The Decline of Personal Responsibility

In his commencement address at Harvard University in 1978, Alexander Solzhenitsyn said that “the main cause of the ruinous [Bolshevik] Revolution” and “the principal trait of the entire twentieth century” was that “men have forgotten God.” The West’s emphasis on secular rights, he told the Harvard students, had produced societies that now stood at the brink of “the abyss of human decadence … It is time in the West to defend not so much human rights as human obligations.”

This was not well received by the Harvard community or Western liberal intellectuals.

Yet in that address Solzhenitsyn brought together two elements that have had enormous consequences on our culture in the 25 years hence. It is the cultural escape from God and the social and moral strictures of the Christian tradition that has resulted in the decline of personal responsibility, or what Solzhenitsyn calls “human obligations.”

In my view, the worst trend in the habits of the American heart is this decline of responsibility. We see this in all parts of life—-the failure of customer service, dependence on government to care for all ills, personal injury suits against tobacco companies for our lifestyle choice, or against McDonalds when we spill hot coffee. We see it in everyone from political and corporate leaders to our neighbors refusing to take responsibility for wrong doing, not accepting the consequences for their own actions, and not taking responsibility for the results of their own promiscuity and carelessness. We are all products of our times, and if we are honest, we see it in ourselves.

So my ears perked up last week when Rush Limbaugh read from a Knight-Ridder article on the decline of personal responsibility.

The article reads:

“Whatever the reasons, most experts agree that how people feel about their obligations has changed, particularly for those in positions of power and influence.

‘Responsibility is waning. The strong sense of holding people responsible is getting more and more difficult,’ said Joan McGregor, a philosopher at Arizona State University. ‘We still hold people responsible all the time in a legal sense. But in a moral sense, it’s as though no one is responsible any more.’

It wasn’t always so, particularly in the brief period during and after World War II when the country was dominated by what Tom Brokaw would later call the Greatest Generation.”

Unfortunately, the article is largely disappointing, as the writer tries to prove the decline through presidential and other governmental actions. While a product of their times, government leaders are just a small part of cultural trends.

The summary of the article is weird:

Historians, philosophers, political scientists and sociologists cite many reasons for the decline of an ethic of responsibility in America over recent decades, including:

_ A culture of narcissism or self-absorption;
_ The rise of celebrity worship and entitlement;
_ The distractions of the war on terrorism.

I’m sure the young lady behind the counter in my local store who can’t get off her cell phone as she does her job and rings up my order is probably distracted by the war on terrorism. Perhaps she’s on the phone to Homeland Security, being vigilant in a time of danger. Yeah, right.

Looking for a more serious discussion of the problem, I came across an amazing 1996 article in Society by Smith College professor Stanley Rothman, titled The Decline of Bourgeois America.

Summary of the article:

The bourgeois beliefs in the value of work, productivity and restraint that flourished under the rise of liberal capitalism have lost their influence in US society. Personal responsibility has been replaced by the ideologies of expressive individualism and collectivist liberalism.

Rothman draws on Max Weber and others to show how Christian doctrines, particularly those emerging from the Reformation, were the foundation for a Western culture marked by restraint, responsibility, and productivity.

Rothman writes:

“Cultural developments in the West were unusual from the outset. First, the emergence of a prophetic religion gave a peculiar intensity to the superego. Second, the emphasis was on an individual rather than a communal relationship with God. Third, religious-cultural imperatives stressed general, universal, moral rules. Fourth, God was conceived as standing apart from nature, and his laws could be comprehended through reason. Finally, great emphasis was placed upon repressing the passions in the service of worldly asceticism, that is, fulfilling one’s obligations through activity in this world.

To be sure, some of these themes have been present individually in other civilizations. Historically and comparatively though, this was a unique combination. It is undoubtedly true that Confucianism, with its emphasis on the control of the passions, produced a similar result in China and Japan via a shame culture. Confucian doctrine and the quality of popular religion in both countries was such that neither the Japanese nor Chinese could bring the modem world into existence; however, once that world came into existence, they could use the energy derived from the repression of sexual and aggressive drives in the service of science and industry. Thus, given an appropriate response by elites in Japan and later Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, Korea, and, finally, mainland China, these areas could adapt to the requirements of an industrial society fairly easily, as compared to other Asian, African, or even Latin American nations.”

I can’t take the time to capture all of the thoughts in this fascinating article. I urge you to read it.

My layman’s summary: With the growing rejection of the boundaries and guidance of the Christian tradition, American culture slides away from responsibility as it yields to the temptations of an “expressive individualistic ethic” that emphasizes self as the center of the universe. This makes the “collectivist liberalism” of an ever-active and controlling government attractive because of its promise of egalitarian nirvana.

One more quote from Rothman:

“The evidence around us in the culture suggests that many of those in the middle and upper middle classes, having lost the internal gyroscope (and metaphors) that gave the lives of previous generations structure and meaning, feel torn between the desire for power and gratification on the one hand and the fear of losing control on the other.”

Men have forgotten God.

–James Jewell

About Jim Jewell

I am a writer and consultant on faith and public life, active for many years in management and communications in the evangelical community. I now work as the director of the nonprofit practice at The Valcort Group ( Everything on this blog, however, is my personal opinion and is not read or approved before it is posted. Opinions, conclusions and other information expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of Valcort.
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