Today, we see a new concept of victimhood, which only arises logically from a new concept of justice, which in turn necessarily flows from a radically new concept of responsibility. This new concept we call social justice.
Brian Barry has written a well-received work titled Why Social Justice Matters. One chapter he dedicates to arguing against personal responsibility, with the telling title, ‘The Cult of Personal Responsibility.’
He holds that determinism is true, that people are purely and entirely products of the environment; therefore, material inequality only and always exists due to causes outside of an individual–no man can be responsible for his poverty.
He declares that ‘…if we [at] once took seriously the implications of determinism, we would realize that the assignment of responsibility is a charade.’ He blames monotheistic religion for promoting the idea of personal responsibility. Instead of blaming God for inequality, ‘sin’ is the scapegoat for the social injustice that exists, as Barry sees it. ‘Reeking hypocrisy’ is the claim that any rights, such as welfare rights, must come with responsibility.
Can we meaningfully talk about justice without the classic conception of personal responsibility—the kind of responsibility expressed by the legal categories of a guilty action (actus reus) and guilty mind (mens rea)? Some legal scholars have pointedly argued that mens rea should have no bearing in legal affairs. Instead, in matters of justice, the maxim should be actus facit reum, that is, ‘The action makes the guilt’ and that a crime is nothing more than an action.
This would be a return to the pre-Christian concept of strict liability. These questions depend on the relationship between the actions and intentions of a moral agent, and situations which are, or are not, produced by the agent.
The Boston Review hosted a forum discussing the topic: ‘The philosophy of personal responsibility has ruined criminal justice and economic policy. It’s time to move past blame.’ This forum included ivy league philosophers, like T.M. Scanlon, Kristine Korsgaard, and Barbara Fried; far from an extreme fringe, this entire panel included mainstream thinkers.
Arguments Against Personal Responsibility
What is the basic argument against the Judeo-Christian view of personal responsibilty? There are two.
First, the production of goods is not, as we might assume, an individual affair — no single individual even has the capacity, skill, or knowledge to make a single pencil, as Leonard Read taught us. The man who knows how to mix the yellow paint does not know how to chop down trees, the man who knows how to manage the pencil manufacturing plant does not know how to ship lumber. What about the food and coffee these men also need? The dominion mandate is, in fact, always a collective affair. Why should we ‘punish’ and ‘reward’ different people based on individual responsibility, when our work is, in fact, a collective effort? Our success and failure is a collective effort.
The second argument, in the spirit of Brian Barry, takes determinism serious—too serious.
Suppose that we have two men; Adam and John. Suppose that Adam was raised by a family who taught him to work hard, and spend his money wisely, with thrift. And imagine that John was not so blessed. John’s parents did not work hard, failing to teach him also to work diligently. Now, while it is true that both these men do make choices that are consistent with their upbringing, none of them chose to be born to their respective parents, nor did they choose their upbringing. Therefore, how can we blame or reward either one?
Put another way, how can we consider the individual men responsible, when their natural given capacities or even their upbringing by their parents are all arbitrary? Is not what is arbitrary also amoral?
So the social justice argument goes.
Christianity and Personal Responsibility
Assuming a secular framework makes it well-nigh impossible to justify individual responsibility. But the Christian theologian understands with Herman Bavinck that inequality is natural, and that responsibilty, however mysterious, still obtains in the very nature of things:
Authority and obedience, independence and subordination, equality and inequality, correspondence and variation, unity of nature and diversity of gifts and callings – all these have been present in the family from the very beginning, and in no sense came into existence as a result of sin (emphasis added).
The fault with the Marxist line of reasoning is that it assumes that morality flows from outside in, not inside out. One person’s moral failure can never, by the sheer fact of it, cause another’s moral failure–or moral success, strictly speaking.
A son who was not brought up right can only appeal to mitigating factors, never a complete excuse or justification.
What is the basic argument for social justice? Dr. Samuel Fleischacker breaks it down something like this:
- All human beings deserve to be treated the same.
- Respecting human beings means promoting their free agency (Kant).
- All human beings have capacities for agency that need development (Kant).
- Society shapes the degree to which they can develop these capacities and does so in particular by making resources available to them (Marx).
- Society determines our different abilities, and thus different inequalities, creating an injustice (Marx).
As the shining light of Christianity fades in the West, so does a Biblically inspired view of individual responsiblity. As the Bible is replaced with moralistic therapeutic deism, men shall find other people and other things to to blame, and never themselves. It is a peculiar fact that Scripture never explicitly condemns unequal distribution as such, but like a broken record it condemns the wrong use and wrong posture towards material goods. Thus, the Scriptural viewpoint and the secular one understand victimhood in starkly different terms. A new concept of justice demands a new concept of victimhood.
Only one of these views is coherent.
Robert J. McPherson IISee More Essays
Robert J. McPherson II is a graduate of RC Sproul’s Reformation Bible College with an honors degree in theology. He has an MA in Philosophy from the University of Buckingham; conducting research under the guidance of Sir Roger Scruton. His thesis is on personal responsibility and social justice.