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

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Responsibility Doesn’t Go Away

It is an axiomatic notion: for a thing to be done, someone (or something) must do it [1]. A simple extension of this notion is that someone is responsible for, in the sense of ‘should perform,’ the action. Try this example: in a family the father has certain responsibilities determined by the social system of expectations and the natural needs of living things. If the father is either absent or otherwise fails to meet the expectations of responsibility, then the responsibilities cannot be simply ignored, but must devolve to some other. The mother may take on all or most of them, or the mother and children adapt to supply the needs through some pattern of sharing. If the responsibilities are not met in some fashion or other, the family fails and ceases to exist as a communion.

In the case of a family in a given society it is relatively easy to produce a ‘handbook’ of responsibilities for the various members [2]. But, the society at large has responsibilities for it to function as well. These responsibilities, while generally clear, are not so easy to assign, especially in the present state of social, economic and political deterioration; once some assignment of first responsibility is made, it becomes even more difficult to follow the devolution of responsibilities to others if responsibilities are not met, or sufficiently met (or ‘met’ in a pathological way), by their original proprietors. As with the example of family, failure to meet these social requirements result necessarily in the destruction of the society.

Here are a number of the responsibilities and their original proprietors as I have analyzed them (it must be remembered that these must be met by someone, even if not met by the original proprietor – it does no good to only complain that they are not met):

1) A reasonably accurate accounting needs to be contained within the general public of the history, processes and rules of the society. There can be disagreements, and should be, but these also need to be subject to recognized process, understanding and documentation. – This is the responsibility of the general public to acquire and maintain, as well as that of the practitioners of education, but first and foremost, the general public.

2) Current events and issues need to be understood in their most basic and undisputed details, and then further considered and debated in light of and by the processes in the first responsibility. – Aspects of this responsibility belong to the public and other aspects to the fourth estate, a free and unfettered press.

3) An economic system must be designed and maintained that supports the essential commerce of the society and that functions to maintain social order, stability and safety. – The representatives of the people, that the people, in their application of #s 1 and 2, have selected to debate and perform in a body of sufficient size and talent that this and other community decisions can be made.

4) A system of commerce must be created and maintained, following the economic designs above, that supports and funds the other responsibilities rather than offending them. – Primarily a business community, but must ultimately be overseen by the general public.

5) Systems of laws must be made and maintained that respond to the changing conditions of life as the society changes both its actual condition and its understandings of the world. – The people’s representatives and a judiciary selected by the people, though ultimately the people are responsible, through the application of #s 1 and 2, for the overseeing of these functions.

6) Threats from without and within must have a counter force in the form of national armed forces and police forces. This responsibility is for the protection and safety of the people. – The military, police and other public safety institutions.

7) The weak and infirm of the society have to be considered in ways that enhance and do not diminish the society. – Some publicly sanctioned and funded welfare system.

8) The society must afford all of its citizens the opportunities for the essential human goals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. All the activities of the society, as it confronts the events and actions of both its own citizens and those of institutions and other nations, must be judged by this responsibility. – The people’s representatives and the general public.

As we look at these responsibilities and those who are first in line to take them on, two observations stand out for me: one is that all the other responsibilities depend on the first two, and secondly, that the general public is failing to meet those two responsibilities. The questions are then: to whom do these unmet responsibilities devolve and how are they being met?

Let it be clear at the outset, the society will fail unless all and more of these responsibilities are met in some way. The form of failure may not be so clear as, say, the walls of our buildings crumbling and people dying in the streets; failure can also come in the form of changes in society’s principles so drastic that ‘we’ are no longer the social order that we intend to be and think we are.

It may be that these concepts seem naïve in this context; it may seem that societies simply do not function nor can we expect them to function with the support of a knowledgeable body politic. This is a reasonable response to the failure of the general public to take responsibility for their own lives; we have ceased to have a knowledgeable public as an expectation. But who is the responsibility for the public’s knowledge of history, mores, laws and current events to devolve to? How and in what form can a society survive if the people in it know little about its form or function?

Our dilemma is doubly schizophrenic. We decide many issues by asking the people to vote in a straight ‘majority rules’ model; and yet the assumption is that the public is deeply ignorant of history, government, law, the content and consequences of what they are voting on and the major issues that impact the nation and their lives. Secondly, we do not trust (and I believe rightfully so) anyone or any institution to take over the full responsibility for the major decisions upon which the public is asked to decide; and yet we have been giving up that responsibility to the absolutely worst possible institutions: business and corporate players.

No matter how bad government gets, at least those that have to stand for elective office must show some performance of the public good. Corporations need only use the brute force of economic power, like the most Draconian of tyrants.

But I am getting ahead of myself. In a properly functioning democracy it is the essential responsibility of the citizen to be adequately educated in the history, functioning and issues of the society. When the people fail to meet that responsibility to whom does that responsibility devolve and with what consequences? The next essay will tackle this complex and thorny question.

[1] Physical and living processes are either inherent in the thing itself, e.g., the properties of an electron, or contained in physical design, e.g., information contained in the structure of DNA translatable into a phenotypic representation; there is not a ‘someone.’ In human action this ‘process in design’ is a powerful force, but is often ignored in favor of seeing the action arising from an individual or individuals acting in communities of interest. I will continue with that conventional understanding for as long as is practical here.

[2] I venture to guess that the ability to realize and state those responsibilities would correlate positively with the success of children in school, the stability of families and other measures of human success.

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