Personal Responsibility: Why It Matters

December 31, 2009

Quite rightly, Alexander Brown appears to think that a book entitled Personal Responsibility: Does It Matter? would be an unnecessary prequel. Here, he is evidently happy to accept the importance of personal responsibility and examine what it means and why it matters to varying groups of people. To that end, the book begins with the musings of philosophers who define what personal responsibility is; then moves on to politicians who decide what to do about it; and finally to ordinary people who try their hardest to avoid it.

The latter is not the book's contention, of course. Its central conclusion, following a nicely lucid and comprehensive treatment of personal responsibility as it appears in Western liberal democracies, is that citizens' juries, representative of society as a whole, should be created to inform, guide and balance elected officials.

The ultimate goal of this undertaking is to promote what Brown believes to be the three key aspects of personal responsibility - fairness, autonomy and human flourishing - and what conditions are most useful for allowing us to exercise it. To be needlessly pedantic, I feel obliged to point out that such a brief list cannot hope to be exhaustive, but Brown's points are well argued and intuitively resonant. It is reasonable to think that responsibility is encouraged where rewards and punishments are proportionate to actions, where we can freely act within our capabilities and capacity, and where we are allowed to exist without unnecessary hardship or coercion.

The tension between what personal responsibility means for us as individuals and our duties to the state/society we inhere, and balancing the state/society's duties both to provide welfare and support and yet require individuals to look after themselves, certainly supports the idea of some such counterbalance. As the author points out, it is entirely plausible for reasonable people to disagree over issues such as welfare, education, healthcare and so on. A flexible and contemporary forum to offer a link between what the state expects and what people fairly need is an idea with merit.

It strikes me, however, that a major reason why there is such divergence between state campaigns and manifestos to promote responsibility - to work, to live healthily, not to overuse resources - and the general success of these among ordinary people is that people, by and large, are not responsible. We drink too much, smoke, take drugs, engage in dangerous or risky activities, commit crimes. As a species we're fairly infantile when it comes to being truly responsible: infants grasping for the bottle, caring little of contents or providence.

Perhaps a greater participation, such as through the juries Brown proposes, is a way to increase the general standard of engagement with what it means to make informed, reasoned and responsible judgments and choices. However, in representative democracies such as our own, and despite the barbs of satirists and a lack of public faith, surely we aim to elect meritocratically, to select those who serve our needs best. With that in mind, and in so far as we are talking about promoting the balance of fairness in responsibility, would not dropping the nod to demographics and assembling groups of experts best serve us?

It would perhaps be irresponsible not to point out that my own feelings are heavily influenced by a slightly cynical view of the "ordinary" person, leading to concern over who decides what on education and welfare in my society. But I can restrain my bias and commend an interesting and engaging book, even as a separate bias worries that it is a little too charitable to David Cameron.

Personal Responsibility: Why It Matters

By Alexander Brown
224pp, £12.99
ISBN 9781847063991
Published 30 October 2009

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