“If you make a mess, you clean it up.” This admonishment to my children when they were young is a microcosm of taking responsibility. Animals don’t take responsibility because they don’t have choice. However, humans do have choice, and what we choose to do, we are responsible for. What we choose not to do we are responsible for as well. If you agree that a person is responsible for the mess they make, and should clean it up, then by extension you would agree that determining your path in life is your responsibility.

Noam Chomsky said that the prime concern of any individual should be their own responsibilities. All of the great humanists have said this: there is no authority, divine, natural or artificial, that we can abdicate our responsibility to. We are human individuals, we are intelligent and capable, we can make up our own minds, we can make decisions, we can direct ourselves, we can freely associate with others for mutual benefit. We don’t need to be told what to do, what to think, how to speak, and how to behave. We have our own minds, our own voice, and our own unique vision for ourselves.

The equal responsibilities movement

Everyone argues about equal rights but what about equal responsibilities? Can you expect rights when you don’t take full responsibility for yourself as best you can? The obvious example of this question is children. Children aren’t responsible for themselves so they don’t have the same rights as an adult. A person’s fundamental responsibility is to earn or justify their rights.

The fundamental human rights are the ones that children have, for example, the right to life, the right to not be bought or sold, the right to not be tortured, the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, and so on. However many other rights must be, or at least should be, earned. An example is the right to drive. We have to pass tests before getting a licence.

Every person has a moral obligation to be considerate. Most people are considerate most of the time but there’s still plenty who are inconsiderate most of the time. The golden rule is fundamentally about this issue. If you treat others badly then you should expect to be badly.

Passivity versus active agency

If you don’t take responsibility to make life happen, you will passively let life happen to you. If you let life happen to you, and if things don’t go the way you like, you will probably become resentful and bitter. You may well blame everyone else but yourself. Calling out and blaming other people is the opposite of taking responsibility. It is demanding rights without any concomitant obligation. You can’t expect anything if you don’t take responsibility for yourself.

If you don’t take responsibility for yourself then somebody else has to. In effect, you are still a child. In the social contract’, people abdicate certain rights in return for having their remaining rights protected. They also abdicate their responsibility and are consequently not free. I don’t think we are going to lose the social contract anytime soon, but we can all take back our responsibility and be as free as possible. That’s the interesting thing, we are most free when we are most human and we are most human (i.e. fully functioning) when we are most moral and virtuous. Being virtuous is when you take responsibility for yourself and be fully functioning. This is not about being either submissive or dominant, it is not really about other people at all. It is about being self-sufficient and having mastery over yourself.

The benefits of taking responsibility

The benefits of taking responsibility are enormous. You will feel more connected, more purposeful, more creative, more grounded, in short, more human.

Being human is our birth-right, becoming more human is our responsibility.