Who’s Responsible?

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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.

What Makes A Good Human?: Faith

Well, if you know me, you might be surprised at this quality.  And to be honest this is one that I wasn’t sure I was going to include but could not really make it fit as part of any of the other ones and so have put it here. This one is 6th in the series and so if you were keeping count there will still be two more to come for a total of 8 (as opposed to the 7 I thought I was going to blog about in my intro to this series).  Hey I did say that this list was not set in stone, and my final quality justifies this change quite well so stay tuned. 🙂

So let me be clear here that when I say faith, I do not mean religious faith, nor do I mean blind faith.  The first definition of faith is “complete trust or confidence in someone or something”, and this is the faith I am talking about. Perhaps I place too much importance on stress and too much importance on living in the present moment, but one of my reason for including faith is borne out of the fact that we are exceptionally good future thinkers. It might be somewhat natural to think about the past, and of course we live in the present, but what value is thinking about the future, when the future is uncertain. Of course we can see the value in thinking about the future from simple mechanical movements like anticipating the trajectory of a ball as we reach out to catch it, to having grand visions of the future that we work to make a reality. Our imaginations and our ability to envision a path to turn what is in our minds into a reality is a great strength, and it’s safe to say our ability to think about the future is greater than any other creature. There is a double edge to this sword and that is worry. We worry about that uncertain future at times, and we worry that what we want to happen will not come to pass. Much of the grief we often feel when we lose somebody important (whether from death or breaking up our relationships) comes from a loss of a future that will now no longer exist with that person. Our ability to imagine the future is so strong that it can feel as real as any present moment. In a previous post in this series I talked about the value of play for helping us be in the moment, so too does faith. Whereas play helps us become lost in the moment, faith can help us focus on the present by making us feel like “everything will be alright”. Faith can give us hope and keep us steady.

One of the reasons that the future is so uncertain is that we can’t account for all the variables in any particular problem. And even if we could, there would be several that are simply not in our control. Wanting to fix things that are beyond our control is one big source of worry and stress whether it is a personal situation or the larger sadness we might feel over big problems like world hunger, gender inequality, or racism as individuals most of us can only do so much. The weight and burden of the future can drag us down and we need something to ease the mind and focus on the present. It is not surprising that faith is always used in the context of something that we feel is good. Whether it is a supernatural being who we believe is watching out for us, loves us, and protects us, to more tangible things like faith that a good friend will come through for us, a general optimism about the improvement of society, and perhaps most importantly a faith in ourselves that we can overcome challenges in our way. In reality none of these things are sure things despite what past experience might tell you. You may actually fail at what you are attempting, even if you’ve handled similar or even the same situations before. Society may get worse. Your friend may not come through despite how often they might have come through for you before.  The world is dynamic and constantly changing. Your friend is changing, you are changing, and society is changing and so there will always be some unknown variables. We can also be wrong that we understood a past experience properly to ensure similar results in the future. Humans are prone to Type I errors (seeing patterns or connections where none exist) and quite often we don’t understand our experiences fully. However, without some faith we’d always be questioning and doubting and while there may be a time for questions and doubt, to dwell on such things constantly can also be equally wasteful. Doubting your friend all the time may actually strain your relationship. Doubting yourself all the time may make you actually more prone to making mistakes. Being pessimistic about the world may actually make you less happy and less able to make a positive impact, which is the only way the world is going to get better, if we do something about it.

Richard Dawkins and others are often quoted as saying that faith and science are not compatible because science makes conclusions based on evidence, where as faith makes conclusions despite evidence. I tend to disagree with this notion, because I feel that to develop faith it cannot be built on nothing. In my experience what people disagree on is what people consider evidence. I wrote about this previously here and here. A large of the aim of religious institutions in keeping members of their faith is to discredit contrary evidence. If the evidence against what you have faith in seems faulty you are less likely to let it change your mind. But we’ve all had changes of faith as evidence is presented to us. What happens if that friend lets us down a few times? Chances are, our faith in them will be lessened. What happens if we start getting inundated with all the evil that happens in the world? We start to lose our faith and optimism in humanity. What can happen when let ourself down? We start to lose faith in ourself, which is often a scary place emotionally to be at. I think faith is born honestly in most cases, and I think if left unhindered we would adjust the things we have faith in over time as we continue to question, experience and learn. The important part is that faith should be changeable and it should be personal. When we indoctrinate children about what they should have faith in this is from a developmental context abusive, because the stronger our faith becomes in something, the less likely we are able to adjust it over time because of how beliefs work in our brain. The inability to change what we have faith in as we experience and learn new things leads to an unhealthy conflict: the struggle to remain static in a dynamic world. I think some people might wonder, what is the point of having faith if it may change some time in the future? Because the world may seem chaotic, painful and beyond comprehension at times, it makes some sense to have faith in an order, an intention, or a purpose that is forever and unchangeable. However, it’s only a convenient illusion that will become harder and harder to maintain with time without willfully ignoring contrary evidence.

There are no guarantees in life and it’s okay to be wrong about what you put your faith in. Everybody has been wrong about things before. Being wrong is one of the greatest shared human experiences. I do understand, however, that it can be distressing to admit when we are wrong about things, even more so when we invest a lot of time into having faith about someone or something. Faith as a result is perhaps the trickiest of all the qualities I’ve discussed so far because it can cause us to double down even when the odds are against us. In my opinion the thing to keep in mind is to let your faith work for you, and to not let your faith gain mastery over you. And don’t expect others to share your faith. That’s simply not realistic. But if I were to pick some basic things to have faith in, it would be this:

  1. Change is inevitable
  2. You have it in you to deal with that change
  3. Everything will be alright because changing what you have faith in is not a loss, it’s a gain – for you must have learned something new in order to get to where you are now.