Monday, March 05, 2007

Sigh: On Systemic Problems and Individual Responsibility

I end up sighing a lot here, don't I? In this case it is caused by yet another group of people trying to pass the buck on a systemic problem. Look, if you think that something's being a systemic problem means that personal responsibility is swamped out, you haven't given much thought to what the system is. And for every single systemic problem that arises, people try to do this. Misogyny, for instance, is often a systemic problem. That does not mean that opponents of the mysogyny of the system are excused from personally working against mysogyny in those parts of the system closest to them -- starting with themselves. Slavery is a systemic problem; that doesn't mean it's therefore OK for people to own slaves, or condone practices of slavery, or excuse slavers, as long as they advocate reforming 'the system'. If they really were advocating reforming the system, they would be advocating their own self-reformation as one part of it. Their attitude reminds one of the words of T. S. Eliot:

They constantly try to escape
From the darkness outside and within
By dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.

But, as the next lines say, the man that is always shadows the man that pretends to be. You see, the system in each of these cases is just this: you and me, our typical modes of life, and the customs, conventions, and laws that exert pressure on those modes of life. If a problem is systemic, that means you and I are complicitous in it. It does not necessarily mean that we are culpable -- complicity and culpability do not perfectly overlap, as I've pointed out before -- but it does mean that we have a responsibility with regard to it. That responsibility starts with, and ends with, personal virtue; there are lots of other things between starting and ending that are not straightforward matters of personal virtue, like starting new customs and making new laws. But without personal virtue all the reform goes hollow and collapses.

The question is asked: 'Why should I deny myself comforts when everyone else is doing it anyhow?' Because everyone else is thinking the same thing, and with a systemic problem that's one of the things that needs to be changed. It's perfectly fine to say that we should, and must, try to solve a problem collectively; but let's take seriously what 'collectively' actually means, and not pretend that a problem can be solved collectively while we all do nothing individually. A collective solution is just a bunch of interlocking and mutually supporting individual solutions. People who solve a problem collectively all contribute their individual efforts.

This is true for all systemic problems. I have no notion of whether Gore is being responsible or not; certainly people like Monbiot have argued that carbon offsetting is bad faith, like selling indulgences without regard for penitential restitution. I defer to others on such matters, and leave Gore to his own conscience. But the defense that the problem "has nothing to do with personal virtue and everything to do with collective action" is straightforwardly absurd.

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