Am I My Brother's Keeper - David Thunder's Website

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1Am I My Brother's Keeper? Grounding and Motivating an Ethos of SocialResponsibility in a Free dversion,see losophy, hedversionforallcitations).David ThunderMatthew J. Ryan Center for the Study of Free Institutions and the Public Good, Villanova University, USAA free society requires a citizenry that is capable of taking personal responsibility for betteringtheir lot, and voluntarily promoting and protecting public goods such as education, health, publicorder, peace, and justice. Although the law backed by force can have some success at compellingpeople to make contributions to the public exchequer, refrain from criminal activity, honor legalcontracts, and so on, an economically and politically free society cannot rely exclusively on thethreat of coercion to induce in citizens a sense of social responsibility. On the contrary, a freesociety depends on a well-entrenched sense of responsibility that is internalized and actualized bycitizens in their everyday lives. But any realistic attempt to frame an ideal of social responsibilitymust confront two serious challenges presented by the complexity, scale, and extensive roledifferentiation of modern societies, namely the challenge of knowing the content of ourresponsibilities and the challenge of finding the motivation to discharge them. With thesechallenges in view, this essay assesses the power of prevailing accounts of citizenship to generatean effective sense of social responsibility, and proposes some guiding principles to inform abroader theory of responsibility that might transcend some of the limitations of political accounts.Keywords: responsibility, citizenship, roles, public goods, common goodA free society requires a citizenry that is capable of taking personal responsibility for betteringtheir lot, and voluntarily promoting and protecting public goods such as education, health, public order,peace, and justice. Although the law backed by force can have some success at compelling people tomake contributions to the public exchequer, refrain from criminal activity, honor legal contracts, andprovide a minimal education to their children, an economically and politically free society cannot relyexclusively on the threat of coercion to induce in citizens a sense of social responsibility. On the contrary,a free society depends on a well-entrenched sense of responsibility that is internalized and actualized bycitizens in their everyday lives, and passed on to the next generation. But any realistic attempt to frame an

2ideal of social responsibility must confront two serious challenges presented by the complexity and scaleof modern societies, namely the challenge of knowing the content of our responsibilities and the challengeof finding the motivation to discharge them. With these challenges in view, this essay assesses the powerof prevailing accounts of citizenship to generate an effective sense of social responsibility, and proposessome guiding principles to inform a broader theory of responsibility that might encompass politicalaccounts while transcending some of their limitations.I begin by rehearsing some familiar arguments for the proposition that a free society, that is, asociety that enjoys political and economic freedom, cannot provide its members with a minimally decentway of life unless many of them have an active, outward-looking sense of responsibility for the lot oftheir fellow citizens and for the health of their social environment. I then highlight two daunting hurdlesthat confront the practice of responsibility in post-industrialized societies: what I call the epistemic andmotivational burdens of social responsibility. Thirdly, I argue that a broad range of influential accounts ofcitizenship (specifically, liberal, civic republican, libertarian, and cosmopolitan) at best offer partialanswers to these challenges, and trace this incompleteness to the limits inherent in the role of citizen as asource of moral orientation in a complex, globalized, and highly role-differentiated social world. Fourthlyand finally, I propose some general parameters and goals for a broader and more adaptable ideal ofresponsible agency, and suggest that by both encompassing and transcending political roles, an idealdeveloped along these lines may offer a more complete response to the epistemic and motivationalchallenges.δ1 The Need for Social ResponsibilityAs reflected in the title of Bernard Mandeville’s famous (or infamous) essay, “Private Vices, PublickBenefits,” one influential strand of modern thought, spanning a distinguished list of thinkers includingThomas Hobbes, James Madison, Benjamin Constant, and Immanuel Kant, suggests that the modernpolity no longer needs the sort of public-spirited citizenry so highly prized by ancient authors likeAristotle and Cicero.i On the contrary, according to many modern thinkers, the art of politics is pre-

3eminently the art of pitting selfish interest against selfish interest, of channeling people’s privateacquisitiveness and self-interest towards public benefits that they themselves do not intend. Somethinglike Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” or Friedrich Hayek’s “spontaneous order” providentially arranges forpeople’s private interests to converge on the good of the whole polity.iiThis Mandevillean approach, in spite of its continuing influence, is not widely defended bypolitical theorists today. Many theorists, including Rawlsian liberals, perfectionist liberals, and so-called“communitarians,” reject the notion that private vices or self-interest add up to political flourishing, nomatter how ingeniously political institutions are designed. Quite to the contrary, there is a growingrealization of the pressing need for a citizenry who owns up to its social responsibilities.iii By socialresponsibility, I do not mean that citizens should subordinate all of their life projects and dreams to somepublic interest, or sacrifice everything they care about to the overall good of their society. Nor do I meanthat citizens should be “altruists,” in the sense that they act consistently and exclusively for the good ofother citizens and of their society, and do not let “egoistic” or “self-centered” interests interfere with theiracts of benevolence. Finally, I do not mean that citizens pledge absolute allegiance to their State,government, or regime, or submit unquestioningly to its edicts, or reduce their identity to membership inthe collective. All of these interpretations of social responsibility, though not without historical precedent,are caricatures not representations of the sort of attitude and practice I am prepared to defend.Social responsibility is not the wholesale negation of private interests or concerns. Rather, it is thecapacity to situate one’s immediate interests and those of one’s closest family and friends within abroader social world with its own set of goods and demands that have some legitimate claim upon ourattention. A sense of social responsibility is premised on an awareness that I am not a completelydisconnected atom: I am, like it or not, connected to a larger social network, and I have responsibilities ofcare towards my fellow human beings and towards the world we co-habit.iv To have a sense of socialresponsibility is to see beyond my own narrow interests and to have an outward-looking mentality; to bewilling to do my part to further the good of my fellows and to further, however modestly, the good of mysurrounding society and polity. It involves a recognition that insofar as I benefit, in whatever way, from

4participating in the social order, I have a responsibility to contribute towards its maintenance, or, wherenecessary, towards its improvement.Put a little differently, social responsibility is essentially a proactive sensitivity to the needs andinterests of one’s social environment and those who share the same social space, broadly construed.v Onemight describe it as a kind of moral responsiveness to one’s fellow humans, a capacity to blend agenuinely caring attitude towards others with respect for their independence and autonomy as criticalcomponents of human well-being. The socially responsible person has the “eyes to see” both theimplications of his immediate obligations (say towards family or business) and more generally, socialproblems in need of remedy, as well as the courage to apply his particular talents to the fulfillment of hisobligations and the remedy of some of the problems confronting his society.vi Insofar as socialresponsibility requires both a certain habit of “seeing” or noticing social needs, and the disposition torespond to them intelligently, it cannot be reduced to the ability to follow rules: on the contrary, itconsists essentially in a certain type of character.The principal burden of this essay is not to demonstrate the need for a well-entrenched sense ofsocial responsibility, but to show that, once admitted, this need cannot be satisfactorily met by traditionalideals of citizenship. Nonetheless, to help motivate the argument, it is worth rehearsing some of the mainarguments that have been advanced by modern commentators to show that a widely dispersed sense ofsocial responsibility cannot be replaced by rational self-interest: first, the independent spirit required toresist potential abuses of government cannot be maintained without a habit of attentiveness to publicinterests. Therefore, the death or contraction of public spirit or social responsibility is effectively thedeath or contraction of political freedom.vii Second, to the extent that citizens refuse to take charge of theirsocial world in a voluntary capacity, they create a vacuum which gets filled by the impersonal presence ofa coercive State. In other words, to the extent that a socially responsible citizenry disappears, the State islikely to become more totalizing and manage more aspects of people’s lives. Third, many invaluablesocial services, that the State either could not afford to undertake, or could not undertake with the samelevel of personalized care and attention to detail, are made possible by citizens’ effective sense of social

5responsibility. To mention a few examples: providing a decent education to those who have “slippedthrough” the cracks of mainstream educational institutions; caring for the elderly and sick, often inmediocre working conditions or on low salaries; ministering to the socially marginalized ordisadvantaged, such as single parents, the unemployed, the homeless, and victims of sexual abuse;monitoring and maintaining a cleanly environment and a healthy eco-system; and reporting suspiciousactivity in one’s neighborhood. viiiFourth, an active orientation towards common goods and shared concerns normally drawscitizens into collaborative relationships with each other that foster habits of cooperation, trust, andreciprocity. Public-spirited attitudes and behaviors thus cultivate a wealth of self-reinforcing “socialcapital” without which social life would either collapse, or grow vulnerable to high transaction costs,economic inefficiency, and widespread social insecurity and distrust.ix Finally, social and politicalconflicts cannot be contained and resolved based on a strictly rights-based philosophy, or based on thepremise of wholly self-interested bargainers. One of the hallmarks of a heightened sense of socialresponsibility is the willingness to bear certain costs and sacrifices for the good of society—indeed, evento yield some of one’s legitimate interests for the sake of social amity. This willingness to compromiseand occasionally even sacrifice one’s immediate interests for the sake of justice or some other communalgood such as peace or civility, is essential for the mediation of political and social conflict. For example,Martin Luther King, Jr. forewent his interests in a quiet, trouble-free life, and effectively sacrificed hisown safety and tranquility for the cause of racial justice.x Similarly, the political and territorial disputebetween Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland could not have been resolved without a willingnesson both sides to compromise some of their deep interests for the sake of the public dividends of peace.xiδ2 The Epistemic and Motivational Burdens of Social ResponsibilityNow that we have reviewed the main arguments for the necessity of social responsibility in aneconomically and politically free society, let us consider two impediments to such responsibility: what Icall the epistemic and motivational burdens. Briefly, the epistemic burden of social responsibility is the

6difficulty of both knowing where my responsibilities lie; and of being sufficiently familiar with therelevant facts to be able to act effectively. The motivational burden, on the other hand, is the difficulty ofbeing sufficiently motivated to take responsibility for the lot of persons and groups beyond my doorstep.As I show in this section, the epistemic and motivational hurdles appear so formidable that they threatento incapacitate citizens from developing and acting on an effective sense of social responsibility.We have inherited profound structural transformations in the social order that introduce novelchallenges for the practice of social responsibility in the modern world as compared with pre-modern, andespecially ancient societies, in particular the phenomenon of globalization and the proliferation andmobility of social roles.xii These two developments, closely associated with modernization, impose asevere epistemic strain on the practice of social responsibility: first, the proliferation and mobility ofsocial roles makes the identification and allocation of responsibility rather difficult to grasp, whetheracross society as a whole, or simply within one person’s life. If I occupy multiple and relativelyspecialized roles, which connect my loyalties to multiple associations, from the family to the State,sometimes on a long-term basis and other times temporarily, on what basis can I carve up myresponsibilities towards diverse persons and groups in need of attention or assistance? If I occupymultiple communities, how robust and far-reaching are my responsibilities towards each one? Humanassociations typically require ongoing maintenance, financial support, and oversight by their members.But how much time, energy and money one ought to devote to institutional maintenance is not easilysettled if one inhabits a range of different institutions. For example, what does a working parent owe toher family, her business, her church, and her local neighborhood? These associations are not closelyintegrated with each other, nor are their demands coordinated by any central body. Knowing how to carveup one’s responsibilities among diverse associations and roles is no easy task, and though social normsmay establish some parameters (e.g. parents have a responsibility to see to it that their children receive aneducation), the details cannot be answered by any well-defined social norm due to the complexity andvariation of people’s social roles and allegiances.

7In the midst of this proliferation of roles and associations, we are witnessing a seconddevelopment that also creates epistemic difficulties for social responsibility: increased social mobility,global communication, global commerce and even global politics are creating an increasingly integratedand interdependent world. The borders of the nation-state are much more porous than they once were, ascenters of power and influence such as the United Nations, the World Bank, OPEC, the Internet, andglobal media corporations cast their nets across innumerable political jurisdictions. There is a sense inwhich the globalization of commerce and politics connects us both to our fellow citizens and to the rest ofthe world as never before.xiii In a globalized and increasingly interdependent world, many of us feel atangible sense of responsibility for the fate of our polity and of the world. But the unprecedented scope ofour relationships makes it very difficult to competently specify the subject-matter and beneficiaries of ourresponsibilities: on the one hand, due to the imposing scale of the nation-state and of a global society, it isdifficult to decide which individuals and groups I am responsible to. To say that I am equally responsibleto all renders responsible action completely impractical. Opting for this or that group for no specialreason seems arbitrary and gratuitous rather than responsible in the ordinary sense of the term. On theother hand, even assuming we can non-arbitrarily specify the beneficiaries of our responsibilities, thereremains the difficulty, at least for remote individuals and groups, of securing adequate information tocompetently meet our responsibilities towards them.xivBesides these epistemic burdens of social responsibility, there are also significant motivationalburdens. First of all, where the precise effects of one’s actions are relatively obscure, where there is noobvious basis for identifying the specific individuals and groups to whom one is responsible—or forcarving up one’s responsibilities among diverse individuals and groups (assuming the domains ofresponsibility can be identified)—and where it is extremely difficult to acquire the relevant information,there is little incentive to undertake far-reaching social responsibilities. The amount of intellectualdeliberation and research required in order to overcome the epistemic hurdles is so costly that manycitizens would be unlikely to make the attempt.

8Secondly, remote and diffuse objects such as geographically, socially, and culturally distantpersons and groups are less likely to engage the moral imagination than objects closer to home such as thefate of one’s immediate family, friends, acquaintances, and colleagues.xv There seem to be two factors inparticular that move people to take an active concern in one another’s flourishing: personal affection andaccountability. Both are uniquely favored by personal relationships such as those of spouses, siblings, andclose friends. Personal interaction over time can generate and sustain bonds of affection that move peopleto care about each other’s lives and accommodate each other’s interests even at personal cost. In addition,the predictability and regularity of interaction render the parties involved directly accountable to oneanother for their actions. Thus, the fear of disappointing a friend or family member may compensate forthe ordinary human tendency toward egocentrism.But what comparable sources of motivation towards mutual responsibility can we find amongcitizens of liberal democracies and citizens of the world? Although individual citizens and citizen groupsmay be personally acquainted, we can be certain that the vast majority of the world’s (and indeed thenation’s) population will remain strangers to us, strangers who inhabit a broad spectrum of social circles,cultural enclaves, churches, and worldviews.xvi If we cut loose the ties of kinship, personal affection, anddirect personal accountability, how can we reasonably expect people to muster up any genuinecommitment to each other’s interests beyond a bare allegiance to democratic procedures and rule of law?Is it not fanciful to expect people to consistently care in a real and consequential way about the interestsof someone so remote that the chances of encountering her, let alone moving in her social circle, are slimto non-existent? Perhaps a moral hero could be motivated by an emotionally austere sense of duty to careabout the interests of his fellow humans, near and far. But presumably, a plausible ideal of socialresponsibility is not just intended for “saints” or moral heroes, but for decent yet ordinary “flesh-andblood” human beings.

9δ3 The Limits of Prevailing Models of Citizenship and Responsibili

Am I My Brother's Keeper? Grounding and Motivating an Ethos of Social Responsibility in a Free Society (Thisisadraftpriortopublication. Forpublishedversion,&see cal(Philosophy, Vol.&12,&No.&4,&December&2009,&559–580. Pleaseusepublished&versionforallcitations). David Thunder Matthew J. Ryan Center for the Study of Free Institutions and the .

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