What is Responsibility?
“You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.”
“A true gentleman puts responsibility upon himself but not upon others.”
There’s a common folktale about a shepherd boy. You know the boy. One day he came crying to the villagers that wolves were attacking his flock. The villages hastened to help only to find no such wolves. A few days or weeks later, the boy once again cried that wolves were attacking his flock and once again the villagers came to his aid only to find there were no wolves nor any missing sheep. You know how this goes – this happened a third time and the villagers were disgruntled with the boy and decided not to help him. When the wolves finally came to attack the flock and the boy, he shouted and he cried and he begged but no villager was moved to help him, and so the wolves ate the boy as well as his sheep.
Aesop, the Greek writer who penned this parable said that it was a morality tale about the consequences of lying. Of course that is true, but it’s also about taking responsibility for one’s own actions. The boy had the freedom to lie and to make up false stories about what is going on. The villagers wanted to be responsible for the collective security and health of their community, so came out to protect the boy and the sheep. However, in continuously lying to get attention, the boy lost their protection and reaped the consequences of his actions.
In short, we are responsible for our own actions
For example, if we have sex, say a fertile man and woman, even if the man wears 10 condoms laced with spermicide and the woman is on the pill, they must take responsibility for the fact they are doing an act designed to create life. Therefore they must acknowledge within themselves and to each other the responsibilities they hold should, to think of Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park, nature find a way.
Neither can complain if their free choice to take part in an act designed to create life leads to that very life creation, and neither should evade their responsibilities because they did not want to create life. They are responsible for that child’s health, safety, wellbeing, education, and so on regardless of how they feel about each other.
In the great 2018 movie Ready Player One, the main character Wade lives with his aunt Alice and her useless boyfriend. Near the beginning many players are on Planet Doom trying to fight their way up the mountain to capture a glove. This glove will allow them to turn into any robot for one minute (it might be less time). This is ultimately won by one of the heroes, Daito.
However, during this Alice’s boyfriend’s avatar gets killed in the game world and he loses all of his upgrades and money. It turns out he used all of their money to escape their slum to buy the upgrades in the hope of winning the glove and selling it for profit. In losing he does not take responsibility, but instead blames Wade because his gloves were not as good as Alice’s which Wade had used instead of his own.
There are two types of responsibility
Firstly, you are both responsible for the end results of your actions on yourself and on others. The end results of any action are not always easy to predict, but if we look back honestly, we can see where we went wrong and what we should have done. In taking responsibility for those actions we accept their consequences.
For example, Jocko Willink was a Navy Seal leader in Iraq or Afghanistan when an operation he was leading went wrong and colleagues died due to friendly fire. He assessed the situation and saw multiple failure points – bad translations, sudden code changes, poorly trained local troops, and more, but he took responsibility for the whole operation failure because he was the leader.
As with an above example, if you have sex with someone and you or they get pregnant, then you are both responsible for that baby. There are multiple options for raising it but in terms of love, care, and money, you can’t just walk away.
The second type of responsibility is to take on roles and duties within your family, group, or community. These kinds of responsibilities weigh heavily upon your shoulders and are not easy things to take on, but they are key to living a meaningful life.
In a social unit of one, yourself, you are responsible for every aspect of your life – what you eat, your exercise routines, cleaning the home, food shopping, earning an income, taxes, and so on. It’s a lot to do and it wears people down. There’s a reason living alone is not healthy.
When you become part of a monogamous couple you’re able to divide the same responsibilities between the two of you. These things have to be done, but it’s possible for a couple to discuss these duties and divide them based on desire to do them (or really really not do them), aptitude, and failing that a 50-50 split taking into account work and so on. As a quick side note, Scandinavian researchers were shocked to see that if they removed gender stereotypes from education and society in general, men and women are more likely to conform to them.
Taking on responsibilities can bring out the best in people
At first, Wade Watts took part in the challenges because he wanted to just win the egg and get out of his poor situation. Yet during the movie, thanks to Artemis, he learns to take on responsibility for the whole world against IOI. At the end, he shares the prize with his best friends and takes on the responsibility of improving the gaming world for everyone – including mandatory offline time to enjoy each other’s company in the real world.
The opposite of responsibility is naturally irresponsibility, but it is also selfishness and hypocrisy. This is where people see freedom as a tool to the self. Perhaps this is most noted with psychopaths who lack a conscience, but it should be aligned with the selfish. Freedom is not about being selfish and doing whatever you want to whoever you want – that’s a path to empty nihilism and chaos.
Let’s look at relationships as an example.
There are many definitions of a toxic relationship. Either partner can be the source of it and both can be. In fact, it’s probably possible that neither are inherently toxic but as a combination it just does not work. However, a serious relationship is a division of labour for the betterment of both individuals, while this is unromantic and purely practical, it can lead to the deepest love as outlined above. Therefore it’s natural to see that if one individual is a taker then they are abdicating responsibility and putting it all on the shoulders of the other.
That other person can only give for so long before they are burned out. I’ve been there myself – giving, giving, giving often without any kind of gratitude or acknowledgement, only to be castigated and maligned when you burn out and want something back. Often this is framed by the toxic element is “withdrawing” as to blame the other person.
It pays to be aware of the nature of other people. This is not always easy as an irresponsible person can hide their true intentions, often long enough to get their claws in deep. This also goes beyond relationships to other kinds of interactions.
Many people lay problems at the feet of freedom and capitalism. For example, saying freedom gives people the ability to incite hatred or for greedy robber barons to steal money, mistreat, or underpay their employees. These are, however, not the problems of the ideas of freedom or capitalism, but the problems of bad people.
Remove the bad people from the equation and the systems are fine. Society and in particular modes of government are seen as means of controlling bad elements, but often empower them and beat down those who are merely different or outspoken about such vices.
What About Collective Responsibilities?
This is a book dedicated toward the individual and while it does cover fellowship and cooperation as well as the individual’s relationship with society, it does not cover larger organisational structures. By this I do not mean idiocy like intersectionality or cultural marxism or power structures, I mean genuine large organisations like big businesses, government organisations, institutions, and so on.
I’d quickly like to look at the problem of responsibility within these structures. Humans like to evade responsibility and on an individual level that’s hard to do because they come to bite us. Even someone who is skilled in assigning blame to others and playing the eternal victim, ends up having to rotate through new people and places as people come to see them as the boy who cried wolf.
Large organisations are one of the big problems of the 20th and 21st century. This was perhaps first seen by J.R.R. Tolkien who called faceless bureaucracy as the biggest of all evils. In such a structure, especially when placed in a victim culture or a culture of perceived power structures, it is easy to put blame elsewhere or to just ignore it with jargon, processes, and so on.
In such circumstances individuals who seek the genuinely responsible are easily ignored, deflected or blamed. Those who take responsibility become the fall guy and nothing of genuine value to society is learned. Quite the opposite, again and again the large institutions instead learn how to better hide their mistakes.
This blameless organisational structure whether it’s the government or the BBC or a large multinational corporation, naturally attracts those who want to be selfish and to do harm to others. It allows Jimmy Saville to thrive, it allows a nurse to murder hundreds of patients without being noticed or a doctor to do likewise, or for the rendering of individuals into mere numbers on a care pathway to death. It allows professors to bully a teaching assistant like Lindsay Shepherd in Canada. Institutional structures are blamed, they learn to better hide misdoings and root out different thinkers who would hold them to a higher standard, and no one takes responsibility.
The question is how do we deal with this kind of structure which allows all of this to happen. Answers will not come from more structures or bigger structures or unbending ideologies. It comes from moving away from monopolies towards a true free market, smaller more local governments which are directly responsible to the people, and so on.
However, that’s not for this book, but will be for a future one. Let’s get back to us as individuals. Every individual within an organisation or company has the responsibility to speak truth, be virtuous and to adhere to the other principles outlined in this book. It is difficult and there are many risks for doing this, but it is the right thing to do, and in the long run, should be rewarded and ennobled as well as leading to a better organisation or company.
How do you start on the path to responsibility?
The first stage of being a responsible person is to understand your own motivations for doing things. As discussed in the freedom chapter, we can divide motivations into three areas – biology (nature), social constraints and modes of being (environment), and our own free decision making.
Look at the things you do and ask why you do them and that their outcomes are. Like with our other principles, mindfulness is a key opener in terms of becoming a responsible person. Self-awareness and awakening really does open our eyes to leading a more meaningful life.
Ask yourself, are you taking responsibility for your own actions?
Think back to Jocko Willink. Responsibility for your own actions goes beyond holding your hands up and saying “it was me guv.” After doing that, in the same meeting with his superiors, Willink said “yes, it was me, and here’s how I’m going to make sure it never happens again.” True learning about why something went wrong and true responsibility is moving on to stop it happening again and seeing through the consequences of your actions.
If you have no responsibilities in your life, maybe you are a single person living alone, look to take some on. There are many. For example, there’s a YouTuber called Grim Jim who while spending most of his time at home due to anxiety, spends a lot of time talking to men about their issues online and helping them through difficult periods of their lives. There’s also local community groups to clean up areas, pick up litter, encourage wildlife, and so on.
In short, by taking on responsibilities as individuals, we not only help ourselves, but we can help our local communities too.