The Attitude Towards Responsibility Among Progressives and Conservatives

People of the Liberal persuasion seem to embrace the idea that human beings are not capable of messing up, making mistakes, or being irresponsible, lazy, and plain stupid. Any misfortune one encounters has to be the result of some hidden oppressive forces.

Once I was talking to one of the organizers of my union about a large group of people who had failed their comprehensives. The organizer’s position was that these people had been failed unjustly by the profs who wanted to punish them for being politically active on campus.

“But isn’t it possible that at least some of our colleagues simply hadn’t prepared well enough for the comps and were failed fairly?” I asked. (I had very specific reasons to know that this was the case, to be honest.)

The progressive union organizer was incensed. He screamed, “How dare you speak like that of your comrades? If you passed your comprehensives it was only because that year the activism on campus was low and the profs didn’t have a reason to castigate you!”

And he stormed out on me.

To be fair, the organizer later called me to apologize. Still, this attitude that every failure (and, consequently, every success) belong not to the person experiencing them but to a combination of oppressive forces and good or bad luck is very common among my fellow Liberals. Recently, when I shared the story of N.’s hard work and professional success, some progressive readers immediately started suggesting that he was lucky while other people were less fortunate, even though they might have tried to succeed just as hard.

The Conservative readers, however, simply expressed their admiration and congratulated N. with his success.

There is, of course, a flip side to the Conservative readiness to recognize individual success. Within the Conservative worldview, you are responsible for all of your failures, too. They have very little interest in analyzing the oppressions and the individual circumstances that might have prevented one from succeeding.

I have to say that I prefer to analyze my own life based on this Conservative approach. Whenever things don’t work out or I don’t find myself in a situation I like, this is a sign to me of some sort of a personal failure. We all know how much I hate this impotent, “Society makes me do bad things / feel inferior / have psychological issues.” All of my mistakes and issues are fully my own. And so, of course, are my successes. This is why you will never catch me talking about how I am being marginalized and persecuted by some unidentified source. There is always an active agent of any oppression and a consenting victim who reaps some reward from being oppressed. And if I am being consistently oppressed, this means I am consenting to that because it serves some purposes of my own.

In this sense, I am a Conservative. But only in this sense, though. On social issues, I’m so far to the Left that I don’t think anybody who reads this blog can catch up with me. This is why I can never feel fully at home either among Liberals or among Conservatives.

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55 thoughts on “The Attitude Towards Responsibility Among Progressives and Conservatives”

      1. I too wanted to know what you mean by being very Left and am not satisfied with the answer, since abortion isn’t an intrinsically Right or Left issue, but religious fanatics’ one, and that it turned into “Left” opinion is US problem. Right or Left is imo about economics, what’s subsidised and what isn’t, what’s regulated and how much (US recent house bubble f.e.), what services should a country give (health insurance). Are you Left on those issues? I f.e. agree that country should force everybody to buy health insurance, like in Israel, and not let (mainly) young men go without it because imo everybody will want it in the end and for the system to survive (in Israel one pays some % of salary for the insurance) free-riders must be stopped.

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        1. As I said, I’m very much to the Left on social issues. I’m not a Marxist, so I don’t believe that everything is about the economy.

          If I had to choose between a candidate who’s extremely Conservative on the economy but supports free abortion at any stage (I understand such candidate is not possible, it’s just a hypothetical) and a candidate who is extremely Liberal on the economy but wants to restrict abortion, I’d absolutely choose the former. Mind you, I never aborted and am not planning to. This is not simply about abortion. This is about whether a society considers women valid human beings or breeding cows. Another such major issue for me is gay rights. For the same reason. Nothing that has to do with the economy is as major as this. Nothing.

          As for forcing people to buy medical insurance or forcing them to buy anything at all, I believe this is a really horrible, condescending, paternalistic idea. Providing a free universal healthcare system is a much more reasonable alternative.

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  1. This may be true in an ideological sense, but from what I have seen, most conservatives and most liberals are both inclined to attribute any fortune which might befall them personally to their own individual character, and all misfortune that might befall them personally to societal circumstances beyond their control.
    Personally, I don’t see why it’s necessary to adopt an either/or attitude; surely, everyone’s destiny is guided by factors both within and outside of their control,

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    1. It’s the Just World Hypothesis meets the Fundamental Attribution Error. Basic psychology for Liberal or Conservative, though I’d argue that both sides are maybe more driven by one part or the other.

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  2. I would take your analysis one step further – as a conservative, I am not only responsible for my own successes and failures, but for doing something about those failures. I find progressives (in a gross and unfair generalization) to be waiting for someone else to address their wrongs.

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    1. Exactly. N, for example, disliked the part of my post where I said he was fired because of this crisis. In his mind, he was fired because he wasn’t a star. So he worked hard to make himself into one. And I really admire that. I try to be more this way myself. It isn’t easy, though. In all honesty, the temptation to blame the outside forces is huge.

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      1. In his defense, if it hadn’t been for the crisis, N. not being a star likely wouldn’t matter – so, in that respect, he is a victim of circumstance. What separates him from the rest is that he didn’t use it as a crutch. And he took concrete actions to improve and prevent.

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  3. Actually, the conservatives I’ve met have been a lot more likely to blame the Devil/Satan for their own shortcomings, and then they heap praise on God when things go their way. That strikes me as a different form of the liberal attitude you describe, just with different forces at work.

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    1. This is a very valuable observation. The political spectrum always locks into a circle if you go far enough in either direction.

      I was talking about the reasonable Conservatives. The rational, intelligent, thinking people. Not crazed fanatics. Those are present on both sides and are equally scary.

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  4. I can certainly see both sides of the equation. But this is really because I have been on both sides of the equation. I can accept responsibility for both my failures and successes. However, there have been times when I worked really hard and failed. I’ve also put in almost no work and been successful.

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  5. People in general, of whatever political persuasion, are not very capable of nuanced thought. For example, they tend to attribute 100% or 0% of responsiblity to the individual, when generally speaking things tend to break down 70/30 or 45/55 or 20/80. This is true even of smart people, academics who should know better.

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    1. Almost four years late.. but i must say you win the day with this comment. it is so obvious of a point, but one that so RARELY seems to be brought up.

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  6. I agree that it’s healthier to take personal responsibility. But I am certainly an economic liberal. I get angry when conservtives don’t acknowledge the difficulty of the system. At one point in my life I taught seondaryschool in one of the most notorious urban areas in the country. Those kids had so many cards stacked against them: the public schools were falling apart; the school itself didn’t have materials or books. Class sizes were enourmous. Some students didn’t have classroom desks. Some students achieved and went on to accmplish amazing things of course. But only the most extraordinary of students were able to move on and achieve. Students were depressed here. I also taught public school in a shi shi suberb somewhat near to the urban neighborhood: the differences were striking. Classes were small; the school was gorgeous; there was a vegetable garden and a music program. At this school, even the avaerage students were able to achieve success. And conservatives will claim that the students from these two environments all have the same opprtunity to achieve the American dream. It’s not simply true. I support a system that grants everyone euqal access. I also support MUCH higher taxes on the upper 2% so that we can start to achieve an equitable balance. (On social issues, I am absoultetly liberal and support the same abortion rights as you. Rights and citizenship begin a birth. Not before!)

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    1. Children are not responsible for themselves until they reach the age of majority because they don’t make their own decisions. Parents are responsible for them. And I’m very surprised to see that the discussions about secondary education never include the role of the parents.

      As for the children of the extremely rich, they never achieve anything. They are plagued by drug addictions, eating disorders and being incapable of creating anything on their own. I’ve seen enough of these folks to know that it is a tragic, crippling thing to be born into an extremely rich family.

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  7. I agree with you, But for the record, and sorry for the very anectotical and limited interest of that reply, at least 1 person or perhaps 2 (perhaps…) should have passed their comp. that year. And their failing, even if it had little or nothing to do with the political climate on campus that specific year, had certainly something to do with internal tensions among faculty members, believe me. And the political context on campus partly triggered these tensions.

    Also, in the years before me, students with a double concentration in Spanish/Portuguese, only had to read between 15 to 20 books in Portuguese. In my year, and only in my year, not the years after, we had to read more than 80 books. I am not complaining: reading these books has been the most rewarding intellectual experience of my PhD. But…

    All in all, things were fishy that year!

    It has been five years now… this week.

    Ol.

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    1. You passed, though. And brilliantly, as well.

      I felt personally offended on your behalf when it was suggested that people were failed for their politics. You are a lot more radical and active politically than some of them. You know who I mean. So I was appalled and I still am.

      My comps were brutal but I’m so happy they existed in my life. I’m now extremely well-read as a result.

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      1. They did not failed for their politics, true. One related anecdote: two years ago, three students had to pass their comps. Of the three, the two heavily anti-union students failed their comps (one even failed twice and was kicked out of the program), and the very visible union organizer (who managed to make very angry the entire faculty with a petition that year) passed with honors.

        Conservative use the rhetoric of victimhood too, am I right? “I am uemployed because immigrants steal my job.”. Women in the workplace took jobs away from men.”

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        1. “Conservative use the rhetoric of victimhood too, am I right? “I am uemployed because immigrants steal my job.”. Women in the workplace took jobs away from men.”:

          -This is a good observation.

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  8. Well the students in the lovely suburban school were still middle class. Upper middle class certainly but not extraordinarily rich. It was a public school at the end of the day. I have never worked in a prep school so I have no idea what those students are like…..And of course parents make a difference. But parents can’t combat an entire crumbling school system. Systems without books or classrooms where students have to stand in the back of the room becuse there aren’t enogh desks. Schools without a music program. And aesthetics do matter in my opinion and this school was so sad and dilapidated. And even if every single parent in the urban school was bad, the failing public school still presents an additional disadvantage. Public schools should be nationalized in terms of funding and not linked so highly to the property taxes in the individual district. Parenting and schooling are two seperate issues. I think we are fooling ourselves if we say that this country offers equal opprtunities across the board. As a teacher, I wanted to make a difference but I also felt lost. It’s one of the many reasons I went in to higher education.

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    1. Public schools should be nationalized in terms of funding and not linked so highly to the property taxes in the individual district.

      I totally agree. Not gonna happen in the US though; people are too allergic to the federal government.

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  9. I’m for humanism. Left and right both fail with regard to this as they embrace identity politics, which means they overlook the human in the human. As for education, I would be considered on the right, although this makes no sense these days, considering what both left and right have become. I believe in better communication about what the standards are one needs to aim for. Describing standards more carefully and reinforcing them does not hurt my feelings. I’m also prepared to do that for others.

    As for “taking responsibility”, I think everybody on the spectrum of politics is confused about what this means. The right reinforces harsh sounding words, terms and conditions, without having any idea of what their application would look like. This fetishes harshness, but with no meaning. The left avoids harsh sounding words on principle — once again with a blithe disregard for practical results — which is to say, meaning and content.

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    1. “This fetishes harshness, but with no meaning. The left avoids harsh sounding words on principle — once again with a blithe disregard for practical results — which is to say, meaning and content.”

      -Exactly! I couldn’t agree more.

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        1. The issue of personal responsibility is the foundation of Conservatism everywhere. It is not even remotely present in the Liberal philosophy. I think this is a huge problem because, ultimately, the Liberal ideology ends up disempowering people.

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  10. Also, it should be mentioned that the society I come from was conservative through and through. People were thoroughly blamed for a lot of things — not so long as the economy prospered, but when things went wrong within the system overall and individuals left the country in droves. After that, individuals of all sorts were blamed for anything at all. The overturning of the far right government by a communist regime meant that the right wingers began to seek for an enemy “within”. Women and children, who were by definition “weak” seemed to fit that description well enough to serve the purpose of bearing the brunt for what had gone wrong.

    The right wing view about personal responsibility is as mystical as any left wing view that everyone is innately good.

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  11. There is always an active agent of any oppression and a consenting victim who reaps some reward from being oppressed.

    And this is actually quite false as a general statement, unless “always” can be changed for “often”.

    More specifically, my view is that accepting psychological oppression is often a compromise made by the ego to avoid a sense of being completely annihilated. Sure, such a compromise position is a weak one and as such it is undesirable. I will give you an example. My father grows up to understand, believe or sense that his adopter father abhors him. This realization is so terrifying that my father develops an alternative explanation: his adopter father actually loves him very much, but is treating him in a harsh and rejecting manner “for his own good”. In that case, the harshness and rejection is just an expression of supreme love, which has a different surface appearance from what one might have anticipated. Consequently an expression of hatred is actually an expression of love.

    This is an obvious lie when stated in this way, but my father told it to save his ego from shattering. The “reward” for accepting this oppression of fatherly hatred was the salvation of the ego in a more general sense.

    This is just one level of oppression — a psychological one — where “consent” isn’t really a question of choice but of survival.

    On a material and more practical level, there are many cases like this one.

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  12. bloggerclarissa :
    And who do you identify more with?

    My identification is neither left nor right in the narrow, contemporary senses, but more solidly Nietzschean. This means that determinism and free will are both one. That sounds paradoxical, but isn’t. What I have as “free will” is the amount of energy and power I have stored in me through historical processes. By the same token, this energy and power stored within me also enables me to tweak historical processes in the moment that they are taking solid form. So, both history and will power are one, in this sense.

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  13. I also use the “conservative” notion of “personal responsibility” to establish the standards to which I hold myself. But I don’t go around talking about this in ideologically mixed company. That is why this is an anonymous comment.

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  14. “Identity politics” to me is the acknowledgment that one’s origins have an effect on experiences, life chances, conscious choices, unconscious choices, self-image, degree of engagement with the outer world. People react in different ways to their environment, and their conclusions about their identity may differ.

    The conservative argument that the individual is 100% responsible for their life outcome rings false to me. This argument denies history, local culture, and chance, including biological chance. I am a life-long depressive, and taking on 100% responsibility for not being a star NIH-funded academician was too much for me. My naivete and lack of (needed) mentorship and over-individualistic personal attitude (acceptance of isolation) were not adaptive in a system where collaborations/connections are of great importance. I spent a lot of time trying to work harder, and blaming myself, when what I really needed to do was to look at the whole situation, and bail.

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  15. Providing a free universal healthcare system is a much more reasonable alternative.

    Free? Unfortunately, nothing is free, especially not modern medicine. So this free healthcare would have to be paid for by forcing bigger taxes, “hiding” the costs. The problem of free-riders is very basic one in economy and taught at every university, f.e. public goods like lights on the street (or what happens when there are private fire-fighting services, as Echidne described on her blog). I don’t think forcing people to pay for roads is paternalistic, and view health insurance as quite similar in some ways. F.e. everybody wants to use, yet few want to pay for.

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    1. I’m in favor of cutting down the military budget significantly which, in this country, would pay for a free universal healthcare in a flash. I’m also in favor of the US abandoning its unsustainable world-power pretensions and concentrating on internal issues. This is a country that screwed up its foreign policy every single time. I say the moment has come to step back from foreign affairs because this is a country that very obviously sucks at them.

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  16. Patrick :
    In his defense, if it hadn’t been for the crisis, N. not being a star likely wouldn’t matter – so, in that respect, he is a victim of circumstance. What separates him from the rest is that he didn’t use it as a crutch. And he took concrete actions to improve and prevent.

    Having totally moved out of any kind of moralistic mode of analysing the world, as a process of doing my PhD, I can no longer relate to the conceptualizing of any part of reality as “a crutch”. It seems to me that one only needs an excuse in the face of a hostile parent figure who demands that one account for oneself. In the absence of such a figure, the concept of a crutch has no meaning at all. The concept of “whining” about anything also has no meaning. For instance, who would one’s whining be heard by, should one engage in this activity? Unless it is heard by some omnipotent being, it would serve no purpose at all.

    Even if we remove the conceptual mode one step away from this quasi-religious perspective, the metaphysical attitude of making oneself a “victim of circumstance” still makes no sense. Nietzsche’s view is to get under the way that grammar shapes our consciousness, so that we see that there is no moral universe — even though language itself would tend to bind us to a moral perspective.

    The way reality works, according to Nietzsche, is actually different from the way language lures us into thinking. “Free will” is a phantom of language. In Nietzsche’s view, there is neither ‘free’ nor ‘unfree’ will. There is only the measure of energy and power stored in you as an individual, which has the apparent expression of “will”.

    Taking it down to a more concrete level, N obviously had a lot of this force stored up within him, so he pressed through and came out on top. This sounds a little like I’m choosing deliberately unfamiliar language in order to make the same point that language compels us into making — that is, that N had more “free will” than others. I don’t mean to say that at all. Rather, the accumulation of historical energies of different sorts — and not just N’s individual excellence — all led to this positive outcome. To make it even clearer: that is to say that the leftist point of view, that historical forces can either hold us back or propel us forward, is also relevant.

    The point where Nietzsche’s point of view differs from that of a typical liberal is in the sense that it acknowledges that even if history has “held you back”, the universe does not care one iota. It doesn’t owe you anything. Also there is nobody to complain to about that. The very perspective that “whining” or “having a crutch” are morally meaningful is undermined.

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    1. ” For instance, who would one’s whining be heard by, should one engage in this activity?”

      -In N.’s specific case, it would be heard by me. 🙂

      ‘ Rather, the accumulation of historical energies of different sorts — and not just N’s individual excellence — all led to this positive outcome. ”

      – What do these historical energies mean on a practical level? In N.’s culture men respond to problems, poverty and unemployment precisely by whining and dumping all of the problems on the women.

      “the universe does not care one iota. It doesn’t owe you anything. Also there is nobody to complain to about that.”

      – Universe, true. But one can turn the lives of family members and friends into veritable hell by whining and complaining. I should know, I’ve done that a lot. I’m a reformed drama queen of huge proportions. 🙂

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  17. bloggerclarissa :

    – What do these historical energies mean on a practical level? In N.’s culture men respond to problems, poverty and unemployment precisely by whining and dumping all of the problems on the women.

    Well Nietzsche kind of worked the equation backwards rather than forwards. It’s more of an abstract calculation, whereby success is a sign of the positive accumulation of historical forces and failure is its opposite.

    On a practical level, if N had taken the obvious cultural route and dumped his issues onto women, he probably would have risked undermined his subjective sense of self-determination, leading to a poorer outcome than the one he had.

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    1. “Well Nietzsche kind of worked the equation backwards rather than forwards. It’s more of an abstract calculation, whereby success is a sign of the positive accumulation of historical forces and failure is its opposite.”

      – He sounds like a marxist of sorts. 🙂 I’m not very familiar with Nietzsche.

      “On a practical level, if N had taken the obvious cultural route and dumped his issues onto women, he probably would have risked undermined his subjective sense of self-determination, leading to a poorer outcome than the one he had.”

      -He would have lost me, and that’s the real tragedy right there. 🙂 🙂

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      1. Well Nietzsche is much more beloved of the right than of the left, because his philosophy naturally lends itself validating those who want to trumpet their success. It doesn’t see failure as an “excuse” or even particularly meaningful. On the other hand, one can also draw some leftist principles from Nietzsche’s views as I have done.

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  18. I used to think I was as far to the right as one could be. But I recently took an online test I believed to be balanced and honest. I was found to be 25% to the left of where I thought I was. This pleased me. I am still registered Republican. But I am more open to new ideas as a result of this new perspective. What do you think about this, Clarissa? I’d like your opinion. Thank you…

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    1. I think the capacity to change one’s opinions, grow, transform is a symptom of remaining young. We will be young as long as we remain open to new things. I say, let’s all try to help each other to keep growing.

      Good for you, Paul Tiderman! It’s good to have you comment on this blog.

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