Vexed principles

Conservatives like to talk about personal responsibility. They should define it more carefully

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Don’t sneeze: “Atlas Supports the Heavens on His Shoulders” by Bernard Picart (1731) (©Science History Images / Alamy Stock Photo)

For conservatives, perhaps it is the most fundamental principle of all, endlessly invoked in op-eds and campaign speeches, shaping social policies, a mantra; a shibboleth, with ubiquitous appeal, rooted in centuries of conservative thought on both sides of the Atlantic. It is the principle of personal responsibility.

But what does it mean, this peculiar phrase, in the political scientist Yascha Mounk’s description “at once anodyne and foreboding?” It has to do with holding individuals accountable for their actions and setting out the necessary condition for social order. As the former prime minister David Cameron argued: “Many of today’s issues come down to questions of responsibility. In the past, politicians have shied away from these questions, for fear of seeming judgmental. But we’re never going to create a stronger, fairer society unless we address them.” It provides the justification for punishment. And thus we have the title of the reform Republicans secured from President Clinton in 1996: the “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act”.

The Right’s foundational principles are incendiary. To adhere to the sanctity of life is to set oneself up against second-wave feminism; to espouse family values, to defend marriage as the context where children have the best chance of flourishing, is to risk angering single parents. President Ronald Reagan did not endear himself to the Left when, on entering office, he supplied this justification for punishment: “We must reject the idea that every time a law’s broken, society is guilty rather than the law breaker. It is time to restore the American precept that each individual is accountable for his own actions.” Does not so forthright a pronouncement betray an inexcusable obliviousness to—or, worse, a cruel deliberate ignoring of—the radically divergent social contexts in which individuals operate? How could he be so blind to the world? So insensitive to a person’s background? So willing to offer a blanket condemnation that fails to discriminate between complex cases? Thus to affirm the principle of personal responsibility, the “precept that each individual is accountable for his own actions”, is for many philosophically, politically and morally unacceptable. 

Yet no sooner does one mount a defence of personal responsibility than one is confronted by questions of its consistent application. What, for instance, would we expect a criminal justice system that really honoured personal responsibility to look like? Clearly, we would be unsurprised to find a retributive purpose of punishment alive and well; but what does a regime in which the “collateral consequences” of punishment are so severe say about our general approach to personal responsibility?

“She didn’t let her past define her.” “He didn’t blame his background.” “She turned her life around.” “He made something of himself.” We like to lionise those who have not allowed themselves to be shaped by the circumstances in which they were brought up, who refuse to believe that where they have come from will determine where they go, who have insisted they will not be the product of their environment but that their environment, in some sense, will be a product of themselves.

Our admiration in these cases, whether we admit it or not, bespeaks a deep-seated belief in the possibility of taking personal responsibility. Their stories are told—they tell their stories—as sources of inspiration to those who hail from the same homes.

‘The way agency is sometimes defended gives the impression that our most important responsibilities are all voluntarily assumed. Assuming responsibility is pictured like taking up a hobby’

The philosopher Simone Weil, in her most important book, The Need for Roots, says: “Initiative and responsibility, to feel one is useful and even indispensable, are vital needs of the human soul.” To dismiss personal responsibility is to dismiss the possibility of agency. How do we find ourselves in the world? Incapacitated, certainly—finite and vulnerable creatures, unable to fulfil all our desires, to realise all our dreams; frustrated in our attempts to fly.

Yet to be in the world authentically is to take ownership of what remains near-to-hand to do, to make something of the opportunities we are afforded. We have the capacity and desire to act, and those possibilities are not always effaced by the limitations of our situation. We are pulled this way and that by our inclinations; we are pushed this way and that by other people; and yet to arrive at maturity is to achieve a certain self-consciousness, to experience a moment of “reclaiming”, to come to the realisation that “I too have a life to live.”

Extending this thought, the philosopher T.M. Scanlon observes: “It is often a good thing for a person to have what will happen to them depend on how he or she responds when presented with the alternatives under the right conditions.” We are right to wish for our lives to reflect our choices. And we want this to be our manner of appearing in the world; we want, and rightly so, to be seen to have our lives to reflect our choices; to be seen, that is, as agents.

This picture of agency is critically important, rooted, as it is, in the intuition that we thrive when we take charge of our lives; when we take responsibility for ourselves; when we hold ourselves accountable.

The problem is that the way agency is sometimes defended gives the impression that our most important responsibilities are all voluntarily assumed. Assuming responsibility is pictured like taking up a hobby. There is no obligation to take up marathon-running; but, once you have, it is important you live up to that commitment. This conception of agency certainly recognises the need to be able to talk about people living up to their responsibilities but, crucially, the responsibilities are typically ones that have been at some point chosen. The contractual or “voluntarist” paradigm is regnant here. Obligations are only obligations if you have been the one who has chosen to carry them out.

But what about those obligations we never assumed? Are not many of the most important responsibilities we face ones we never, or never fully, signed up to? I did not pick my parents. What if my father dies and my mother happens to be radically incapacitated by a stroke when she is in her early 50s and I am in my early 20s? What is incumbent upon me to do in those circumstances? Financially? Emotionally? In terms of place: can I move away? Does that change my filial obligations?

Or what if I married young? “We didn’t know what we were doing.” “We were 19.” “We were in love.” “I didn’t know she would change so much.” Did not know, that is, the sort of person she would grow up to be, or not to be; the sort of person I would grow up to be, or not to be. Did not know how radically incompatible we would become. What does it mean to speak of fidelity in this case? Did my partial knowledge back then (when I entered into a marriage contract) abrogate my responsibility right now? Or what if my partner and I decide we want children? We have saved for it. We think we are in the right place to provide a loving home. We have a realistic anticipation of what such an undertaking will entail. But then we discover the child has Down’s Syndrome; that she will have to live with us her whole life. We did not sign up for that. Does that change our parental obligations?

Personal responsibility is a value which conservatives should adamantly endorse. The challenge, however, is consistently to apply that value across the board. For while conservatives affirm personal responsibility in some spheres—say, welfare reform or family policy—in others—say, criminal justice—the principle all too often goes missing in action. As I argue in my new book, Vexed: Ethics Beyond Political Tribes, affirming the value of personal responsibility entails overhauling a system which makes it so difficult for ex-offenders to reassume personal responsibility.

The truth is, we awake to a world in which we are already immersed in demands. It is what theologian Oliver O’Donovan terms our “native element”. The force of those obligations does not track our strength of will as if only the most binding obligations are the ones we assumed most freely. The upshot of this is that exercising personal responsibility is not wholly dependent on situation—whether we have signed up to our obligations or whether they happen to seem overwhelming ones. 


This is  an edited extract  from  Vexed:  Ethics Beyond Political Tribes, published  by  Bloomsbury, £16.99. Text ©James Mumford