Personal responsibility, or avoiding responsibility?

This is an offshoot from the “which conservative values aren’t based on bigotry” thread. From page 1:

For the purposes of this thread, let’s sidestep Airbeck’s point about whether or not personal responsibility is even a value, and JohnT’s point about (if it is a value) it’s uniquely conservative. Certainly conservatives have claimed it as a value, so I want to look at what that means from a conservative standpoint.
As a bit of background for my own point of view, I live in a neighborhood that was founded in racism. About 100 years ago, racist developers bought a bunch of land, incorporated as a city, and sold off deeds that prohibited blacks or Jews from ever owning those plots. Where the city lines ran up against existing housing, the lines were drawn so as to exclude individual blocks (or even specific sides of individual blocks of streets) that were considered to be “too Italian,” or too ethnic. When discriminatory deed restrictions were ruled unconstitutional in 1948, the neighborhood continued to keep blacks out by requiring potential homeowners to receive a majority vote from neighborhood associations. This persisted until challenged in court in the late 1970s.

Within the community there’s always been a strong pro-social movement. Churches, civic associations, and clubs all exist to help out neighbors in need. People feel responsible for their neighbors. And yet, 100 years ago, the initial residents felt so little responsibility for neighbors who didn’t look like them that they built an entirely new city right next to the old one just to keep them out.

The 3rd generation residents of my neighborhood, many of whom are still living here, might now, as modern conservatives, still feel no strong responsibility for communities outside of this one, instead feeling that those residents should take personal responsibility for their own situations.

In this way, I can’t help but feel that “personal responsibility” as a value cannot be disconnected from the racist history of a society. It’s very clear that a moral wrong was committed; that this moral wrong has a lasting effect on residents of the city on both sides; and that many residents who benefited and continue to benefit from that moral wrong feel that they didn’t inherit any responsibility in correcting that moral wrong under the guise of personal responsibility.

I’m pretty sure that “personal responsibility” means “Don’t blame others for the results of your own bad decisions” and “Do everything you can personally do to rectify those bad decisions before asking others (the government) to help you”

Those sentiments in and of themselves are not bigoted. When they are only levied against certain groups of people, then yeah, that’s when it becomes bigoted.

“Personal responsibility” means I am personally responsible for the things I personally did. Feeling responsible for things I didn’t do may or may not be a good thing, but it isn’t the same thing.

And it goes both ways. I am responsible for the things I do wrong, as well as the things I do right.

Obviously it’s not 100% - maybe society is partly to blame if I rob a liquor store, just like it is partly the reason that I graduated at the top of my class at West Point. But by default, the locus of responsibility is me, not anybody else.

Your example of feeling responsible for the racist town you didn’t found or participate in isn’t “personal responsibility” in that sense - it’s altruism, which is a fine but not synonymous thing.


My impression is personal responsibility is a way to justify callousness. To justify cuts to the social safety net or harsh criminal sanctions. Also as OP mentions a way to justify lack of empathy towards minorities who do not have it as good.

When it comes to Republicans committing crimes, the mantra disappears. The modern conservative movement is based on paranoid fantasies of victimization, which is the exact opposite of the personal responsibility they claim to stand for. Railing that white Christians are victims because their iron grip on power is slipping is the exact opposite of personal responsibility.

Where is this mantra when coal miners see their jobs disappear and they refuse to train for a 21st century economy? Or when farmers vote for trump and then he passes tariffs that damage their companies? Or when Roy Moore and Donald trump threaten the people they sexually assaulted rather than accept what they did was wrong and their voters applauded?

What you’re missing here is the throng of calls for other people to take more personal responsibility for themselves. Would you say that’s what conservatives typically mean when they talk about personal responsibility (e.g., an outward direction rather than an inward reflection)?

And if so, isn’t that a rejection of altruism?

I identify as politically conservative.

On the one hand, “It is right to give every man his due”. This is Plato’s definition of morality, and equivocal to personal responsibility. I cannot justify the concept without resorting to decidedly religious or at least spiritual axioms such as the existence of a soul - not necessarily an immortal soul and not necessarily a divine one - and a spiritual basis of morality.

On the other hand I am less than confident about those religious axioms, which sometimes lead to distasteful conclusions. For example, basing public policy on personal responsibility alone is contradictory to egalitarian principles. Nature is not egalitarian, and no man is responsible for acts of nature. Historian/geographer Jared Diamond attributed simple geography as a factor for much of the inequalities in history, and I subscribe to that theory. Whose fault is it that the Americas had few domesticable animals, and therefore no immunity to animal-borne disease? Putting aside the hostility between colonists and indigenous peoples, if there were a peaceful coexistence but the natives fell victim to plague, is this justice? Did the natives deserve it?

Consider if a hurricane blew destroyed my neighbor’s house (as Maria did). Did they deserve to lose their new home? Is it not a category mistake to ascribe culpability to acts of nature, given nature’s lack of sentience? Why then should I subsidize the repairs except out of the goodness of my heart? Of course, I think it is a good thing to help them repair their house. I even think subsidizing other houses affected by the hurricane is a good thing. But personal responsibility must give way to some other doctrine, because it is unquestionable that I am not responsible for acts of nature.

If this other doctrine is charity, rather than egalitarianism or utilitarianism, the cynic in me says acts of nature will doom people to undeserved suffering. And if no other doctrine is presented, the only answer is that suffering is deserved.

Suffice to say, I have mixed feelings on this subject.


The oft-unspoken flip side of “personal responsibility” is “freedom from responsibility to the community.” As in, “I’ve got myself covered, and the rest of you should, too, so don’t come crying to me when you need something.”

One anecdotal example: A few years ago we had a prolonged heat wave that strained regional power capacity. Brownouts happened. The power company and local authorities urged people to raise their thermostats a degree or two. I’ll never forget a staunchly Republican friend of mine saying, “Screw that. I’m not raising my thermostat. I pay my bills so I can keep my house as cool as I want.”

What’s interesting to me is that often “personal responsibility” is extended more to family/immediate community. I hear it all the time as a teacher: “Why should we have free breakfast, lunch and snack for poor kids? Shouldn’t the parents be responsible?”; “School choice makes sense because parents need to take responsibility for their kid’s education.” This is really noticeable when it comes to food stamps–most people on food stamps are children, so complaining about lazy people on food stamps is really complaining about people with lazy parents. You also get a lot of “should have thought about that before they had kids you can’t afford”

The same thing is visible when it comes to things like child abuse and domestic violence: “If someone hurt my family, I wouldn’t wait for the government to act, I would take responsibility myself to handle the situation”; “In my day, if a boy was a problem, he got a visit from a dad or an uncle with a shotgun” and “I don’t think we should interfere in this bad situation, it’s really the family’s responsibility to handle it internally”.

Personal responsibility is important. But I think a critical difference between the traditionally conservative and liberal points of view is whether or not children are basically an extension of their parents; the conservative point of view seems to feel like the children are so closely aligned with the parents that if the parents fail to take responsibility, then the responsibility doesn’t transfer to society–it’s not the kid’s fault, exactly, but that doesn’t make it anyone else’s job, either. I think there’s generally an idea that if parents are not given another option, they will pull their shit together and take responsibility, or wouldn’t have had kids to start with–the problem is that we don’t force them to, so they don’t. If it’s a game of chicken, Conservatives think Liberals swerve too soon and create irresponsible parents; Liberals think conservatives are risking kids’s lives and hurting their future based on principle.

The term “personal responsibility,” like “family values” or “religious freedom,” has become a neoconservative dog whistle. I have not heard anyone I would describe as liberal, or even as compassionate, utter that phrase in years. It may have meant a wider range of things once, but these days it only seems to mean what Akaj described.

Just now I tried to think of examples of people I’ve judged harshly for, essentially, abdicating personal responsibility, and I can think of plenty; I just use different words. Friend’s boyfriend who blamed her for making him mad when he pushed her? Abusive. Co-worker who always asks to borrow money because her husband usually carries cash and she hasn’t yet figured out she needs some too? Immature and shortsighted. Acquaintance who thinks he shouldn’t have to pay the speeding ticket he so richly deserved? Whiny and stupid. Person who, on at least one occasion, has not fully accepted personal responsibility? Ummm…everyone. Maybe that’s why lumping all those things together and pretending only some people are like that and need to be like this is associated with bigotry.

Your IPhone is made by people living in barracks who work 12hr days, six days a week. Same with your Nike’s, only those are made by children. Widely known and documented for a decade!

What’s your personal responsibility for those choices exactly?

Let’s not forget the concerted efforts in the 70s and 80s to demonize black welfare recipients. While most recipients of government aid were (and still are) white, the notorious “welfare queens” were always black. To anyone predisposed to disapprove of people receiving welfare as lacking in personal responsibility, the faces they associated with that shortcoming were black. And to anyone predisposed to be racist, they could now use “lack of personal responsibility” as justification.

You and the other residents of your neighbourhood have a personal responsibility for the actions that take place in your neighbourhood, not the neighbourhood down the road. You also have no personal responsibility for the actions of the people who founded your neighbourhood, whether or not you were related to them. Blame is not an inheritable liability. That is my belief and it is very much a conservative belief.

Where you do have a responsibility, both personal and collective, in in ensuring fair allocation of collective resources. Say you live in Neighbourhood A which is mainly upmarket, and Neighbourhood B on the other side of the tracks is the same size and mainly downmarket. Suppose for the sake of hypothesis that Neighbourhood A and Neighbourhood B each have a school. Regardless of the property values or income levels of each neighbourhood, both schools should receive the same funding. That’s fair. I regard fairness as a conservative value. However, suppose that the Neighbourhood A school has a much more effective PTA than the Neighbourhood B school and thus performs better. That’s an unequal situation, but not an unfair one. The conservative/liberal divide then is on how many resources and how much effort should be used to address the inequality. My belief is that a traditional conservative won’t want the resources taken from the Neighbourhood A school simply because it’s performing better. However, if there are specific issues at the Neighbourhood B school that can be addressed through additional funding, then it should be considered. If Neighbourhood A school’s advantage is parental involvement, you’re not going to match that advantage at the Neighbourhood B school simply by throwing money at it. A different example might be study software. If Neighbourhood A privately funded study software for its school’s students, and found that it worked, then whoever’s at the district level above both Neighbourhood A school and Neighbourhood B school should consider expanding the distribution of study software to the entire district. That’s effective use of resources which is also a conservative value. The follow-on is whether to pay for the additional cost of the study software by reducing another cost, by raising taxes, or by borrowing and paying for it in the future. Based on an uncertain future return, a traditional conservative would select trading costs, raising taxes and borrowing in that order. This is my view of conservatism, and within this thread I’m not interested in assessing how current national governments match to my vision of conservatism.

A different example of the allocation of resources would be fighting crime. In theory, Neighbourhood A and Neighbourhood B should have equal crime-fighting budgets and equal amounts of policing. However, suppose Neighbourhood B has more crime. That’s a situation where, in my opinion, unequal allocation of resources is justified. Neighbourhood B has more crime and therefore should receive more policing and other crime-prevention resources in order to reduce the amount of crime. However, there should be a baseline police service, and that service should not be diminished in Neighbourhood A. Also, in terms of personal responsibility, it’s wrong for Neighbourhood B to blame its crime problem on Neighbourhood A. Likewise, if Neighbourhood B has more crime than Neighbourhood A, its residents shouldn’t complain about being more heavily policed. The burden of being more heavily policed is a collective responsibility issue, but it’s a counterpart to the additional resource allocation to prevent crime.

In my experience “personal responsibility” means “I shouldn’t have lift a finger or pay a penny to help other people.”

It usually goes right alongside the mantra of the value of charity, which is “people should voluntarily support each other and aid each other when they’re in need.”

The combination of these two results in “I certainly expect to be helped by others, but should not be required to help anybody myself - it should be a charitable act which I will do out of the kindness of my christian heart.”

Sometimes they even actually are charitable. Now and then. To people they like. The right people. Not the ones that don’t deserve it.

Collective responsibility? How, exactly, does that work?

That’s when people think something should be done but that somebody else should do it. (Or more specifically, that it would be a bad idea if each individual attempted to do his own portion of it himself.)

Collective responsibility is the reason government exists, and the rationale from which roads and police forces are spawned.

An over-generous social safety net is bad. Societal gross value is maximised when everyone in society is contributing to society by being productive citizens. Some people are naturally less productive and some people are unable to be productive. The issue is when the less-productive claim to be unable to be productive, and that’s accepted. That issue is furthered when people take advantage of the social safety net, and also the black market for cheap labour or benefit resources such as housing.

Are there major church groups declaring that white Christians are victims? What are the top 10 white Christian, or multi-ethnic Christian church bodies in the US and which ones have declared Christians to be societal victims. I’m sure you can find fringe examples, but if you want to judge the right based on the fringe-right, I’m sure you’ll agree it’s fair to judge the left on the fringe-left.

Can you cite an actual example of a coal miner refusing to train for a modern well-paying 21st century job because he preferred coal mining? I’ll agree with you that Trump’s treatment of farmers has sucked, and that US farm policy should be reformed. I’m also mindful that US farmer issues have existed my entire life, and could you please advise me of when a liberal presidential administration reformed US agricultural policy? Or at least took a strong international stance backing American farmers?

You skipped a couple-three steps in there. Let’s use a high profile example: What is my part,as a white guy, of the collective responsibility for slavery in pre-Civil War USA?

I am uncertain about most of the statements in this paragraph. Even taken at face value, I’m not sure that an “over-generous social safety net” has ever been seen on the face of the earth.

I’m not sure that “a 21st century economy” means that there’s “a modern well-paying 21st century job” for everyone. From what I hear of the current economy, it probably would involve becoming a farmhand, out picking in the fields, for subsistence wages.

That would probably help the farmers out too.

You don’t get it - the whole idea of collective responsibility (as I think of it) is that it’s not the individual’s responsibility to take direct action. Instead we pay taxes, the government takes the taxes, and they decide not to give anything to black people.

Our job is just to pay taxes, and stop electing criminal morons.
(And for the record, you’re talking to the wrong liberal. I don’t think that society, even at the governmental level, has a responsibility to make direct reparations for pre-civil-war slavery - though society does have a responsibility to deal with our current black populations (and white populations) in an intelligent and constructive manner.)

How would people take advantage of the social safety net? There are welfare cheats, but the bulk of spending on welfare goes to retirees, health care and education. There is welfare for the poor, but public investment in education, healthcare and pensions for the elderly is about 3 trillion in the US. Food stamps and WIC are a fraction of that.

Racial resentment is one of the strongest predictors of opposition to welfare among whites.

Just like racial resentment is one of the strongest predictors of gun ownership among whites.

Among mainstream republicans, the attitude that whites, men and christians are as persecuted as gays, blacks or muslims is a mainstream attitude.