Individual vs. collective responsibility

Today, it is easy to look to the future despairingly. Our nation is experiencing varying degrees of political, cultural, and spiritual chaos. An increasing number of critics suggest our country has become unmoored from its foundations. Yet, these same critics rarely propose how things might be improved.

I would submit that Americans need to reexamine the traditional relationship between our rights and our duties. For most of our nation’s history, it was an accepted as truth that married to each of our rights is an associated responsibility. For example, citizens enjoy a right to free assembly, but they have an obligation to refrain from exercising this right by obstructing traffic.

In recent decades it seems we have forgotten many of the responsibilities that append to our rights. Even more, in those limited cases in which we remember those duties, we tend to see the burden they impose not as an individual obligation but rather as that of society at large. A growing number of people live as if they have no individual responsibility for the destitute. Rather, they believe “society” has an abstract duty to care for the poor

There are two specific problems with this mindset. First, it alleviates the individual from his duty toward his fellow man and thus removes the opportunity to develop personal virtue. Furthermore, it creates confusion as to where that obligation lies. As the adage goes, if everyone has responsibility, then no one has responsibility.

Second, by making the collective (i.e. society) accountable for the public good, we empower a distant political class to determine what is “good.” There are a number of things my tax dollars are used for today that I find wasteful, distasteful, and even morally suspect. And, as I said, there is no virtue in paying my taxes as there would be in choosing to buy a hungry person a meal.

As we look to reestablish our country on a firmer foundation, we must consider what we owe, as individuals, to those around us and cease looking to society or, worse yet, government to create a better world.

Kevin J. Ritter

Washington County Commissioner


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