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Personal responsibility or social rules

Self-responsibility refers to the willingness and duty to take responsibility for one’s own actions or inactions, or to bear the consequences for one’s own decisions.

In discussions about proposed solutions to climate heating or about Corona measures, it is often emphasized with reference to the principle of personal responsibility or the right of self-determination that the measures must be based on voluntariness and that changes in the framework conditions (laws, rules, incentives) are rejected as unnecessary. It often quickly becomes clear in the course of argumentation that self-responsible action or self-responsible living is confused with ego-centeredness, individualism or egoism. In the following, therefore, the definition of self-responsibility and its consequences will be recalled.

Personal responsibility follows from the right of self-determination

The right to self-determination is a central right for all mature people, regardless of gender, skin color, nationality, religion, etc. Self-determination means being able to decide about one’s own life according to one’s own free will. It is often also called freedom of choice, decision-making autonomy or independence. Self-determination is ultimately the opposite of manipulation, heteronomy or oppression.

Self-determination always leads to personal responsibility, because if I can freely decide what I do or do not do, then I am logically also responsible for the consequences of these decisions myself (who else?). How far the personal responsibility reaches depends on the personal consciousness (see chapter Self-Determination and Personal Responsibility in the book ABC of Awareness).

Limits of self-determination or self-reliant decision-making

The exercise of my personal right of self-determination must not, of course, lead to me restricting other persons in their possibility of self-determination! Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) put it this way: “The freedom of the individual ends where the freedom of the other begins” and Matthias Claudius (1740-1815) wrote: “Freedom consists in being able to do everything that does not harm another”. By “another” in this context, he probably meant all fellow human beings and the generations to come.

Thus, the right to self-determination must in no way be confused with a free pass to purely ego-centered thinking or acting. In an article in the NZZ, this was formulated as follows: “Whoever thinks of himself first when it comes to self-responsibility is already on a lost cause. Because above all it is about the other, and the self has mainly the work.”. It is not primarily about the effect of my actions (or non-actions) on myself, but in most cases about the effects on third parties or on nature, even if these effects are delayed. This is especially the case with global problems, such as climate change, biodiversity loss, pandemics, etc.

From a purely economic point of view, personal responsibility means that a person bears the economic consequences of his decisions himself and does not pass them on to third parties or to society. This would require complete cost truthfulness. As is well known, this is lacking in particular for most environmental problems.

self-responsibility or personal responsibility
Personal responsibility or social rules 1

The role of the state or society: rules versus individual responsibility

How should an individual assess and weigh the effects of his/her decisions “on his/her own responsibility”? It is not always easy to see whether or to what extent my decisions restrict the freedom of third parties now or in the future. Two examples:

  • Vacation flights emit greenhouse gases and, due to climate heating, lead to the living conditions of future generations being impaired. However, tourism is also an important source of income for some areas and ensures the well-being of the affected society in the vacation destination.
  • If I do not wear a mask in a pandemic, I may transmit contagious diseases to other people, who in turn may become ill. If I myself become ill and have to be hospitalized, other people may not be able to receive treatment or may receive less treatment because I am taking up health care resources for myself.

It therefore makes sense for the state to enact rules that prevent individuals from intentionally or unknowingly restricting the freedoms of third parties out of a misconceived sense of personal responsibility. The two examples of self-responsibility mentioned above show that a lot of expert knowledge is often necessary to delimit the freedom of individuals. Not everyone can be an expert in pandemics or climate change, for example. In addition, different aspects often need to be included.

Therefore, it makes sense for society to establish rules via the state in such cases, to which all persons must adhere. Last but not least, such rules are an important orientation and facilitation with regard to sensible behavior of individuals and organizations. For, as explained above, the principle of personal responsibility is very demanding and requires a great deal from individuals. The corona pandemic provided a good example of this:
Only about 5 to 10% of public transport users responded to the call to wear masks on their own responsibility. This was despite the fact that in representative surveys more than two thirds of respondents were in favor of wearing masks on public transport. The subsequent obligation to wear masks was perceived by the majority as a relief and resulted in between 95 and 100% of ö.V.-users wearing a mask.

Abuse of personal responsibility

As the above example with the mask wearing obligation shows very well, society expects certain rules from the state, otherwise it does not change behavior. However, it is part of today’s world that special groups of people feel restricted in their individual freedom by these rules and insist on so-called personal responsibility. They make this known loudly via social media and with demonstrations. As a rule, it is precisely these groups that misunderstand personal responsibility as a free pass for selfish individualism and global irresponsibility. They care little about the consequences of their decisions on third parties. They don’t want to be told what to do, and they make a fuss about the “paternalism” of the state, talk of “state terror,” dictatorship, etc.

However, personal responsibility is primarily about responsibility to third parties and not about the (unrestricted) freedom of the individual.

“Personal responsibility” is “empty phrase of the year 2021”

The operators of the network project Floskelwolke have chosen “personal responsibility” as the empty phrase of the year 2021. They justify their choice with the statement that the term has been hijacked by vaccination opponents as a justification for selfishness.

What can personal responsibility do in the context of climate heating?

Attached is a study on the situation in Switzerland in German. Excerpt from the summary of the study:
Through very ambitious, voluntary decisions (personal responsibility), the greenhouse gas emissions of an average person living in Switzerland could be reduced by slightly more than half. To reduce the remaining emissions, changed framework conditions, i.e. political measures, are required.

Realistically, however, at most one third of these ambitious measures can be implemented through personal responsibility of private individuals, which limits the effect of personal responsibility to about 20% of the required reductions. For a person living in Switzerland, the political measures thus open up a four times larger greenhouse gas reduction potential than measures that would be implemented voluntarily.

Ultimately, both voluntary behavioral changes and political measures are needed. However, political measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are very important and urgent for Switzerland. Those who want to achieve climate protection in Switzerland only through the personal responsibility of private individuals cannot possibly achieve the net zero target. Worse still, this will delay and counteract the most effective instruments, the political measures.

Addendum: What does “being personally responsible” actually mean?

When clarifying responsibility, we always look at an effect, a consequence or a result that has already occurred, and we ask who has contributed to this result with their decisions. Those persons, who have contributed with their – consciously or unconsciously made – decisions to the fact that the present result has come about, are responsible for this result. We therefore assume an effect and ask ourselves which persons have directly or indirectly caused this effect. The question of responsibility is not about right or wrong, but simply about who contributed to a result with their decisions.

This article is available in German under the title Eigenverantwortung oder gesellschaftliche Regeln?

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