Responsibility is not zero sum
Sep 11, 2010

Responsibility is not zero sum

In discussing almost any problem, we frequently try to identify the single key factor responsible and focus on that. A glorified "blame game", if you will. In reality there are often many causes and factors for a given event. The point I wish to make is that responsibility is not a zero sum game. That is, we should not expect blame to add up to 100% where acknowledging one factor having some percent reduces the amount of responsibility some other factor gets. To identify one factor does not necessarily minimize the responsibility of any other factor.

When the obvious proximate cause of an event (such as the actual perpetrators) are so obviously horrific and deserving of blame we do just that but tend to ignore to our detriment other factors and sometimes even the ultimate cause. The inexcusable trigger that lights the match is focused on compared to the powder keg that ultimately is the source of the exposition. So for example with 9/11, it is easy to blame the proximate cause namely the actual terrorists but much harder to identify the larger ultimate causes that led to people desiring to act out in this way such as, say, US imperialism in the middle east. Now I should be clear, identifying proximal vs ultimate causes (and the line between these two can by blurry, multifaceted or nonexistent)  in no way reduces the responsibility of the proximal cause. The horrors of the 9/11 perpetrators stand on it's own regardless of any discussion about other background causes of 9/11. Furthermore, explaining an atrocity an the factors that led to it does not excuse the atrocity in any way. Explaining factors that lead to cannibalism or genocides (such as food shortages or population pressures) do not excuse these acts. Instead, we aim to try and fully understand all causes and factors in an attempt to mitigate them in the future.


This can be seen in the context of a typical conservative rhetoric which focuses on personal responsibility with respect to drugs, poverty, unemployment, racism and many other things. Attempts to explain systemic pressures and factors which act against any given individual and require attention are met with this mantra that the addicted drug user, the poor man who resorts to crime, or the uneducated single mother who can't find a job have a personal responsibility in their actions that led to their circumstances. Certainly they do! However, because personal responsibility is not zero sum talking about the larger forces in society that allow or even encourage drug use, crime rates by certain income level and racial groups, etc do not minimize the individuals responsibility.

I feel this point that responsibility isn't zero sum is obvious and perhaps pedantic, but I think it is important because so much of the rhetoric in the political arena is so unilaterally attempting to find one and only one factor (one caused by the other side is best) to explain something and that really investigating the background factors that lead to so much violence and problems is both important and too often ignored. Moreover, to overemphasize personal responsibility of an individual in an unfortunate situation can only breed apathy and unwillingness to work on the ultimate causes of an individuals proximate situation.

Thoughts on this post? Comment below!

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Similarly, to focus inordinately on ultimate cause can breed individual apathy, on a cultural level. Case in point - the smothering of traditional hardworking African American culture by liberal condescension, welfare dependency, and ghettoism.

That's the progressive side of the coin.

Your point is very valid, though. Both sides could do with some soul-searching.

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