Events in my private life have recently led me to pondering the concept of personal accountability. It’s a sticky subject, for a number of reasons. What does it mean to be held to account for one’s actions? Does it differ from taking responsibility for one’s actions? If it does, it’s in a very subtle way, which is part of the stickiness. I’ve learned that responsibility is, at least in an interpersonal sense, rather a subjective notion. It seems to rely upon whether or not an individual is prepared to accept responsibility for their actions. If they refuse to accept responsibility for their actions, then they cannot be held to account for them. At least, they will refuse to be held to account for them in the same way that they refuse to accept responsibility for them. I’m sure anybody reading this will be familiar with the scenario I’m describing.
Now, in civilised society we have laws, and officers of the law, whose duties include enforcing personal accountability in the form of the limitation, in some form or other, of an individual’s freedom. This might take the form of a fine, a community based order, or even a prison sentence. It is thought that through the process of administering the law of the land an individual is brought to the realisation that they are responsible for their actions and have been brought to account for them accordingly. It’s not a perfect system, I know. It would seem that being told by a judge and a jury of their peers that they are responsible for some action does not necessarily mean that an individual accepts that responsibility, even after they have been held to account for it. It’ll do, however, for the interests of society. Society likes to see that justice is being carried out.
In the case of interpersonal relationships it is somewhat different. We generally can’t force people to accept responsibility for their actions without being in breach of the law ourselves. So where does that leave us? Why, with rational discourse, of course. It is possible that an individual can be encouraged to share the view of another if they are prepared to enter into a rational discussion of the matter. It might go something like this:
Arthur: “Bill, I think you shouldn’t have told Fred that he was a noodle-brain.”
Bill: “But Arthur, Fred forgot to bring his knee-pads to training again. It’s happening often and it’s very frustrating.”
A: “I understand that, but when you called Fred a noodle-brain it hurt his feelings. Is it worth hurting someone just to express your frustration about their forgetfulness?”
B: “Well, I suppose not. I didn’t want to hurt Fred’s feelings, I really just wanted him to realise how annoyed I was feeling so that maybe next time he would try harder to remember his knee-pads.”
A: “I’m confident Fred would accept that as being the truth. Perhaps you could pay him a visit, or call him and explain your position?”
B: “Yes, I should also apologise for hurting his feelings, I feel bad about doing that.”
In a perfect world, everyone would be of a rational disposition and would conduct themselves in an entirely rational manner. Our world is far from perfect, so a more likely scenario would be:
A: “Bill, you’re a bastard for calling Fred a noodle-brain.”
B: “Blow it out your ear, Arthur. You’re not the boss of me.”
B: “No I didn’t, who told you that?”
B: “Well Fred told me you play with dolls.”
and so on…
In the interpersonal sphere of experience, we have traditionally broken ourselves up into neat groupings called “families”, and we have used these family structures as microcosmic societies, with their own systems of justice. Parents would lay down the law, children would adhere to the law, order was maintained. This is still the case in some families, and in some cultures more so than in others. In the West, generally speaking, the family unit is breaking down, due largely to increased mobility of the workforce, increased divorce rates and commercial television. Well, the first two, anyway. Perhaps I should have added the advent of “aged care facilities”. Anyway, there have always been alternatives to the family unit when it comes to interpersonal relationships. Sometimes we will group ourselves according to interests or beliefs. Religions, charitable organisations, clubs and societies, sports teams and such can act upon us in different ways. Sometimes they stand as intermediaries between the greater society and the family. Sometimes they have hierarchical structures similar to both families and society.
I read an excellent article recently that looked at the nature of initiation in a spiritual sense. It looked in detail primarily at self-initiation of various kinds. What was lacking was some insight into the nature of initiation into a tradition such as Wicca. There are two distinct qualities that differ from self-initiation: taking oaths before one’s gods and other people, and making a commitment to a group. A Wiccan group, or coven, is hierarchical in its structure in much the same way as in a family or in society as a whole. But when one is initiated one is bound to that group by oaths that honour not only the tradition but also one’s fellows within that tradition. Witches who work in covens will often report that after a time they become attuned to their coveners both emotionally and spiritually. The relationships formed in this manner can tend to be intense and highly charged, and in the past the general rule was that one wouldn’t socialise informally with one’s coveners. This was to avoid public blow-ups of energy that more rightly belongs in the controlled environment of a circle. It’s not a perfect system either, and unfortunately many a personal relationship has been damaged or broken because uncontrolled energies spilled out into the private lives of witches.
Because one has taken oaths, and because one is bound to a group of other minds, personal responsibility is of the utmost importance. Within the coven structure interpersonal disagreements can be brought forward and at that point the parties involved are obliged to conduct themselves in a rational manner, and it is the responsibility of those further up the hierarchy to maintain an objective viewpoint and to ensure that the dispute is resolved in a fair manner to all parties. Again, it’s not a perfect system and it’s been my experience that on several occasions even people in this situation can simply refuse to accept responsibility for their actions and hence cannot be brought to account. However in these instances there are other minds to consider, and there are often repercussions felt throughout the group when one member goes awry, not to mention the fact that oaths have been taken.
Now someone can have a bit of a tizzy without breaking oaths, that’s not the issue here. But the question arises that if not for the betterment of oneself why does one seek a spiritual path? I have written before on the qualities necessary to be spiritually “upright”, as it were, but I shall add to that the necessity for self-exploration. “Know Thyself”, the seeker at the Temple of Delphi was told. “The unexamined life is not worth living”, Socrates said. These are fundamental tenets not only of philosophy but also spirituality. The only explanation as to why someone wouldn’t behave rationally is if they are unable to, for whatever reason. Perhaps they are mentally incapable. Perhaps they are emotionally incapable. Irrational refusal to accept responsibility for one’s actions seems to point towards an unwillingness to acknowledge something about oneself. That’s certainly been my experience. People who are afraid to look into themselves and examine what they find closely also tend to be the people who will deflect rational enquiry and apportion blame where it isn’t due.
We all do this, or have done this at one time or another. Whilst recently I have had cause to call out one person on their appalling behaviour and lack of personal accountability, I’ve also had to acknowledge that I had been at fault and allowed my behaviour to adversely affect another. It was uncomfortable and difficult to do, but also completely necessary. I could have adopted an attitude of belligerent denial of my culpability but what would it achieve? In the end, I’d have only been deceiving myself.
So finally, here’s a question for you: What is the purpose of reason if there’s no-one to reason with? To my mind, right now at least, I contend that individualism, especially in the form of the ego, is in fact the enemy of reason.