Monday, July 09, 2007

"Always go too far, because that's where you'll find the truth."

A quote attributed to Albert Camus, and doesn't it remind you of this?

The notion that we are 'responsible' for our decisions—possibly, as most existentialists and absurdists would claim, 100%, and no exceptions—is troubling. The basic argument for it being true is that ultimately nobody else but me can be held responsible for my decisions...and their consequences, intended or not.

A critical term in that concept is the notion of 'responsibility', of course. The etymology of 'responsibility' is basically the same as that of 'to respond'.

[Middle English responden, from Old French respondre, from Latin respondre : re-, re- + spondre, to promise; see spend- in Indo-European roots.]

So, we're talking about answerability, possibly accountability, not necessarily for an action itself, but for whatever consequences that action has. Because an action per se is neutral; its consequences, immediate and distant, in whatever context(s) might apply, are not.

So, what the radical existentialist, or radical absurdist, is saying is that all of us are, always and 100%, responsible for the consequences, intended or unintended, of our actions. This is equivalent to saying that we are similarly responsible for our choices, because all actions are choices and all choices are actions—meaning, of course, that they are one and the same. And, following the above, what it really means is that we are entirely responsible for all the consequences of our choices, no matter what they are, how or when they happen, good or bad, intended or not, influenced by apparently malignant contingency...whatever. No exceptions, no 'but's, no 'why's.

But, but but... What about...? "When I decided this I didn't know that was going to happen, which totally screwed up my best intentions with this."

Well, tough. And nobody says that 'responsibility' is equivalent to 'blame'—well, at least not I. All it says is that when I—standing in for everyone of the collective of individuals called 'we'—make a decision to do this or that, I make that decision. I initiate a series of events that might or might not come out as I want them to come out; and which most certainly will, because at best those narrow aspects I was capable of intending just might come out as I would like them to, but there's always a gazillion unintended consequences, some of which happen right now, and others which will happen in the cascade of causes-and-effect sequences I've set into motion and which will propagate into the future in some way and expand into legion.

So, 'responsibility' not necessarily equal to 'blame'; merely to "I decide, I act, I choose." No matter how 'connected' to the world I am, no matter how un-autonomous that thing I label as 'I' may be, there's still an existential blob of something here, identified as 'I' and decisions are taken within the context of that blob—and if you need to identify it with 'my brain', that's cool, too.

But, but, but... "How can you say that about a child?" Or someone judged to be 'mentally subnormal' or generally 'mentally deviant'?

Well, it still holds true. And if we see a difference here between, say, a 'responsible adult'—who? what?—and a child still learning what 'responsibility' entails, that is not something 'existential' if you will, but 'social'. The term 'responsibility' becomes attached with values by the social context in which said 'responsibility' is exercised. As such, the term 'irresponsible' really has nothing to do with the kind of 'responsibility' I'm talking about, but with the socially valued attributes and consequences of some action, actions, behaviors, choices, etc, that are labeled as 'irresponsible'—or 'responsible', of course. And many of these values vary from one social context to another.

When we say today, and I'm talking here of what's commonly called 'Western' societies, that someone is or is not 'responsible' for this or that—a major issue in our systems of 'justice', which are systems of social conventions and rules—we do not make an existential judgment but a social one. The question is as to whether we punish—another social act—this person for what s/he has done, or do we declare that s/he acted under 'influences'—internal and/or external—which would give us cause to excuse what s/he have done and exempt him or her from punishment; though s/he may, of course, end up for a while or forever in a 'mental institution' for appropriate social adjustment. Think Clockwork Orange.

So, if we talk about existential '100% responsibility for all our actions/choices/decisions' this is different from talking about the varying social aspects of the same thing. The social versions are variable; the existential ones aren't. And the existential ones are with us all of the time. It doesn't matter if the choices we make are profound and far-reaching, concerning life-and-death matters, or if they are small, like those we make every day, for example with regards to how we spend our time; whether we waste the moments we have doing things that are truly a 'waste' and which we would come to recognize as a 'waste' if only we allowed ourselves to become aware of them, or whether we choose to let the little time we have count for something or someone.

So, 100%? For everybody. Even a newborn baby—and maybe a pre-born? For where, we must ask, does this begin? And where does it end? What about someone suffering from Alzheimer's; or bipolar syndromes?

I guess, most people will opt for what amounts to a sliding scale, where some individuals definitely are in the 'fully responsible' region, while others are, at the very least in some nebulous area that might or might not qualify. But the moment we have a sliding scale, we have a scale that can be adjusted by anybody to suit their whim—and indeed this is being done all the time and everywhere; in the name, of course, of social standards. The 'existential' ones on the other hand are generally considered to be, at best, academic—for how could something asserting that 'it it 100% so and not any other way', be anything more than abstract, academic, idealistic and, not to put too fine a point on it, absurdly radical? Especially if it deals with people and psychology.

The answer is, of course, that muddling up 'social' and 'existential' assertions amounts to a kind of category error, even though both are assertions about properties associated with or ascribed to human beings.

OK, so I'll let you think about that...

No comments: