DevInContext The Case For Personal Growth


The Responsibility Ethic, Part 2: Responsibility Vs. Blame


This post continues my discussion of what I've called the "responsibility ethic" in personal development -- the idea that it's best for us to see ourselves as responsible for our situation in life.  I've been looking at the common argument that buying into the responsibility ethic causes people to beat themselves up over the setbacks they face.  You can read the last post in this series here.

2. Responsibility Vs. Blame

The critics of personal growth aren't the only ones aware of what I'm calling the "self-blame argument."  Many personal development teachers understand it as well.  What they often say is that it's possible to see ourselves as responsible for our circumstances without blaming ourselves for them.  In other words, if we suffer a setback, we can admit how our actions contributed to it without suffering over it.  If I'm in debt, for instance, I can acknowledge what I did to create the debt without calling myself lazy or stupid.

As we saw earlier, psychological research suggests that people can, and do, make this "responsibility versus blame" distinction.  People who tend toward an external locus of control -- the belief that they lack control over their lot in life -- often punish themselves for the difficult events in their lives, even though they see themselves as helpless.* People who tend toward an internal locus of control, although they see themselves as in control of events, actually do less self-flagellation when they get bad results.

Some critics acknowledge this distinction but reject it, arguing that it effectively destroys any notion of morality.  For example, in Self-Help Inc., sociologist Micki McGee derides Deepak Chopra's discussion of responsibility in The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, in which Chopra advocates "not blaming anyone or anything for your situation, including yourself."  "This notion of responsibility," writes McGee, "suspends the literal meaning, ensuring that no one is actually accountable for anything," and creating "a mystical world without need of morality or ethics."

The Philosophy Behind Self-Blame

Is this true?  Let's take this question to a deeper level.  As I think you'll see, this discussion is a good example of how the debate over personal growth ideas raises some important, and timeworn, philosophical questions.

What is self-blame?  I'd put it this way:  When we blame ourselves for an event in our lives, we are 1) judging ourselves as worthy of punishment or suffering because it happened, and 2) administering punishment -- by, perhaps, tensing our bodies painfully when we think about the event.  For example, I'll bet you can think of a time when you got really angry at someone, in a way you now see as inappropriate -- and that you cringe (punish yourself) when you remember it.

When you think about it, the idea that I should suffer because of something I did is based on some interesting metaphysical assumptions.  The idea seems to be that, when I do something wrong (whatever that may mean to me), I basically knock the universe out of balance.  I can only restore the cosmic equilibrium by experiencing suffering proportional to the suffering of my victim.  The fancy philosophical term for this idea is "retributive justice."

We see this mindset in how people tend to talk about the criminal justice system.  For instance, people often say of a criminal that he must "pay for his crime."  This means that the criminal has drawn on a sort of "cosmic bank account" by creating suffering for another person, and he must repay the "debt" through his own suffering -- most likely, by going to prison for some number of years.

Justice Without Retribution

In essence, many personal growth teachers, while asking us to take responsibility for our situation, also invite us to let go of the philosophy of retributive justice.  I can acknowledge my role in creating my circumstances, they say, without punishing myself if those circumstances aren't up to my standards.  What's more, when I stop wasting time and energy punishing myself for the past, I become able to look to the future and take constructive action -- make a plan to reduce my debt, perhaps, or look for a new relationship.

If we do what these teachers suggest and let go of the retributive justice idea, do we also eliminate morality?  I think not.  It's certainly possible to believe in moral rules -- that is, rules of right and wrong conduct -- without accepting the concept of retributive justice.

I could believe, for instance, that stealing is wrong, without also believing in retribution against people who steal.  Instead, I might believe that people who steal should be required to pay their victims the money they stole, or the value of the property they took, to put the victim in the position he was in before the theft.  In other words, I may accept what's called compensatory justice, but not retributive justice.

What's more, I would be far from the first to take this stance -- many philosophers have argued against the concept of retributive justice, and the notion that people should suffer for their misdeeds to restore some abstract cosmic balance.  The idea of dispensing with retribution against ourselves and others is not some kooky New Age innovation.

But Isn't Guilt Good For Society?

Now, I think some personal growth critics would acknowledge that we can retain some notion of right and wrong, even if we stop blaming or punishing ourselves when our results are less than perfect.  But that, the critics might argue, is not the real issue -- the point is that, if we don't blame ourselves when we act wrongly, morality loses any practical significance.

The very reason we act morally, they say, is because we're afraid that, if we don't, we'll beat ourselves up over it.  If people lost the capacity to self-blame, society would descend into violent anarchy. "There's a name for people who lack guilt and shame:  sociopaths," writes Wendy Kaminer in I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional.  "We ought to be grateful if guilt makes things like murder and moral corruption 'harder.'"

What will I say about this?  It's a nail-biting cliffhanger!  Stay tuned, dear readers, for Part 3 of The Responsibility Ethic.

As psychologist Helen Block Lewis puts it in The Many Faces of Shame, "behavior theorists have described a cognitive paradox in depression: If depressed people are as helpless as they feel, logic dictates that they should not also feel self-reproaches (guilt) for what they are unable to do." And yet, oddly enough, they do feel guilt.

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The Responsibility Ethic, Part 1: Self-Blame


A common theme in personal development literature is that we should take responsibility for our circumstances in life.  It's best for us, in other words, to see ourselves as in control of our situation, as opposed to believing that forces beyond our control create it.  I'll call this idea the "responsibility ethic."

On the surface, this doesn't seem controversial.  If I'm in debt, for instance, it won't do me any good to sit around blaming the stock market, my family, the current phase of the moon, or some other outside force.  I have no reason to take steps to get out of debt unless I accept that my actions -- cutting my expenses, selling stuff I don't need, and so on -- can fix the situation.

Personal growth's critics, however, often argue that the responsibility ethic has unsavory consequences.  A person who believes they control their lot in life, the critics say, will be prone to self-flagellation -- i.e., to beating themselves up.  If they don't get the results they want, in whatever area of life they're trying to improve, they'll blame themselves.

Suppose, for example, that I do everything in my power to get out of debt -- I cut up my credit cards, sell unnecessary stuff, and work with a debt counselor -- and I still fail to reduce my debt by the desired amount.  If I think I'm 100% in control of my situation, I'll see this failure as proof that I'm lazy or stupid, and suffer over it.  As Steve Salerno writes in SHAM: How The Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless, "if you make people believe they have full control over their lives, and then their lives don't get better (or even get worse), how could that not throw their synapses into turmoil?"

Reasons To Doubt The "Self-Blame" Argument

In this series of posts, I want to examine this argument more deeply.  First off, I'll talk about three reasons to question the assumption that the responsibility ethic promotes self-blame.

1. Psychological Research. Psychologists use the term "locus of control" to describe a person's beliefs about the degree to which they are responsible for their circumstances.  The more I tend toward an "internal locus of control," the more I believe in my own power to direct my destiny.  By contrast, the closer my beliefs are to an "external locus of control," the more I think I'm at the mercy of factors I can't influence.

For example, suppose I'm a student, and I'm about to take a test.  If I have a strong internal locus of control, I'll believe that, if I work hard enough, I'll get a good grade.  But if I have a strong external locus of control, I'll assume that studying will have little effect on how well I do, and the grade I get will be largely the result of luck.  Not surprisingly, psychologists have found that students who tend toward an internal locus of control usually study harder.

The locus of control concept is relevant here, because psychological research has repeatedly found a relationship between people's locus of control and the likelihood that they will suffer from depression.  People closer to an internal locus of control, as it turns out, are less prone to depression than people who tend toward an external locus of control.

In other words, people who see themselves as responsible for their circumstances in life are less likely to get depressed.  In fact, it's those who see themselves as mere pawns of other people or forces who are more likely to have that problem.  This makes sense, psychologists say, because of the feelings of helplessness and despair created by their perceived lack of control.

These findings don't mesh well with the critics' argument.  If the critics are right, and people who see themselves as in charge of their lot in life are likely to beat themselves up, we should expect them to be more prone to depression than those who believe they're at the mercy of outside forces.  But the exact opposite appears to be true, which casts doubt on the idea that the responsibility ethic is creating all this unnecessary suffering for people.

We Need More Evidence

I'm not claiming that this completely settles the issue.  After all, if we really want to know whether personal growth's responsibility ethic is causing suffering, we need to study people who do some kind of personal development activity -- reading self-help books, going to transformational workshops, or something along those lines -- and ask whether that activity has any relationship to depression, problems with anger, and so on.  And these, of course, would have to be books, workshops, and so forth that encouraged a sense of personal responsibility for one's situation.

Psychological researchers have only recently begun to look into the effect of personal development techniques (if we don't count psychotherapy) on mental health issues like anxiety and depression.  There is no clear consensus yet:  in one study of a wide range of self-help books, the vast majority of the readers surveyed reported "a significant improvement in their condition."

Another suggested that saying positive affirmations like "I love myself," while apparently helpful to some people, may actually cause people with low self-esteem to feel worse.  There have also been many studies of the psychological effects of meditation, suggesting that meditation helps alleviate depression and other emotional problems.

However, as far as I'm aware, there is no concrete evidence that the responsibility ethic, whether presented through books, workshops, or some other medium, is doing all the psychological harm to people that the critics allege.  Thus, the "self-blame" argument against the responsibility ethic isn't obviously correct or commonsensical at all.

In the interest of keeping these posts at least vaguely succinct, that's all I'll say for now.  In my next post, I'll discuss my second reason to question the self-blame argument, and also discuss why, even if the argument is correct, it doesn't follow that we should reject the responsibility ethic.

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