Individual responsibility?

July 2, 2004 | 12 comments
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Frank McIntyre says “I am only responsible for that part of me that is eternally me.” Adam Greenwood agrees and wonders how to makes sense of that claim in light of the teaching that God oversees everything and brings about his purposes. Kristine Haglund implicitly assumes, I think, that despair, acedia, etc. are really individual psychological disorders because, like Frank and Adam, she assumes that individuals are the basic units, the units at which responsibility occurs.

Of course that assumption is the norm. But why should we believe it is true?

Doesn’t the Atonement suggest a counterexample: if Christ can take responsibility for my sins, why should we believe that responsibility is always an individual matter? Why believe that I am not in some sense responsible for the sins of my ancestors? If I am who I am only as part of a family (ultimately the human family rather than my nuclear family) and not merely as an individual, then it doesn’t make sense to believe that my responsibility is only to and for myself.

I don’t think it is obvious that the second Article of Faith—”We believe that men will be punished for their own sins and not for Adam’s transgression”—requires the notion of individual responsibility that we assume. Indeed, I believe that understanding of responsibility is a rather late development in human history, one initially peculiar to Western philosophy. Its lateness and its locale doesn’t make it false, but it does suggest that there have been and are other ways to understand responsibility. The idea of individual responsibility is neither necessarily nor naturally true; it requires an argument.

12 Responses to Individual responsibility?

  1. Frank McIntyre on July 2, 2004 at 2:03 pm

    On the one hand, going communal would take care of some of the problems Adam raised. What to make of families being punished to the third and fourth generation? How can we be Saviors on Mount Zion if we cannot ultimately affect others?
    I think these can be resolved within an individual responsibility framework. But Jim is right that there is more thinking to be done.

    On the other hand, we have strong reason to doubt communal responsibility even within families. And what am I to make of Deut 24:16? These two scriptures were dug up rather quickly. They don’t answer the whole question, because they only deal with punishment. But I think our notion of individual responsibility is founded in scripture and not just that evil of all evils, Western Philosophy!

  2. Frank McIntyre on July 2, 2004 at 2:08 pm

    I should note that the first scripture I quoted, from Alma, is specifically within the context of making sense of Christ’s atonement. So it relates to the topic quite closely. Unfortunately I can’t say much more because the passage confuses me.

  3. Clark Goble on July 2, 2004 at 3:11 pm

    I think that when one reads through the scriptures one doesn’t see the kind of individualism that I think much of the prior discussion assumes. Even when the scriptures deal narratively with an individual, they are still primarily a part of a larger community in terms of their responsibility. To see them as a true individual rather than merely a part of a greater whole is, I think, to distort the scriptures. I think we adopt a strong individualism here in America that is alien to the scriptures. We bear the remnants of the individualism that arose out of the humanism of the Enlightenment. But is that necessarily a good thing?

    I think that in terms of individuals, stuff and a lot of the philosophical problems of free will, it is not. The particular way of framing the question in terms of the ultimate stuff that is me is an unfortunate remnant of Descartes.

    I blogged a bit about this on my blog today.

  4. Kingsley on July 2, 2004 at 3:38 pm

    Perhaps this is a million miles off, but: it seems to be true that, just as there are family strengths, there are also family weaknesses: sins that pass down from generation to generation, the “tragedy, the Aristotelian and comprehensive tragedy, of sin coming home to roost” (T.H. White). In a very real way you can sort of inherit the sins of your grandfather and your grandfather’s grandfather and pass them on to your own grandchildren. It that sense, at least, there is such a thing as familial culpability, as each succeeding generation inherits the particular prejudices, madnesses, and chemical compositions of the former. And so the hearts of the children must turn to their fathers not only locate, celebrate, emulate the ancient virtues, but to uncover and name the ancient evils also and purge them from their hearts and so from the hearts of those who come after. I guess it’s a sort of literary way of looking at it.

  5. Jim F. on July 2, 2004 at 4:10 pm

    I hope it is obvious that I don’t think Western philosophy is Satanic. I think it has been perhaps the most powerful kind of thinking in human history, and I don’t think that power is merely the consequence of Western colonialism. On the other hand, its conclusions are disputable. My point about other ways of thinking about responsibility was merely that: since others have thought about responsibility differently and we have seldom if ever made our assumption that responsibility is individual a subject of careful reflection, we can question our assumption and we may find resources for doing so outside of Western philosophy.

    It is interesting that each of the scriptures to which you point is about punishment rather than responsibility. Alma 41 is about punishment and reward, but nevertheless not about responsibility per se. As you recognize in your response, punishment and responsibility aren’t the same thing, though they are related.

    But in the scriptures, even punishment is not always individual. Consider passages such as the story of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:22-32) in which Sodom will be reprieved from punishment if it contains 10 righteous persons. Or the story of Achan (Joshua 7) in which the children of Israel as a whole commit a sin (verses 1 and 11) and Achan’s family is punished with him (verses 24-25) when he takes spoil from Jericho. Ancient Israel seems to have believed that the king represented—was responsible for?—the nation before God. For example, David takes a census—contrary to God’s commandment—and the punishment is the death of 70,000 of his men (2 Samuel 24).

    Collective punishment or reward is not a feature of only the Old Testament. The New Testament tells us that we cannot be perfected without our dead and vice versa (Hebrews 11:40; see also D&C 128:15). D&C 98:16-17 tells us that if we don’t renounce war and try to turn the hearts of individuals to the prophets and the hearts of the prophets to them, the whole earth will be smitten with a curse. Several living General Authorities understand the doctrine of sealing to mean that somehow children sealed to parents can be (will be?) restored to their parents even if they fall away from the Gospel.

    However, as I said, the most important case, it seems to me is that of Christ: he suffered for our sins. That is not a punishment, but it is a responsibility. There are a number of places that suggest we must imitate him in this regard, suffering for the sins of others (which may be one meaning of “saviors of men”—D&C 103:9-10). Romans 8:17 makes this explicit: we are joint-heirs with Christ and glorified with him only if we also suffer with him.

    Isn’t there an important sense in which I take responsibility for the sins of another when I forgive that person his sins against me rather than seek vengeance? If so, is that the only instance in which I am responsible for the sins of others and not only for myself? Kingsley’s example seems relevant: I am very much a product of my ancestors. Discovering that my great-grandfather was a mean drunk who kept a jug of whiskey under his bed and caned children arbitrarily, I learned something about myself. I don’t know whether my tendency to bad temper is genetic or an inheritance passed down from great-grandfather to grandfather to father to me and then perhaps also to my children. But I do know something about myself and I must take responsibility for it. In doing so, it doesn’t seem to me that I take responsibility only for myself.

  6. Kingsley on July 2, 2004 at 5:33 pm

    So much of the tragedy (and glory) of Kierkegaard’s life was due to his very, very strong sense of the absolute reality of family sin and ancestral curses. It seems we lose something terrible and fine by not turning our hearts to our fathers in that way. I think there is much, much more going on when Moroni insists on the last days cruciality of Malachi 4:6 than a foreshadowing of temple work for the dead. Do we ignore the richness, complexity, and tragedy of the lives and times of our fathers at our own peril? Or do we take our responsibility for them, and their responsibility for us—for what we are and can become, for better and for worse, as Jim F. noted—as seriously as Kierkegaard did with his father. Or is that taking things too far; only geniuses have an excuse for that kind of intensity.

    Note: first post should read: not only to etc.

  7. Jim F. on July 2, 2004 at 6:57 pm

    If you’ve not followed the link to Clark Goble’s page, you should.

  8. Greg on July 2, 2004 at 7:34 pm

    There are several relatively recent examples of notions of group responsibility in Mormonism. I am thinking of Ezra Taft Benson’s sermons on our collective condemnation of not embracing the Book of Mormon; Spencer W. Kimball’s sermon linking a Western drought to a collective failure to keep the Sabbath; and Lorenzo Snow’s sermon on tithing in St. George. All of these support the idea that we are not only responsible for our selves.

  9. Gordon Smith on July 2, 2004 at 9:34 pm

    Jim, Thanks for posting this and thanks to everyone for the great comments. I have wondered about this from time to time, and Clark’s blog post is also well worth reading on this.

    My wife is fond of saying, “you never sin alone,” and it has occurred to me that this means something more than simply that our sins have ripple effects that touch others. As a parent, I have wondered about this in connection with Mosiah 4:14: “And ye will not suffer your children that they … transgress the laws of God, and fight and quarrel one with another, and serve the devil, who is the master of sin.” When King Benjamin says “ye will not suffer,” he seems to be saying “ye will not permit” this sort of behavior. If we do permit such behavior, are we participants in the sin? I suspect that an individualist would argue that parents may be guilty of a separate sin (negligent supervision?), but are not responsible for the sins of the children. But King Benjamin’s words charge parents with something more than an obligation to encourage good behavior; they seem to require intervention. To my mind, this suggests a collective orientation to sin.

    Admittedly, this is a pretty thin basis on which to build a doctrine of collective responsibility. But Jim offers many other examples, and I suspect these would multiply if we approached the scriptures from this perspective.

  10. Jim F. on July 3, 2004 at 7:57 pm

    Gordon, I read Mosiah 4:14 differently. Notice that “and” connects it to verse twelve as part of a long list of consequences: “If ye do this [remember the greatness of God and our own nothingness, calling on the Lord daily and remaining steadfastly faithful—verse 11], then ye shall always rejoice, and be filled with the love of God, and always retain a remission of your sins; and ye shall grow in the knowledge of him who has created you . . . [verse 13] and ye will not have a mind to injure one another . . . [verse 14] and ye will not suffer your children that they will go hungry, or naked . . . . Nevertheless, King Benjamin’s sermon as a whole may make a case for collective responsibility. The sermon is preached to his people as a whole and they respond as a whole (Mosiah 4:1-2; 5:2). It may make sense to understand the “ye” of verses 11ff. collectively rather than individually.

  11. Gordon Smith on July 4, 2004 at 12:34 am

    Jim, Nice points about the sermon and collective responsibility. It is one of my favorite parts of the BofM because we see the people become pure. This passage in Mosiah 5:2 is classic: “And they all cried with one voice, saying: Yea, we believe all the words which thou hast spoken unto us; and also, we know of their surety and truth, because of the Spirit of the Lord Omnipotent, which has wrought a mighty change in us, or in our hearts, that we have no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually.” Is it significant that the people spoke with one voice? Could each of them have attained this state acting alone? I have always assumed that they could; on the other hand, “Zion” seems reserved for collectives.

  12. Kingsley on July 6, 2004 at 2:22 am

    Jim F.: Whatever the faults of your great-grandfather, word on the street is that you are an unusually approachable and inspiring professor of philosophy. I have a good friend, for example, who speaks your name with reverence, and my little brother left your class hellbent on Heidegger. It is funny to glance over at him on a Friday night and see him reading a tattered copy of Being and Time in the flickering light of the television.

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