On responsibility

One piece of advice the Buddha gives is that we should do things without consideration of praise or blame. I believe this to be very good advice and very liberating. I also believe it is based upon a truth concerning our actions and decisions.

We believe that our decisions – and by proxy our actions – are ours. That we are responsible for them so that when we do a bad thing we deserve to be punished and when we do a good thing we deserve a pat on the head or – if we’re lucky – a lollipop. I don’t think this is case. Firstly I don’t believe our decisions are ours. I don’t even believe there is an us to whom a decision could belong. I won’t go into that here.

Let us assume that there is an us. What is it about our choices that makes us believe we are responsible for them? What distinguishes them from events that we don’t believe we are responsible for?

I think it would be useful to set up two examples. One is an event that we don’t have responsibility for and the other is one we believe we do.

The main thing I think people believe gives them responsibility is control. They believe that if they have control over something then they are responsible but if not then they are not responsible. The fundamental thing people believe they have control over that gives them ultimate – or moral – responsibility is their choice.

Anything that isn’t dependent or determined by their choice they believe they are not responsible for; it is someone else’s fault.

So in the one corner, laying claim to the title of being in our control is choice. In the other corner laying claim to being no-one’s fault is an avalanche.

So let’s lay down the relevant characteristics of an avalanche. The characteristics that inform us that it is not under our control.

      1. Before the avalanche happens I don’t know when it is going to happen. I may be able to make a rough prediction but I don’t know exactly.

      2. I don’t know the content of the avalanche. I don’t know how much snow will fall or how fast that snow will fall.

So does the phenomena of choice differ relevantly from the phenomena of an avalanche?

      1. Before I have made a choice I don’t know when I will have made it. I cannot give a specific date for my choice. On those occasions when it seems I do – like say when someone wants a decision at a certain time – it is always under duress. Often people will just pick any old thing rather than deliberate under such conditions. Under such conditions most people would say there is diminished responsibility.

      2. I don’t know the content of my choice. Before I have made a choice I don’t know what the choice will be. If I did know the outcome of my choice before I made it then I would have made it already. Or rather there would have been no choice made but an obeying of a dictate. To put it simply: You don’t choose to choose what you choose before you choose it!

So not only will it make life better to not act out consideration for praise and blame but by acting out of consideration for them you are being silly. Which is to say you’re thinking is not based upon truth.


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