DevInContext The Case For Personal Growth


The Responsibility Ethic, Part 4: Responsibility And Compassion


We're talking once again about what I call the "responsibility ethic" that's common in personal development -- the idea that it's best to see ourselves as responsible for our life circumstances, as opposed to seeing our situation as the product of chance or forces beyond our control.

Today, I'll look at another argument personal growth critics often make against the responsibility ethic.  The argument goes like this:  if I am responsible for my lot in life, it follows that other people are responsible for theirs.  For instance, if I assume my own actions created my financial situation, logically I must also assume other people's actions created theirs, and thus I must accept that poor people's own actions created their poverty.

What's more, if I believe poor people are responsible for their situation, there's no reason for me to help them.  After all, because their choices and actions created their situation, it's "their own fault."  Thus, if we accept the responsibility ethic, we must jettison any semblance of compassion for others.  Wendy Kaminer, for instance, decries the "antisocial strain of the positive thinking/mind-cure tradition," which holds that "compassion is a waste of psychic energy."

The Psychology Of Generosity

As in my last post, I think it's useful to begin this discussion with a reality check.  Again, the critics are speaking hypothetically.  No one, to my knowledge, has any evidence that people involved in personal growth actually give less to charity, or do anything else that might suggest they lack compassion for the less fortunate.  What the critics say is that, if people took the responsibility ethic to its logical extent, they would stop being generous to others.

Admittedly, I don't have conclusive evidence that personal growth books or seminars make people more generous either.  However, there is evidence suggesting that people who see themselves as responsible for their circumstances -- in other words, people who accept the responsibility ethic -- are actually more inclined to help others, not less.

You may recall that, in the first post in this series, I described a concept in psychology called "locus of control."  As the psychologists have it, people with a more internal locus of control believe they have the power to determine their destiny, while people who tend toward an external locus believe their destinies are largely shaped by outside forces.

As it turns out, there has been much psychological research finding that people who tend toward an internal locus of control are actually more concerned for others' welfare.  One study of children, for instance, found that children with a more internal locus of control were more likely to help another child struggling with an academic problem.  Another study found that people who tended toward an internal locus of control were more likely to act in an environmentally responsible way.

Intuitively, this makes sense.  If I believe I have control over events in the world, I'll be more inclined to think I can make a difference in someone's life.  So, if I help another person study for a test, they'll probably do better.  But if I don't see myself as capable of affecting events, why would I bother helping another student?  If nothing I do seems to change anything, why should I expect them to benefit?

It stands to reason that, if self-development ideas are causing people to see themselves as responsible for their circumstances, those ideas may actually be promoting generosity and compassion, not stifling them.

And Now, Back To Philosophy Land

We've seen that, even if we assume that the responsibility ethic, taken to its logical extent, would cause people to lose compassion for others, it's not at all clear that people who believe they're responsible for their circumstances are -- in practice -- less generous.  Now, let's turn back to the original, abstract question:  if I see myself as creating my circumstances in life, does it follow that others' circumstances are "their own fault," and I shouldn't help them?

I think the answer is plainly no, for several reasons.  To keep this post to a readable length, my discussion of each will be brief, and I may not approach them from every possible angle.  I'll happily hash them out with you further in the comments.

1.  I'm Responsible, You're Responsible? If I believe I'm responsible for my life situation, it doesn't follow that I must believe others are responsible for theirs.  I may see myself as someone with the health, resources, social network, and so on that I need to have control over my reality.  However, I might see others who lack the same advantages as helpless, or as less capable of influencing their situation than me.

Personally, this way of thinking strikes me as irritatingly paternalistic, but the point is that, at least, it's not illogical to think this way.

2.  Responsibility Vs. Blame Redux. As we saw earlier, it's possible to see yourself as responsible for an event in your life without blaming yourself or beating yourself up over it.  By the same token, I think, it's possible to see someone else as responsible for their situation without judging them as "at fault" and unworthy of help.

As I said to Evan in an earlier exchange, suppose you have a friend who has a decent job and is capable of supporting himself.  However, he becomes addicted to drugs, and because of his addiction he falls into poverty.  Would you lack compassion for him because he chose (at least, initially) to take drugs?  I doubt you would.  In other words, although your friend is responsible for his situation, that doesn't mean you'll automatically lose any desire to help him.

3.  Unconscious Beliefs. We'll delve deeper into the concept of unconscious thoughts and beliefs later on.  For now, I'll note that, according to many personal growth teachers, our situation in life often results from thinking that occurs outside our awareness.

In one sense, we're "responsible" for these beliefs, because we're the only ones who can become aware of and change them.  No one else can do that for us.  However, it would be hard to argue that we're "to blame" for our unconscious thinking, as it's often the product of our childhood conditioning, and letting go of those harmful ways of thinking can take a lot of time and energy.

For instance, suppose I harbor the unconscious belief that I'm unlovable, and thus I have trouble forming relationships.  I'm "responsible" for this belief, in the sense that no one else can change it for me.  However, I don't think anyone would claim in this example that the difficulties I'm having are "my own damn fault" and I'm unworthy of compassion.

Next time:  Is the responsibility ethic anti-political?

Other Posts In This Series:

  • The Responsibility Ethic, Part 1: Self-Blame
  • The Responsibility Ethic, Part 2: Responsibility Vs. Blame
  • The Responsibility Ethic, Part 3: Guilt And Morality
  • The Responsibility Ethic, Part 5: The Politics of Responsibility
  • Comments (8) Trackbacks (1)
    1. Hi Chris, I think the distinction between responsibility and blame is entirely correct.

      However, I do think the critics of the responsibility ethic can point to statements where compassion is denigrated in the self-help literature.

      I think those who denigrate compassion are profoundly mistaken about the nature of people and responsibility – but I do think they exist.

    2. Hi Evan — I’m sure we can find a personal growth teacher somewhere who’s explicitly anti-compassion, since it seems to be a fact of human nature that we can find someone who will believe or say anything. And, as I think you agree, for those teachers who don’t openly come out against caring for others, I don’t think we can simply infer from their endorsement of the responsibility ethic that they are anti-compassion. That’s really the point I want to make.

    3. I’m glad you’re continuing this discussion, Chris, especially since it helps me see the argument from more than just “my” side.

    4. Hi Megan — thanks for the appreciation. Like you say, I think it’s important for personal growth junkies to understand where the critics are coming from — I think it actually helps us develop a mature appreciation for the work we’re doing.

    5. Chris,
      As always very interesting thoughts. For me, I do believe that our thoughts create our reality. I also know that many people do not realize the power of their thoughts or the power of their internal habitual voice and therefore I do not lack compassion for others even though many times they have created their reality. I would believe that those with an internal locus of control are more likely to more generous as they are aware of their individual impact on the universe.

    6. Hi Mark — yes, I think that’s an important point — that people who say that our thinking creates our reality often add that not all of our thoughts happen consciously — and, in fact, that most of them don’t. After all, the whole idea of a lot of personal development techniques (and a lot of forms of psychotherapy) is to gain access to that unconscious thinking to reshape that reality.

    7. Hi Chris,

      Taking responsibility for your life is a choice you make, which others might not. In other words, you may choose to be responsible, and others may choose not to. But every individual is responsible for his or her life, because there are choices to be made by the individual, and no one else can make them on his behalf.

      We are all responsible for how we think, how we feel and what we do. Nobody else can make choices about these areas in our own lives.

      But this doesn’t mean that we cannot cooperate and support one another. Just because a poor person is responsible for improving his lot in life doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be supportive. We *can* be influenced by other people and *can* influence others, so why not offer help when we can?

      I believe it’s extremely healthy to empathize with others, but would disagree with those who blame their circumstances on other people, like the poor blaming the rich.

      Each and every individual is responsible for his or her own life. But does that mean we should act independently and never interdependently? Personal growth writings – from what I have seen – promote cooperation and community.

      Now on to part 5… :)

    8. Hi Haider — I think that’s a great way to put it — that, even if I believe another person is responsible for their circumstances, that doesn’t necessarily mean I shouldn’t cooperate with them or help them. Like you say, I don’t see a lot of self-help books out there taking the position that we shouldn’t help others because their situations are “their fault” — the critics just claim they can logically infer that from the books’ ideas.

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