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Personal Responsibility


Edgar Bates

The fact is that America is faced with a shortage of responsibility at every level
of society. Contrast the person at the other end of the phone that tells you the
computer is down, and therefore it is your problem and not theirs, with the
employee at Wal-Mart who noticing some trash in the aisle takes steps to pick
it up and dispose of it. What's different can't be captured in a bottle.

In America, until World War II, the churches, the schools and the families
inculcated the standards of acceptable behaviour, largely drawn from the Ten
Commandments. New generations learned the established and agreed upon
customs of cooperative and civilized behaviour very much as they learned the
language. Starting with the 1970's, we have been encouraged to do our own
thing and all the traditional concepts of right and wrong have been sidelined.

As we are a society of laws this transition has been facilitated by advocates of
freedom of speech and freedom of the press, while advocates of right and
wrong are enemies of freedom. Today, the dominant leadership in society
either supports or is willing to live with an opposition to standards of civic and
moral behavior and an aversion of norms of right and wrong. According to
James Hunter, a sense of objective morality, of right and wrong, has been
replaced by a psychological approach to values: instead of being taught that
there are absolutes by which they must abide, children are taught, "You'll feel
better, if you do the right thing." 

Thus, having replaced moral concepts of good and evil with therapeutic categories of desire and feeling, we have lost the ability to instil a sense of character in young people and will likely continue to produce new generations of cultural orphans. Character is about one's adherence to moral principles, the standards of conduct that distinguish right from wrong. 

Moral principles are not relative to the revisionist history of the moment. Children must be taught certain timeless moral principles. A lack of personal responsibility is defined when the President of the United States can admit that he lied to the American people, but urges the American people to be angry with Congress for making an issue of his lying - and they agree.

The philosophical basis of the new ethics is determinism, which can be used by
supporters (e.g. B.F. Skinner) to argue that people have no control over
anything they choose to do, since everything anyone ever does is the result of a
chain of causes. Therefore, according to this line of argument, no one can ever
legitimately be held morally accountable for anything! Therefore, to fill the
void Americans have chosen to use the rule of law as the crutch to support the
moral underpinnings of our culture.

Most Americans now believe that morality, as a basis for sound public policy
and democracy in general, can be implemented only under the rule of law.
Without the rule of law, there is no moral foundation. A country or President
that disregards its own laws even due to expedience, compassion or morality
commits the inexcusable betrayal of democracy. It is a legal process, which
guarantees a uniform and consistent application and protects the inalienable
rights of its citizens. Discrimination has largely been handled as a legal issue.
Many "affirmative action" programs are a perversion of the concept of
equality. Diversity is not an excuse to discriminate. The methods, mainly Court
imposed, by which this so-called diversity has been attained have at times been
significantly more important than the outcome itself.

Courts can avoid all sorts of philosophical issues, because they have available
to them the "pragmatic" method of resolving legal issues, sometimes called
"justice." Courts in general resolve differences by making decisions that will be
best with regard to present and future needs. However, lawyers and judges
often make assumptions about morality in order to decide whether the
projected consequences of one decision are better than those of another.

Richard Posner argues that the Supreme Court's decision in Roe v. Wade was
premature: it would have been better, he says, to allow different states to
experiment with different levels of regulation or prohibition, on a "trial and
error" basis, in the hope that "an answer might have emerged that would have
commended itself to the Court and the nation as both principled and practical."
As pragmatism replaces all reflection on philosophical issues, then there is a
premium on the degree of consensus, but even judges disagree about
fundamental issues of morality and value.

With winners outnumbering losers, the boom proceeds and almost everyone
tolerates excesses, even moral lapses. When the laws of gravity come into play,
some have argued that there will be a shift from an emphasis on material
wealth to spiritual wealth. The good new is that Americans are accepting
greater personal responsibility for their problems and for their actions, and they
increasingly expect others to do the same. This new attitude may further affect
social programs, as people question the assumption that unequal distribution of
wealth is always society's fault. "We are now moving back toward the
traditional American value that people are responsible for their own lives, and
that the reality of life is such that there will inevitably be both winners and
losers," says Yankelovich. "This conception rules out society's moral and legal
obligations, but it does not rule out compassion." 

Dr. Viktor Frankl was a Jewish physician incarcerated in one of Hitler's
concentration camps. From that experience, he developed a new school of
psychiatry; based on the premise that mental wellness is not achieved by
helping the individual understand what caused his psychological problems, but
by taking action to resolve the problem. When Dr. Frankl lectured in the United
States, he would conclude with a plea for Americans to erect a Statue of
Responsibility on the West Coast to balance the Statue of Liberty on the East
Coast because, he declared, freedom requires a balance between those two
ideals, liberty and responsibility.

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