Friday, April 18, 2008

What is the role of individual responsibility?

It is obvious that humans do not always act in ways that they would be willing to endorse “at the highest levels of reflection”. Does this provide justification for individual behaviour to be moulded by governments through external incentives or regulations? According to Glen Whitman, an economist, some new paternalists think it does (Policy Analysis No 563, Cato,2006). In Whitman’s words, the old paternalists said: “We know what is best for you, and we’ll make you do it”, whereas some of the new paternalists say: “You know what is best for you and we’ll make you do it”.

Some of the new paternalists do not propose the use of coercion. (See, for example: Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, ‘Libertarian paternalism’, AEA Papers and Proceedings, 93(2), May 2003.) But many paternalists still do advocate the use of coercion.

There are good reasons to be wary of approaches involving paternalistic coercion:
First, such approaches disregard the importance of autonomy as a basic psychological need that a person seeks to satisfy in order to flourish.
Second, as economists Bruno Frey and Alois Stutzer have pointed out, such “benevolent dictator” approaches disregard the fact that “people have preferences for processes over and above outcomes” (Should national happiness be maximized). People like to be involved in decisions affecting their own well-being.
Third, as Glen Whitman points out, the new paternalism neglects the possibility that people can deal with their own self-control problems. For example, people reward themselves for good behaviour and punish themselves for bad behaviour and they make commitments to change their own behaviour.
Fourth, learning to act in ways that we can endorse at our highest levels of reflection may be a necessary part of the process of actualizing potential and hence integral to human flourishing.

It is not possible to consider whether one endorses one’s own actions without accepting that one is responsible for them. The notion of accepting responsibility for one’s own actions is arguably why we have we have a concept of ‘self’. In the words of the philosopher Daniel Dennett: “The self is a system that is given responsibility, over time, so that it can reliably be there to take responsibility, so that there is somebody home to answer when questions of accountability arise” (Daniel Dennett, Freedom Evolves, 2004, p 287). This is consistent with the idea that a person is a responsible agent who identifies with her or his own actions, past present and future. This concept has been espoused by the economist, Robert Sugden, as an alternative to the assumption in neoclassical economics that people act on consistent preferences (‘The opportunity criterion: consumer sovereignty without the assumption of coherent preferences’, The American Economic Review, 2004).

In considering whether or not we endorse our actions we obviously consider, among other things, what consequences they have. If we can’t endorse our own actions because we don’t like the consequences we clearly have reason to change our behaviour.

It follows that whenever a government relieves people of the need to accept the consequences of their own actions, or inactions, it is tempting them to evade personal responsibility and thus potentially subverting their efforts toward self-improvement.

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