On responsibility

The other night, a friend came over for dinner. The conversation turned to the unhappy topic of welfare reform, and its detrimental impact on lone parents (the majority of whom are women, and all of whom are struggling to raise their families in already challenging circumstances.) We reflected on how public discourse emphasises a single parent’s right to work, rather than the right to stay home to raise children without risking impoverishment.

My friend shared a memory with me, from years ago, of a doctor she once met. Something he had said at the time has stayed with her all these years: people, he reflected, talk about their rights and responsibilities, but really “we have only responsibilities.”

This thought pulls me up short, it seems so imbalanced at first glance. Yet maybe this is because I was raised in American culture, where I grew up indoctrinated with the notion of individual rights. They were enshrined in the US constitution and Bill of Rights, and mythologised in the American Dream of the self-made man who owed no debts to anyone, and whose success had sprung from his own will and effort alone. Now if that’s not imbalanced….

In Europe too, we abide by the notion of rights: human rights, civil rights, citizen’s rights, consumer rights, women’s rights, children’s rights, animal rights…. can you think of more? I’m sure you can. Why do we need to articulate all these rights so formally? What is their purpose? Are they there to protect us from the worst effects of our individual and collective lack of responsibility?

I’ve been thinking much lately about what I’ve learned from the work of Carol Gilligan. In a recent comment to a blog post, I summarised where I’d got to myself, with her ideas:

Carol Gilligan has written about initiation in respect to gender socialisation, and the break in the psyche created when boys dissociate from the feminine within themselves, and girls dissociate from the masculine within themselves. She describes these two aspects not as masculine and feminine per se but as voice and relationship/care. In very general paraphrase: the idealised, socialised female will suppress or surrender voice (eg her own perspective and agency) in order to maintain relationships, while the idealised, socialised male will suppress or surrender relationship (vulnerability, emotional interdependence) in order to maintain voice. These aren’t conscious choices, they are responses to cultural and social expectations, behaviour and environments.

I like this way of looking at it, that men and women both hold within them the capacity for relationship and voice, along a spectrum which allows for the unique expression of these capacities by each individual. But then on top of that, gender socialisation impacts on where in the spectrum they are allowed to comfortably dwell, and on how much they exercise each capacity.

What comes after civilisation: the wild women versus the wild men

Now add to these reflections the following account from V F Cordova, describing how Native American cultures understand the notion of personal potential:

Humans are born “humanoid,” that is, with the capacity to become “fully human” through the exercise of all of their faculties…. An infant is seen as becoming “human” when he or she demonstrates the fact that he is aware that his actions have consequences on others and on the world. Becoming a human is a responsibility of the group that teaches the new being what it is to be human in this group of beings. In many tribes the new being is not seen as fully human until he or she is five to eight years old (many official naming ceremonies take place at this time). It is at that age that a human being can discern the consequences of his actions on others. He is taught to be human by showing him that he is one human among others. Because he shares the world with other beings, there is an emphasis on cooperation rather than competition; sharing rather than accumulating. (Cordova, How It Is, p. 152-153)

What happens when we view these two sets of reflections through the lens of “We have only responsibilities”? How does the tension between voice and relationship fit with this? It is tempting to align voice with rights and relationship with responsibility, both sitting on spectrums along parallel lines, like this:

<———– voice ——————————————————-relationship———–>


But what happens if we remove rights, if we conceptualise this diagram with only voice, relationship, and responsibility? The way I am seeing it, in my mind, it is 3-dimensional rather than 2-dimensional as below:


It seems to me, that if we allow for these three elements to form the basis of our interactions with one another, the need for rights becomes obsolete. We no longer need to seek out something that we feel has been diminished, because we together ensure that it isn’t. We take care of one another, without losing voice.

If every man and woman acted within their own personal full capacities for both voice and relationship, guided in each by the demands of only responsibilities, I wonder if we might stop needing to strive so desperately for the fulfilment of social justice? If we extend our understanding of responsibility to include all beings, might we stop needing to strive so desperately for the fulfilment of environmental justice? The concept of justice serves us only as a precarious stop-gap, while ultimately holding our imbalances in place.

8 thoughts on “On responsibility

  1. Hi there. Reading this, and remembering your comment on the EarthLines blog post, I wonder if you’ve come across the models of self and growth put forward by Bill Plotkin (drawing on the work of many others) particularly in ‘Nature and the Human Soul’ and ‘Wild Mind.’ If not, they might resonate.

    • morning Coyopa 🙂 and thanks for this book reference, I hadn’t heard of Plotkin’s work but it looks very relevant indeed. I will email Wordpower and ask them to get hold of a copy for me.

  2. This brought to mind an essay I read by the posthumanist philosopher Cary Wolfe. Summarising from distant and probably shaky memory, he also questions the rights model of the human social contract, because it presumes a rational and coherent subjectivity that expresses itself in written & verbal language. This excludes not only animals (we humans know too little about animal consciousness), but many humans, such as the very young, and those with so-named mental illnesses or disabilities (he focuses in the essay on autism spectrum and the example of the scholar Temple Grandin as someone who thinks visually, not in language). Wolfe moves to the conclusion that it is not the exercise of rights, but shared vulnerability, dependence and the need for mutual care, that bind all of us more deeply, and would be a stronger social and philosophical basis for understanding interrelationship.

  3. I agree with Cat.

    Reading this I was struck with how you’ve arrived at, and fleshed out, the distinction between the realm of negotiation and the realm of compassion.

    It’s not that rights and justice are not good. It’s that they feed and maintain a belief in separation and conflict as the only ground for being. When we stop expecting a battle or a negotiation to correct for our lack of compassion we come to the realization of responsibility.

    What holds responsibility in balance is compassion. Until we can face our own responsibility without self-hatred or guilt as a paralyzing reaction, we have not felt compassion for the self. Once we stop ‘negotiating and battling’ with the self – as the ego would have us do – then we can act responsibly. We can embody compassion.

    Voice and relationship. That is a wonderful way of describing two paths that get buried in sex-based roles. We each need to come into a working relationship with both. And see how others articulate their accommodations.

    So much of this lack of integration in our social roles and the lack of preparation for moving beyond the immaturity of remaining trapped in these roles comes from the power-drive of adolescence and the way it has taken over our societies. The way it is civilization.

    Initiation has been the way other cultures brought their people to their ‘human-ness.’


    For me, the next step has to do with the repercussions. How do we act when we no longer believe that striving after, or expecting, progress is helpful?

  4. These words words reached me at just the right time. Having got stuck in writing because I confused who I was writing for, Tony reminded me of responsibility and linked to this post. The trouble, as I see it, is that rights and obligations are a distraction that take our attention away from feeling where our responsibility lies within that deeper mutuality that Cat mentions. Thank you!

    • thank you Jeppe, Tony and Cat all for your thoughtful comments. Jeppe I am delighted that this came to you in serendipity; I too find things when I need them. 🙂

      I am in the middle of a very busy few days so can’t divert my attention just now, but I will come back to this thread and continue the conversation as soon as I come up for air! best wishes to you all 🙂

  5. So I’ve got a bit of time now to come back to this. A couple thoughts: first, thanks Cat for the reference to Cary Wolfe. Another author for my reading list!! And Tony, thanks too for bringing this back to our conversations about negotiation and compassion, it is indeed another path I needed to find for myself. And I am very much in a similar place with it: what now? What do I do with this, if anything?

    I recently gave a presentation to a room of feminist activists and suggested that “achieving equality” was a holy grail of a concept, distracting from the real potential of their work. Didn’t go down too well. 😉

    But seriously: I’m at the rockface of the ultimate question. What does my life want from me? How do I live according to my own truth, where do I take it? It sounds so heavy, but then – I breathe the fresh spring air coming from my open window, I look at the cat curled up in the morning sunshine and listen to her snoring, I look at the clock on my wall which is a family keepsake, full of memories of my growing-up home – and I don’t feel any urgency. I feel assured that my life and its truth will unfold itself as I go.

  6. Pingback: Ignorance Wrapped in Knowing. Belief Lacking Compassion. | Horizons of Significance

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