With the arrival of 2016, I’ve made a resolution to write 500 words once a week with some friends.
Now that that is off my chest, let us proceed with the first installment.
Recently, I was wondering about radical individualism and personal responsibility. My train of thought was started by an email thread from a group of coworkers. In the brief discussion, amid the glittering generalities, appeals to prestige, jargon and so forth, and with an overarching sense of radical individualism and a grumbling against any form of perceived oppression by a governing power, the same old line was trotted out: “People need to break from the tribe, embrace their personal agency, take responsibility for their actions, and, by chaining the darkness within, achieve self-actualization!”
(There was more, which involved the words “shibboleths” and “fetishes”, but properly going through it all would have made that sentence even longer.)
Just reacting to that statement and then passing over it could have been simple, but this is one of those statements that bothers me and I knew that I wouldn’t rest until I had dealt with it in full…or at least as much as I could in these 500 words.
The fundamental question, at least as I see it, is this: Is it possible for such a person – one who has reclaimed his personal agency from the tribe – to be truly responsible?
Initially, the statement under consideration actually sounds great. If a person has somehow surrendered his personal agency, that is, his own ability to make decisions, to some larger group of people, then for him to take back that ability would seem to be a positive thing. If he subsequently took responsibility for exercising this regained ability, that would be even better. Such a person would refrain from excuses like “I was just following orders,” or “The devil made me do it.” All that he would have to do to start down this road to free choice and personal responsibility is to break from his tribe.
However, upon further consideration, this statement breaks down. In order for a person to be responsible, then there is something or someone that person must be responsible to. Now, it could be argued that the person is being responsible to himself alone, but then we are faced with a problem similar to Plato’s Ring of Gyges. If a person is responsible only to himself, and not to others, then he could not be held accountable for his actions, good or bad, except by himself. But the statement we are considering explicitly states that there is a need to “chain the darkness within.” If a person is a rule unto himself, how would he even know what darkness is and that it would need chaining, much less that it is within himself?
So, the accountability inherent in responsibility cannot be laid solely in the hands of a single human person, but then who or what else should this person be accountable to?
What about the tribe?