Sunday, October 16, 2005

Responsibility, freedom and community

Last week I had the opportunity to help a man I had never met before as he vomited a mixture of bar popcorn and vodka and soda. The interesting thing about the situation is that he wasn't in the bar alone; he had come in with a friend. But as he became intoxicated--or as he became more intoxicated since he only had two drinks and that was enough to put him over the edge--he became an inconvenience to his friend, who was busy getting his groove on. At this point the friend informed me that the drunken man wasn't his responsibility. Now, of course part of the implication of this was that he was somehow my responsibility, since I was helping him.

There is a certain amount of truth in what the friend said: the man was responsible for having gotten himself drunk and sick. In that sense, he was only his own responsibility. But, of course, there's another sense in which the friend's response is unacceptable. When a person cannot take care of himself--and that was this man's situation--who is more responsible for him than his friends? In the absence of a friend or when left alone, of course I was responsible for him. This is part of what it is to be human and to form part of a human community.

What the friend's response makes clear is a deep problem with contemporary society. It might be peculiar to American society; it might be peculiar to modern society; it might even be peculiar to gay society (although this I doubt). The problem is the psychological assumption of a kind of libertarianism. It is an unspoken and unconsidered assumption that we are all responsible for ourselves in a way that means that when we get into trouble we are wholly on our own. Or, that if one is partly or wholly (or even not at all) responsible for a situation in which he finds himself, it is a morally and socially acceptable move to allow him to suffer all of the consequences of the situation. Presumably, the friend thought it would be okay to allow his friend to vomit, to drive home intoxicated or to be mugged on the street; after all, he had gotten himself into it.

This view also underlies the general appeal for a cutting back of government assistance programs, often with an allusion to the early days of the Republic and Tocqueville's account of the early American civic experience. But, of course, in the early days of the American experiment people were deeply involved in numerous networks of social connection: their churches, fraternal organizations, extended families, grange societies, unions, sports teams, etc. This is no longer the case (see, for an analysis of the death of such organizations, Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone). Instead we are more and more isolated (I write as I sit in front of a great isolator, the web-connected computer) and still we feel that each individual is wholly responsible for himself.

In other words, we live in a country that fails to be a nation and in communities that are really no more than collections of individuals. We have fulfilled the claim of Margaret Thatcher that there is no such thing as society. Inasmuch as we are social animals, by nature and of essence, it may just mean that we are ceasing to be human.

As, Aristotle said, the man who lives outside society must become either a god or an animal. I doubt many of us are heading to divinity.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

wow.. great.. so someone really felt that the response to an entire blog concerning individuals and their issues with resonsibility, freedom and community was how you could "MAKE MONEY NOW". Fascinating. I realize its probably just an automatic response, ..but its really quite ironic in the sense that, perhaps, greed for the idolized materialistic world, like the one Socrates consistently warned against, is a relevant root as to why no one really cares, and furthermore that it is now "automatic" for our society to act in such a way. its sad..