“Fundamentals” is an irregular series in which I write about certain basic ideas underlying my work on this site.
No human being exists in isolation. Each and every one of us is a member of multiple communities, some joined by choice (e.g., fandoms), others thrust upon us as a consequence of birth or upbringing (e.g., family, ethnicity), as a consequence of other choices (e.g., coworkers), or external circumstances and pressures; some are permanent, others temporary. And every community has a culture: collective rules and values, stories, material products, and so on. We are shaped by the cultures of the communities to which we belong, and they in turn emerge from the actions of each individual within the community. This does not deny individual choice, free will, or any of that; rather, it simply notes the plain fact that we are neither mindless drones nor completely autonomous actors unaffected by our environments and interactions with others. We are both individuals and members of communities, and it is equally a mistake to overemphasize either.
Which brings us to a rather critical point about responsibility. There is a tendency among some, I think, to assume that responsibility is exclusive and zero sum–in other words, that there are a finite number of responsibility points for any given occurrence, and if I take them all then no one else gets any. In other words, if Bob does something bad, to suggest that Bob was influenced by the surrounding culture is to deny, at least in part, that Bob was responsible for his actions.
This is nonsense. Take it as given that an individual is totally responsible for their actions and the consequences thereof. Culture emerges from the aggregate actions of all members of a community, and therefore all members of a community are responsible for their actions that contribute to that culture. All members of the community are shaped by that culture, and therefore their actions are influenced by–in other words, partial consequences of–the culture, which is to say the aggregate actions of all members of the community.
Thus, consider Alice, who shares a community and culture with Bob. Alice’s actions help shape the culture of that community, and therefore also Bob’s actions. Thus, Alice is partially responsible for the actions of Bob.
If we are totally responsible for our own actions and the consequences thereof, in other words, it follows that we are also responsible for the cultures we create and the ways in which they shape our own and others’ actions. Personal responsibility necessarily implies cultural and communal responsibility.
Which, let’s be clear on some things before anybody accuses me of saying something I’m not:
- This does not mean that anything anyone does is the responsibility of every community to which they belong. Rather, it is necessary to first show how a particular culture influenced the person’s actions, and only then is it possible to assign responsibility to the community.
- This does not apply only to “bad” actions and influences. Culture can have lots of positive influences, in which case every member of the community has some responsibility for that, too.
- As I already said, this does not negate personal responsibility, but follows logically from it. A person is still entirely responsible for their own actions, it is simply also the case that there is communal responsibility. Like most seeming contradictions, this only appears to be one because of an unstated assumption, that responsibility is zero-sum and exclusive. Reject that notion, and it is completely possible for two people to be completely responsible for the same event, let alone one person completely responsible and another partially responsible.
- Personal and social responsibility are not qualitatively the same. Personal responsibility, generally, is much more direct and concentrated; social responsibility tends to be diffuse by its very nature, spread thinly across many people. There are, of course, exceptions: for example, when a prominent community leader deliberately creates a culture of hatred and fear, for example, they carry a much larger and more concentrated portion of the responsibility for members of the community who lash out than the rank and file do, though again that does not negate the responsibility of the rest of the community for accepting and perpetrating the culture.