Responsibility as respect for reality

In the third chapter of Dietrich von Hildebrand’s The Art of Living, he discusses responsibility, which was the topic of my MA thesis. “This moral awakedness,” he says, “is also the soul of the fundamental moral attitude that we have called ‘awareness of responsibility.'”

Responsibility is connected to limits, which circumscribe our freedom while also giving meaning to it through enabling us to fulfill its purpose. Why is man responsible? Hildebrand offers, “The responsible man knows that he is not ruled only by an impersonal world of values, but by a personal Judge, who is, at the same time, the Sum of all values, and to whom he will have some day to render an account.”

As I wrote in my thesis:

Moral responsibility derives from an agent, through his or her own potency and efficacy, being the cause of some morally significant result. From parental responsibility, we have all other kinds of responsibility that are analogous insofar as every agent is a parent of his or her actions – parere meaning to “bring forth, give birth to, produce.” Every action brings forth something new into the world; every choice is like a birth, every action the cause of something new. Wojtyła used this metaphor in a meditative drama: “This is giving birth through choice. And to choose means to accept what makes my world, what is in me and what is of me… Are you able to accept it?” Similarly, Hannah Arendt connected action and natality explaining that a human being “possesses the capacity of beginning something anew, that is, of acting. In this sense of initiative, an element of action, and therefore of natality, is inherent in all human activities.” And who can forget the line from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, “You become responsible, forever for what you have tamed.” We are responsible for everything we bring forth by our own choices.

This is very much connected to Hildebrand’s insight that, “In lack of responsibility, in thoughtlessness, there is also evident a lack of respect for reality, for the import of something that has once been brought into existence.”

To deny responsibility is immature and juvenile; to accept responsibility is mature and honourable. There is a sense in which we are not our own and a sense in which we are.
It is expressed poetically by Tolkien when he says, “We make still by the law by which we’re made.” Objective values demand a response from us. We are summoned to cooperate with what is demanded of us in a real world with consequences and the drama inherent in the moral life.

I am reminded of this excerpt from John Henry Newman who so beautifully and thus attractively expresses that we are not our own.

We are not our own, any more than what we possess is our own. We did not make ourselves; we cannot be supreme over ourselves. We cannot be our own masters. We are God’s property by creation, by redemption, by regeneration. He has a triple claim upon us. Is it not our happiness thus to view the matter? Is it any happiness, or any comfort, to consider that we are our own? It may be thought so by the young and prosperous. These may think it a great thing to have everything, as they suppose, their own way,—to depend on no one,—to have to think of nothing out of sight,—to be without the irksomeness of continual acknowledgment, continual prayer, continual reference of what they do to the will of another. But as time goes on, they, as all men, will find that independence was not made for man—that it is an unnatural state—may do for a while, but will not carry us on safely to the end. No, we are creatures; and, as being such, we have two duties, to be resigned and to be thankful.

Responsibility is a word that connotes a relationship.  Thus, Hildebrand thinks “awareness of responsibility is the basic attitude for a religious concept of the world.” We respect reality by living up to the demands both that it places on us and that we place on ourselves through our “yes” and no” decisions to moral choices.

Working through my thesis led me to realize: I am responsible because I govern myself in relation to the objective world of truth and goodness. How I exercise my freedom in the dramatic metaphysical structure of human action is the basis of meaning in life. This constitutes the framework for action in which ‘You can change the situation’ but not the structure. The more we change our situations to become better attuned with the structure of reality, the more we live our lives in response to what we are in truth.

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