Personal Responsibility and Social Justice

Or “Even Clark Kent has to do his chores!”


As our society has become more individualistic over the last half-century, we have seen an erosion of collective or social means to take care of people. We have become a bit less a social creature and tended toward a somewhat Darwinian idea of morality,


Since the Reagan years, much of the social safety net has been eroded. “Redistribution of wealth” has become a bad word. And the nuclear and extended family has also become less reliable, as “family values” have become a privatized lifestyle choice (and, after all, “blood loyalty” is morally double-edged, as well shown in a recent episode of UPN’s “Jake 2.0”). People sometimes put their own adult interests ahead of those of children or taking care of elders.


Personal responsibility has become the moral buzzword. And, frankly, that notion now needs to incorporate supporting others besides oneself at times as a component, and this is one reason why gay marriage and gay parenting are now edge issues. Yet, logic itself seems to become a merciless enemy here. Freedom means the capacity to pursue one’s own chosen ends. Freedom to succeed implies accepting the idea of personal failure. A corollary is the idea of meritocracy, and the enticing yet disquieting idea that one person may be intrinsically “better” than another and therefore deserve a better permanent station in life. Is there a way out of this that respects freedom and takes care of people?


Maybe literature and the arts can point to an answer. Look at Duddits, the “Dreamcatcher” in Stephen King’s recent novel, or at Smallville’s Clark Kent. Or at many other characters. None of these chose their situation or predicament. Yet their problems and abilities, in some combination unique to each person, gives them the ability to make real differences to other people, sometimes to “save” others. When we fight the battles we first choose, we often have to accept defeat, even permanently, as well as victory. Sometimes it is the unchosen battles that give us unexpected opportunity.


In go-go economic periods, we get used to the idea of unlimited opportunities. During economic downturns or other hardships from external sources, such as war, we are forced to make hard choices and sometimes people make sacrifices seemingly unequally. But sometimes these sacrifices occur when people have not competed well and must be weeded out, or when we must compete with others around the world with lower standards of living, willingness to do dirty work, and resentment of the way we have gotten to be the way we are. As I learned in a competitive school system in the 1950s, opportunities can not be tested forever, and failure can have real long-term, even fatal consequences (in an era of honor systems and draft deferments). Sometimes it is overcoming challenges that are assigned to us that gives us the (non-monetary) authentication to be respected by others for what we accomplish, even if we lack more obvious trappings of success in terms of money or legally recognized and loyal family. In recent decades, however, the “no fault” and “at will” culture of our markets has somewhat diluted the notion of personal accountability. It’s important here to distinguish between accountability for one’s actions, and authentication of one’s self-defined purposes by proving that the outcomes of these purposes are accountable to others.


My own previous field of information technology provides one lesson. For a time after my December 2001 layoff and requirement I was deluged with requests from headhunters, and they would go nowhere. I would say that I, and others in similar situations, need to answer personally for how I managed my own career and family priorities in the three or so years preceding the layoff. But I was surprised of how haphazard the recruiting business is. Wouldn’t a staffing company make money if it had a very disciplined approach to staff career development and evaluation?  I wonder if investors could be attracted to this idea. Let’s say a company will accept resumes only from persons who have consistently and publicly maintained their professionalism in a few distinct areas, such as getting and keeping technical certifications, and maintaining consistency of employment or, if on the bench, having a “good reason,” whether child care or eldercare or being back in school. People who did not maintain this level of commitment during downturns would be weeded out of the system. Along with this would go expectations of some level of community service, whether the military or reserves, or some community equivalent.  Today, in information technology many employers base job descriptions on a long list of very specific technical skills that only a very determined professional could have acquired. This approach tends to help get around any discrimination complaints, but some employers are now also requiring the experience to be recent.


A personal note here: I am one of those “mainframe” people who stayed somewhat glued to Y2K and did not pick up the “new” open systems skills quickly enough and who totally underestimated the commitment required to avoid becoming marginalized. Usually, as people get older they compete to move into management; but if I did that I would give up the right to speak for myself on controversial areas that matter so much to me.


Particularly as people move out of technical areas they have to emphasize “soft skills.” That is all right and necessary inasmuch as technology needs to be welded to business or cultural needs with deep understanding if one is to avoid the geeky trap of just “doing the wrong thing.” But “people skills” have been construed by many employers as just manipulation (or “masculinity” in Rosenfels-speak). Sales people (particularly when making cold calls) and debt collectors, for example, are supposed to persuade their contacts to do what their clients (with “one call closing”) want when there are not any real justifications from an objective point of view. “Sales,” when seen as a career by itself (“always be closing”) seems defined by the ability to manipulate people and make them like you—aka, 50s style conformity. (Sometimes the same is true for trial lawyers in front of juries.) Sometimes one demonstrates this kind of manipulative ability in his own family context. But now there is a growing industry of testing people for the ability to do this with true-false psychological tests. These tests sometimes seem determined to weed out those individuals who seem too focused upon their own thoughts or interests to really interact well with stakeholders. In this market, people wind up taking these tests just when they need “a job” (to “pay their dues”) and find out they will not be accepted for anything unless they, in the language of Ephram Brown’s essay on a touching “Everwood” episode, “change.”  Yet, I tend to resent seeing people get personal gains without creating any real value of their own, so I see how resentment of others who do not play by the same rules can go around.


Now more than ever there are renewed calls for collective action in the workplace. Now sometimes even freelance writers urge efforts to join their “brothers and sisters” in the labor movement in opposing evil corporate America. Yes, there has been plenty of corruption to go around in government and in executive suites in recent years. High rollers who have ill gotten gains need to have them taken away by the full application of the law. But sometimes ordinary “middle class” workers have shared in these wrongful gains, or have been employed in and depended upon businesses with unethical models to sustain  their own lifestyles. And sometimes the complaints from “average Joes” are not really about corruption but about their own inability to compete in a world that changes rapidly. That was the case with me. The same technology that enabled me to do a book (“Do Ask, Do Tell”) at so low cost drove me out of my stable and dependable career when I could not play the game by the ground rules of a new home team.


A moral philosophy that puts personal accountability for up-to-date results can have brutal consequences and uncompromising expectations.  Instead of just looking for political changes that will most help the most disadvantaged or needy as an identifiable class (particularly when that class has some political clout, like the elderly), one puts much of the responsibility for helping others back on the individual, particularly in the context of family, community, or religious practice. And those who receive help are expected to account first for their previous missed opportunities as individuals. By this logic, there is more moral justification for publicly funded programs to help underprivileged children, who have yet to have a chance for a station in life, than for older adults who have already been there. In any call for more public funding to help the needy,  there is, in our system (even more than in Europe or Canada), the implicit threat of loss of freedom to government supervision, and this is another reason why “the family” tends to become the common filter for maintaining freedom. (The code of personal conduct involved in maintaining one’s freedom can be demanding; for example, one is expected to leave a job when one finds out that one’s income is predicated on illegal or wrongful activities of superiors). Family and religion play a doubled-edged role in this: family responsibility does a lot to validate an individual’s value to others and place in the world (and this observation connects well to the psychological discomfort of “meaning” many traditionalists feel with same-sex marriage), yet a “family first” mentality (or “faith first”) when practiced by all can lead to tribalism, conflicts between groups or gains for one group at the expense of another group, as is the experience of history.  So freedom, morality, and stability can all come together in a society where there is personal self-directed accompanied by personal accountability and authentication, and sometimes there is only a finite number of chances. Even so, a public moral system that enforces individual accountability and authentication makes it easier for families (or people with family obligations) to compete.


Ideas of accountability vary in how much they are legally driven. In our system, for example, insider trading[1] is punishable by criminal as well as civil penalties. Technology has created situations where there are new problems where people are perceived as cheating but not breaking the law, until the law is changed. Spam provides an example, as does Internet piracy (and laws and changing and litigation occurs in these areas, as piracy does violate copyright laws). The ethical validity of business models becomes controversial, as some models are simply based on selling for its own sake, and at the other extreme there is recognition for content, which might sometimes get in the way of other businesses (as with domain names). And the ethics of individualism, as it applies to sexuality,[2] becomes controversial, as we see with the gay marriage debate.


ãCopyright 2003 by Bill Boushka, subject to fair use.

November 10, 2003


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[1] Some libertarians have suggested that insider trading laws should be replaced by letting companies write “let the investor beware” rules into their bylaws. See Stephen Moore, “Hung Out to Dry,” The Washington Times, March 11, 2004 (or National Review). For example, it seems questionable that Martha Stewart broke the law when she sold her stock if she really had the legal right to the information about ImClone. (However, Jeffrey Toobin, “A Bad Thing,” The New Yorker, Mar 22, 2004, explains that Stewart got a tip (through her assistant Douglas Faneuil) that Sam Waksal, clairman of ImClone, was dumping his stocks; trading on that tip was insider trading even if trading on FDA information was not.)  My take is that trading should be illegal whenever the trader does not have the legal right to know the information or when the information is defined by the company as confidential or a trade secret or non-public. Conflicts of interest among accountants and research analysts and traders are also serious. I once accidentally received the business plans for a major publisher because of domain name similarity. Had I traded on that information (or passed it on to others), it would have been a crime, but I did not. I informed the company that they had missent it to me and deleted the information.

[2] Take a look now at Suzanne Fields, “Queer eye for straight courtship,” The Washington Times, March 11, 2004.  My material is at and