Personal Responsibility and Difficult Systems

Written by Ryan Wiseman on July 27th, 2022


(Narration by Ryan Conley)

If we're at an amusement park and I need to use the bathroom and ask you, a kind-faced stranger, to watch my bag while I go, do you have an obligation to? Are you personally responsible for watching my things? If you say no and I choose to leave it with you anyways, are you responsible if they get stolen? What if you say yes and the same result occurs? What if I'm the president of the United States, does that change anything? Personal responsibility, as a concept, is complicated, but it doesn't help that we use untethered, highly personal definitions that are often inherited from power when power should play a key role in our analysis. So, what is personal responsibility? Who has it? How do we make these determinations?

Are we going to get to the bottom of this question in this blog? Absolutely NOT!

Are we going to be better equipped to critically analyze these terms in our current context? Man, I really hope so. The idea works as so;

  1. Personal responsibility means we make choices and that those choices say something about us as people within a society (more on this later)
  2. Choice only exists in the presence of permissible alternatives
  3. The number of permissible alternatives correlates positively with relative power

So; A fair analysis of personal responsibility in any given situation means that we must also be committed to exploring power dynamics.

Within the galaxies of work on personal responsibility exists a small, originative kernel of truth; freedom is a human condition and that comes with expectations and consequences. CAN I place my shopping cart in a random parking spot after I unload my groceries? Sure! That means I am exercising the freedom inherent in my humanity. SHOULD I subject others to, at best, the inconvenience of moving it for me or, at worst, the potential damage to their vehicles? Probably not, but that is a question of ethics. WILL I carry out this expedient, but inconsiderate plan? Maybe, but this is now the arena of personal responsibility. I understand that my humanity allows me to choose, and that my ethics dictate what I ought to do, but that my actions do not exist in a vacuum. Even if I do not believe I have a duty to consider others (I do) I must pragmatically acknowledge that my actions have consequences. The truly infuriating part of this entire analysis is that WHO is responsible, even in the earlier scenario, involves a deeper understanding of what permissible alternatives were available (SPOILER: it's not always the person leaving the shopping cart out).

Imagine, for a second, you are presented with two plates at a rather ostentatious dinner party. On one plate is a delectable vegetable lasagna, full of roasted vegetables, ricotta cheese, and garnished with fresh basil. The other plate, shockingly, holds a copy of the 2018 science fiction/comedy/singing-competition-critique Space Opera by Catherynne Valente. The host has asked you to choose between the two plates for tonight's dinner. Don't get me wrong, the personal growth of Decibel Jones and the realization that "saving earth" means we must learn what exactly is being saved is a positively delicious narrative but, as a means of sustenance, is rather lacking. In this scenario, assuming you're not either a silverfish or termite, there is no real choice as to what to have for dinner. Even though you are being presented with two options, there exists no permissible alternative to having dinner if your "choices" are actual food and a severely underrated novel. In a vacuum, our cart-return scenario looks just as clear as this one; we generally agree there is a responsibility to return your cart when you are finished shopping, even though there is no official mandate to do so, and accept that there may be consequences (interpersonal or otherwise) to not doing so1. But what if the person wanted to return their cart but had a physical limitation and someone was parked in the blue spot, and they happened to be at a store where carts had to be returned inside? Is it fair to expect this person to push the cart back to the store when other structural barriers were preventing them from doing so? If personal responsibility only exists in the shadow of choices, it doesn't seem correct to say that this person chose not to put their cart away as their circumstance was decided by the choices of other people. The state allows a minimum number of accessible spots, the store chooses where to put them and where to find the cart returns, etc. If you're just an ordinary shopper looking for some Tums© to recover from an especially literary exercise of your free will you have relatively little power to change any of those things.

But some people do. Some people can arrive at a supermarket, see all the spots are full and park anywhere they want! If you saw a police car parked on the sidewalk you may not think twice about it. This leads us to our final premise; the more power you have the more permissible alternatives are available to you!

Have you ever heard of Victor Hugo's 19th-century novel Les Misérables? If not, let me tell you about the main character2 . As the title may suggest, this is a happy book. The protagonist, a French man by the name of Jean Valjean, was caught stealing bread to feed his family. Jean Valjean was condemned to a 19-year prison sentence that included severe abuse and hard labor. The context of his crime was within a severe economic depression where the "choice" was often "steal or starve." I want to highlight two moments from this book. The first is the crime itself. In this scenario, money is power. People with money in this situation, although they may be experiencing hardships of their own, have more permissible alternatives to the crime that Mr. Valjean ultimately committed. If buying bread is a possibility, then that ultimately shifts the ethics and reasonable consequences of stealing it. In the alternate universe where Jean Valjean is an adrenaline junkie and steals carbs to fuel both his excitement perseveration and his body, we might all more readily accept a punishment (even though 19-years still may be a little steep). But he wasn't. He was a desperate man with no other choices. This is intended to be understood in the story as the plot relies on us (the readers) understanding the injustice of that moment. A civilization that punishes people for accepting options they never had the choice to make is not a just one.

Back to our shopping carts.

If money was power in Jean Valjean's story, "ability" can be another form of power here. The more able-bodied a person is i.e., the more their physical capabilities align with social expectations, the more permissible options they have related to their cart. So, if a cart is left out in particularly high winds and it happens to damage your car, the question isn't "should they have left their cart out" but "could they have put it away?" If the answer to the second question is "no" our analysis, and blame, must shift to the barriers and choices that lead to the situation.

Earlier I alluded to the second moment in Les Misérables that I would like to discuss, and this is what we will end with. After serving his mild 19-year sentence (remember, a happy book) Jean Valjean finds himself, again, hungry and wandering the streets. He is given temporary relief in a catholic church where he is fed and put up for the night. Mr. Valjean, comfortable but concerned with his long-term outlook, steals the silver from the church and flees in the dark of night. Jean Valjean is captured by the police and returned to face the priest who had welcomed him only the night before. When asked if he knew the man and if these were indeed the church's treasures, the priest lies and tells the police the silver was a gift and that it is all a misunderstanding. This moment is so moving because it shows both kindness in the face of structural violence (returning Valjean to his old prison) AND it achieves exactly what that system should want to do; it returns power to the powerless, adds permissible options, and expands Jean Valjean's capacity for personal responsibility. THAT, my friends, is the goal. We don't want a world or society or community where personal responsibility doesn't exist, we want a context where choices are available, and responsibility is a reasonable expectation. Even when our structures are designed for violence and exclusion, we can still choose to see the world this way.

Remember how we said "money" and "ability" were both forms of power? Well so is community. We inherit fathomless choices when we decide that, even though we don't have to, we will intentionally center each other's humanity.

1 Person A - "Hey, that guy didn't return his cart!" Person B - "Also being a person in a context containing social expectations I now think less of them!"

2 If you are familiar with this story, you have an ethical obligation to suspend any fidelity you have to the truth and allow me to lie to the bright-eyed, hope-filled folk whose embers of justice and happiness haven't been stomped out by this appropriately named piece of literature.

Ryan Wiseman has been a disability specialist at the Student Disability Services since June 2019. He graduated from Eastern Michigan University in 2017 with a Bachelor's in Psychology and Philosophy. Later, graduating in 2019 with a Master's in Social Work from the University of Michigan. Ryan presented at Wayne State on this topic in association with our disability office.