Without Personal Responsibility, no great society can long survive

I was five years old and it is one of the most memorable experiences of my childhood.  I “sneaked” several pieces of candy before dinner and was caught. My mother asked if I had eaten the candy.  Self interest suggested a lie, but after much hemming and hawing, I finally confessed.  The result was five swats from the spanking spoon, “Miss Mary,” an 18 inch wooden spoon with an unhappy face painted on its convex surface.

After the punishment, my mother gave me a hug and told me how proud she was of me because I had told the truth and accepted the punishment.  It did not diminish the quite considerable physical pain, but it did sooth the emotional trauma.  While I cannot say that I have always displayed such integrity when faced with a moral dilemma, that incident taught me a valuable lesson about accepting responsibility for my actions.

Life is a series of choices.  The results of our choices are both good (the candy) and bad (the whipping). It is a fundamental fact of life that every action generates a reaction, or a consequence, each with its own unique blend of positives and negatives.

I do not know why, but over the last twenty years our society has come to believe that this distribution of good and bad consequences no longer holds true.  Perhaps we really do believe our own marketing ploys: We can “have it all” and ” taste great-less filling.”  Or, maybe the moral laws of nature simply do not seem relevant anymore. There are no goods and bads, simply shades of gray in between.  Whatever the reason, we seem no longer willing or able to accept many of the negative consequences of our actions. And as parents, we frequently attempt to shield our children from the basic understanding that their actions create consequences.

While I grant that whether or not a child is willing to accept the punishment for taking candy seems trivial, it probably is not.  There is good reason why our national mythology clings to the story of George Washington and the Cherry Tree.  It is about personal responsibility.  Without it, no great society can long survive.

Our market economic system cannot function unless there are costs for bad decisions. During the financial crisis prior to the Great Recession of the past decade, a new concept emerged, “to big to fail.” In effect, America has become the home of the risk-less society, one in which all of us expect somebody else (which really means ourselves in the form of higher taxes) to bail us out when we have made a bad choice.

More important, a democracy cannot function without accountability.  What does a vote mean if the consequences are unimportant?  Perhaps, this is why the results of elections always seem the same no matter the party in power or what their campaign promises. Sadly, we have come to expect this as inevitable so we do not hold those in power responsible for their actions.

Moral relativism and a collective failure to accept the consequences of our actions are the root causes of many of our society’s problems.  While I do not advocate a return to “Miss Mary” as the mechanism for instilling responsibility in our children, I do believe that the lessons begin at home and it starts when they are young.  One of the consequences of having children is the responsibility to instill in them the qualities necessary to become contributing members of our society.  Of those, personal responsibility is paramount.

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