Personal responsibility: Can we mandate it?

March 27, 2008

Lisa Pryor on personal responsibility

I don’t read her column often but Lisa Pryor’s Sydney Morning Herald (22.3.08) “Cautionary tale about personal responsibility…” caught my attention. The piece got me thinking about the general topic. As the head of a large university residential community of 248 eighteen to twenty two year-olds I regularly find myself needing to encourage personal responsibility and wondering how there can be more of it in the lives of selected individuals. Motivated by recent statements by the Federal government (particularly about binge drinking) Lisa Pryor ponders what it is and moves step-wise through her ruminations. Is it:
  • “not acting like idiots”,
  • behaving “properly without the need for government intervention to control behaviour”,
  • “making individuals accept the consequences of their actions”.
Eventually she concludes that “personal responsibility is everything and nothing, a grab bag of not much at all, malleable enough to be totally meaningless”. Is this an adequate response?

What is personal responsibility?

To me, personal responsibility is very important and is just as much about being responsible to others as to one’s self. It seems to me that there are two elements to personal responsibility. When I see people acting in ways I think are irresponsible my thoughts are often based on what I think the consequences might be for them and for others. So its sort of, responsibility to self, and responsibility to others.

We seek to act in ways that avoid infringing the law, the punishment of parents, loss of respect from people we value, unintended consequences such as injury, loss of wealth, loss of health or injury, loss of job etc. This is about us losing something, about cost to self. But personal responsibility also includes acting in ways that consider the consequences of our actions for others (which might seem incompatible, but stay with me). Will I cause pain for those who I respect and love? Will I disrupt my team’s efforts, my family’s holiday, the group well being, a quiet night for the police? Will I endanger the rescue team sent to save me? Will my boss (wife, mother, teacher, captain etc) be hurt or affected by my actions?

Ultimately, the responsible person accepts that his/her actions have consequences for themselves and others.
The place of values and worldview in all of this is intriguing. If you’re a utilitarian (see my previous post on worldview) then you’ll be less worried about the 'rightness' and the law and more concerned about personal happiness and the impact on self. If you’re a liberal democrat you’ll be against just about any type of government action and regulation, full stop. If you’re a Buddhist you’ll seek to be responsible by acting well towards other sentient beings in the hope that you’ll gain some favour (Mike Wilson wrote a great piece on Tibetan Buddhism in Case 14). If you’re a believer in New Age philosophy you'll be seeking happiness and life fulfilment. I don't think that any of the worldviews that sit behind the above religions and philosophies adequately combine both sides of the equation, responsibility to self and responsibility to others.

The basis of 'right' and responsible action

Oliver O'Donovan's work on moral reasoning is helpful here. I want to suggest that Lisa Pryor misses the point that the foundation of personal responsibility is the ability to make right moral choices. In a series of lectures at New College in 2007 Professor O'Donovan reminded us that moral reasoning requires us to think more seriously about making right choices based on what is “good” and “right”. Moral thinking he said requires a journey from observation to obligation, from “goodness of the world” to the “rightness of some action”. He also talked about a right understanding of self and its place in how we make choices and act. He explained that our love of God and neighbour must be self-aware, not simply absent-minded.

Reflective self-love, the foundation of other loves, is the polar opposite of an unreflective pre-moral self-absorption, a self-complacence which consists in a failure to grasp the concreteness of the self, and so leaves us at the centre of our own universe without any bearings upon the reality of others.

You can read the full texts or download audio files of O'Donovan's lectures from the New College website.

As a Christian my desire to act responsibly is driven primarily by my faith (i.e. it should be). The teachings of the Bible, centred on God's plan of redemption for his people, hold these two things in perfect balance. Our most important act of responsibility is to first recognise that God is sovereign. We need to stand with David who prayed to God "But my eyes are fixed on you, O Sovereign LORD; in you I take refuge—do not give me over to death. Keep me from the snares they have laid for me, from the traps set by evildoers." (Psalm 141:8, 9). God made all things and controls my destiny. He is the ruler of the world including me. I am imperfect, indeed sinful like everyone else, a consequence of the first man and woman’s rebellion against God (Genesis 3:1-19). He demands my commitment to him and provides a way for the forgiveness of all my past, present and future sins. Jesus died as a punishment for my sin and God adopts into his family all who believe in him and who accept this free gift of grace and love (Ephesians 1:4-6).

As a consequence of this enormous gift, I seek to lead a life that is obedient to him and which seeks to bring honour and glory to his name (not mine!). This leads me to seek to live a life where I am the best husband, father, grandfather, brother, employee, neighbour, driver (ouch!), team member, church member, citizen, tax payer, mate etc. I live my life hopefully in such a way that I hold in perfect tension the need to be responsible for the specific consequences of my actions all the while trying to be responsible for the good of others based on an understanding that God has forgiven me through no good effort of mine. As Paul urged the church in Rome, I am to lead a different life.

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship (Romans 12:1)

I can’t speak for Lisa Pryor's motivation for personal responsibility (which I’m sure as a good citizen she sees as important), but I see a huge challenge for any government that seeks to legislate for personal responsibility. Its motivation will of course be the good of society, but just how does it decide what this good is? Quite a challenge in a pluralist democratic society.

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