For me, healthy responsibility is primarily an expression of love. We want to do things well and with long-term good consequences because we care about the person or people in question (or animals or the planet). But, like everything else in human lives and emotions, responsibility is a complex thing which can be endlessly manipulated and which can be subject to various unhealthy influences.
Responsibility is in part also a search for balance between oneself and the other, somewhat similar to my perception of integrity. However, responsibility includes one additional aspect, which is that the balance depends on the type of relationship and on who has more power within a relationship. It is not the same whether you are a friend, parent, student, partner or an employer to someone. Each role and especially each position of power carries different responsibilities.
If the purpose of responsibility is something like “to do things with the best possible long-term outcome for everyone involved”, then it is clear that your responsibility depends primarily on how much control and influence you have in a specific situation, and then on how much knowledge and experience you have. But in real life, there seem to be relatively few people who are aware of this.
Most of the world until a few generations ago was focused solely on physical survival and physical responsibilities, while responsibility for emotional health and communication was a low priority. We are still in a process of learning and confusion, if we have even reached the level where we consider these aspects of life important. But subtle behaviors can also have a big impact, especially when it comes to young children and what they learn from their parents.
According to Richard Dawkins (the book “The Selfish Gene”), research shows that about 60% of the population is more inclined to cooperate with others, while about 40% of the population is prone to exploiting others. Of course, these 40% will try to avoid responsibility, which nowadays they most often do through manipulation (including shifting their responsibility to others). But even among those 60% who cooperate (more or less), distorted ideas about responsibility are often present, which is usually the result of chaotic or toxic upbringing, unhealthy family and social models, inexperience, and lack of awareness. Thus, even cooperative people, often out of ignorance, habit, fear or following bad models, can shift their responsibility onto others, unaware of the consequences for their own integrity as well as for other people.
So let’s try to clarify what responsibility actually means.
What responsibility is and is not
To start with, responsibility does not mean guilt or the threat of punishment. Or at least it shouldn’t, but for many children, a sense of responsibility is imposed through guilt and punishment, not through insights about love and inspirational results. Some people raised in this way may avoid responsibility trying to avoid both guilt and punishment – while others may use self-criticism to motivate themselves to be responsible, rather than love and a positive vision. I’d say most people live in one of those two ways.
Similarly, responsibility does not have to mean sacrificing yourself – unless you have chosen to sacrifice your needs consciously, well informed, and without pressure. Let us remember that responsibility includes balance and that neglecting yourself has long-term negative consequences not only for you, but also for others around you (including the possibility that they do not learn proper balance in relationships, and to stand on their own two feet). Responsibility means consciously and thoughtfully fulfilling the role you have chosen to take on.
While we are at this, we must recognize the fact that parenting, especially when it comes to very young children, requires sacrifice by parents: the sacrifice of much of their time, energy, nerves, sleep … This means that people who are considering becoming parents have the responsibility not to make that decision uninformed and at random, but to inform themselves well about what it really means and then consider whether they are prepared for such a responsibility. (Check out the article “Are You Truly Ready To Have a Child?“)
Thus we come to the thought that responsibility requires knowledge, but, once you accept a certain responsibility, it is not ethical to avoid it under the pretext that you have not been well informed, especially when it comes to parenting. If you make a decision, theoretically that decision should be well thought out and informed. In reality, however, it is very difficult to achieve this ideal, not only because we often lack experience, but because the early family and the whole society often teach us, and even manipulate us, in the direction of ignorance and recklessness (such as in the context of lack of sexual education, and getting married. Speaking about getting married, you might like “Prepare For Marriage Or Living Together”).
If we have made a decision with good intentions, but without enough experience and knowledge, or even under the influence of manipulation, it does not necessarily mean that we must stick to it for the rest of our lives if it would mean disproportionate suffering. However, we do need to think carefully about how to achieve the best possible balance for all people involved, with special emphasis on the needs of those in a more vulnerable and needy position – therefore, primarily children.
Responsibility in the context of your role in a relationship
The parent-child relationship is the least equal in terms of knowledge, experience, power and influence. It is clear that the role of a parent carries far more responsibility than any other, especially when we take into account the sensitivity of a child’s developing brain and psyche, and how parental behavior can cause long-term consequences for the child. Thus, it is the primary responsibility of a parent to consider the child’s needs, especially while the child is very young.
This does not mean pampering the child – we could say that meeting the child’s needs includes the need for discipline and socialization. This means that, the younger the child, the more the parent should be careful, patient, informed, should invest time, effort and energy, communicate well, and pay attention to the long-term rather than short-term consequences of their behavior. The older and the more able the children are, the more experience, cognitive capacity and ability thy have, the more responsibility can be transferred to them, but very thoughtfully and with a sense of proportion.
Second in the context of power inequality is the teacher-student relationship, especially when the student is a child. The responsibility of students is to strive in accordance with their abilities, and the responsibility of a teacher is to realistically assess students’ abilities, to be patient with students’ mistakes, and to re-examine and change their own approach and methods if necessary. It is not possible to discuss all aspects of this type of relationship in a few paragraphs, but, on the whole, it is the teacher who is expected to be more thoughtful and to have more knowledge, more patience, and more self-control.
Next come, depending on the circumstances, the relations employer – employee, therapist – client, religious leader in relation to followers, and the like. In some of these situations the relations of power and knowledge are more balanced than in others. But in any case, a person in a position of greater power and knowledge also bears greater responsibility for their actions and communication.
Moving on to balanced relationships, or at least those that should be balanced, we come to love relationships, friendships, and (perhaps) business partnerships. Here both power and responsibility is, ideally, equal. The most important thing is to recognize responsibility in communication and in the division of labor. In communication, each of the partners should be ready to listen carefully to the partner’s perspective, accept it and express their views honestly and respectfully.
When I talk about accepting a partner’s perspective, I’m not saying we should agree with our partner’s beliefs or demands and follow them. I am talking about recognizing the fact that our partner has a right to their own ideas, needs and desires, and being responsible means discussing them without belittling, manipulating and trying to control our partner.
Unfortunately, many people still perceive others’ different opinions or different needs as a danger or as criticism, and react accordingly. A healthy and responsible reaction is to calmly discuss such differences and make a decision about whether you can come to a compromise or not, and if not, whether you want to fulfill some of your needs in other ways, or even to end the relationship and look for a more compatible one. Control, manipulation, shouting, insults, ignoring or withdrawal should have no place here. It is also the responsibility of each partner to ensure that he or she respects any agreements that may be reached. If, with time, you recognize you can’t follow through with an agreement, you need to renegotiate it in a respectful way.
Equilibrium in a relationship includes, of course, a balanced division of daily responsibilities. You can share them according to your affinities, skills, the time your commitments require and the like. What is important is that both sides strive for mutual satisfaction and agreement. If you share the same living or business space, all of this is even more important.
If there is some kind of imbalance in such relationships, e.g. one person has more financial, intellectual or social power, then it’s the responsibility of that person not to use such an advantage at the expense of their partner, and sometimes to help the partner, too. I know an example of a woman who is unemployed due to a chronic illness and disability, but since her husband is wealthy and earns all their money, she feels obligated to do all household chores regularly and thoroughly despite suffering pains. What is the balance in this case? Are money and security worth being in pain every day? Perhaps in a business relationship, but marriage is not supposed to be a business, right? If the husband is wealthy enough to pay for help, then I’d say it would be responsible to ease her burden in that way. In case they don’t have that much money, then at least it would be responsible not to expect her to do all the chores, or so often. A disabled person can not be expected to have the same resources as a healthy one. I don’t know whether the husband of this woman is actually aware of how much she struggles; it’s also her responsibility to make it clear to him so that they could come to a mutual solution which would enable long term quality of their life and relationship.
Responsibility and mistakes
Since human beings are not computers, we are subject to all sorts of – often unconscious or biological – influences. No one is born learned, so we cannot expect ourselves – or others – to always be perfectly responsible and objective in every situation. Even when we try, we will still inevitably make mistakes, that’s just life.
The consequences of these mistakes should not be disproportionate. Mistakes should be an incentive to learn, not an excuse to impose unnecessary suffering on someone. A mistake needs to be recognized, corrected, and learned from so we can move on wiser. If you have made a significant mistake that can affect other people besides you, it is quite possible that there is more than one way to correct and compensate for those consequences. Don’t limit yourself to just the usual and obvious. (More in the article: “How To Overcome the Fear of Making Mistakes“)
Here we come to a particularly murky topic burdened by instinctive behaviors. On one hand, if we are guided by the idea that more power means more responsibility (which in the Middle Ages was expressed with the idiom “noblesse oblige”), then it is logical that the “higher” stratum of society would have more obligations. On the other hand, certain cultures have created a rather extreme ideology claiming that if the poor are helped, they will get used to it, start exploiting it and become social parasites. As with any ideology, there is a grain of truth in this one, but any good idea when taken to the extreme can have dire consequences.
It is part of our fundamental instincts to compete with others, to fight not only for our own status and security, but also for the status and security of our descendants. In some people this instinct is more pronounced than in others. When this instinct guides us, we can perceive everyone else as competition, and especially those that we do not perceive as our “tribe”. The stronger this instinct, the narrower group of people we perceives as our tribe. Some people include only their family in their tribe, sometimes even just the closest family, while all others are perceived as relatively irrelevant. The stronger one’s instinct for status, power, and resource hoarding, the less they will care for others and will be willing to encroach on and exploit their rights, sometimes under various pretexts; sometimes firmly believing in “might makes right”.
On one hand, the basic function of a human society is to control “predators” and protect the more vulnerable. On the other hand, history shows that people cannot be forced to give up the instincts described above. It would be ideal to find some balance between the two, and some cultures manage to find it through upbringing and education. On the other hand, if we lived in an ideal world, then there would be no such instincts.
What do I get out of it?
If you are among those 40% of people more prone to personal profit than collaboration, I must first ask myself how you got to this part of the article in the first place, and then I guess you are wondering, “And what do I get for all that work and effort?” From my perspective, you get healthy self-esteem and sense of integrity, as well as long-term respect and trust of the people around you, and thus better relationships and more warmth in life. If that sounds worth the effort – great, you may not be among the 40%. If it doesn’t sound worth the effort, or you want to win the trust of others to use it later for manipulation, I can only hope that people around you will figure it out sooner rather than later.
Since children and adolescents are often naturally egotistic, it’s wise to explain the above advantages and long-term benefits of responsibility to them as well. They may not understand and adopt it right away, but with some repetition, it may remain in their heads for the future.
Perhaps this kind of analysis will help you recognize when you are taking too much responsibility, or allowing others to avoid it. Or, in case you have avoided responsibility and yet read this article to the end, in what ways can you change your behavior for the better and thus ensure that others respond better to you as well.
For some readers, these could be important insights and an incentive for change, as our attitude toward responsibility, like many other habits, is often unconscious and deeply ingrained since childhood. The change is likely to be for the better, but you may also have to deal with the risks and fears you have neglected so far. Don’t give up – while it’s true that imagination is generally more beautiful than reality, it’s also true that fear, especially fear of the unknown, is usually much worse than reality.