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The Responsibility Paradox

The Responsibility Paradox

Possibly the most annoying thing that Jordan Peterson has argued (echoed in even more absurd terms by many of his followers, on other people’s platforms) is the idea that we should not dare to criticize (i.e., “change”) the world until we get our own house/room in perfect order.

Naturally, there is an initial layer of irony in this statement. The “rule,” proffered as a kind of advice, but treated like a binding law by the cultists of r/JordanBPeterson, is itself a kind of criticism. The precise verbiage of the formulation varies, but in many cases, Dr. Peterson emphasizes the word “perfect,” as in, “set your own house in perfect order…” This is, needless to say, an impossible standard, as well as a subjective one (what qualifies as “perfect?”), meaning that criticism of the world — including its critics — ought to be morally impossible for those fans who accept the truth and value of the twelve rules. And yet, mirabile dictu, there they go again.

But the deeper and more substantive contradiction is more interesting, and applies not merely to Peterson, but to old-school libertarians and conservative moralizers who like to have a similar mentality, emphasizing “personal responsibility,” while simultaneously condemning those who attempt to change their society as somehow neglecting to accept this responsibility.

The paradox is the following.

We as individuals are influenced by our undeniably influenced by our environment. In fact, the entire argument for cleaning one’s room is predicated on the personal influence of our environment. Note that Peterson wisely does not say “don’t clean your room, take personal responsibility for the feelings your room creates in you” like some kind of pathological stoic or Christian hermit. Cleaning your room is taking personal responsibility for your own feelings, by acting to change the causes of your bad or lethargic mood.

Bearing this in mind, how can attempting to change the policy or culture of your nation be viewed as a rejection of personal responsibility?

The only way this can be the case is if we assume that the causes of individual stress are not known to the individual trying to create that change, and further, that we know the real cause of his or her suffering. “You’re not mad because of the debt, you’re mad because you haven’t put the dishes away!”

This assumption, aside from being rather tenuous, is often irrelevant in addition. Someone who is bothered by the state of their kitchen might very well displace that frustration in a manner that benefits society. The assumption that civic participation will necessarily result in negative outcomes if it is compelled by more personal motives is simply nonsense.

But that’s merely an aside. The point is that individuals who get involved in politics and try to change things in their country are taking personal responsibility. They are simply taking responsibility for their country, rather than their room. If neglect of one’s personal dwelling is a sin (which I believe that it is), how much greater of a sin is it to neglect the dwelling held in common with others, who depend on you?

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