The topic of the week is responsibility. Individual responsibility. Community responsibility. Societal responsibility. How do we divide up responsibility among all affected parties? Who should be held accountable when something goes wrong? Where does the balance lie between being free to do as one wishes vs. being responsible to others?

I don’t have answers in this post. I just have questions. I don’t think there are universal answers. It’s a matter of working out an acceptable compromise in any given situation, balancing risks, responsibilities and freedoms.

In general, I tend to believe in individual freedom and individual responsibility. Heck, I’m a borderline anarchist. “An ye harm none, do as thou wilt”, and all that. But this is one of those weeks (as many of you know) where I’m questioning that. Because even if I think I am only risking myself, I’m not. I am embedded in communities, of family, of friends, of work, of sports, etc. If I were to injure myself, it doesn’t just affect me; it has a rippling effect outwards on all the people I interact with, all the members of my communities. For some of them, it would have barely any effect at all (my informal ultimate frisbee league wouldn’t miss a beat, nor would the chorus), but for others, it would be devastating. So where does the balance lie? When am I taking on too much risk?

This ties into the idea of viewing the self as the intersection of the communities to which one belongs. Even twelve years ago, I was attracted to this idea, as one of Orson Scott Card’s characters describes it:

Every person is defined by the communities she belongs to and the ones she doesn’t belong to. I am this and this and this, but definitely not that and that and that. All your definitions are negative. I could make an infinite list of the things you are not. But a person who really believes she doesn’t belong to any community at all invariably kills herself either by killing her body or by giving up her identity and going mad.

So when I go out and risk myself, I am risking all of the communities to which I belong. I do not necessarily exist independently of them. Do I have to hold myself accountable to them?

There’s also the flip side. What responsibility does the community have to its members? When a member is in trouble, how should the community respond? If the member claims to be perfectly fine and able to handle it, I kind of feel it’s their call. But at the same time, sometimes it’s not. Family interventions in alcoholism are a good example.

There’s a fuzzy line here. I hate the idea of no risk. Life is risky. Trying to live a risk-free life would involve shutting myself off from all sorts of amazing experiences. The freedom to explore new possibilities has been a huge part of what makes me the person I am today.

At the same time, there are certain things I won’t do because I feel they’re too risky. I used to ride a motorcycle, but after having three people I knew get into bad motorcycle accidents within a month, I stopped. Riding was a blast, and I generally rode pretty safely, but the margin of error was just too small. My illusions of “it wouldn’t happen to me” were shattered.

But I do other risky things. I drive on California freeways. I play competitive sports like ultimate frisbee, where pretty much all of the veterans have torn an ACL. And I get pretty annoyed at anybody that tells me how I “should” live my life. I feel like it’s my life, and my decision.

I guess my answer (I know I said I didn’t have one, but I’m fickle that way) is that it’s a cooperative decision-making process. I have to weigh the risks to myself vs. my responsibilities to the communities of which I am a member. The line will be drawn in different places for different people in different communities at different times (e.g. I bought my motorcycle from a friend who had just had his first child; riding a motorcycle was no longer an acceptable risk for him). But it’s better to have the discussion openly and honestly about the risks being taken than it is to ignore them and hope that consequences never happen. Sometimes we have to accept the bad with the good (e.g. Latour’s example of the 8,000 automobile deaths each year in France as the price of having rapid personal transportation). And that’s okay. But it’s good to step back occasionally and ask oneself honestly “Is this experience really worth the risks to myself and my communities?”

Tough question. Tough subject. More thought another time when I’m less dazed.

One thought on “Responsibility

  1. I’ve come to a similar conclusion, which led me to write the Application To Be Stupid a while back. (Unfortunately, mostly what I learned from that was that far too many libertarians have no sense of humor…)

    I’m libertarian by temperament, but I’m also enough of a pragmatist to know that restrictions on individual liberty are sometimes necessary. It comes down to weighing trade-offs between deference to individual autonomy, impact of the person’s actions on others, impact of the restriction on the person who’s being restricted, severity of the problem being solved and expected impact of the restrictions.

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