DevInContext The Case For Personal Growth


The Responsibility Ethic, Part 5: The Politics of Responsibility


This is the final installment in my series on what I've been calling the "responsibility ethic" in personal development -- the notion 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 address an argument often made by critics of personal growth that has to do with the relationship between the responsibility ethic and politics.  This is a complicated argument, but I think it's an important one, so bear with me as I flesh it out a little.

Is The Responsibility Ethic Anti-Political?

The critics argue that, if I believe I'm responsible for my circumstances, I am unlikely to participate in politics -- to vote, protest, debate issues with others, and so on.  In other words, if I think I hold the power to change my life situation, I won't see any need to use the political process to improve my circumstances.

Say, for instance, that I run a business, and a tax imposed by the city is hurting my bottom line.  If I believe I have full control over my destiny, I won't see any reason to lobby the city government to reduce the tax.  After all, because I have the power to fix the situation, I can solve the problem myself -- by, say, moving elsewhere, or just increasing my revenues to make up for the loss.

To the critics, because it convinces people there's no need to participate in politics, the responsibility ethic is anti-democratic, in that it discourages an informed, politically active public.  What's more, the critics argue, we do need the political process to change aspects of our life situation.  Critics with a left-wing bent commonly argue that only the government can remedy the economic unfairness in our society, and the responsibility ethic blinds the "have-nots" to this by deceiving them into thinking they, individually, can solve their financial problems.

Thus, they might say, the responsibility ethic serves as a kind of "opiate for the masses."  As sociologist Micki McGee writes, personal growth teachings tend to trap their followers in a futile "cycle of seeking individual solutions to problems that are social, economic, and political in origin."

Clearing Up Some Confusion

Simply put, I think this argument misunderstands the responsibility ethic.  All the responsibility ethic says is that I am responsible for the situation I'm in, and I have the ability to change that situation if I wish to do so.  It does not address the specific actions I should take to improve my situation, or whether "political action" is a good option.

We can understand this by returning to my earlier example, where my city imposes a tax I think is bad for my business.  If I accept the responsibility ethic, I will believe I'm capable of improving this situation.  But the question remains:  what is the best way to change it?  Should I move to another city?  Try to increase my revenue?  Lobby the city council to repeal the tax?  The responsibility ethic is silent on this issue.

In other words, it doesn't follow from my belief that I can improve the situation that political activity will not be an effective method of doing so.  Supporting a politician who pledges to repeal the tax might indeed be an effective method of getting what I want.  Thus, I think it's a mistake to cast the responsibility ethic as inherently anti-political.

The Politics of "Non-Responsibility"

This becomes even clearer when we consider the extreme opposite of the responsibility ethic, which I'll call the "non-responsibility ethic."  A person who accepts the non-responsibility ethic (in other words, someone with an external locus of control) sees events in their lives as the product of luck, or of forces they can't control.

Suppose I believe in the non-responsibility ethic, and I'm faced with the same situation where the city tax is hurting my business.  If I believe my actions are unlikely to make a difference, what will I do to improve my situation?  If I really think I'm a helpless pawn of fate, I'll probably do nothing.

As this example illustrates, it's also a mistake to call the responsibility ethic inherently politically conservative, as left-wing critics of personal growth tend to do.  If these critics want to see more redistribution of wealth, it won't help them to have a nation of people with an external locus of control who feel powerless to change the status quo.

In light of this, it's no surprise that some of the most popular personal growth books use political leaders to illustrate their ideas.  Even the much-maligned Think and Grow Rich cites Gandhi as "one of the most astounding examples known to civilization of the possibilities of faith."  Gandhi's faith in his ability to change the world, writes Napoleon Hill, drove his contribution to ending British rule of India.

The Psychology of Responsibility

I won't harp too much on the psychological evidence, because I've done it a lot in past posts.  Suffice it to say that several psychological studies have suggested that people with an internal locus of control -- a belief in their own capacity to affect events -- are actually more inclined to participate in politics.

For example, one study surveyed some newly voting-aged college students, and found that the ones who described themselves as having an internal locus of control were more likely to vote in a presidential election.  Another found that people who tended toward an internal locus of control were more likely to participate in political activism.

In other words, it seems that a person's belief that they're responsible for their circumstances leads them to be more politically active, not less, which also belies the critics' claim that the responsibility ethic is somehow anti-political.

In my next post, because I find this issue fascinating, I'll talk more generally about the political implications of personal growth and spirituality.

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 4: Responsibility And Compassion
  • Comments (6) Trackbacks (2)
    1. I think you’re right that the critics misunderstand the responsibility ethic. I also think that some of the proponents of personal growth also do. Ie. I think there are a legion of books and websites the critics can point to where these views are promoted.

      Another question this raises is whether people are fundametally isolated or inter-related. My clumsy way of dealing with this is to say that we are social-individual entities not individual-individual ones. A topic for another series?

      To my mind the responsibility ethic leads fairly directly to a communitarian libertarian brand of politics. (I think the parties tend to corrupt democracy.)

    2. Hi Evan — I imagine there are books and websites at least somewhere that say it’s useless to be involved in politics because you can get whatever you want purely through individual action — does anyone know of any, by the way? That would definitely be helpful to my research. I don’t get the sense that this is the “mainstream” view but it would still be useful.

      I’m intrigued by what you said as well about communitarian libertarian politics — what do you mean by this, and how would the responsibility ethic create it? I found an article that tries to reconcile those ideas here, by the way: .

    3. An ethic of responsibility means providing the means for individuals and the small groups they live in to adapt to individual situations. This favours local control rather than centralised control. It emphasises dealing flexibly rather than bureaucratically with fluid situations. Hence I see the bias as being to libertarian and communitarian. An extreme individualist ethic inhibits the flourishing of individuals in my observation.

      The governance regions that make sense would probably be organised around watersheds and then devolved to groups that can be relatively self-supporting. The decision-making structure could be based on sociocracy.

    4. I liked the article – though the politics is quite different in Australia. Far less distrust of government than in the US (although with a greater cynicism about politics).

    5. Hi Chris,

      What’s interesting about your blog posts is that you’ve shown how the responsibility ethic doesn’t necessarily lead to the conclusions the critics say it will lead to. I believe it depends on how we understand the responsibility ethic, and what role it serves in our lives.

      For example, the responsibility ethic doesn’t necessarily lead people to become disinterested in politics. But if you already believe that people in government are useless and that citizens cannot affect policies, then your understanding of the responsibility ethic will push you towards avoiding politics (because of how you understand politics).

      But if you recognize the possibility of influencing government policies, then the responsibility ethic will motivate you to do what’s within your power to change policies, by participating in politics.

      It’s really sad how people try to simplify life by offering a simplistic understanding of complex notions such as the responsibility ethic.

      Thank you for shedding light on some of the complexity behind the responsibility ethic, and offering an alternative perspective to what the critics choose to focus on. :)

    6. Hi Haider — I like that way of putting it — that your beliefs about the effectiveness of political solutions don’t depend on your belief about the degree to which you’re responsible for your circumstances. For instance, V.I. Lenin certainly saw himself as capable of making a big contribution to overthrowing the old regime in Russia and establishing socialism — there is a good example of a high internal locus of control not inexorably leading to anti-government libertarianism.

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