It’s hard to strike a balance between recognizing our powerlessness and abdicating our responsibility to act rightly. We humans are pretty puny. In the scheme of things, we are just specks in the universe. At the same time, we each have moral responsibility for our actions. For whatever reason, God cares what we do. Even if you don’t believe in God, you probably would not deny that our actions matter, at least to a degree.
It seems that a lot of debates about policy nowadays have to do with finding this balance between placing too much and too little faith in the power of individual responsibility. Those on the right tend to think that making good choices is all you need, while those on the left tend to think that people born into certain circumstances never stand a chance unless helped from outside. I think that both of these are true, and that they can only be true when taken in conjunction. The tension between them is where the truth resides.
Obviously, both right and left have more nuanced views than what I have written in the paragraph above. But still, the disagreement seems to be over to what degree individuals are responsible for their lots in life. We cannot lose the disagreement, because we need to affirm both our responsibility for our actions as well as the fact that we are, in many ways, a product of forces beyond our control. To put it theologically, our wills are not free, but bound.
And it’s not just our wills. Our abilities have pretty sharp limits imposed upon us from birth, or as a result of accidents or diseases. According to Jordan Peterson, intelligence is basically immutable and is the strongest available predictor of socioeconomic outcome, even better than parental wealth. What if you’re just not very smart? What if you just can’t do anything complex enough that people are willing to pay you to do it? You’re basically just stuck.
And even if you’re born smart, there’s a degree of structural injustice and random chance that might end up screwing you over. There are no guarantees. Life is chaotic.
But at the same time, we still have to answer the question of how we ought to respond to chaos and uncertainty. Does knowing that our hard work might not benefit us excuse us from working for the good? No! We try to make the world better in whatever way we can, having faith that even if the world does not reward us, then God will. Or at least, we have faith that virtue is worth pursuing in itself, even if it is not accompanied by a reward. The alternative is to give up, and there is probably nothing more dismal than resigning oneself to a fate of misery. Where is the meaning when life is something that happens to you, and not something that you actually participate in? There isn’t any. It’s just a stream of events whose only commonality is that they’re happening to you.
And that’s not even taking into account what would happen if ever larger numbers of people began to give up responsibility for their lives. How much would be ruined? How pathetic would humanity become if everyone just decided that they didn’t have to care, because what can we do anyway? It would be Hell in the truest sense of the word. To put it in Augustinian language, if we relinquish entirely the end of our existence, then we will find ourselves becoming more and more disordered until we may as well not be at all. You exist a little bit less when you give up being as you are meant to be.
The myopic emphasis of some conservatives on individual responsibility can sometimes seem cruel. Why not help those who need help? And that’s a fair criticism. But we are more than input-output machines. We need more than nourishment and healthcare and money. We need to be called out of death into life, out of chaos into order, out of non-being into being, repeatedly. Otherwise we will disintegrate. Fatalism is corrosive. We need to reject it.