(Link to Part 8)
Internalized Versus Externalized Responsibility
Benevolence is critical to a flourishing society. Yet, as we saw in the previous post, there is a dark side to benevolence. It can dehumanize, leaving us with nothing to trade; leaving us to become little more than cattle to be fed and sheltered. Benevolence that is good begets more benevolence. It raises up people who take responsibility for themselves and others.
Having said that, in my experience we need be very clear about what “taking responsibility for others” might mean. Listening to political discussions today, you will frequently hear the case made that we need to get away from individualistic values of conservatives and their obsession with marriage and abortion, and take a more compassionate and benevolent approach by doing something about things like poverty. Changes in the tax code, universal healthcare, or greater cash assistance to the poor are just a few suggested measures. It is not my aim here to debate the merits of each of these measures but rather to raise a question about the mindset that sees these as evidence of benevolence and a deepening of collective responsibility.
Recently I was reading Social Welfare and Individual Responsibility: For and Against by David Schmidtz and Robert Goodin. Schmidtz writes:
When I speak of responsibility being externalized, I have something similar in mind. Responsibility is externalized when people do not take responsibility: for messes they cause, for messes in which they find themselves. Responsibility is externalized when people regard the cleanup as someone else’s problem. We can speak of responsibility being externalized whether the messes result from mistake, misfortune, or (in the case of the pulp mill) from business as usual. In contrast, responsibility is internalized when agents take responsibility: for their welfare, for their futures, for the consequences of their actions.
The contrast between internalized and externalized responsibility does not really track the contrast between individual and collective responsibility. Collective responsibility can be a form of internalized responsibility. It can, in other words, be an example of people treating their welfare as their own responsibility. A group collectively internalizes responsibility when, but only when, members willingly take responsibility for themselves as a group. So when family members willingly accept responsibility for each other, we can see them as internalizing responsibility even though the responsibility takes on a collective form. To some extent, this is a semantic issue, but it points to a real difference: some people see their welfare as someone else’s problem; other people see their welfare as their own problem. …
… In such [prosperous] societies, although people willingly take responsibility for themselves as individuals, they also willingly and reciprocally take responsibility for themselves as families, businesses, clubs, church groups, and so on. What strikes me about citizens of prosperous societies, then, is not their individualism so much as their willingness to take responsibility. It is that willingness to which the term ‘internalization’ is meant to point.
Collective responsibility as such is not a problem, but the urge to externalize responsibility is. …” (7-9)
There is a profound tendency to see only two players in debates about how to address societal issues: The individual and the state. Yet a flourishing community, if it is anything, is a network of families, communities, and voluntary associations. I’d suggest that benevolence is most often best expressed through these localized communities and networks, and that federal approaches to solving problems are all too frequently efforts to externalize responsibility. Externalizing responsibility to the government is every bit as much about selfish-individualism as is the pursuit of unfettered self-interest.