People are Taking less Personal Responsibility for themselves Today

Many people will try to take credit for anything that leads to pleasure or happiness while avoiding responsibility for anything that brings pain or sadness. This trend just seems to keep on going as influences in many aspects of life discourage the individual to stand up and be accountable for their actions.

Here’s an example from popular television while illustrates how some people avoid personal responsibility while others are compelled to do the right thing. In an early episode of “Smallville”, young Lex Luthor had a shady past associated with a place called “Club Zero”. This nightclub got its name from the phrase “zero consequences” – a state where anything can be done without personal accountability or consequence. Although we didn’t get many details about this place in the series, this concept paints a picture of one end of the continuum of responsibility. You can accept total responsibility for your actions, not to mention other people’s actions (reflective of a neurotic point of view) or take no responsibility at all for what you do (reflective of a sociopathic point of view), or find a spot somewhere in the nebulous middle. Note as well that as “Smallville” continues, we see that Luthor is increasingly capable of doing questionable, if not evil things while avoiding personal responsibility and atonement for his actions. As comic book readers know, Luthor is destined to become a master villain driven by hate and jealousy.

Contrast Luthor’s irresponsible past with Clark Kent in the same series. Clark (who is discovering the full suite of powers and abilities that will allow him to become Superman) keenly feels a sense of responsibility for his actions, largely influenced by the teachings of his adoptive parents. He has a strongly developed sense of right and wrong and he feels the need to take responsibility for his own actions while doing what he can to help other people. He will risk his safety, even his life, to use his abilities doing good deeds.

So are most of us in the Clark Kent mold or in the Lex Luthor mold? If you were to judge humanity based on the information we see in the mass media, particularly concerning celebrities, politicians, business people, and so on, you could argue that the Luthors of the world are growing in numbers and strength, while the Kents are declining. Look at the business scandals revolving WorldCom, Enron, and dozens of technology companies where personal greed seems to override a sense of responsiblity. Moreover, people are becoming increasingly adept at rationalizing behaviors with excuses like, “I didn’t break the law” or “Hey, everyone else is doing it, why not me?”

Interestingly enough, the Paul Wolfowitz resignation, while perhaps the right thing to do, has a worrisome twist to it. Wolfowitz, besides being a deputy to Donald Rumsfeld and one of the key individuals responsible for the war in Iraq, was named World Bank President two years ago. He was recently challenged on an arrangement he made to effect a transfer and sizable salary improvement for his girlfriend, then a World Bank employee. Intense media coverage and political pressure have led to Wolfowitz’s resignation in May 2007, although he’d been pressured to step down or be fired for weeks. The interesting thing, however, is that the World Bank issued a statement saying that the World Bank believed that Wolowitz had acted ethically and responsibly with regards to his girlfriend’s employment and compensation. At the same time, a special investigative committee appointed by the World Bank seemed to conclude that Wolfowitz had broken the terms of his contract, seeming to partly contradict the Bank’s official statement. So what does this mean? One theory is that Wolfowitz agreed to resign in the midst of the scandal, but not unless the Bank issued a statement absolving him at least some of his reponsibility for questionable behavior. So, in other words, he would resign, but not in a way that would make him look like he had done anything wrong. That’s sounds like avoiding personal responsibility to me.

This is just the latest in a series of examples of a public figure avoiding personal responsibility. What are young people to make of this behavior? Is it going to have a positive effect on them? Or is it going to create yet another incentive to deny blame or responsibility when they see that someone else “got away with it”? With prominent examples like this, is it any wonder that people are feeling less need to be responsible for themselves?