From Will to Responsibility

A person’s will gains force and visibility through responsibility assumed by that person for his or her actions. Force of will amplifies when responsibility extends past boundaries of self, family, ethnicity, social class, and culture.

Frances Perkins could have denied responsibility for the lives of young American immigrants hurtling to the pavement after flames and smoke erupted from the ten-story Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. She was not one of the bosses who locked stairway doors to discourage wasteful rest breaks. She could have blinked away her shock and tears, aiming to forget the trauma of witnessing the event. But she fixed her gaze on the still, broken bodies. She assumed responsibility as a member of a community that had allowed such a tragedy. Do you remember how she described it?

It was as though we had all done something wrong. It shouldn’t have been. We were sorry. Mea culpa! Mea culpa![1]

Born into privilege, Frances Perkins chose to spend her entire life making things better for ordinary workers.

At the height of conflict in World War II, Ruth Weigle graduated from college and began work as a housemother-teacher at Pine Manor Junior College. In a vespers service, she expressed the responsibility assumed so well by her generation, the Greatest Generation. She spoke to the young women in chapel service about being sensitive, purposeful, expendable, and faithful. How different that sounds from the usual advice today for self-fulfillment!

Ruth found reasons to believe that even war could be waged in a spirit of love and compassion. She appealed to young women to remember that they were intelligent beings, members of the world community, and children of God.

When the Norwegian Scientific Society in 1839 posed the question,

Num liberum hominum arbitrium e sui ipsius conscientia demonstrari potest?

(Is it possible to prove the freedom of the human will from the evidence of self-consciousness?)

Arthur Schopenhauer’s answer in his prize-winning essay was

…to recognize the complete annulment of all freedom of human action and its thorough-going subjection to the strictest necessity.

However, in the very next sentence, he stated –

…it is precisely by this route that we are now led to the point where we shall be able to grasp the true moral freedom, which is of a higher sort.

For there is another sort of consciousness which until now I have left completely aside in order not to interfere with the process of my investigation. This is the wholly clear and certain feeling of the responsibility for what we do, of the accountability for our actions, which rests on the unshakeable certainty that we ourselves are the doers of our deeds.[2]

Unshakeable certainty? Revisiting the Norwegian Society question, is it possible to prove from the consciousness of responsibility a true moral freedom of the human will?

My own answer is no. Consciousness of responsibility does not prove anything by the rules of proof we employ in logic, mathematics, and science.

Yet freedom of the human will is necessary as a precondition for setting out to prove anything – that is, for positing any rules of proof in the first place. Indeed freedom of the human will is necessary as a precondition for setting out to do anything. Schopenhauer’s insight “proves nothing,” but helps us to recognize the sense of responsibility as emblematic of that necessity.

Schopenhauer also connects responsibility with the ability to admit guilt when events go badly.

Where guilt lies, there responsibility must lie also, and since the latter is the only datum which entitles us to infer moral freedom, freedom must also have the same location.[3]

Frances Perkins understood this when she wrote, “Mea culpa!” I am to blame.

Think again with me about the 5 rules at the core of GSOT presented in this series of blogs: 

  1. Every sentence is first person.
  2. The overarching viewpoint is not allowed.
  3. If it does not make a difference for somebody’s predisposition to act, then it does not make a difference.
  4. Break these rules.
  5. Get back to the rules.

How does responsibility fit with the 5 rules? My answers:

  1. Responsibility is a first-person phenomenon.
  2. Responsibility does not assume the overarching or universal viewpoint.
  3. Responsibility is pragmatic.
  4. Responsibility can take risks, going beyond and breaking whatever the rules have been up to now.
  5. Responsibility comes back to earth and recognizes rules again.

You may disagree. Then you have the responsibility to make your point.

We can see in this echoes of Martin Heidigger’s concept of dasein – to be there. Responsibility means that you are there when choosing happens and you are still there when the consequences of your choices fall down on you.

Responsibility is about “me” or “you”; it is not about “the individual.” To use a term like “the individual” immediately suggests that a person is speaking from the overarching viewpoint.

Sometimes responsibility is about “us.” Acknowledging “us” helps to avoid the trap of ontologic individualism. Ontologic individualism generates a conclusion that only an individual human can truly take responsibility for his or her choices. That seems false to me. Groups of people can and do take responsibility for choices made together. We can assume responsibility together.

Will might be expressed in

  • individual people,
  • groups of people,
  • all people,
  • people and animals,
  • all people and the physical universe,
  • for some, God interacting with people and the world.

Likewise responsibility might work in each of these realms, or domes. From ordinary experience I must admit that I readily recognize responsibility among individuals and, somewhat hazily yet powerfully, among groups of people. Look back at the thoughts of Frances Perkins and Ruth Weigle as they relate to groups of people.

For “all people,” I’ll ask humanists to make their case, which may prove stronger than it seems at first.

Among “people and animals,” think of a blind woman and her guide dog navigating city streets. Or a horse and its rider, a hunter with his dogs, the Sami and their reindeer, native Americans and bison, the wilderness enthusiast and fauna of the region.

Under the dome of all people and the physical universe, let’s hear the voices of those who require publicly available and reproducible evidence – that is, the voices of positivists and natural realists. Carl Sagan among others seemed to advocate a sense of responsibility in this setting, but others hitch their dreams only to blind evolution and thereby appear to discard all responsibility.

From my personal religious background let me suggest – and affirm – that God takes responsibility for everything in God’s will, which really means everything as best I can tell.


Next post:  Treasure in Heaven

Previous post:  Social-mindedness and World War II

Searching for GSOT outline:  Home

Header image:  Sami father and child with reindeer, circa 1890-1900, by unknown, National Library of Norway. Wikimedia commons. CC by 2.0.

[1] Brooks, D. The Road to Character, Random House, New York, 2015, Kindle edition, location 485.

[2] Schopenhauer, A. On the Freedom of the Will. 1839. Transl. Kolenda, K. Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1985, pp. 93-94.

[3] Ibid., p. 95.


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