A companion blog, The Metacognition Project, has been created to focus specifically on metacognition and related consciousness processes. Newest essay on TMP: Goals and Problems, part two

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Responsibility Doesn’t Go Away, part three

The billions of daily actions that are required for humans and their organizations to exist are tied to individual actors by concepts and expectations of responsibility: the action and the actor are identified together as responsibility. Such a model requires a motive force, an engine, to begin and sustain movement. The motive strongly colors the ultimate form and, thus, the consequences of an action. The source of the action is a major determiner of motive; thus, a responsibility passed from one actor to another is changed in its affect.

One can give bread to the poor (the action) from moral duty to a proselytizing religion, from a generalized secular sense of social responsibility, as a paid job supported by community taxation or as a job with the “purpose” of clearing old inventory to make space for new. The primary action, while apparently the same, is actually quite different in its social consequences depending on the source of responsibility and attending motive(s).

These are subtleties that we as communities and societies have ceased to be effectively cognizant of and, if aware, are unable to bring into place as considerations in our decisions. It matters whether responsibility is seen as based in individuals, in communities, in leaders or in institutions, but it matters even more where responsibilities ultimately reside even as they are parceled out, rejected from this quarter, gathered up by that quarter: ultimately, responsibility for the conditions of a people can only reside with the people themselves – even if they are completely unprepared for and incapable of assuming the forms and levels of the required responsibilities [1].

In small communities, of the sort within which most of our evolution took place, the structures of responsibility were adaptively designed by the Consciousness System of Order. The evolved, and therefore instinctual, primate pattern of social organization was primary, but modified by the communities stories about the correct ways of living, relating and performing the many actions that sustained and invigorated life in a particular environment. The social structures of responsibilities were like the air, they surrounded and were “breathed in” with every moment of the living day.

There was no need for a critical component of thought about these matters. Certainly many questions occurred to the visionary, but they tended to be practical ones. Who was responsible for specific household work, for protecting the community or for negotiating with the forest spirits were not matters of debate or precipitous change.

Today, individuals are still working out their relationships with the societal whole, but the responsibilities of life have been hugely changed from originating community life. One of the changes, along with many others, is a lack of clarity. While we still have the same individual needs of the human animal, they must be met in an environment utterly unlike our origins. But I must point out again, this does not change the final residence of responsibility – even if it cannot be performed.

Look back to the first essay in this series for a listing of responsibilities and their primary actors and back to the second essay for the listing of societal agents and how they are failing to meet responsibilities. These lists are obviously not exhaustive, but are intended to give a flavor and general sense of how, to me, these things can be usefully thought about.

Our societies today require things in the big numbers, even public opinion and action. Thousands, millions and even billions of people need, for our present design, to act in similar ways and need to believe in common ideas. And yet these millions and billions don’t have a common base of experience to bring them to common actions and beliefs; so, either a common experiential base has to be created or the millions must be removed from the responsibilities that set the conditions of life. Matters of economics, war and peace, industry and commerce, political relations and so forth must be removed from public concern. The masses, so long as they stay within their own parochial concerns of, ‘if Joe is being good to Josephine’, they will be ignored accept in their collective macroeconomic functioning.

This is a perversion of old principles of Leadership. Leadership is to focus the attention of responsible participants, not to take responsibilities to itself and away from those whose primacy is historical, biological and essential. But it is easy to see the forces that push in this direction. In a world that makes major technical and social changes in tens of years not hundreds or thousands, a world that contains billions of people in thousands of different cultures, a world that offers instant communication and almost instant travel and a world with the ability to concentrate unimaginable power into the actions of a single individual; it is impossible not to come to a conclusion that an elite community gathered from all over the world should lead by taking major responsibilities to itself and away from the masses.

This is in process and is turning historically understandable political divisions and labels on their heads. Conservatism (in America) claims to be about supporting individual freedom while supporting the concentrating of power in corporate totalitarian institutions. Socialism, the supposed enemy of personal freedom, would return responsibility for many of the purloined actions to the masses, and would thus increase both responsibility and freedom, at least, of one kind (thus the great danger it presents to corporatism).

The complexity of our (the general public’s) responsibilities has become so great that they simply cannot be adequately handled as the world’s societies are presently configured. A first response to this fact is to pass them on to those who may be able to meet the responsibilities. But to whom should they be passed? There is an obvious answer: to government, to business and to religion; to institutionalize the responsibilities that are just too hard to keep. They will be given to specialists, and then they will be privatized and owned, and therefore in the manner of things become the proprietary tools of a select few.

We have watched, some of us in horror, as these castoff responsibilities have been turned government/corporations/religion into an incipient fascist police state of the Brave New World. Honest conservatives (not corporate shills) decry the welfare state for exactly the same reasons that progressives are trying to make the nation more socialist; both are trying to pry responsibilities primary to human life out of the institutions that have assumed and necessarily perverted them. It is clear to everyone from the craziest militia member to the most wild-eyed anarchist that responsibilities for our lives must be taken at the level of our lives; what makes these extremes so dangerous is the madness of their method, not necessarily their motive.

We can have a legitimate argument about which parts of the dominating institutions must give up control over responsibilities that reside in the people; where and which responsibilities are to be institutionalized for the purpose of giving them form and order, but we should not be giving them up, but only putting them out on loan [2]. The fact is that almost all responsibilities reside in the people, can only reside in the people. When they are given away or taken from the people their loss removes from the people their essential status as members of the species and the inherent value there in.

Reclaiming the rights of personhood (specieshood) requires the reclaiming of the responsibilities, and the giving up of the ‘rights’ of narrow self-interest. There is no science of human responsibility, but science is a major tool for collecting the information needed in making the decisions required of responsible action. Our society is largely untrained in responsible life. We have learned to look to institutions for guidance in matters that are fully and in reality our responsibility. We need to return to a messier time and process, even though it will be initially dangerous, painful and disrupting. If lost in the wilderness with only one day’s food and water, the shortest route out, even if the most difficult, may be necessary.

People, in communities, can make good decisions, i.e., can and must take on responsibilities greatly in excess of their individual knowledge. By combining the perceptions of those whose natural habits are conservative and cautious with those who tend toward liberal inclusive habits, and along with the group knowledge of possibility and factual information, groups very often produce plans of action that not only have sound structural foundation, but also the understanding and commitment of the group. Such heuristic methods of decision making have been in the human kit for a hundred thousand years; when we add in science and philosophy as tools, small human communities could certainly function as the primary units in a world built out from them.

Such changes are unimaginable in the sense of how to get to them from our present dysfunctional design, but the first step is always to imagine them. The responsibilities for human lives must return to the human many. Institutionalizing responsibilities has only created an elite who, from their perspective, sees billions of human animals directed from ‘above’; an elite that, for its own ends, crushes attempts to take back responsibilities and return them to the people. But the people, when acting with some unison, can take them back simply be demanding them; this is a first-order responsibility.

[1] Whole societies also can be unprepared for the responsibilities that they face and go on a bender, like an episodic drunk alone on an otherwise empty island. Cyclically and with industry he collects the materials, ferments the brew and then drinks to oblivion, neglecting the elements of a life integrated into reality. The whole industrial world is on a bender.

[2] This was the intention of the Founders of US constitutional government. And the history thereof demonstrates the danger that responsibilities loaned can be responsibilities subsumed.


Michael Dawson said...

One thing I find astounding and quite unnoticed by the Tea Party forces is the fact that we've never yet called a Second Constitutional Convention, to make the rules better accord with what we've learned since those original slavedrivers wrote the first version in that secret meeting.

Even those founding slavedrivers would have been stunned by this failure, I think.

James Keye said...

Michael, I fear that there are very few sources of perspective active in society today that would form the basis of such an understanding. It is also hard to imagine how such a point of weakness, like a crab dropping its hard shell for a time so it can grow, would be reacted to by the rest of an avaricious world.