Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Who me? I’m not responsible. Why do those things happen?

by Gary Berg-Cross

Flight from responsibility with its resulting dilemmas is nothing new, but it confronts us in a variety of ways across the country, globe and culture.  It is difficult not to think of the reign of unintended consequences of irresponsibility as we are showered with 21st century news.  This ranges from the responsibility of deaths from police such as in Ferguson, Missouri; to epidemic deaths in Africa; to thousands and millions in conflicts around the globe.  No one thing seems responsible, although you can find attempts to simplify it down to a target cause.  Policemen are only doing their duty and protecting themselves.  They are not responsible if someone gets shot.  Riots break out as unintended consequence of that action.  Are the police, the community of the media responsible for that?  It’s just an unanticipated consequence of a diffuse system where it is difficult to locate one single, intended, responsible cause.  But a multi-causal/many hands explanation might mean that I, as a citizen, share some of the responsibility.  No, not me.  Society says that a crime and such must be intentional.  It's not my intent.  It must be them, or whatever, but not me.

So an easy, religio-cultural defense is that “I didn't intend for this to happen” any more that an anthropomorphic God intended bad things to happen.  Of course, social science suggests that "actions" are generally performed by some human or animal for some purpose.  Certainly we have things discussed in business, law, government, economics that depends on goals or purpose. It’s just that these or a person's model of what will happen based on some intended action may not be what will really happen. Our models are imperfect.  So we have the famous" unintended consequences" and a search for someone/something responsible to blame.  It is a difficult causal analysis and one can understand why we tend to avoid the complex explanation for the simple. Indeed it is a general phenomena that we may recognize which problems are significant, but they are often difficult and so we drift sideways on easier problems and topics that provide more immediate pleasure and conversation.

Fox News is blaming President Obama for being indifferent to the threat of terrorism.  He's an easy target of the focus of who is responsible for all that goes wrong in the Near East.  Who’s responsible for these deaths?  We want a simple answer.  Of course there is a history here and other players with various intentions.  But there is one model to analyze all of this, so as beings with limited analytic ability, we simplify with rules of thumb and biases.  It’s hard for most of us to believe that the President intends things to go wrong, but in politicized times we look for a simple agent explanation.  It’s a very natural way of thinking. But is can be dangerous.  Things happen for a “reason”, but if it is something I don’t like it makes sense to find a cause external to one’s self and group to blame.  And blaming can make enemies of lead to the gridlock of two 6 year olds fighting.

Why are there high divorce rates, the spread of venereal disease, troubles in our schools, and increases in teen suicide, along with alcohol and drug abuse among the poor?  A simple answer is that it’s their culture (see The Poverty of Reason by Glenn C. Loury) .  They are responsible, not the larger society in which poverty is created.  So if "they" rather than "I" are responsible I don't have to do anything about this problem and its unintended (by me at least) consequences.

I can ignore social sciences understanding of dysfunctional behavior patterns adopted by people in poor communities. It’s just too complicated for me to understand and this support broad solutions. 

A worrisome, perhaps central, example of this fight from responsibility is the creeping impact of climate change. Why aren't we taking action? Sure there are scientific warnings about what is happening and why. We  don’t want the anticipated climate changes let along unanticipated ones.  But since they are part of a very complex natural system, coupled with human institutions and power centers beyond my control, it seems to say that “things just happen”. Someone responsible will have to deal with that. 

As passengers on planet earth we can say “I don’t intend that the seas warm and polar bears die off.  My conscience is clear and my moral principles say that I am not to blame.  And thus we drift to unintended consequences unless we see some shared responsibility. As noted in the lead up discussion for the recent UN climate summit:

“...stating that nobody is responsible for climate change leads to paralysis. Second, empirical evidence of public and private initiatives in distant corners of the world ... suggests that both individuals and groups are actively taking responsibility for climate change mitigation.
Climate change can also be approached as a problem of collective moral responsibility. “

Who Has Moral Responsibility for Climate Change?


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