The Personal Responsibility Con

In a previous article I discussed the impact of proximity on ethical responsibility (see here). In it, I pointed out that while proximity should impact ethical decisions, we must be careful that we do not assign too much priority for benefits to groups or individuals nearest to us and push blame and responsibility for problems off to those farthest away from us. In it I said:

The bottom line is this. Be aware of the role of proximity assessments in your ethical decisions and judgments. Try to avoid giving unduly large or exclusive priority to your own narrow group. Likewise try to avoid assigning blame and responsibility disproportionately to groups farthest away from you.

We see this pulling in benefits and pushing off blame around us every day, and no where is it as stark as in Presidential politics. We have some candidates who perpetuate a self-serving inversion of proximity ethics by claiming that people “like us” deserve all benefits while those “not like us” deserve all blame. These politicians present a very self-serving set of ethical arguments.

Other politicians emphasize that “it takes a village” and present a far less self-serving vision of a society with a broad and wide view of balanced benefits and responsibility. For a society, and I would argue for individuals as well, this is far more healthy and sustainable.

But there is another spectrum by which ethics are selectively applied. We all experience a continual friction between personal and systemic blame. Is it nature or nurture? Is the individual solely responsible for his or her actions, is society to blame, or is it a combination? And even if we acknowledge that responsibility is a combination of the two, how much emphasis do we necessarily attribute to personal responsibility for purposes of punishment? Do we focus on changing the system that drove the individual to crime, on punishing the individual, or both? How do we balance these?

It is my observation that we tend to unduly blame the individual when they are “not like us“, poor, and underprivileged. However, when the individuals are rich and powerful, we tend to blame the system. When talking about poor Black teens, we tend to emphasize that they should pull themselves up by their bootstraps, tow the line, and take responsibility. However when we are talking about corrupt Wall Street billionaires who selfishly destroy countless lives and fortunes, we tend to shift blame to the system.

This kind of selective assignment of personal responsibility serves those with all the power. Corporate executives are never irresponsible, it is always the system that is to blame and must be changed. Donald Trump deserves no blame for tax avoidance, the tax system is to blame. However, when poor immigrants do their best to give their families some kind of basic standard of living, they are criminals who are fully responsible for their actions and must be punished for violating the system.

This extremely unbalanced assignment of personal and systemic blame  serves and is perpetuated by those with all the power.  When wealthy, powerful people commit terrible large scale crimes, they indict “the system.” But when poor, powerless individuals step over the line of systems designed to favor the wealthy, they must be held personally responsible for their actions. In our society, insulation from blame and punishment is a perk of power. Selfishness is a virtue reserved only for the most wealthy.

My ethics say that is backwards. I believe that with great power comes great responsibility.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s