The emotions of Responsibility

Simply put, the question is – Who gives me permission to be me?

A few years ago, I sat in on a lecture on the philosophy of management. The conversation turned to the following quote by Friedrich Nietzsche; God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?”

In this quote Nietzsche’s expressed a fear that the absence of a higher moral authority would plunge the world into chaos. The (Western) world had depended on the rule of God for thousands of years — it gave order to society and meaning to life. Without God, how would we know how to behave?

Nietzsche references God. I do not. This essay is not a comment on religion.  Rather it sets out to pose the question as to whether we can abdicate responsibility for our behaviour to a third party.

The questions Nietzsche raised have stuck with me for years. The word “authority” is key. The root word is author. When rephrased the question becomes, who authors your life? Who is writing your own story?  Am I my own person, making free choices, daily, in the present, or am I an unwitting product of my own personal cumulative history, a victim of my own nature/nurture with my choices being largely unconscious and preordained?

As individuals, we are a collection of emotion; pride, love, satisfaction, courage, shame, desire, and so forth. These emotions are innate. We are born with them and they are ours to embrace, to enjoy.

The one thing we are not born with is responsibility. Responsibility is something we must take. It cannot be given. Responsibility will always exist in the company of one of the emotions. Consider, it takes courage to stand up and publicly take responsibility of something you did. Conversely, it requires you to own the responsibility for your situation, before you can muster the courage to change it.

This train of thought implies that that responsibility should be treated as a noun. It should be thought of as “the responsibility.” Dropping off “the” as a determiner undermines its gravitas. As an example, the common phrase of “roles and responsibilities” really means “the role” as a position and “the responsibilities” associated with it. The idea is that nobody can give you responsibility. They can put you in a role that requires responsibility, and you can accept that role, but that does not make you responsible. You become responsible when you choose to be accountable for the responsibilities and you are prepared to change your behaviour accordingly and have the courage to deal with the consequences. If you do not consciously take on the responsibilities for the role, you are most likely unconsciously preparing your excuses for when you fail to meet the expectations associated with the responsibility.

The difference between emotion and responsibility is that emotions are physical; they dictate how you behave, and responsibility is mental; it’s how you think. Often you need the mental strength to do the right thing. This is embracing, internalising and owning the responsibility and then having the courage to exhibit the corresponding behaviour and consequently put yourself up for judgement.

Consider, a person is asked to assume a role that is burdened with significant responsibility such a senior corporate role, becoming a parent, or a leader in a community program. How do they react? Their behaviour will expose their state of mind. Do they take the responsibility seriously, or is it just a job, a bit of fun, doesn’t really matter? Do they mentally own the fact that their role will have a material impact on their own or other people’s lives? When you take responsibility for a role and you do a good a job, you have pride, satisfaction.

Accountability is the glue that binds emotion to responsibility. Accountability is saying – I chose to do that. I am the author of my behaviour. I am accountable. I took the responsibility, I chose to behave that way.

A young couple becomes pregnant. Before this they were in the pub three nights a week with their friends. Now the expectant mother can no longer drink alcohol and chooses to stay home. The responsibilities for the expectant father have also changed. He is no longer only a partner. He will soon be a father and possibly the single earner for a while. He needs to fully comprehend what fatherhood means and start to behave accordingly. This means drinking less with his friends and choosing to have the courage to stand up to their teasing. He needs to own the responsibilities of his changed situation. He needs to take the responsibility of his choosing to be intimate with her very seriously. By saying I was drunk at the time, so not responsible, is the same as saying somebody else was responsible for his actions and in effect declaring he is not obligated to change his behaviour to meet the demands of his new situation. In time, with hindsight the associated emotion is likely to be shame.

Whether you take the responsibility for your situation or actions is largely determined by how you let your past author your future. If you believe that you are a credible person you will author your behaviour accordingly. You will steel your resolve and do the right thing. If you believe you cannot take the weight of the responsibility this too will be exposed in the way you speak and behave as driven by the emotions of apprehension or fear.

Nobody is free of the influence imposed by nature/nurture, but you are free to have the courage to choose how it influences your life. It is very easy to abdicate what and why you are doing something. In this sense you are saying your behaviour is because you are a victim of circumstances. You can’t help it, you are not responsible for your decisions and behaviour. My dad was coal miner, so I am a coal miner, I could never do something else. It is very hard to be a “Billy Elliott” and choose to be a ballet dancer in coal mining town. It’s even harder to be a “Billy’s dad” and say – “You are my child. It is my responsibility to provide the platform you need to happy and successful in life. To take the courage to do what is right, to break from a long family line of coal miners and support the child as they explore the arts.” And to experience the joy of watching “Billy’s” dream come true.

Do you hear your parent’s approval in everything you do? Do you act to make them proud, or do you act to make yourself proud? Acting to make them proud is abdicating your responsibilities and saying I am not really accountable for my behaviour. They are my authority and I must obey. In many cultures the older son will return to the parent’s home to look after them in their later years. It does not matter whether he does so willingly or begrudgingly, he is accepting his responsibility to his ancestral family unquestioningly, but at the same time using it to avoid taking the responsibly required to ensure his own family’s wellbeing. “I can’t avoid it, it’s what we do, it’s what is expected of me”.

Responsibility is not for the faint hearted. Being courageous is not for everyone. But given the right circumstances, everyone has it in them to find the courage to say – this is my time. I am responsible, I am accountable. I am proud of the person I have become. f