A constant theme running through many of my recent posts has been around the overburdening of individuals with responsibility for their own plight. Shame resilience, for example, is partially about letting ourselves off the hook, and empathising with each other’s struggles, failings, and misfortunes – recognising unrealistic expectations for what they are. “Lean Out” feminism is in much the same vein, acknowledging structural barriers to women’s security and equality and relieving individual women of the responsibility to “lean in”.
Have I gone too far in that direction? Where does personal responsibility kick in?
In this post, I even went as far as questioning whether the dependence of material well-being on ability and effort was fundamentally unfair, since it doesn’t recognise the barriers some people face to developing skills and making effort. And I suppose any inequalities could be argued to be unfair in the sense that there is no such thing as “free will”: in that we (and our abilities and decisions) are all ultimately a product of our genes and environments. But of course we have a collective influence on some of that ‘environment’ part: we can punish criminals to deter criminal behaviour, and we can reward talent and training to encourage development of essential skills.
Most people would say that we need these external motivations and rewards – no-one expects someone to undertake the years of training to do a stressful, challenging job like surgery out of pure altruism or intrinsic motivations alone. But there are other barriers to productivity and accomplishment besides external motivation, that we seem to find harder to recognise.
We don’t make individuals responsible for self-motivation, but we do make individuals responsible to a large degree for their ultimate success – and this is completely unbalanced. Responsibility should be balanced to take into account the ease or difficulty of following through on it; and in the inter-connected web of causality, those with the most power in a situation have the most responsibility. I think that’s as close to an answer as I’m going to get.
As I’ve been reading up on Stoicism, I’ve been trying to figure out where it fits in with all of this. Because of its emphasis on accepting external circumstances while working solely on improving oneself, initially it seemed cold and unsympathetic, like something that might go hand in hand with “Lean In”. But eventually I realised that the division between what is and isn’t under a person’s control is potentially quite a radical and sympathetic concept.
Stoicism relieves us of inappropriate responsibility for things outside of our control, replacing it with the serenity and peace of acceptance. As discussed the other day, I don’t think that means doing nothing to fight injustice or improve your own circumstances; it just means being clear with yourself about what actions you can actually take, versus the outcomes that are not in your power to control.
Stoicism encourages you to look carefully at what you can do, and weigh up what would be the most rational, wise, beneficial thing to do. For a Stoic, after all, that is the ultimate good, and is what brings contentment – knowing that she has done her best. I think I would still need to watch that I didn’t turn this into an unrealistic expectation of perfection; but sometimes, being very upset or angry at external, uncontrollable things doesn’t help wisdom to come forth.
So, Stoicism might be a good companion to an awareness of injustice. Not that I would emphasise it as a way forward – I mean, I would sooner speak up in support of people who are rightfully angry, than start telling them how to be less angry – but it is definitely a philosophy I would like to explore for myself.