Reflections on Individual Responsibility
JUNE 01, 1963 by MARK THORNTON
Ideas of free will and individual responsibility have come under heavy assault during the past century. Marxists insist that man is determined by the modes of production; psychoanalysts declare that childhood experiences or sexual inhibitions determine the man; genes, say the biologists; conditioned reflexes, say the behaviorists; social forces, say the collectivists; playground facilities and parents, say the environmentalists. One thing these varied groups have in common: each denies that man is free and, therefore, properly held responsible for his words and deeds. After a killing or some other terrible crime takes place, it is not uncommon to hear people say the fault is society’s and not the criminal’s. Man is merely the victim of determining forces over which he has little control.
This relatively new concept of man has, of course, not gone unchallenged. In 1961 Dr. Thomas S. Szasz published his The Myth of Mental Illness (
A Secularized Society
The denial of individual responsibility is but another sign of the trend toward a completely secularized society. It accounts for the prevalent belief of today that one individual does not count for much, that he is of no consequence in the immense universe man is beginning to explore. Thus, man feels himself a helpless pawn in a cruel game. It was not always so: "Our ancestors believed that each man counted because they knew that each man was accountable. In the religious faith they professed, the individual had to render an account of his life before God, and therefore he was, in his own and in his fellow’s eyes, a responsible being. These are the convictions we must recover; that each of us counts, that each of us is responsible, that what we do or don’t do with our lives can mean victory or defeat for the things that matter most for us and our posterity." (E. A. Opitz) ¹
To carry this point a bit further we might add that our ancestors sought to achieve no more than a tolerable justice on earth, believing that only before God would they receive perfect justice. Today, God is denied by an increasing number of persons — especially among the so-called intellectuals —and there is a striving to fashion a heaven on earth by political means.
We have spoken of the person who does not wish to be held responsible for his acts and of those who would relieve the rest of us of responsibility. But what of the person who accepts full responsibility for his words and deeds but is judged not responsible by the authorities? In the past decade or so there have been several cases where authorities have questioned the sanity of persons who spoke out against certain acts of the federal government. Now, it is all very well to declare a man wrong if he opposes, say, the federal income tax, but it is preposterous —and highly dangerous — to judge him insane or mentally incompetent because he does so. This smacks of Inquisition days when dissenters were punished as heretics. Dr. Szasz deals with this subject in a recent National Review article as did Dr. Lewis Albert Alesen in his Mental Robots (Caxton Printers, Ltd. 1957).
Of course, modern-day heretics will not be punished in the usual ways—imprisonment, torture, fine, or execution — for after all, they cannot help what they did; they are but pawns at the mercy of forces beyond their control ! So they will be locked up for "treatment" for unspecified lengths of time. And as in Franz Kafka’s powerful novel, The Trial, the victims probably will have no specific charges placed against them and no one to whom they may appeal. It is not fanciful to predict that in the attempt to see a mythical "perfect justice" done, large numbers of people will lose their rights altogether (always the consequence of denying responsibility) and that actual injustices will be commonplace.
The State Will Fill the Void
Now if individual responsibility is denied, what is to take its place? The vacuum will be filled, no doubt about that ! The late Carl Jung, one of the most eminent of contemporary psychiatrists, had this to say:
"The moral responsibility of the individual is then inevitably replaced by the policy of the state (raison d’etat). Instead of moral and mental differentiation of the individual, you have public welfare and the raising of the living standard. The goal and meaning of the individual (which is the only real life) no longer lie in individual development but in the policy of the state, which is thrust upon the individual from outside and consists in the execution of an abstract idea which ultimately tends to attract all life to itself. The individual is increasingly deprived of the moral decision as to how he should live his own life, and instead is ruled, fed, clothed, and educated as a social unit, accommodated in the appropriate housing unit, and amused in accordance with the standards that give pleasure and satisfaction to the masses….
"Under these circumstances it is small wonder that individual judgment grows increasingly uncertain of itself and that responsibility is collectivized as much as possible, i.e., is shuffled off by the individual and delegated to a corporate body. . . .
"In this way," Jung goes on to say, "the individual becomes more and more a function of society, which in its turn usurps the function of the real life carrier, whereas, in actual fact, society is nothing more than an abstract idea like the state. Both are hypostatized, that is, have become autonomous. The state in particular is turned into a quasi-animate personality from whom everything is expected. In reality it is only a camouflage for those individuals who know how to manipulate it. Thus the constitutional state drifts into the situation of a primitive tribe where everybody is subject to the autocratic rule of a chief or an oligarchy." (The Undiscovered Self. Little, Brown & Co., 1957)
Unless there is a recovery of individual responsibility, it is hard to envisage any other outcome.
¹ "The Recovery of Individual Responsibility," Christian Economics,
The history of liberty is a history of the limitation of governmental power, not the increase of it. When we resist, therefore, the concentration of power, we are resisting the processes of death, because concentration of power is what always precedes the destruction of human liberties.