Are you a responsible and happy person? These days, perhaps no question runs through Western culture so strongly as this question. We all want to say, “Yes I am! Take a look at the fruits of my responsible behavior. Scroll through my social media, or look at my resume, and see the evidence of my happiness and my responsibility.” This desire is not only to show others our well-being in the effort to escape from their negative judgments and condemnations but also to convince ourselves. It is one prime element in the appearance of a new conservatism. We want to not only show off our well-being, but we also want to claim it as our own by claiming that we controlled it. Such behavior is an expression of an ideal of freedom we hold dear. 

More than just displaying evidence that we are living well, we also secretly know that there is an incongruity between what we show and what actually is the case. Deep down, we know that we also exist with an unprecedented amount of unhappiness, and perhaps less noticeably, lower responsibility for the outcomes of our life. Quite intuitively we know that our lot in life can be impacted by our own behavior, but to a large extent is determined by features outside of our control. Take me for an example: I have been able to purchase a home, but would not have been able to without the help of my family for the downpayment, nor a bank (and banking system) that provided me the mortgage. I am certainly not responsible in the sense that “I did it”! No, I have been involved in a family structure and economic system that have allowed me to purchase a home, and own it, without having to build it with my own hands. Likely, I would have needed the help of others to hand-built it also. On the happiness side of the coin, I would like to have been able to afford a trip for my wife and two kids, and myself, to go to Thailand this year. That would be a “happiness,” but it would be irresponsible. As I look at this present moment, I realize the concepts of success and responsibility exist in a not-so-easily resolvable tension. They always have. 

WesternIndividual Responsibility

The shape of a particular concept of personal responsibility – how it is imagined, interpreted, and implemented – has a complicated history; it escapes a simple interpretation. However, it seems to have grown alongside the growth of liberalism and neoliberalism. Personal responsibility, while not only in the West, is a uniquely pervasive Western concept. Without digressing into historical analysis, let me draw on three non-Western examples with which I am familiar. 

First, in northern Thailand, the heritage of the Thai-Chinese family has nurtured a sense that the building of family estates is the work of an entire family. In a typical case, a Chinese-Thai friend has an engineering degree from Stanford, and the work ethic to have “made it” on his own, but instead chose to operate the family plumbing and bathroom fixture business in Chiang Mai, also shunning the nuclear family (his married family lives above the shop with his birth family). While he is a responsible man, his responsibility is not easily recognizable as individual fulfillment. It is deeply familial, i.e. oriented toward a family-generated and sustained financial well-being. If there is anything that might be considered individual fulfillment in his life, it is at the hobby level. It is not primarily vocational as we Westerners might consider in all our language around the “passionate career.”

Second, while South Korea is a remarkable case study in the modern Asian-Pacific country that has “succeeded” in the age of globalization, particular senses of honor towards their parents (and ancestors) skews the concept of individual personal responsibility; one is not considered responsible until one takes ownership over the sustained heritage of one’s family. Each middle-aged person generally takes on the responsibility of caring for aging parents and raising a family of their own. But since both men and women work some of the longest hours of any OECD country, and these for conglomerates, the context that houses personal responsibility in South Korea is primarily social. South Koreans generally are more open to the “passionate career”. However, unlike the Thai-Chinese whose personal responsibility is given meaning in the context of family, the typical Korean individual relies on their social networks to furnish their sustained thriving. And unlike Western countries, social networks are the locus of South Korean responsibility.

Third, in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, it isn’t so much the local family (Thai) or the social context (S. Korea) that one exercises responsibility, but to the tribe. By tribe, I mean the large familial organizations that go way beyond “first cousins”.Mutual descendants of great, great grandparents exercise obligations on individuals in ways that would seem outrageous to someone of European or North American descent.     

Given these contrasts, it suffices to say that there is an integrated relationship between liberal and neo-liberal cultures and a pervasive notion of personal responsibility. One can imagine this as raising two teenagers, with the growth of one (neo-liberal cultures) happening alongside the growth of another (individual responsibility). Teenagers may have had growth spurts at different times, and each may have had more deliberate parental input at one time or another. But over the course of 20 or so years, they can be seen as growing together in an integrated relationship. The one teenager I want to focus on is what I would like to call, contrived individual responsibility.

Incoherent Individual Responsibility

When John F. Kennedy encouraged Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” in his inaugural address in 1961, he was not talking about the atomized individual with a responsibility to herself; he was talking about the obligations an individual has toward her country and society. One’s responsibilities were not so much understood as one’s duties, but as what one owes in terms of obligations. If one is responsible to account for what one owes, the intelligibility of the concept breaks down rather quickly. In certain places, I have called this “rugged individualism.” However, it is more commonly understood to pick yourself up by your own bootstraps. Yet, the original meaning of the phrase had to have been an absurd joke; I can not imagine its origins without an ironic intention. After all, it is physically impossible to pick oneself up by one’s own bootstraps.

Most of the factors that contribute to one’s situation in life come from outside the individual: upbringing, education, environment, employment, culture, and even genetics. An individual has no sovereign control over any of these, and cannot reasonably be held responsible for them. “The social problem” of note in the twentieth century was poverty. Consider the causes of the conditions of poverty in which many find themselves. Even if we grant that some individuals are lazy, delinquent, and in need of cultural reform, we must simultaneously admit that the education, encouragement, and solutions to such problems cannot entirely come from within the individual himself. The context of a solution for one to be individually responsible must come from the guidance and aid of others. That is why the contrary concept of mutual obligations is much more coherent in advocating personal responsibility than “individual responsibility.”

Poverty is not a result of sustained laziness. According to the OECD, most people experience poverty at some point in their lives, but this experience is likely to be short-lived. The OECD concluded that “[r]eports have suggested that the benefits system has disincentivized work and encouraged a culture of dependency. However,… the falling relative value of benefits have increasingly contributed to rising poverty rates across countries.” The War on Poverty, among other programs in the twentieth century, contributed to the fact that the rates of poverty were at the lowest point in recorded human history.

Contrived Individual Responsibility

But beyond the context of a myopic view of the problem of poverty, individual responsibility has been a contrived concept by which we all could be measured. Political, philosophical, and economic efforts in the Western tradition have been particularly contrived.

Politically, the Declaration of the Rights of Man is an example of such a contrived effort. Appearing at the end of the eighteenth century the Declaration meant that from then on “Man”, not God’s command or historical custom, should be the source of Law. As Hannah Arendt outlines in The Perplexities of the Rights of Man, part of “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” the proclamation of human rights was meant to be much-needed protection in a new era where individuals were no longer secure in the estates in which they were born or sure of their equality before God as Christians. Individual rights, up until this time, were not guaranteed by government or constitution, but rather by social, religious, or spiritual forces. The Rights of Man had been defined as inalienable because they were supposed to be independent of all governments, but it resulted in moments when human beings lacked their own government (in the case of stateless persons) and had to rely upon their minimum human rights, no authority was left to protect them and no institution was willing to guarantee them.

As such, we are in the belated confirmation of Edmund Burke’s famous arguments in opposition to the Declaration: human rights were an “abstraction” and it was much wiser to rely on the “entailed inheritance” of rights that one transmits to children like life itself – the rights of an Englishman rather than the inalienable rights of man. We now see that the world finds nothing sacred in the abstract nakedness of being human.

If a human being loses her political status, she should, according to the implications of the inborn and inalienable rights of the human person, come under exactly the situation for which the declarations of such general rights are provided. Actually, the opposite is the case. We can see this not only in the Nazi concentration camps concerning Jews, gypsies, and homosexuals; it can be seen in the treatment of Rohingya, Afghans, and Palestinians.  It seems the human being, who is nothing but a human being, has lost the very qualities which make it possible for other people to treat her as a fellow human being.          

My article, “Authenticity in Times of Uncertainty,” outlines key philosophic and economic developments of what I there call rugged individualism, and what is here referred to as “bootstrap individualism”. Historical developments in the history of a particular existential philosophy of the self in Nietzsche and Sartre have uniquely combined with classical liberal theories of the economic structures of John Locke, a particular reading of Adam Smith, and J.S. Mill to provide a persistent moral ideal of the radical individual who is a particular measuring stick of the good life.

Dangerously New Conservatism

Responsible and happy individuals may be desirable, but they don’t appear out of thin air; they take a collective effort.

Here argued, the particular concept of “personal individual responsibility” (i.e. atomized, a-societal, self-interested, and self-dependent) is a relatively recent, contrived political concept that is used to justify the dismantling of government supports like welfare and social programs, the rejection of altruism, the unraveling of the community as the locus of human activity.

Stated in another way, contrived individual responsibility is a particular concept that masquerades as a universal concept. I distrust this metanarrative, not because I distrust metanarratives as such, but because this particular metanarrative mistakes the valued appearance of particularly heroic individuals as a universal truth. It is not surprising that disempowered, non-college-educated, white men have bought into the myth. The remarkable popularity of Jordan Peterson indicates that we are now in a pronounced divergence from the traditional conservative insights of someone like the nationalist Edmund Burke and that this represents a new danger.

Our political life rests on the assumption that we can produce equality through organization because persons can act in, change, and build a common world. However, our “givenness” as persons breaks into the public reminding us of the limitations of human equality. The reason why highly developed political communities – like modern nation-states, late-stage liberal cultures, and ancient city-states – insist on homogeneity (either ethnic or ideological) as far as possible is to eliminate always present differences and differentiation that arouse dumb hatred, mistrust, and discrimination. These differences indicate all too clearly those realms that “individually responsible” people cannot change at will. The “alien”, whether that be the stateless person or the abstracted individual – ironically, loses the right to equality. All his deeds have necessarily become some specimen of an animal species and not any community as such. Without a doubt, wherever public life and the law of equality are completely victorious, wherever a civilization succeeds in reducing given difference to a bare minimum, totalitarian fear will be complete. The divergence between the two types of conservatism is this: traditional conservatism understands that human beings are the masters of the world. The New Conservatives believe they are the creators of the world.

The great danger arising from the existence of people forced to live outside the common world (e.g. abstracted individuals, stateless persons, and disempowered young white men) is that they are thrown back on their givenness, in the midst of the civilization in late-stage liberal cultures. They belong to the human race in much the same way that animals belong to a specific animal species. The paradox involved in the loss of human rights that are guaranteed by a particular community is that such a loss coincides with the instant a person becomes a human being in general, i.e. regardless of profession, citizenship, opinion, or deed by which to identify himself. Difference in general, representing nothing but one’s own absolutely unique individuality that is deprived of expression within a common world and action upon it, loses significance.

The danger in the existence of such people is two-fold: first and more obviously, their increasing numbers threaten our political life in the same way that wild nature threatens existing human communities; secondly, deadly danger to our late-stage capitalist, liberal democracies will not only come from external forces like Russia or increasingly prevalent climate disasters. The emergence of totalitarian tendencies will come from within the expanding neoliberal world. The danger is that a global, universally interrelated civilization may produce barbarians from its own midst by forcing the largest portions of the population into conditions that, despite all appearances, are the conditions of savages.

Responsible, happy individuals don’t just show up; they must be nurtured.    

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