Personal responsibility

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Understanding Personal responsibility

A current and usual personalistic view

The text below is the translation of a commentary on an editorial in a Flemish newspaper (2022) arguing for more cohesion, solidarity and a systemic view to tackle contemporary 'wicket problems'.

"Beware of those who preach self-care. That is the title of today's paper editorial, in which self-reliance is seen as meaningless. According to the author, the system is in crisis, and only systemic changes offer a way out. We need not less but more networks, a greater humility for how everything is connected, much more knowledge about this, and action on the most significant possible scale.

I'm afraid I have to disagree with the author's disregard for self-reliance. On the contrary, I am just arguing for much more self-reliance. I believe today's 'wicked problems cannot be tackled by individual actors alone. This requires collaboration and social learning. But to do that, we must first rise above ourselves by looking deeply within. That's what self-care is all about. To look inward is to challenge conventions and habits and to open and mature the mind for change. It is a contribution of constructive resistance to the mainstream. It is breaking with the old to build up the new. Generative learning gives us the ability to create something 'new'. And 'New' is certainly not less but differently connected. From a sense of humility and reciprocity. Not out of a desire for control.

We are all part of systemic structures. However, we tend to see 'structure' and 'systems' as something from the outside, as an invisible hand that imposes limitations, something that cannot or can hardly be adjusted by individual actors. Such rigid thinking keeps the system in place. To enable transformation, we are both the problem and the solution. If individual behaviour is shaped and guided by a rigid structure, conversely, structural change can lead to new behaviour patterns. System change is all about personal transformation. Self-care is essential here."



The text above is not the author of this Wiki's ideas. I will try to tackle the ideas presented above one by one with scientific arguments.

Scientific arguments

The scientific method is an empirical method of knowledge acquisition that has characterised science development since at least the 17th century. It involves careful observation, which includes rigorous scepticism about what is observed, given that cognitive assumption about how the world works influence how one interprets a percept. It involves formulating hypotheses, via induction, based on such observations; experimental and measurement-based testing of deductions drawn from the hypotheses; and refinement (or elimination) of the hypotheses based on the empirical findings.

Though diverse models for the scientific method are available, in general, there is a continuous process that includes observations about the natural world. People are naturally inquisitive, so they often ask questions about things they see or hear and develop ideas or hypotheses about why things are the way they are. The best assumptions lead to predictions that can be tested in various ways.


Imagine that you live in a village which is threatened by rising sea levels. If you don't do anything, your home will be flooded. You could pool your resources with other villagers and build a large dam around the entire village to ensure everyone's property is safe. Or, if you have enough resources yourself, you could make a smaller dam around your own house, protecting your property — and leaving everyone else to either do the same or try and co-operate without you.

Human societies constantly face similar choices between public and private solutions to pressing issues.

A study by Jörg Gross and colleagues at Leiden University in Nature Communications suggests that when group members can be self-reliant, the provision of public goods suffers. Things changed when there was the possibility of creating a private solution. The cheaper the private solution, the more likely participants were to invest in it, and the less likely groups were to successfully invest in the public alternative. Sometimes the wealthier participants did indeed cooperate with their poorer counterparts to create a shared solution. But often, they made no contributions to public funds at all, mainly when the private solution was cheap. And overall, they dedicated a smaller proportion of their resources to the public fund than the poorer participants.

British Psychological Society - Research digest - 2020
Self-reliance crowds out group cooperation and increases wealth inequality - J. Gross - Nature Communications - 2020

Rise above ourselves by looking deeply within

Definition of introspection

Introspection is a process that generates or aims to generate knowledge, judgments, or beliefs about mental events, states, or processes, and not about affairs outside one's mind, at least not directly. In this respect, it is different from sensory processes that usually deliver information about outward events or the non-mental aspects of the individual's body.


A dualistic view

In the Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes worries that an evil demon may deceive him. As a result, all of his beliefs about the external world may well be false. But however powerful the demon may be, Descartes claims that it cannot deceive him about the contents of his mind. Though it might not be true that he is seeing, hearing and feeling what he thinks he is, it is nonetheless true, he says, that "I certainly seem to see, to hear, and to be warmed. This cannot be false." (Descartes 1641).

This passage has been commonly interpreted in terms of infallibility. As such, it gives us one of the strongest claims philosophers have made about the epistemic specialness of our self-knowledge: One cannot have a false belief about one's mental state. In this way, I am in a privileged position to judge my mental states since other people can have false beliefs about my mental state. But, necessarily, if I believe that I am in a particular mental state, then I am in that mental state.

Introspection - SEP - 2019



The most archetypal objection against introspection is that it is impossible to observe one's own experience because this presupposes a split between subject and object. In this case, the object is nothing else than the subject itself. Auguste Comte stated the best known version of the objection:

  • As for observing ... intellectual phenomena in their execution process, there is an apparent impossibility. The thinking individual cannot split himself into two parts, one who reasons and the other one who looks at the reasoning. The observed organ and the observing organ being in this case identical, how could observation take place?

Nisbett and Wilson (1977) and Johansson et al. (2006), describe how subjects are terrible at theorising about their mental processes. Moreover, the use of words alters the experience to be described, and they are likely unable to capture anything adequately in experience. This is called the charge of ineffability.

On the Possibility and Reality of Introspection - Michel Bitbol - Mind & Matter - 2016

One becomes aware of representational facts by an awareness of physical objects. One learns that A looks longer than B, not by an awareness of the experience that represents A as longer than B, but by an awareness of A and B, the objects the experience is an experience of. On a representational theory of the mind, introspection becomes an instance of displaced perception —knowledge of internal (mental) facts via an awareness of external (physical) facts. (Dretske 1995)

Daniel Dennett is sceptical of standard views of introspection. According to him, we are theorising in many instances where we think we are introspecting. (Dennett 1991) Moreover, since we are notoriously bad at this theorising, our first-person access to our mental states is considerably less privileged than is commonly thought.

Introspection - IEP - 2020
Introspection - SEP - 2019


'Structures' and 'Systems' as something from the outside, as an invisible hand that imposes limitations

In popular imagination, Smith's invisible hand has become so strongly associated with Friedman's openly conservative economic agenda that people often take for granted what Smith meant. However, many scholars have argued the contrary. Smith's single most famous idea – that of 'the invisible hand' as a metaphor for uncoordinated market allocation – was invoked in precisely the context of his blistering attack on the merchant elites.

It is undoubtedly true that Smith was sceptical of politicians' attempts to interfere with, or bypass, basic market processes in the vain hope of trying to allocate resources better than was achievable by allowing the market to do its work.

But in the passage of The Wealth of Nations, where he invoked the idea of the invisible hand, the immediate context was not simply that of state intervention in general but of state intervention undertaken at the behest of merchant elites who were furthering their interests at the expense of the public.

It is an irony of history that Smith's most famous idea is now usually invoked as a defence of unregulated markets in the face of state interference to protect the interests of private capitalists.

Adam Smith - Aeon - 2018 & 2019

... Okun noted that "Casual empiricism about the casual labor market suggests that the Keynesian wage floor nonetheless operates; the pay of car washers or stock clerks is seldom cut in a recession, even when it is well above any statutory minimum wage" (1981, p. 82), and he concluded that the employment relation is governed by an "invisible handshake," rather than by the invisible hand.

Fairness as a Constraint on Profit Seeking: Entitlements in the Market - Daniel Kahneman - The American Economic Review - 1986

Spontaneous order emerges without intention, by chance, through the actions of multitudes mindlessly coordinating their activities with each other. Chia and Holt repeatedly contrast smooth unthinking spontaneous cooperation (Adam Smith's invisible hand) with deliberate attempts to impose order. They admit that it is difficult to explain what the invisible hand is, to make it visible so that the invisible made visible remains an enigma.

Strategic Management and Organisational design - R. Stacey - Pearson


System change is all about personal transformation. Self-care is essential here.

System (change)

... they thought their organisation was a system that could/would unfold the purpose they determined for it. They were doing what Kant strongly advised against (assuming that their organisation was a system that really could/would unfold the purpose they determined for it). They were applying the notion of a system to the human actions that are the organisation, thereby thinking of the organisation's members, including themselves, as the only parts of the system.

In systems thinking, the interaction between parts produces the whole, and the parts are relevant as parts only because they create and sustain the whole. The form of causality is the formative process of interaction between parts. The process here means the process of producing a whole, and participation means participating in the production of a whole.

The systems thinkers' answer implies a particular way of thinking about human experience: the patterning of interaction between people. The implication is that the cause of experience, the reason of the patterning of interaction between people, lies in some system created by people that lies above or below that experience. The particular patterning of the interactions between people in the organisation was assumed to be caused by a system of vision, mission and values existing outside the direct experience of the people interacting.

Strategic Management and Organisational design - R. Stacey - Pearson



"The whole so-called happiness psychology is not entirely harmless," says Filip Raes. "First, it often makes people who really need help or 'care' feel even worse about themselves because they can't think of three things they were grateful for that day, for example; second, it reinforces the insane idea that happiness is a realistic aspiration.

That is not the case: humans are not made to live long and certainly not to live happily 24/7. That's not how our brains work," says Raes. "However, many people can't reconcile with that idea, so they keep fighting it. And the more they look for that 'happy', the worse they start to feel."

Filip Raes - KUL - Interview DM - 16-03-2019