Self-Responsibility

 This is part five of a seven part series, with a new post each day. Each post will be linked to the preceding post. The essay in its entirety can be found on the “Page” titled “Politics and Social Philosophy” which will be posted on 2/12/08.

            Another great value that was once central to the American tradition, and that has now all but disappeared, is one very close to my heart as a psychologist, namely the practice of self-responsibility. We began as a frontier country in which nothing was given and virtually everything had to be created. We began as a country of individualism in which, to be sure, people helped one another and engaged in mutual aid, but it was certainly taken as a foregone conclusion that each individual adult bore primary responsibility for his or her own existence. If you helped people, it was to get them back on their feet. The assumption was that the normal path of growth was from the dependence of childhood to the independence and self-responsibility of adulthood.

             That vision has all but vanished, if not from our culture, then from the intellectual spokespersons for this culture. We hear more and more stories about the insane things that happen when people are no longer held to any kind of accountability or self-responsibility. You may have heard of the agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation who was found to be embezzling money from the bureau to feed his gambling habit. When he was discovered, he was fired. He sued the FBI under the Americans with Disabilities Act, arguing that he was being discriminated against because he had a disease, namely gambling addiction. The judge ordered him reinstated on the job. Has there ever been a civilized society in which it has been easier to avoid responsibility?  

             As a psychologist, I am keenly aware that in working with individuals, nothing is more important for their growth to healthy maturity than realizing that each of us has to be responsible for our own life and well-being, for our own choices and behavior, and that blaming and dependency are a dead end; they serve neither self nor others. You cannot have a world that works, you can’t have an organization, a marriage, a relationship, a life that works, except on the premise of self-responsibility.  And without that as a central cultural value, there is no way for people to really get what libertarianism is all about. One of the main psychological, ethical underpinnings of libertarianism is the premise that we must take responsibility for our own lives and be accountable for our own actions. There is no other way for a civilized society to operate.  

             For thousands of years, to turn to an ethical dimension, people have been taught that self-interest is evil. And for thousands of years they have been taught that the  essence of virtue is self-sacrifice. To a large extent that is a doctrine of control and manipulation. “Selfish” is what we call people when they are doing what they want to do, rather than what we want them to do.  

            The world is changing. Imagine, for example, that a speaker was addressing a room full of women, only women, and he said, “Ladies, the essence of morality is realizing that you are here to serve. Your needs are not what is important. Think only of those you serve; nothing is more beautiful than self-sacrifice.” Well, in the modern world, such a speaker would rightly be booed off the stage. Question: What happens if the same speech is made to a mixed audience? Why is what’s wrong with it different if men are also in the audience? We need to rethink our whole ethical framework. We need to rethink and realize that it is the natural right of an organism, not only to defend and to sustain its own life, but to fulfill its own needs, to pursue its own values, bound by the moral obligation not to violate the rights of others by coercion or fraud, not to willingly participate in a coercive society. 

To view previous parts of this essay please click on the following  link – Part 1, Part 2 , Part 3 , Part 4 

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13 Comments on “Self-Responsibility”

  1. mhook35 Says:

    The enormous challenge an earnest individual attempting to practice self-responsibility and self-sufficiency faces in the modern-day collectivized society is summed up best by the following profound statement you made in the introduction to your excellent book, “Honoring the Self” , that the courageous effort an independent individual undertakes to create a meaningful and fulfilling existence is, “potentially heroic:”
    “It contains all the elements of a great myth or great drama, from the start along the path to self-actualization, which entails breaking free of the gravitational pull of mother, father, and family, to the adventures, crises, anxieties, rites of passage, victories, and defeats that are all part of the growth process, and on to the heights to be climbed, the depths to be explored, the adversaries to be confronted in the world and in the psyche itself – and, intrinsic to the drama from the beginning, the terrible and exhilarating uncertainty concerning the ultimate outcome of the story.”

  2. raygrden Says:

    I believe all of what you say here and of what you say in mhook35’s comment but don’t you think that is common sense, and I mean that to be it makes sense to most common people. I am one of those common people. I believe there are a lot of us out there that just don’t know how to make sense of an America that is being drawn into a quasi communistic state and don’t know exactly where that draw is coming from. No wonder all the attention on glamorizing the mafia; they followed through with their agenda; they called the kettle black (and if you said it was silver you got shot!)


  3. Dear Ray,

    As I see it, it’s not the glamorizing of the mafia that is the problem–but the absence of seriously, rational, productive cultural heroes.

  4. raygrden Says:

    Do you think there is really an absense of heroes or is there just not a framework for them to be seen? Are they driven to produce underground? Is Ayn Rands Atlas Shrugged partly non fiction? I truely hope so; I could believe in being human again!


  5. Dear Ray

    I don’t know. I think that sometimes the motivation is of one kind and sometimes something different.

  6. mhook35 Says:

    Judging by the state of the world now, clearly, its heroes, namely genuinely creative and self-sustaining individuals, have gotten wise and all but withdrawn their creative energy from a world that has been dependent on their power in order to sustain the creativity-challenged majority. This is exactly what Ayn Rand insightfully foresaw when she wrote Atlas Shrugged over 50 years ago.

  7. sepowell Says:

    “Is Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged partly non fiction? I truely hope so”

    Do you? There is a bit of a cabal that has organized itself in accordance with Rand’s strategy in Atlas Shrugged. Except they are usually found meeting in places like Switzerland and New York rather than in the desert. However, I have a feeling you would not support their agenda. Do some research on the following: the Royal Institute of Foreign Affairs, the Club of Rome, the Bilderberg Group, the United Nations, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the Trilateral Commission.


  8. Dear sepowell,

    “Atlas Shrugged” is entirely fiction. You were right in assuming I would know.

    Nathaniel Branden


  9. Dear mhook35

    Right.

    Nathaniel Branden

  10. Ralf Wilmes Says:

    Keeping it more on a personal level, I work in Italy as a manager in customer service in a large company, I just finished reading Atlas, and identified so much with the the ethical themes of it, and it just made me more aware of the coersion in my own company. Main values are obedience or better ‘collaboration’; self-assertiveness is not appreciated although proclaimed. Still, I love my job, do not want to retreat in the dessert, and insist on expressing myself -for myself-, I found no satisfactory alternative, even though it’s clear that some adversaries will benefit of my work.

  11. mhook35 Says:

    Back to the topic of self-responsibility, I have to say, I am tremendously enjoying the way you developed this as a key theme of both your innovative approach to psychotherapy, and your book, ‘The Disowned Self’, an autographed copy of which you recently sent to me through my wife, Celestra. Thank-you! I don’t think people quite appreciate the full extent to which you are a true defender of the unknown and lone – but herioc – self-sustaining individual.

  12. Alasdair Cameron Says:

    Dear Dr Branden,

    Speaking of The Disowned Self, I’ve always thought that it is your most underrated psychological work, which I find most surprising given that its contribution to the canon of self-help literature is novel – even today. I’ve worked for years in the mental health field and it amazes me how little focus the issue of emotional self-alienation gets when trying to help people through their difficulties. So, I was delighted to read these comments in a newspaper today made by comedian, Jim Carrey, when talking of his struggle with depression:

    “I tried dealing with depression by taking Prozac. It was good for a little bit for my life. But it didn’t heal me. It didn’t get me to the bottom of my anger or my frustration, whatever it was. I realised that it is important that we need to feel our feelings. We need to let things out to get to the bottom of things. One of the most important things in our society today is that it is OK to let our feelings out. It’s OK to say to your kid, ‘Daddy is going to cry now’. I believe that it’s healthy to get mad at whoever you want to get mad at. There are ways to do that — wonderful fantasies without really acting them out.”


  13. This message is to Alasdair and Mhook35

    Thank you for your good words regarding my “The Disowned Self.” Thank you for understanding the book’s importance.

    Most people who do not seem to understand the value of learning to access one’s feelings and to express them in ways that are normal and healthy. One of the chief purposes of “The Disowned Self” is to teach this.

    However, check out the chapter in “How to Raise Your Self-esteem” that deals with the psychology of self-acceptance in all its aspects. Then read or re-read the chapter on self-acceptance in “The Six Pillars of Self-esteem,”


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