It’s a word I throw into essays a lot. To be free requires taking responsibility. To be honourable calls for it too. Owning our actions, the consequences of them – intended and unintended and everything arising from our inaction as well. It’s big, scary and overwhelming, but facing up to it is essential if you want control of your life and the option at least of living honourably. What we don’t take responsibility for, we are powerless to do anything about.
However, there are people who society deems unable to take responsibility for themselves. Children, and the mentally unwell are the biggest group, along with some folks who have learning difficulties. People in comas can’t take responsibility either. At first glance, this makes a fair amount of sense. In reality, there are a lot of grey areas.
Let’s start with children. They all mature at different rates, with varying abilities to cope with ideas of right and wrong. At eight, my son is more morally aware and more inherently responsible than a fair few adults, but the law will not view him as such. It would be insane to make laws pinning down who can take responsibility for what, when, because each person is different, but that’s what we’ve got. Some adults never become morally aware, so where does that leave them?
What happens when someone not legally able to take responsibility for themselves becomes a threat to themselves, or others? What happens when a child commits murder? Every now and then, one does. What happens when a child becomes a persistent, abusive criminal? Are they responsible? Are their parents? There are no clear cut answers here. If a person with mental health issues behaves in antisocial ways, is that the same as a ‘well’ person doing it? Who is responsible if an adult goes off the rails and becomes unable to manage their own behaviour?
Back when humans lived in small groups, we must have related to these issues in a very different way. A group of humans has shared responsibility for everyone in it. I suspect the solutions to members who became dangerous were not as compassionate as we moderns might like to imagine they should be, but they were probably a lot more decisive. What we don’t have now is any sense that we, as humans, share responsibility with those around us, for each other. When there are issues, it comes down to systems, rules and officialdom, and from what I’ve seen, that’s not especially compassionate either.