Responsibility: Choice vs Obligation

I was thinking about my own sense of morality. There is one particular aspect that probably fits into liberalism in general but for certain it fits into my own version of liberalism. The aspect is about responsibility which, of course, relates to some of my past writing:

However, I wasn’t specifically thinking in the context of my previous thoughts. My thinking led me to compare very different contexts.

Let me lay out my basic notion first. I feel someone should be responsible for whatever they choose to be responsible for… even if they didn’t consciously think they were taking on a responsibility. But someone isn’t responsible for what they had no choice about… unless they later on freely accept responsibility for it.

A few examples:

If a person takes in a stray/wild animal or otherwise takes care of it, they have chosen responsibility to that animal.
But if a stray animal simply lives in someone’s yard, the person has no inherent responsibility to that animal.

If a woman chooses to get pregnant or chooses to carry a pregnancy to term, the mother is responsible for her child for the rest of her life.
But if a woman didn’t choose to get pregnant (such as rape) and no abortion clinic was available, then the mother isn’t necessarily responsible to that child (such as if she chooses to give the infant up for adoption… in which case the adopted parents would accept responsibility).

If a country without provocation attacks, invades, occupies or otherwise drastically alters the lives and governance of another country, the aggressor country is responsible for the other country… at least until the country has been returned to a state as good or better than it was prior to the actions taken.
But if a country is provoked into war by another country, the provoked country doesn’t have to accept responsibility for the other country even if that other country is defeated and demolished.

However, in any of these cases, responsibility can be accepted even when it’s not required. For example, Germany and Japan were rebuilt after WWII and the world was better for it. But, in that case, the rebuilding was charity.

Now, let me consider the opposite side.

When a stray/wild animal is trapped or lured into a house and made into a pet, the animal didn’t chose it’s fate and so has no responsibility to the owner. In particular, we can’t blame a wild animal for acting like a wild animal. Just because someone chose to make a chimpanzee a pet doesn’t force responsibility on the chimpanzee to stop acting like a wild animal.

When a child is born, the child didn’t choose to be born. The child might grow up to be an adult who wishes he had never been born. Life is forced on each of us and it’s our parents who choose to force life on us. As the ultimate cause, parents have the onus of responsibility. Hopefully, the child will grow up to accept responsibility for himself, but the child can’t be blamed for not wanting to accept responsibility for a life he never chose and that he may think undesirable (such as being born into poverty or having to live life with a severe disability).

When a country is attacked without provoking that attack (such as Iraq and Afghanistan), the attacked country owes nothing to the attacking country. The attacked country, if defeated, may accept responsibility in becoming a better country (according to the wishes forced upon that country), but that country is within its rights to remain defiant to the last. Also, that country is within its rights to be outraged if the aggressor country merely pulls its troops out after having made the country a worse place.

For some reason, this seems like a very liberal way of looking a the world. Conservatives tend to look at responsibility as a hierarchical relationship. Those lower on the hierarchy are responsible to those above them (whether in terms of social status or military power). Of course, conservatives may disagree about how to define that hierarchy. For example, they may put a businessman as above a politician. Still, one way or another, conservatives see responsibility in hierarchical terms.

My way of thinking about this is more in terms of relationships, specifically relationships that are chosen. The parent chooses a relationship with a child by bringing the child into the world or by adopting the child, but it’s not until the child is a responsible adult that he can choose or not choose to have a relationship with his parents. Obligation, in my view, comes from a choice made (whether explicitly or implicitly). Conservatives, on the other hand, see obligation as being inherent to roles and roles aren’t necessarily chosen. So, the child is expected to behave according to the role of a child with its inherent responsibilities. I think this is why dogs are the perfect pet for conservatives. Dogs don’t question authority (at least they don’t once that authority has been established). Cats… well, that’s another story.

I have one last example.

What is the distinction between the liberal and conservative relationship to their own government? One key difference is similar to the views of the relationship between parent and child. Liberals tend to think of govt as the nurturant parent who should care about and care for the child (the child being the citizens). Conservatives tend to have more patriotic reverence for and submissive allegiance to the strict father (often symbolized by the military). It’s interesting to consider the research that shows liberals are more accepting of the possibility of slapping their father whereas conservatives are appalled by the notion. In terms of government, this would mean liberals are more willing to defy and question government… which is interesting in that liberals also are more trusting of the government (genuinely seeing it as good and worthy).

What this means in the real world is that: Liberals tend not to be bothered by taxation as long as it goes to social services that help people. And conservatives tend to not to be bothered by federal spending as long as it goes to the military which represents the might and glory of our country.

In terms of my analysis of parents and children, my liberal view of government is that of a parent who chooses to bring a child into the world. The government by forcing it’s laws and worldview on the child forces citizenship upon that child. As the child doesn’t choose to be born, the child doesn’t choose to become a citizen. So, the onus of responsibility belongs to the government. The relationship of the citizenry to the government is, at best, freely chosen. The relationship is of a social contract that must be renewed each generation. Simply for being born in a certain location, a person doesn’t automatically owe allegiance to the government that claims the territory. For conservatives (especially on the far right), laws and constitutions are seen more along the lines of religious doctrine and commandments. This might be why conservatives switch between loyalty to and paranoia of government. They see government in more authoritarian terms.

The taxation angle is a bit confusing to me. Acceptance of taxation seems to be, at least in the US, related to the egalitarian world view. Liberals see government as an arbiter of egalitarianism in that all citizens should be treated like children who are equally worthy of love. All should be taxed equally and all should benefit from taxes equally. This, however, goes against the conservative strict father morality. The attempt to force equality, to the conservative, is seen as an undermining of moral order, undermining of hierarchical authoritity, undermining of earned meritocracy.

Conservatives also want to give but on their own terms. They don’t believe everyone is equal and therefore it would be immoral to treat everyone as equal. They see themselves as having earned their social status, their property, their wealth. They earned it and so they earned the right to use it as they choose. The government shouldn’t force them to help the poor. They may want to help the poor by donating to their church or favorite non-profit, but they want to reserve the right to not have to help those who they don’t think deserve help. If someone is seen as being at fault for their situation, then they should suffer their punishment. To the conservative, the individual is responsible to authority (be it government or church or free market), but the authority isn’t responsible to the individual. Instead, the authority is responsible to the collective, responsible for maintaining moral order.

The liberal sees the social contract as chosen and the social contract binds all equally. The conservative doesn’t choose the moral order, but rather the moral order frames his choices.

Anywho, that is the argument that was forming in my mind. I think I made a good case for my view, but I can’t say whether my liberal view is better. What would a world be like if people lived according to this principle of chosen responsibility? My suspicion is that, if people could magically be forced to live accordingly, there would be a lot less children and wars… which I think would be a good thing. I don’t, however, know if there would be less pets.

– – –

* Note: As usual, I’m exaggerating in order to clarify distinctions. Not everyone is on the extreme ends of the left/right spectrum. And there are many other factors that aren’t contained within the left/right paradigm. I use the terms liberalism and conservatism more in the context of the social sciences and from there I am considering their political implications. So, anarchists and libertarians might not completely identify with either side of the left/wing divide, but I would guess that most anarchists and libertarians would identify more with the liberal side in the sense of classical liberalism.

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