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.

Other Posts In This Series:

Comments (16) Trackbacks (4)
  1. Chris,
    You have done a great job with this subject. You are challenging many paradigms. I love that you are. We can be responsible and not self blaming, we can discern for ourselves what is right and wrong and not experience guilt. When we live in real time, which is the moment there is no time or purpose to blame ourselves, beat ourselves up or wallow in the muck of our guilt. Look forward to where you take this, thanks.

  2. Wow, this really hit the nail square on for me and I can see how by taking responsibility for this financial crisis I enable my family to not take responsibility and yet I have so my self blame, I feel I must suffer through it….not a good thing to carry into a job interview. Wow I have to think more about this…

  3. Hi Mark — I like that way of explaining it — that self-blame and guilt require us to focus on the past, where we cannot accomplish anything. Responsibility, on the other hand, involves focusing on the present and the future — what am I going to do now to change the situation, if I want it to be different.

  4. Hi Patricia — it sounds like you’ve been seeing blame and responsibility as intertwined, so that you have to punish yourself over a situation you’re taking responsibility for. It also sounds to me like valuable awareness to recognize that you don’t need to beat yourself up to acknowledge your role in creating your life situation.

  5. This gets tricky Chris. The new age morality – so derided by its critics – often amounts to a judgement on the judge. I do think the materialist reductionists – and the spiritual reductionists – can end up in nihilism. (I am waiting to hear an adquate basis for morality from the materialists reductionists – I think Nietzsche remains the important figure here).

    Looking forward to the next part. I think you are addressing a very important issue and doing it very well, thanks.

  6. Hi Evan — thanks for the support. I think you in particular might enjoy this paper, by philosopher Gilbert Harman, about whether it’s possible to behave morally without the threat of guilt: I’m going to discuss that and other issues in the next post.

    I’m having a blast with this by the way and I hope you all are.

  7. Hi Chris, I’m reading the paper and battling feeling that it’s glib. For instance, when attacking others for thinking there is a connection between guilt and morality, Harman writes, “the proposed necessary connections between morality and guilt are arrived at through introspection and are accepted merely because they seem plausible to the authors, presumably, because of their own experiences of guilt.” I think guilt feelings are known introspectively (feelings are like that) and something being plausible and making sense of experience are pretty good reasons for accepting it I would think.

    He seems to be attacking the case that guilt feelings are an infallible guide to morality. I don’t think this is always the case being advanced.

    He seems to see morality as behavioural and rule defined (doing the right thing) – which would by definition exclude feelings and motivation.

  8. Hi Evan — I’d agree that guilt and morality are connected in the sense that our feelings of guilt influence the development of the moral rules we believe in, or the moral rules we’re taught influence when we do and don’t feel guilt, or perhaps both.

    The point that’s particularly valuable for me is Harman’s observation that it doesn’t follow from this connection that people who don’t feel guilt are psychopaths or incapable of moral behavior. I think this holds whether we see morality as a matter of acting with the right intentions, or taking the right actions. For example, even if I’m not subject to guilt feelings, perhaps I could still feel compassion, and act morally by giving to charity based on that motive.

  9. I think that ‘perhaps’ (in ‘perhaps I could still feel compassion) needs exploration. The case in built on logic and what is necessarily and in principle true. It avoids dealing with the whole messy world of our experience (though he uses his own experience).

    If compassion is about relation to others there is much to explore about how we filter what we internalise from them. Can we filter out moral standards – and being concerned of falling short of them. My guess is that this would require some process as an adult.

    I think he fudges around on what a psychopath is too. Some definitions would include being devoid of feeling. Which would get us back to that filtering of what we internalise.

    I do like that he lays out his case clearly and is willing to argue an unpopular line.

    In the Christian tradition there is little examination of God’s injustice. Eg Jesus parable about labourers who’ve worked different lengths being paid the same. God’s injustice is salvation, human injustice creates a hell on earth. Is loving people despite their behaviour a kind of amorality or psychopathy. These things aren’t discussed in your standard evangelical ethics class – quite stimulating to think about though.

  10. Holy mackerel Moses you dudes are deep! I think it would be interesting to hear from some folks who are actually dealing with this issue right now. I’ve been coaching so long and have had it drilled into me for just as long that I cannot be fully in integrity without accepting responsibility. If not mine who’s responsibility is it? So this is a non-issue for me and for most of my clients. Especially once we accept and act on the basis that it’s most effective to remain within the power of the present moment and creating there.

  11. Hi Tom — what do you know, someone who’s dealing with this stuff in the trenches showed up! :) What I’m calling the “responsibility ethic” is a nonissue for me when I coach as well. But it does seem to be an issue for the critics of personal development. Or, at least, they say that it is.

    [Stage whisper:] But just between us, my sense is that a lot of the people who criticize personal growth don’t really think it’s immoral or harmful. They just think the way it’s presented insults their intelligence. They look around and they see books and blogs repetitively blaring “Be happy! Take action! Like attracts like!” and they feel infantilized (as an earlier commenter said) and frustrated. They want to be talked to like they’re intelligent adults. That’s one of the things I want to do with this blog.

  12. Hi Chris, not only infantilised but also scolded I think.

  13. Chris, you continue to keep me captivated, both by writing about a subject I’m really interested in, and by writing about it so intelligently.

    Thank you! Can’t wait for what’s next!

  14. Hi Megan — thanks for the encouragement — it’s very helpful to me as I tread into (what at least seems to me like) uncharted territory. I’ll be posting Part 3 today.

  15. Hi Chris,

    My head hurts from all the ideas I got from your post. That’s a compliment, because a lot of articles I come across in the field of personal growth don’t even nudge me to think!

    It is absolutely crucial that we break the tie between responsibility and blame. The two aren’t intrinsically tied together.

    Responsibility is taking it upon yourself to perform the necessary actions to achieve a desired result. Blame is being punished for not achieving those results.

    Blame is totally different to accountability. It is very healthy to ask yourself: Why didn’t I achieve the results I wanted? What can I do differently next time? That’s being accountable (or self-accountability when you do it by yourself).

    Blame is intended as punishment. It’s often used with total disregard for what can be done now to achieve the results we want. This is very common in business and relationships: Looking for people to blame for a past mistake without thinking of ways to correct it.

    I believe this obsession with blame stems from the understanding that human beings need external rewards and punishments to encourage them towards one set of actions (the good) and dissuade them from another set (the bad).

    I don’t believe this has a positive effect in encouraging morality, because it makes responsibility such a painful experience that we avoid it like the plague, and find comfort in finding others to blame.

  16. Hi Haider — thanks, I’m glad you got something out of the post. I like that way of putting the point — that responsibility is about taking on what we need to do in the present and future, and using the past only as a lesson to inform our actions; while blame is about punishing ourselves (or others) over the past.

    That’s also a great observation, that our tendency to self-blame actually deters us from taking responsibility — if I think I’m going to punish myself if my business doesn’t do well, for instance, I may be too afraid to start it in the first place. And similarly, if I’m really afraid of being blamed by others, perhaps I will lie to them about what I’ve done rather than admitting it.

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