jobs available to the high school graduate are small.  You have a job at $7.25/hr and you want a better one, and of course a lot of people do.  You have to compete, and if that higher paying one doesn’t require a specific skill set then you have even more competition, quite simply not everyone can get it.  So just to say “Find another job” isn’t realistic.  Finally, how easy is it to find that new job when you are working 5 days a week and actually can’t search for jobs which are quite often only open during the times that you work?  How do you take time off from your job, unpaid, to go look for jobs?  How do you think your boss will react when you need to take an afternoon off to go to a job interview?  And if they don’t get the job, they’ve lost money just by taking those hours off.  Money they desperately need.

The immobility of the poor demonstrated by disasters like Katrina
The immobility of the poor demonstrated by disasters like Katrina

More importantly many poor people have other issues to deal with than just finding that better job.  What if that job is another city?  Can they afford to move if they already have no money?  What if by moving they lose the support of family who can help reduce their costs by taking care of their kid(s) while at work?  Even a job in another part of the city may involve a long commute on public transportation which increases the time that they have to leave kids at daycare or a babysitter that increasing their expenses.  Finally, should we really expect other people to move away from friends and family for a better job, a decision many of us are not willing to make either?  Why is it so unreasonable for them to expect the minimum wage to be increased and keep pace with inflation, since it has not?

Well wanting the minimum wage raised, is actually asking for a raise.  Going back to the start of this argument, in a capitalist society why would a company raise the wage of a minimum wage worker if they didn’t have to, if they job had such a low skill they could just replace them with the next applicant?  What if by asking for a raise, the boss actually decided to terminate them or give them worse hours?  When you are barely surviving rocking the boat isn’t always the safest play either.

And raising the minimum wage will help greatly with reducing suffering.  While it’s probably best to raise the minimum wage incrementally, in general the idea that prices on everything would double is wholly untrue, since wages are only a portion of expenses for a business.  While $15/hour might be excessive, no study finds that when the minimum wage is raised to keep pace with inflation that this harms the economy. This article by the Department of Labor does a great job of discussing it and remember that when people actually have money to spend, this is good in a consumer driven economy.  All those people in poverty aren’t buying as much stuff as you think.

  1. People on welfare are buying steak, have smart phones, getting manicures, smoking, buying drugs, etc.

Nothing cheers me up more than a person of privilege who has been fortunate to have the luxuries of this world, whether through marrying someone with a great job, or being born into a middle-class or higher family, complaining about other people wanting those things too.

Let’s ignore the fact that people need a phone, and that smart phones are practically free, and that maybe spending more money on quality nutritious food is maybe a better idea than crappy food which is cheaper and leads to all sorts of health problems.  But let’s look at the psychology of poverty .  When you live paycheck to paycheck barely making ends meet, and have grown up in poverty, your ability to long term plan fades, and yes you tend to not save money depriving yourself of creature comforts, because your life is one in which appears to have no long terms solutions.  So why live for tomorrow, when you can live for today?

Income-InequalityIn my training for my volunteer work we had to try and make a budget based on what a family makes on two minimum wage jobs and it is a daunting task.  And of course there are many families that do try to save, but saving is hard to do when you’re poor.  If you don’t have access to public transport, you have to depend on  car.  And people live in poverty have to buy old cars that nobody else really wants, but they can get a good deal on them.  However, such cars need repairs frequently, and repairs cost.  Now you could say why don’t they get a better car that is more reliable.  Quite simply it costs more and they wouldn’t qualify for the loan.  This leads to, what I call, the “stay-in-poverty-feedback loop”.  What little money poor people often save goes to these types of expenses because they literal can’t afford better quality stuff.  Car repairs are just one example, but people in poverty often have to get home repairs more often, replace things like water heaters, furnaces, or air-conditioners more often, because poorer housing means people are getting used, cheaper, and/or older stuff in their home.  So even if they are able to put away a little money each month it often gets eaten in one fell swoop by these unexpected repairs.  And there are plenty of other big costs, like health care, which they often put off, even if they have insurance to save money on co-pays, but then this compound into a worse cost later, but remember how poverty doesn’t lend itself to long-term planning.  And if you have kids, there are even more emergencies that can come up.

On the topic of buying drugs, well I don’t see a lot of people asking that all employees receiving public money take such drug tests, only poor people.  Some how if poor people are doing drugs, that is more egregious than any other income bracket.  As it turns out though, the amount of drug abuse among those on welfare is staggering low. So low that the cost of testing everybody costs more taxpayer money than letting that small percentage of people have their drugs.  Not to mention that just cutting off their life support doesn’t actually work as a deterrent to doing drugs, just makes them resort to more desperate measures to obtain drugs likely causes more problems.  And throwing these horrible drug users in jail, just gives them a criminal record, making it harder for them to get a good job and get out of poverty.

 4. Why are they having babies if they can’t afford to raise them?

Well there are all sorts of reasons that people have children, and if we ignore the fact that there are many areas of the country that don’t have adequate sex education, women don’t have easy access to birth control, or that a woman might simply get pregnant because a man lied to her, or the birth control failed.  But let’s say that there are these terrible women out there who are having children as some sort of scam to get more free money.  I am sure such women exist.  Nevermind the fact that such women were likely raised by a similar mother, probably has little education and special skills and is certainly not mentally well to be making that decision, should we cut her off from that money?  Is this the way she will become a wonderful mother? Or will she literally be unable to cope, unable to keep up with all her new responsibilities?  More importantly it’s of little good to question whether she should have had children, she does have children.  These children are innocent, they’ve done nothing wrong, and so cutting off the mother also harms the children.  Where is the humanity in this?  If you’re pro-life then this must also be part of your consideration if you care about children.

  5.  Poor people need to be more personally responsible.

I’ve blogged about personal responsibility before, I don’t want to repeat all I’ve said there, but I think we can agree that one’s responsibility for themselves depends on the environment in which they were raised, such as level of education, family, friends, culture, etc.  And as I also stated in that post, when we look around we don’t see a lot of people being personally responsible.  Politicians rarely are.  Rich kids like Ethan Couch certainly don’t show a lot of personal responsibility and so even if you believe that personal responsibility comes down to the absolute free will to choose to be that way, it’s clear that a lack of personal responsibility is not a trait that only applies to the poor.  Should we say that rich people are allowed to lack personal responsibility, but poor people or not?  More importantly why aren’t we asking the question of personal responsibility to those that are extremely wealthy?  Is it personally responsible to have more wealth than you can spend in your lifetime.  Is it personally responsible to have more wealth than is required to meet your basic needs have plenty of luxuries and send your kids off to the best of colleges?  Is it personally responsible for corporations to ship jobs overseas just to make more money, while their fellow citizens now struggle to make ends meet?  Is it personally responsible to make that 5 billion in a year than the 2 billion you might make if you paid your employees a fair wage?  Is it personally responsible to not pay your fair share in taxes by hiding your wealth in off-shore accounts and other tax shelters?  For those who hold personal responsibility as the most important of virtues, can we not apply this attitude consistently across all economic classes?  Why are only the poor held to these standards of personal responsibility?


I know this is already a little TLDR, so I’ll be brief here.  In a line from the movie the Usual Suspects Kevin Spacey’s character says “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled is that he convinced the world he doesn’t exist.”  Well maybe there is an even greater trick.  Is it possible that those who are driven by greed in the acquisition of wealth and power have instead convinced you that the poor are the demons in our society?  That even though a majority of them work longer hours, take less vacation, receive poorer education, less nutritional options, worse health care, and less social mobility, somehow a good proportion of the wealthy have led you to believe they are the bane of your quality of life?  And so effective is this message that many of the poor are complicit in that oppression and vote into office the same people who have demonized them in society.  If trends continue as they do, with the exception of a small percentage of the population we all sink together so let’s stop making the poor our enemy.

Who’s Responsible?


I’ve been thinking a lot about personal responsibility lately and just kind of wondering what it really means.  It’s phrase that gets thrown around a lot, especially in regards to politics.  Conservatives use the term quite a bit but often don’t seem to behave in a way that shows they grasp the meaning or try to determine if it’s actually true.

When I googled the definition it gave me this:

Personal responsibility is the idea that human beings choose, instigate, or otherwise cause their own actions. A corollary idea is that because we cause our actions, we can be held morally accountable or legally liable.

Let’s look at the truth of this statement first.  There are plenty of arguments that can be made to show that this does not reflect life in any way.  Simply because the choices that any one person has in front of them are simply different.  A person living in poverty has a completely different set of choices to make than a person who is wealthy.  Now let’s throw in a genetic background which varies across the human population.  Now let’s throw environmental influences.  now let’s throw in information about how the brain develops and how one can be indoctrinated or brainwashed into a certain way of thinking.  Now let’s throw in levels of education which vary.  We are all conditioned for a certain set of responses that is either likely or more likely, which I discussed in a previous post about free will.  And of course this idea of personal responsibility is used to imply that all poor people are lazy and are poor by choice.

Now even if this notion of personal responsibility was entirely true, why is it that we have a government who shows no personal responsibility?  And I’m talking about both sides of the aisle, both Democrats and Republicans.  We simply don’t have a government that demonstrate personal responsibility.  How often do we hear politicians admitting their own mistakes?  How often do they apologize for the suffering they might have caused?  How often do they apologize for the policies that haven’t worked or been implemented effectively?  How often do they apologize for not doing the things they said they were going to do?  Sometimes I wonder if the reason there is a lack of trust in government in this country has less to do with the fact that they keep doing stupid things, but rather not owning up to the stupid things they do.  I mean seriously would you trust somebody who lacked so much self-awareness that they didn’t even seem to care or notice that they are screwing you or other people over?  I know I wouldn’t?

And that brings me to a bit of a side question.  Would you be more likely to re-elect someone who admitted to his/her mistakes or someone who denied that they made any?  I guess the answer seems to lean towards the latter because it seems we spend so much time trying to prove that someone made a mistake (and yes mistakes when you are in a position of great responsibility can cost people their lives), but do we do that because we know they won’t admit themselves, or were we really expecting them to be perfect?  The rest of us make plenty of mistakes, so does anybody really believe that those we elect are part of a select group of people who don’t make any mistakes?  Isn’t the most important thing that we learn from mistakes and don’t make them again?  Take the Benghazi situation. In hindsight it seems like a lot of things could have been done differently, and perhaps they will in the future, but shouldn’t we expect that with dangerous situations, even a slight error might lead to unnecessary deaths, and that such an error might be made by anyone?  Maybe somebody else might not have made the mistake.  Or maybe somebody wouldn’t have made the mistake 99/100 times but perhaps it just happens on the wrong day where they are more tired than usual and a mistake happens.  I’m not trying to imply that Hillary is guilty of any wrongdoing, but simply that expecting high ranking politicians to be faultless is a ridiculous high bar to set, especially given the high volume and level of decisions they make daily.

It seems to me that we have to allow for some error in judgment.  We should be able to expect politicians to be honest about admitting those errors and thus we can place values on their honesty and their ability to correct their own mistakes.  This to me seems to be an important part of personal responsibility that is missing from our daily lives.  Rich and the powerful always seem immune from the standards of personal responsibility that they hold to the rest of us.   Bill Cosby is a great example of a celebrity who placed himself above this standard, even though he certainly had a lot to say about African-American parents and being personally responsible.  Isn’t there something inherently untrustworthy about a person who does not practice what they preach?  What if Bill Cosby confessed what he had done.  Made some reparations to those he has raped, and turned himself in? We might not like him still, but at least we can appreciate a person who is taking responsibility for the pain that they caused.

In the end, it seems to me that “personal responsibility” is not a philosophy to center one’s self around.  It seems largely untrue, and even if it was true we rarely see it from the people in this world who should be the most personally responsible because of how powerful their positions, their influence, and their voice is. If one wants to believe in personal responsibility then let’s look at the factors that encourage people to be more personally responsible and address those issues instead.

Society. Fixed. Done.

There is one solution that really solves all our problems.  It’s just two words.  In these two words there is no more hunger, no more war, no more cruelty, or rape.   There is equality amongst gender and races.  People can have guns and don’t have to have taxes imposed on them.  Everybody makes smart decisions about their health, about sex, about when to be a parent, about how to be a parent, and raise their children well.

You probably know people like this, and you know people who advocate it because it’s so obvious and easy.  It’s called Personal Responsibility.  I capitalized it because it’s so important and because it is the answer.  Alright, I’m done blogging.

…hang on…nope…I just remembered something.  We don’t live in a utopian fantasy.

  • You shouldn’t need to have a law that tells you to wear a seat belt or text while driving I know this is important so I drive safely
  • You shouldn’t need a law that forces you to get health insurance or makes you be a responsible employer and take care of your employees by giving them a living wage
  • You shouldn’t need to have laws that force you to hire women and minorities as it should be self evident that gender and race don’t matter and that ultimately it boils down to who is best for the job
  • You shouldn’t need to have gun control laws.  One can be trained how to use a gun and keep it in a safe place away from children
  • You shouldn’t need to impose regulations on corporations.
  • You shouldn’t have taxes imposed on you.  If something is important I’ll be happy to contribute some money to someone who will do what needs to be done.
  • You shouldn’t need to get welfare because you can work.
  • You shouldn’t need money as an incentive to work.
  • You shouldn’t get raped if you are personally responsible about what you wear and how you behave (umm…how about being personally responsible and not raping someone?)

These are just some of the common complaints you hear from people in regards to laws, governance, and “responsible” behavior.  Anyone can see how sensible these statements are, theoretically.  Yet one wonders why indeed do we have laws or talk about imposing such laws and regulations?  If everyone was as awesome as you, who feels so injured to have something imposed on you when you already know you should do it, what’s the point of government sticking its nose in your business? Why is society dictating my behavior when I already know better?  You know your business and conduct yourself responsibly.  Right?

For now I am going to pretend that nobody is willfully ignorant (which is also pretty utopian).  The problem of course is, that personal responsibility is kind of like the nature of God.  Everyone has a different definition of what it means.  If every citizen in the country had the same definition of personal responsibility things might be alright.  Although this in itself would be hard for a big country, in which everybody lives in different regions and by definition the regional disparity requires different needs.  It only takes a handful of farmers to feed a lot of people, yet those farmers are just as important as the whole lot of people they feed.  So the first step would be for all people to accept within a country at the very least that people in all parts of the country have value and we may have to contribute some of our income to them.  This might include roads, education, and protection.  Protection itself can come in the form of a police department, fire department, or military.  One could argue that if everyone was personally responsible the need for a police department kind of goes away.

A personally responsible society however also recognizes their place in the world and in nature, and so realizes that the decisions they make might adversely impact other countries and wants to make sure that it is nice to other countries.  They recognize the value of preserving wildlife and rare species and is responsible about what it hunts and where it builds.  They recognize the true cost, not only in monetary units of drilling, mining, extracting.   This type of responsibility also costs some money because sometimes we might have to do things a little more expensively to preserve ecosystems or protect the environment.  This personally responsible society doesn’t mind.

And accidents do happen.  There are infectious diseases, natural disasters, etc.  Society pays for things in which nobody is to blame.  It is the personally responsible thing to accept that and contribute to help mitigate damage and help rebuild and repair.

Most of the people in this personally responsible society don’t feel too much stress, because the very rich realize that they don’t really need all that money and are quite happy to use their massive wealth to help out the person who doesn’t make too much of his own.  As a successful head of corporation he is extremely happy to contribute more to society because he has a lot of excess.

What a great place to live, but of course it doesn’t exist.

So perhaps the first question we might ask,  “Is everybody capable of this broad set of requirements for personal responsibility?  Of course the answer is no.  Nurture plays a big role in this.  We have belief systems, disparity in education, disparity in resources.  Even if nurture could everywhere be equal, we still have genetic differences.  Some people have physical and mental disorders.  Trauma happens in people’s lives that impact their ability to function at a high capacity.  Even when it’s an accidental event, and not something like murder or rape.  The free market ends some businesses, causing people to lose jobs.  Theoretically new jobs are created, but those might be in some other location.  Another country even.  Also as time goes on we make new discoveries in science and technology.  The industrial revolution has brought about climate change, but it seems unlikely that we started building all these factories knowing the harm it would do in the future.  As we become aware of things, new areas of responsibility become apparent.  So there is going to be a natural evolution towards winners and losers, new problems to deal with as old ones become understood and more cost efficient, and the personally responsible thing to do would be work together to continue fighting that imbalance.  It requires vigilance.

The next question we need to ask is “What can be done to make people more personally responsible?”  There is no quick fix, and there is no one answer.  Education can make us better aware of problems that impact society.  Of course knowledge and wisdom are very different.  In Plato’s famous treatise on love he talked about agape and love of humanity; a brotherly love for all mankind.  We need more of this kind of love, but people fear (and perhaps with good reason) that it comes at the cost of a loss of individualism.  I’m not certain that is completely true, but it might be.  But this love must extend to more than just to our fellow human, but to life itself.  The planet.  Our home.  We must also be humble and lose our conceit.  It may have served us well in our evolutionary past, but now survival is not so difficult when we are working together.

Love for the humanity and the planet, however begins at the individual level.  It begins by showing compassion and love to those in our lives and those we meet.  Helping those who need help and also thinking about how best to help them.  Being personally responsible is a journey within our own lives and does not happen overnight.  It is journey that doesn’t end when you’re 30 or 40 or 50, but continues your entire life.  And it is everyone’s job to be personally responsible but always keeping in mind that some people simply don’t have the ability to contribute as much as you, often through no fault of their own, and when you help raise them up and show sincere concern for their well-being they are likely to reciprocate that generosity.  Finally we must value happiness over wealth.

And even after all that…it’s a struggle.  The great thing is though if we do a better job of keeping these virtues in our heart we will never struggle alone.