Thursday, December 29, 2005

Personal Responsibility

It's amazing what mental gymnastics conservatives will put themselves through when it comes to responsibility. Supposedly, personal responsibility is a touchstone of modern conservatism; the individual is supposed to be responsible for everything from their diet to their medical decisions regardless of their preparedness to do so.

I have a very good friend who is a conservative and who loves to get into political discussions. While he is definitely conservative in his views - having come from a very rich family - he also loves to play devils advocate so his actual views on many subjects we discuss can only be discovered after stripping away the "argument for argument's sake."

One of the things I've discovered about conservative ideas of responsibility is that it does not extend into the future further than their own lives. Some examples of this that we discussed last night over several beers (for him) and glasses of wine (for me) included the responsibility of people to think about how many children they have and the impact they will have on future rates of consumption and on the question of pollution/global warming. In both cases my friend claimed that there was no responsibility to consider the future because of effects on the individual or society (most especially vis-a-vis the economy in the case of pollution reduction) in the here-and-now.

I'm not sure how such a limited scope of personal responsibility has become so ingrained in conservatism - indeed in many people's thoughts regardless of political affiliation. My best guess is that our brains have not had a chance to catch up with how much longer we are able to live and with the span of time we can now effect with our actions. One need only consider the near sense of neglect over radioactive wastes from weapons programs and nuclear power generation. The time frames over which these wastes are toxic are longer than the entire span of human history; a span which our primate brains are incapable of comprehending. Most people are barely able to think about planning for their own retirement, much less thinking about how their actions will affect their own grandchildren whom they claim to love.

Conservatives seem most incapable of overcoming this cognitive limitation or at least the most reluctant to do so. Responsibility does not end with our own life and our legacy is too important to ignore for short-term gain, We do so at our own - and our childrens' - peril.

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