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April 19, 2005

The Decline of Personal Responsibility

In his commencement address at Harvard University in 1978, Alexander Solzhenitsyn said that “the main cause of the ruinous [Bolshevik] Revolution” and “the principal trait of the entire twentieth century” was that "men have forgotten God." The West's emphasis on secular rights, he told the Harvard students, had produced societies that now stood at the brink of "the abyss of human decadence ... It is time in the West to defend not so much human rights as human obligations."

This was not well received by the Harvard community or Western liberal intellectuals.

Yet in that address Solzhenitsyn brought together two elements that have had enormous consequences on our culture in the 25 years hence. It is the cultural escape from God and the social and moral strictures of the Christian tradition that has resulted in the decline of personal responsibility, or what Solzhenitsyn calls “human obligations.”

In my view, the worst trend in the habits of the American heart is this decline of responsibility. We see this in all parts of life—-the failure of customer service, dependence on government to care for all ills, personal injury suits against tobacco companies for our lifestyle choice, or against McDonalds when we spill hot coffee. We see it in everyone from political and corporate leaders to our neighbors refusing to take responsibility for wrong doing, not accepting the consequences for their own actions, and not taking responsibility for the results of their own promiscuity and carelessness. We are all products of our times, and if we are honest, we see it in ourselves.

So my ears perked up last week when Rush Limbaugh read from a Knight-Ridder article on the decline of personal responsibility.

The article reads:

“Whatever the reasons, most experts agree that how people feel about their obligations has changed, particularly for those in positions of power and influence.

'Responsibility is waning. The strong sense of holding people responsible is getting more and more difficult,' said Joan McGregor, a philosopher at Arizona State University. 'We still hold people responsible all the time in a legal sense. But in a moral sense, it's as though no one is responsible any more.'

It wasn't always so, particularly in the brief period during and after World War II when the country was dominated by what Tom Brokaw would later call the Greatest Generation.”

Unfortunately, the article is largely disappointing, as the writer tries to prove the decline through presidential and other governmental actions. While a product of their times, government leaders are just a small part of cultural trends.

The summary of the article is weird:

Historians, philosophers, political scientists and sociologists cite many reasons for the decline of an ethic of responsibility in America over recent decades, including:

_ A culture of narcissism or self-absorption;
_ The rise of celebrity worship and entitlement;
_ The distractions of the war on terrorism.

I’m sure the young lady behind the counter in my local store who can’t get off her cell phone as she does her job and rings up my order is probably distracted by the war on terrorism. Perhaps she’s on the phone to Homeland Security, being vigilant in a time of danger. Yeah, right.

Looking for a more serious discussion of the problem, I came across an amazing 1996 article in Society by Smith College professor Stanley Rothman, titled The Decline of Bourgeois America.

Summary of the article:

The bourgeois beliefs in the value of work, productivity and restraint that flourished under the rise of liberal capitalism have lost their influence in US society. Personal responsibility has been replaced by the ideologies of expressive individualism and collectivist liberalism.

Rothman draws on Max Weber and others to show how Christian doctrines, particularly those emerging from the Reformation, were the foundation for a Western culture marked by restraint, responsibility, and productivity.

Rothman writes:

“Cultural developments in the West were unusual from the outset. First, the emergence of a prophetic religion gave a peculiar intensity to the superego. Second, the emphasis was on an individual rather than a communal relationship with God. Third, religious-cultural imperatives stressed general, universal, moral rules. Fourth, God was conceived as standing apart from nature, and his laws could be comprehended through reason. Finally, great emphasis was placed upon repressing the passions in the service of worldly asceticism, that is, fulfilling one's obligations through activity in this world.

To be sure, some of these themes have been present individually in other civilizations. Historically and comparatively though, this was a unique combination. It is undoubtedly true that Confucianism, with its emphasis on the control of the passions, produced a similar result in China and Japan via a shame culture. Confucian doctrine and the quality of popular religion in both countries was such that neither the Japanese nor Chinese could bring the modem world into existence; however, once that world came into existence, they could use the energy derived from the repression of sexual and aggressive drives in the service of science and industry. Thus, given an appropriate response by elites in Japan and later Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, Korea, and, finally, mainland China, these areas could adapt to the requirements of an industrial society fairly easily, as compared to other Asian, African, or even Latin American nations.”

I can’t take the time to capture all of the thoughts in this fascinating article. I urge you to read it.

My layman's summary: With the growing rejection of the boundaries and guidance of the Christian tradition, American culture slides away from responsibility as it yields to the temptations of an “expressive individualistic ethic” that emphasizes self as the center of the universe. This makes the “collectivist liberalism” of an ever-active and controlling government attractive because of its promise of egalitarian nirvana.

One more quote from Rothman:

“The evidence around us in the culture suggests that many of those in the middle and upper middle classes, having lost the internal gyroscope (and metaphors) that gave the lives of previous generations structure and meaning, feel torn between the desire for power and gratification on the one hand and the fear of losing control on the other.”

Men have forgotten God.

Posted by Jim at April 19, 2005 09:04 AM

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Excellent, Jim. We have forgotten God in the most Nietzschian sense of the term. Meaning of course, that beforew one can even get to the point of rejecting Christ, we have abandoned the concept of a transcendent moral order.

Posted by: Matt at April 19, 2005 10:17 AM

If I may nitpick for just a moment...

The famous McDonalds Coffee case is often cited as individualism gone awry, but if you look at the details of the case, McDonalds actually was pretty solidly in the wrong -- had the woman spilled normal hot coffee on herself, it would've hurt for a few minutes but not been a big deal, but because McDonalds kept the coffee something like 40 degrees above what safety regulations say it should be kept at, it basically melted the skin on her legs. From what I recall, she offered to settle for just medical expenses, but they refused and decided it should be settled in court, where a judge (rightly) determined McD's been negligent.

There are plenty of good examples of blaming others for your own mistakes out there. This is not one of them.


You can definitely tell bias has crept into an article when it cites the WoT as a major contributing factor in the decline of personal responsibility. Yeah, let's blame a war that's 3 and a half years old for a cultural decline that started at least 50 years ago!

Posted by: LotharBot at April 19, 2005 01:28 PM

This topic has been going through my head a lot lately. I wonder what the future of our western civilization will be as we discard the mores that have given it structure and order. I have been amazed lately at news reports of parents calling 911 for the police to come and handle their out-of-control children of 12, 13, and 14 years of age. The parents would not firmly discipline their children when they were small and now no one can. The adolescents even fight against the officers. In one case the officers used a taser to subdue a 14 year old girl who was physically resisting them. The mother complained about the use of the taser. What other way could two adult men deal with a violent young female that would not also cause injury and then media outrage? In another case a 12 year old girl was beating up her younger sister, so the mother called 911 for help. These instances reveal just one area of societal decline, and there are so many more areas. What will it be like for our children who have been raised to respect, obey, be hard-working and courteous? How will they deal with the chaos around them?

Posted by: AVB at April 19, 2005 04:28 PM

I'm still not seeing how I am contributing to the decline of American culture simply by insisting on following in the agnostic tradition of my family rather than converting to Christianity.

I contend that identifying the problem of "cultural decline" is a more complicated job than simply blaming it all on the damned liberals. Satisfying as that might seem.

Posted by: s9 at April 20, 2005 06:48 PM

Nowhere in my post or in the cited article is there an argument for conversion (although I would recommend it for many reasons, mind you). But as Western culture rejects the moorings of the Christian tradition, the void has resulted in the two trends mentions: expressive individualism and collective liberalism. They, in turn, we argue, are responsible for the decline in personal responsbility.

If not Christian, on what ethic do you base a call to responsibility?

Posted by: Jim Jewell at April 21, 2005 12:37 AM

Jim Jewell writes: If not Christian, on what ethic do you base a call to responsibility?

If you must know, I hold ethics derived from Pragmatism. Yes, the capital 'P' is deliberate.

I fail to see how my being raised in a family with a different ethic from a Christian one makes me complicit in the decline of personal responsibility. I was raised in a non-Christian household, so therefore my continuing choice not to convert to Christianity is a rejection of "the moorings of the Christian tradition." It would be nice to know how my choice to do this has contributed to the trends you mention.

Posted by: s9 at April 21, 2005 05:07 PM

Actually your rejection of Christ is not necessarily a rejection of "the moorings of the Christian tradition." You enjoy many of the advantages of Judeo-Christian and Christian social, economic, and ethical structures. You can thank Christ for that, even as a non-believer.

If pragmatism is your only ethical basis, I'm glad to have you as commenter but I wouldn't want to have you as a neighbor.

If pragmatism reigns for you, please read Pascal's Wager.

Posted by: Jim Jewell at April 22, 2005 02:36 PM

Jim Jewell writes: Actually your rejection of Christ is not necessarily a rejection of "the moorings of the Christian tradition." You enjoy many of the advantages of Judeo-Christian and Christian social, economic, and ethical structures. You can thank Christ for that, even as a non-believer.

All of those are arguable propositions, but I'll decline the opportunity to argue them.

Jim Jewell continues: If pragmatism is your only ethical basis, I'm glad to have you as commenter but I wouldn't want to have you as a neighbor.

Worried that having an agnostic in the neighborhood will lower the value of your real estate? My, how Christian of you...

Jim Jewell concludes: If pragmatism reigns for you, please read Pascal's Wager.

Good grief, not that again. You do realize that Pascal's Wager is not argument for the existence of God, but rather an argument for the belief in God. Worse, as a Pragmatist, I've seen the argument before— but presented more cogently.

Pragmatism asks its usual question. "Grant an idea or belief to be true," it says, "what concrete difference will its being true make in anyone's actual life? How will the truth be realized? What experiences will be different from those which would obtain if the belief were false? What, in short, is the truth's cash-value in experiential terms?"

--William James, Pragmatism (1907)
It's not my Pragmatism that makes you dread having me as a neighbor. It's the agnosticism, isn't it?

Posted by: s9 at April 22, 2005 06:06 PM