Absolute Responsibility

We have absolute responsibility for our life.

We are who we are and do the work we do and behave the way we behave and have the friends we have because of the myriad big and small choices we have made over the years. We are what we have become through our own decisions. Acknowledging this simple and self-evident truth, is synonymous to taking absolute responsibility for one’s own life.

Yet we often try to “explain” our life to ourselves using other terms and another logic. When we discover that we have failed to do this or that, when we are found wanting or are dissatisfied with our current situation, we suddenly ascribe this to “external circumstances” or “factors beyond our control” that were supposedly resisting our efforts. We then assign to the “resisting universe” the power to explain the course of our life, as if it were running our life’s show. Well, it may be true that the universe is running the show, just as it may be true that we are not truly free. However, to adopt Hans Veihinger’s philosophy, it is by behaving as if we are free that we may become as free as we are able to be, and take credit for our own becoming. Not to mention the fact that all human ethics, the cornerstone of our upbringing and human society, assume that we are the free agents of our own lives. The moment we relinquish this real or imaginary freedom, we become mechanical automatons simply reacting passively to Nature according to our supposedly unalterable “nature.” We may not control the universe or the majority of circumstances within which our life is embedded, but we control our reaction to what is given to us, and we can never relinquish this, irrespective of how much we struggle. And it is a struggle – for however hard we try, deep down we know that our life, controlled as it may by the myriad things we do not control, is still being molded by us through this little seed of freedom that lies at the heart of our soul. Apart from the natural constraints of space, time, nature, and the social environment in which we were raised (the when and where we were born, race, ethnicity, even our upbringing), almost every other important aspect in our lives is the result of our own choices.

Special circumstances notwithstanding, such as a disability we may have been born with, or major illnesses that may have struck us unprepared, we all decide the highway of our lives. We decide what life we will lead: what we study (if we study at all), our career paths, whether we will have a family or not (and how big it will be); we choose our spouse, our friends and social niche, the type of books we read, the music we listen to, our hobbies, the ideas we live by, our philosophy and religion. It is out of all these that we create our character, the way we interact and behave. We make ourselves.

Yet when things go wrong, or not as we have planned, we are immediately ready to relinquish our responsibility and even our freedom. Of all the mitigating circumstances, the one we most often take refuge in, is human unpredictability. But human behavior is unpredictable by default – people are waves – and this unpredictability ought to be taken into account in every decision we make.

Let us take the ubiquitous example of having been scammed by someone. Let us say that a con man stole a big part of our wealth through ingenious machinations. We say, “I trusted him and then he fooled me; what am I to be blamed for?” But he did not fool all of his potential victims! He fooled you. Don’t you have responsibility for having been fooled? You trusted him because you judged he was trustworthy. So your judgement was found wanting. Your choice to befriend him was a mistake for which you paid dearly. Ascribing good intentions and good will to our bad judgement, ignorance, or stupidity is one of the most common instances of relinquishing responsibility. Life’s law of conduct is not goodwill. Knowing that many people neither share our values nor behave ethically is something that we must take into account when dealing with others. Even when some character traits are kept well hidden by the people who harm us, still, our having not cultivated the ability to discern them is our own fault. We know that surface human behavior may often be deceiving, and our interaction with other human beings must account for this – for which we bear the responsibility.

The same applies to ordinary friendships that turn sour: our decision to befriend someone is based on our general and acquired ability to discern the true character of other people. Our bad judgement is as much to blame as the other person’s bad behavior. In fact, we are more to be blamed, for the other person probably remained the same person he was throughout our friendship, but we chose not to see what later became his “unbearable traits” or defects of character. The traits we a posteriori judge as having appeared at a later stage in our relationship were most probably there all the time, and we either failed to see them or, seeing them, chose not to admit them to ourself!

But what about when important aspects of our life depend on predictions we make about the future that we cannot control? Say we emigrate to another country and political unrest topples our life there; or we buy a house and a 2008-like crisis happens and we lose all of our savings; or we marry the love of our life, only to discover later on that he or she was dishonest or adulterous. How can we possibly be held responsible for the unpredictable future? Well, the simple answer is that we actually do take credit when our predictions are successful, so we must perforce take the credit when they fail! Had our life turned out better in the new country, or the value of our house increased, or our marriage been successful, we would have probably been proud and boasted about our superior judgement and decision-making ability. We would have claimed that the “outside circumstances” conformed to our wishes because we had judged correctly, not because they did so randomly or by chance! Yet, when our predictions turn out to have been careless or not well-thought out, we suddenly resort to the “unpredictable future hypothesis.” Furthermore, if it was impossible to predict the future, why did you base your decisions on things that were impossible to predict? And if predicting is part of life, how can you then relinquish the responsibility of predicting correctly? If you ventured on a course that was based on a prediction that turned out to be wrong, then you must take responsibility for the wrong prediction. Why do some people seem to always predict correctly and some never? Predicting, if we are honest with ourselves, is not really an impossible task. How well you predict depends on how much energy, effort, and study you spend on the relevant subject. The one who predicts better knows better. He has earned the ability. Maybe the seeds of political unrest in the new country were there before you emigrated, but you failed to follow the news; and investing all of your savings on a house was probably not the wisest thing to do (maybe traveling around the world would have been a better investment!); and marrying your ex after only knowing her for a few months was a recipe for failure. There was also the choice of remaining idle, which you had foregone the moment you decided to emigrate, or buy a house, or marry this person. One may retort that all life would then be immersed in idleness. Correct, but this is also one of life’s choices! We see many people who avoid bold moves in their lives for fear of failure. But when you do act, and venture into “the game of life,” which includes among other things making calculated predictions about future outcomes, this responsibility must be taken up completely. It goes without saying that natural catastrophes and other force majeure situations are excluded from this reasoning – just as they hold a special position in our legal systems, absolving us from specific responsibilities.

Absolute responsibility is also synonymous with our freedom – maybe not our absolute freedom, but the maximum we may aspire to. Jean-Paul Sartre, the twentieth century’s philosopher of freedom, related our freedom to exactly these games we play with ourselves. He coined the term “bad faith” to characterize how we emphasize our “facticity” to relinquish our freedom of choice – our “transcendence” as he called it. Someone is in bad faith to the extent that he affirms his facticity at the expense of his transcendence. According to Sartre, it is somehow reassuring to think that we must act as we do; that we have no choice but to get up when the alarm rings, to work at our family business, to live in the country where we were born, or marry and have children. It provides us with the excuse that we are not truly responsible for who we end up becoming. Holding that our actions are necessitated by our environment, biology, history, etc., we try to relinquish the burden of radical freedom. But in fact nothing can lift this burden, and we are in bad faith to the extent that we try to cast off our freedom. We are in bad faith when we fall victim to our own self-deception, when we lie to ourselves.

With the beginning of the new year, we all vow to make many changes in our life, but we often forget them as soon as the lights turn off. The most crucial part of any effort to either improve or change our life is realizing how we cannot shake off the absolute ownership of where we currently stand and who we have become. We need to be aware of the games we play with ourselves to feel good about our shortcomings or failures. And we must be mindful of the fact that, the moment we explain away our failures as having arisen without our contribution, we fail to learn from them and we are certain to repeat them.

We are absolutely responsible for our life.

Anything else apart from this absolute stance, is bad faith.

© 2022 Nicos Hadjicostis