Where Does The “Buck” Stop?

forkHaving no serious academic background in moral philosophy, it seems to me that, for as long as this regrettable state lasts, my only useful contribution to a discussion on moral philosophy is the possibility of getting a discussion started without the constraints which would bedevil the academician. As such, I’m simply throwing out a few untutored thoughts here, to provoke further thought and discussion in others. If that happens, I may learn something.

If we perform an action which we think of as “good”, we are usually very happy to take responsibility for it. If, on the other hand, we perform an action of which we would ourselves disapprove, there is a natural human tendency to search diligently for some reason by which our responsibility for this action may be avoided.

In this latter case, we might explain that we had been physically coerced into doing something which we knew to be wrong. Most people would agree that coercive force, being force which an adult, much less a child, could not reasonably be expected to withstand, absolves the individual of such responsibility. However, If we can’t claim to have been the victim of physical coercion, we might say that someone else’s behaviour was so unreasonable or unbearable to us, that we temporarily lost control of our senses and did something for which we cannot be held responsible. Much shakier ground I think.

The legalistic view of responsibility is that any action we perform is our action, and therefore we are responsible for it. Having established our responsibility for something, the law seeks to mitigate this harsh position by taking into account extenuating circumstances if a penalty is to be imposed.

As outsiders, judging the actions of others, we are never going to see the whole picture. This has prompted the notion that God would have to be invented if God did not already exist. Someone or something has to have all the answers, as in the biblical omnipotent God; all seeing; mankind’s only true judge. In the absence of all relevant data, we cannot simply abrogate all judgments to God. Even if societies operate their legal system, not on the basis of moral responsibility, but simply as a means of regulating anti-social conduct, we as individuals would still be confronted by moral judgments of others’ actions in our daily lives. Unsatisfactory though it may be, we have to hold each other ultimately responsible for our actions, because the alternative is to allow the buck never to stop.  Our responsibility for our actions may be limited, but our sheer subjectivity prevents us from being honest with ourselves. If faced with choice between being responsible for nothing we do, or for everything we do, choosing to take responsibility is the more honest and adult choice.

For ourselves, I think we are no better than outsiders at distinguishing the real power of others to make us act in particular ways, from our own wish to avoid responsibility for what we do.We are all shaped by previous damage or present stress. But to me, this is far too easily used as an excuse to be excusable. May our friends try to understand and show us mercy; but the buck ultimately stops with us.

Posted by: BritishReg

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4 thoughts on “Where Does The “Buck” Stop?

  1. BritishReg,

    Good points all, but this one struck me:

    “If we perform an action which we think of as “good”, we are usually very happy to take responsibility for it. If, on the other hand, we perform an action of which we would ourselves disapprove, there is a natural human tendency to search diligently for some reason by which our responsibility for this action may be avoided.”

    I find this a lot in Christian circles. Not only are we told to ascribe all “good” actions to God and take no credit ourselves, we are also told that all acts of evil are ours and not to blame God for those at all, even the horrific ones that could have been prevented by said God but weren’t. I think that humanity’s predilection for anthropomorphizing the deities they worship has done us a great disservice in our spiritual evolution and has taught us not to take responsibility for some things we should be taking responsibility for while only taking responsibility for the good things.

    I find this a curious tack to take because it’s only when we acknowledge our wrongdoing can growth occur but by shoving all good things we do onto the back of a deity, we are also denying humanity’s goodness and humanity’s ability to forgive and move forward, a healthy dose of which we all need reminded of daily.

    thanks for the thoughtful post!

  2. MOI said:
    “I think that humanity’s predilection for anthropomorphizing the deities they worship has done us a great disservice in our spiritual evolution and has taught us not to take responsibility for some things we should be taking responsibility for while only taking responsibility for the good things.”

    Christian theology seems to me to be even more convoluted than this.
    First you have mankind “Created in the image of God”. In that sense, it’s not so much that we’re trying to make God more like us, since God has already made us like him. So, to be typically verbose, I might say that anthropomorphisation has already been reverse engineered into the project from the dawn of creation.

    Having done that, this particular monotheistic model has to solve the problem of why it is that the average human being doesn’t behave in a very God-like manner. So we need the whole myth of the Fall and original sin to account for why our original God-like image is so tarnished.

    Audible sigh of relief, we can’t take on full responsibility for anything, poor fallen children that we are, because we are inherently sinful. This version of reality is comforting, because it has the buck stopping ultimately with God. If we do our shabby best and believe in the power of repentance, we can find absolution. In other words, we can be let off.

    I’m not of course suggesting that christians think they can do whatever they like, in the sure and certain knowledge of divine forgiveness, but it must surely be in the back of their minds that, as long as they really believe, there’s nothing they can do that will keep them out of heaven, as long as they can muster up a sincere apology. Once you’ve profited from sin, it is, of course, much easier to feel apologetic.

    I suppose the Christian might argue that only true repentance is rewarded by forgiveness, and only God knows if the sinner is sincerely repentant. That must give the day of judgment a bit of edge as they move towards it. In the current climate, we might imagine:
    “That time I over-stretched the bank I worked for, and was paid an enormous terminal bonus, while the pensions of thousands of hard working people dissappeared, was I truly sorry?” Any fundamentalist financiers listening, you’d better be sure about your answer. the consequences could be eternal.

    Reg

  3. I’m compelled to add one more comment to this.
    Talking of our human capacity to wish to absolve ourselves of responsibility, two more things spring to mind.
    1: When contemplating the nightmare of a cherished relationship ending, it’s the other person we imagine ending it. Not surprising in itself, you may say, since we naturally can’t imagine ourselves ending such a relationship. But beware, because once you get yourself into that mind set, you might start acting as if it were true. Don’t expect the other person to be exactly thrilled when suddenly being put into the role of The Terminator when they’ve just been getting on with being part of a relationship they want to be in. If you’re not careful, this relationship may start to look much less wonderful to them, and you will have neatly turned yourself into The Terminator.

    2: We may fall victim to all the psycho-babble that assails us, and pick out the bits which suit us.
    IRRATIONAL FEARS for instance.
    You can indulge your irrational fears to your heart’s content because, you guessed it, they’re irrational, and therefore not your fault.
    Right?
    WRONG!
    Unless we’re clinically insane, hard though that is to define, we’re responsible for our actions, including what comes out of our mouths. If we think something is irrational, maybe it’s time to exercise a little self control. We commonly express pride in our “crap filter” in relation to others.
    Time to start applying it to ourselves I think. The world doesn’t have to put up with us. Nobody has to put up with us. If we must talk about these fears to someone we trust, we should remember not to choose the person who is the focus of those fears to talk to. They are unlikely to take kindly to being told, for example:
    “I know you’re the person in the world I trust most, but I fear you’re not”.
    This is asking too much of any human being. Find another sounding board, or get therapy or, perhaps, just shut up!
    If we inwardly know something to be true, we should look for the strength to act as if it is true, rather than try the patience of those with better things to do.

    Again, you guessed it, I’m lecturing myself here.
    If I can’t take my own advice, I won’t trouble you further.

    Reg

  4. Reg,

    Spoken like someone who knows whereof he speaks. whatever difficulty you are going through, you have friends here on the blog. Remember that.

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