Responsibility Matters

Some excerpts:

Threats and bribes connected to an afterlife are probably only an artifice to get the less enlightened to buy into the deeper religious vision, which has to do with liberating us here on earth.  The liberated marketplace has successfully seduced religion into dropping its core vision.  The after-life artifice, unbecoming of a spiritual enterprise, is all that remains.


When life revolves mostly around trying to keep a hard-to-please person from becoming unhappy, it is time to bring this into the open, to work out how the responsibility may gradually be lessened.  If that’s not at all possible, it’s time to run – or at least to inch away slowly, unnoticed.



They can liberate a good part of humanity, but the fact be disregarded or even dishonoured.  And they can starve or kill, massively, without even knowing that they do.  Economists have allowed themselves total freedom, to be irresponsible.  A Nobel Prize for profundity with no trace of accountability is a mockery.



The human spirit can no longer reach a multinational corporation at its core.  These corporate entities are pseudo-beings invested with human rights.  Those who, in their wisdom, gave independent legal existence to such bodies forgot to give them feelings and ethics.



Stork life bears some similarity to that of humans.  Observe them and you will see in many a fierce individuality.  Some border on the haughty.  Then again you will see storks gang together in unthinking hordes.


Published by Nest, Sri Lanka


A few more excerpts:

The most hideous responsibility is that of keeping a miserable person happy.  Going to temple or church with religious regularity can be quite pleasant, in comparison.  Whoever feels responsible for keeping another always happy is in deep trouble. The desire for a warm relationship that helps us overcome misery is quite normal. But some relationships are characterised by one person habitually transferring to the other the responsibility of making him feel better. And the other may see no option but to collude in this arrangement, sometimes lifelong.


Responsibilities of the worst kind are the hardest to drop.  Overcoming conscience, habit and attachment is difficult enough.  Horrible responsibilities are further enforced through intense added pressure from third parties.  People who exploit others know how to use family, workmates and friends to keep the exploited from escaping.


Let’s get back to the example of feeling it our responsibility to keep someone else happy.  The joy of making someone close truly happy is difficult to surpass.  So we continue to do things to make her happy.  But it becomes less of a joy should we have to do things to keep her always happy.  We may not quite notice the gradual transition, if it does come about, to wanting to ensure that she doesn’t ever become unhappy.  This is a profound but imperceptible shift.  The urge to prevent another ever becoming unhappy stems from the feeling that any unhappiness he suffers is somehow a failure on our part.  The responsibility that comes attached to this perception is destructive and to be resisted.


When life revolves mostly around trying to keep a hard-to-please person from becoming unhappy, it is time to bring this into the open, to work out how the responsibility may gradually be lessened.  If that’s not at all possible, it’s time to run away from it – or at least to inch away slowly, unnoticed.  This isn’t always easy for many forces conspire to ensure that we do not.


It is chiefly spouses and lovers who transfer to us the obligation of making them happy.  Children are fairly skilled too.  That someone should, quite wittingly, agree to keep parent, lover or spouse happy is understandable.  But in some instances the blackmailer is none of these.  He may simply be an office mate.


Showing kindness to an unhappy colleague carries risks.  If he is the sort, he will be able to mould our kindness into action on his behalf.  And we do tend to get attached to the people who need our support.  A person at office who is unhappy because of a grievance can soon make it ours as well.  In such cases we should be careful about interceding on his behalf, to please him.  People with grievances are best helped by making them put these aside.  But they rarely enlist our support for liberation.  They prefer instead to use us to justify and reinforce their grievances.

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Responsibility of collectives

We’d want a doctor, lawyer, soldier or economist to be responsible, especially when dealing with matters connected to us.  To take on individual infringements or to make an individual doctor or economist more responsible is, curiously enough, likely to be more difficult than getting a group to change. And it isn’t hard to conclude that making economists more responsible is far tougher than making soldiers so.


We do have a responsibility to get professions or providers of public services to deliver.  But, as outsiders, we don’t quite have the means to make a particular profession behave in a manner that we consider more desirable.  So we are obliged to innovate.  We have to develop creative ways to improve the conduct of certain professions and services.


A start is to signpost a few paths that these different groups and professions would do well to explore.  Articulating the outsider’s view, the citizen’s view, can only help.  Defining with increasing clarity the citizen’s expectation of a given service, sector or profession should lead somewhere. We can at least live in hope.


Where the exercise leads is not a pressing problem.  We have a responsibility to spell out our expectations first.  Clarifying our expectations of parties who have a role in the public domain helps us, even if it results in no impact on the parties concerned.  Only after clarifying things may we grumble, if those we address pay no heed.  We should in time discover that we can do more than just grumble.  It’s quite unlikely that we shall have no impact on these public parties, unless of course we are inordinately lacking in creativity.  Let’s explore this approach a little further, using a few specific examples, so as to get a feel of it.


The police

What should the police be held responsible for? What does society expect from a good or good enough police force?  We can start by spelling out our individual expectations.  These are likely shared by many.  And if large numbers give voice to their wishes, a better and more comprehensive picture of the public’s expectations will emerge.  It is likely that a good many within the police share the views of those outside it. Starting the process is not difficult. I can embark on the exercise simply by stating what I as a citizen want the police to do. Trying to get others on board in an effort to achieve the change I desire to see may be difficult. But getting them to express their expectations of the police should not be too much of a problem.


I want the police to do more than pursue a few selected criminals in the name of upholding the law.  I want the service to be a friend of the law-abiding more than of the lawless. And I’d be pleased to see this reflected simply in how the police station is organised.  The law-abiding citizen generally feels uncomfortable within the precincts of a police station.  Seasoned thugs and criminals are more at ease in it.  So my wish is to see the police station or office organised in a way that ordinary citizens feel it could easily be part of their beat.


My perception of police stations as generally off-putting and ugly may well be wrong.  We don’t have a convenient means to verify the citizen’s real perceptions.  If we did have a reliable way to figure this out, we’d be able to tell the police.  Once our proposals for a more responsible police were known, they’d slowly begin to be implemented.  My own proposal may get rejected as being too superficial.  I believe though that some rather fundamental issues will be touched if the police start thinking of making its offices, stations and posts more pleasant to the law-abiding.


Nearly everybody will have proposals or suggestions on ways in which the police can improve.  What does this say?  Mainly that the job of a police officer is thankless.


Economic advisors

These occupy the other end of the spectrum from the police.  They are hardly ever blamed for irresponsibility or for incompetence. Few of us dare offer them ideas for improvement, or demand greater responsibility of them.  It’s time to be less coy.


The actions of economists can cause, as well as prevent, more deaths and more suffering than can those of any other group.  Economists can get away with murder, and with great pride.  They can liberate a good part of humanity, but the fact be disregarded or even dishonoured.  And they can starve or kill, massively, without even knowing that they do.


Economists have allowed themselves total freedom, to be irresponsible.  A Nobel Prize for profundity with no trace of accountability is a mockery.



Most clergy, like politicians and economists, are men.  This may have little relevance to the discussion on responsibility.  There isn’t, even in these enlightened times, a being called ‘clergywomen’ or ‘clergywomen’.  A revealing omission, especially given that clergyman is not intended to embrace woman.


Our interest here is not in the man or woman concerned, but in the responsibilities of the organised religion that they represent.  This is rather a delicate business.  For citizens to start spelling out the responsibility of religion appears, at best, irreverent.  The stream is meant to flow in the opposite direction.  It may, therefore, be safer to limit our examination to the responsibilities of clergy.


Organised religion, often represented by clergy, is the official manifestation of the good. By extension it is as well the socially authorised power against evil.  Armed with this awesome authority, it can effortlessly dismiss calls from the citizenry.   Religion, even more than economics, is above accountability for how well it fulfils its role in fostering human development.  Anyone foolhardy enough to question how well religion performs its duties is at risk being struck down not only in this world but in the next as well.  Economics, probably to its regret, is not able to reach as far.


What should a populace, rash enough to do so, ask of organised religion?  As with regard to the police, there is likely to be agreement on what we citizens request from the keepers of the various faiths.  My guess is that we’d agree that religion should, for a start, strive to enthrone morality and compassion.  We tend not to ask religions to foster ethics or responsibility.  Organised religions, on the other hand, would probably elect to install faith.  But that leaves the individual with a problematic choice.  The various religions would be willing to canvass us separately but are unlikely to reach consensus as to which among them would be the safest bet on which to place our faith.  We are left to guess which one of the several routes signposted to heaven leads us there and not surreptitiously to hell. The stakes for the individual are so unthinkably high that it is vile to leave this to a lottery.


If religions cannot together work out which of them holds the keys, we lose out on the probability deal.  Whichever we choose, we are more likely to be suckered than saved.  A truly compassionate religion would allow us a quiet hedging bet on another, on the side.  But this is the one source of greater security that the formal religions are all insistent on disallowing.  A point on which they even more emphatically agree is that we may not reject them all, and simply cruise through and take our chances.  Freewheelers appear destined for a worse hellhole than that readied for adherents of the wrong faiths.


Religions can achieve much if they stop the struggle for greater market share and concentrate instead on their sacred role in society – the upholding of morality and compassion.  In other words, that everybody acts responsibly.  We the citizenry are powerless in imposing this agenda on the representatives of religion.  They are the least answerable of all – at least down here on earth.


The only practical course open to us is unilaterally to decide that organised religions do indeed have a responsibility towards society, and hold them to it.  We may get somewhere if we too start making unceasing demands of religions that they work primarily to uphold the values they collectively espouse.  This we shall have to do as relentlessly as advocates of the different religions make demands of us – that we place allegiance unshakeably and only in the particular faith they represent.  It is the duty of society now to mandate the assorted religions to work primarily to foster the values they can all agree are desirable.  If they do not, we should take this responsibility away from them and create a new agency to foster the values that we think matter.  Religions can then be left to fulfil unimpeded their primary urge, of fighting among themselves for greater market share.  This legitimate desire they share with other decent and honest businesses.



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Assorted species

Fairness and justice are constant human preoccupations. They should be too, for they constitute a good part of the foundation of civilised conduct.  We do, as we should, try to ensure that fairness reigns.  But this is probably to challenge the natural order of things at its core.  The natural world, the world untouched by human civilisation, is nowhere fair or just.  Might is right.  The stronger dominates, and usually eats, the weak.  Nature works in very crude and direct ways.


For humans though, the idea of dominating the weak is unnatural and even abhorrent.  The proportion for which this is just veneer is probably small.  We do generally feel it wrong to dominate through pure strength.  Even the brute can, in quiet moments, be persuaded to concede that the use of power to overcome opposition is wrong.  For humans, the natural equation isn’t quite ‘might is right’.  Nature works on humans in rather a strange way.


This little quirk of nature, applicable only to our species, has funny consequences.   I come back to those women, whom I referred to in a previous chapter, caring for a disabled spouse or parent.  In the natural world, a healthy organism concerned for the welfare of a dying or disabled parent is unlikely to prosper.  It would soon itself be dead, eaten.  Humans who care for their fellows, on the other hand, seem to gain – in the sense that they are generally happier than the uncaring.


Birds and bees

Birds and beasts do prosper, caring for others.  But they invest only in caring for the developing or the young.  Species that spent energy caring for less able adult members would likely have long ago become extinct.  Caring for the elderly or disabled is probably not a responsibility imposed by nature.


A lapwing laid four eggs on a lawn that I frequently visit.  One of the four eggs yielded a chick somewhat prematurely.  The infant clearly needed intensive care to survive.  Good parents that they were, the adult lapwings quickly despatched the weak baby to find its way to heaven or hell.  And the parents prospered, as did the more healthy infants that emerged a day or two later. Instinct informs lapwings what responsibilities are sensible to accept.


A bird that ignores, destroys or eats its disabled family members does not seem to do badly.  I’d guess that this bird would look healthier and better than one that took upon itself the task of caring for disabled kin.  The human condition is somehow governed by different rules.  The daughter who feels, and does things, for her disabled mother looks rather healthier and happier than her sister son who does not – as long as a thousand other tasks too are not thrust upon her.  She seems in fact to prosper emotionally, unlike the son who has no feeling for the needs of his disabled father.


Human nature seems somehow to compensate for its quirks.  Birds, animals, reptiles and fish take hardly any responsibilities.  They agree only to provide their progeny with such care as they need to become fecund adults.  They take on no other responsibilities.  And this appears to be good for the individual as well as the species.  But in the case of humans, taking on added responsibilities of care appears to be beneficial.


Baboons or bees too take on responsibilities, as do humans, for the sake of their society or species.  This trait is good for the species, good for survival.  But it is rather unrewarding for the individual.  The bee that stings us to protect her sisters sacrifices her life.  Elephants, lions and wolves have social responsibilities but these too, to varying degrees, compromise individual wellbeing for better survival of the species.  In our case these responsibilities add not only to society’s well being but probably also to the individual’s.

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