We deny our own role in the conflict because self-examination is so shocking and painful, and because we’re secretly rewarded by the problem we’re complaining about. We want to do our dirty work in the dark so we can maintain a façade of innocence.

—David D. Burns, Feeling Good Together

Lately I’ve been churning over this moral dilemma: to what extent can circumstances excuse immoral actions? Are we just products of our environment, and therefore not personally responsible? Or do we have a personal responsibility that cannot be effaced by outside pressure?

The way you answer this questions will largely depend on where you fall on the political spectrum. Those on the right tend to hold individuals responsible; those on the left, circumstances.

Both sides seem to have a point. Obviously, some people must be responsible somewhere if we are to punish wrongdoers and improve society. Indeed, to treat people as helpless in the face of circumstances is tantamount to treating them as non-persons, possessing no moral agency.

On the other hand, holding people to be absolutely responsible can amount to blaming the victim. If somebody grows up in a poor neighborhood, with failing schools, few legitimate opportunities, and an oppressive police force, and then ends up committing a crime, it seems (to me at least) that harshly punishing this individual, without paying any attention to the circumstances, is the opposite of justice.

As is so often the case, both extremes prove dissatisfying. But where should we draw the line?

A few days ago I mentioned that, when thinking about failing school systems, we usually don’t hold the teachers responsible; but when thinking of Nazi death camps, we do blame the soldiers. This generalization about people’s opinions is, on second thought, not as clear-cut as I thought. In fact, teachers are often blamed for the faults in the educational system (which seems to me as just a way to avoid fixing the problem). And the culpability of soldiers who commit heinous acts under orders is also debated. There is the famous Milgram experiment, showing how easy it is to get normal people to do terrible things through authority.

Upon further reflection, I realized that this moral dilemma—individual vs. personal responsibility—was similar to something I read in a self-help book about relationships.

When a couple is having problems, it is typical for each of them to blame the other: “Well, maybe I’m doing y, but I wouldn’t if he wasn’t doing x!”

As Burns says, it is very difficult to get past this. Getting somebody to stop blaming their partner and to change themselves is difficult. Admitting your own faults is neither fun nor easy. Many people, when asked to change a negative behavior, point out that their behavior is just a reaction to their partner’s negative behavior. Why should they have to change? Shouldn’t their partner, since he’s the one being ridiculous?

This illustrates a chilling thing about responsibility: In any given social system, from romantic relationships to the world economy, responsibility can be shifted around at whim. Depending on your perspective and your ideology, you can pick any section of a social system and put the blame there. The right blames the government and the left blames businesses. Teachers blame students and students blame teachers. Husbands blame wives, sisters blame brothers, employees blame bosses, sailors blame the wind, entrepreneurs blame the economy, brokers blame the market, and on and on and on, an infinite deferment of responsibility.

The odd thing is that every one of these people is right. It’s true that your relationship problems would disappear if your partner just did everything you wanted. It’s true that your boss doesn’t appreciate the work you do. It’s true that your boat wouldn’t have sunk if not for the storm. All these things are true, since every social system is an cyclical network of causes.

When we single out one element and put the blame there, we are thinking about the cause linearly: A is causing B, therefore the fault is with A. Yet so often B is just as much the cause of A as A is of B.

In a relationship, your behaviors influence your partner’s, and vice versa; neither exist in isolation. In our school system, maybe we do have mediocre teachers; and maybe poor-quality teaching is a big cause of our educational problems. And yet to put the blame on the teachers is not to acknowledge all of the systemic flaws in teacher training and recruitment, and the inconsistencies in the what we expect from teachers with the resources we provide them.

So if the causation is cyclical—or, perhaps even more accurately, web-like, with each section influencing every other section—what should we do?

What Burns says about relationships is true of many situations in life. We cannot change our partners, nor can we change our bosses, nor the system as a whole, without first changing ourselves. That is, when trying to change the world for the better, the first step is always to stop deferring responsibility for negative situations, to stop excusing yourself by pointing your finger at all of the flaws around you, and to take responsibility yourself.

Indeed, when you understand how you are contributing to a negative situation and then change your behavior, often the situation improves dramatically without having to change anything else, since your own actions played a crucial role in the interlocking web of causation. And in any case, there is no chance in improving a bad situation if you yourself are contributing to it.

This sounds easy, but in fact it is extremely hard. Burns point out that blaming our partners for our relationship problems is so common because it is self-serving. We don’t have to change our behavior, we get to justify our anger, we get to complain and play the victim, and perhaps we get some sadistic pleasure out of upsetting our partners. These ulterior motivations are rarely acknowledged or discussed, because they are rather ugly, but they are operative. On the other hand, taking responsibility requires painful self-examination and the admission of guilt—which can be very damaging to our self-image.

The same thing happens in other circumstances. Let me continue with the example of a teacher (this will likely be relevant to my life). A frustrated teacher can easily blame her unmotivated students who never do their homework and who always talk in class; she can blame her boss, who has unrealistic expectations and little sympathy; the school system, which pays her very little for long hours. All of these things may be true, and yet it is obvious how self-serving this blaming can be. A teacher cannot transform her students into dedicated scholars or fire her boss or change her pay; she needs to do what she can with what she has.

I should take a step back here. If you choose to be a teacher, I think you have a responsibility to do a good job of it. But for those looking to reform the educational system, blaming all the problems on teachers is just the same thing as when teachers blame the system. It is to avoid responsibility.

I should also make clear that, while I think we should take responsibility for what we can influence, I am not advocating for people to blame themselves. Taking responsibility and blaming yourself, though superficially similar, as really quite different. Responsibility is proactive. It means taking action for what is within your control. Blaming yourself does just the opposite; it makes you feel guilty, and guilt is a bad motivator.

Indeed, you should not accuse yourself of causing the problem, since most likely the problem has many causes. You should acknowledge your part in the solution to the problem, and try to do your part to change things.

This is the closest thing to an answer I have to this unanswerable question, whether circumstances or individuals are morally culpable. The causes of any ethical problem are complex and interlocking—a cyclical interplay of dynamics and personalities—but your only choice is to start with your actions.

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