Individual Responsibility and Western Civilization

William H. Young

The Millennial Generation—8- to 29-year olds, born between 1982 and 2003—are more likely than any age group previously surveyed to believe that “it is the responsibility of government to take care of people who can’t take care of themselves” and that “government has a role in individual achievement of the American Dream.” America faces the rigors of economic hard times with the state increasingly unable to fulfill created expectations and false promises, requiring individuals to provide more of their own future prosperity. Until the mid-twentieth century, Americans were served by the ethic of individual responsibility, to determine well-being through personal effort—the means to reciprocity. That ethic needs to be reinstated.

At the American founding, informed by Western civilization, particularly the philosophy of the Scottish Enlightenment, the ideal individual was a cultural type with an independent intellect and intrinsic common sense, grounded by an innate moral sense, and living by moral principles and habits— exercising adult personal responsibility. The curriculum in American colleges reflected that ideal for our leadership elite until the end of the nineteenth century.

Individual responsibility has been the foundation of human achievement throughout Western civilization. Every advance, beginning with the Greeks and Romans, sought individual responsibility over control by groups, tribes, or clans. The Renaissance and the Reformation freed the individual from subordination of his interests to those of any kind of group. Renaissance humanism reintroduced the classical emphasis on man as an individual. The Magna Carta and English common law freed the individual from the sovereign or state. The dignity and autonomy of the individual became the touchstone of Western and American concepts of liberal democracy, with personal responsibility in freedom and rights.

In 1900, as at the founding, the individual was still the fundamental element of American society. But the state and the group would gradually gain primacy over the individual. An opposite view of human nature began to be developed in order to establish a social order in which immutable forces of biology—genes and unequal traits—would play no role in accounting for the behavior of individuals and social groups.   Rule over oppressed groups by white (Nordic) individuals who considered themselves biologically superior would be overcome by refashioning theories of mind that placed culture over nature. Over the course of the twentieth century, this would evolve into the denial of human nature and social constructionism, which became the theme of American social science, progressivism, and postmodern multiculturalism.

Contrary to Western ideals, progressivism was founded upon the belief that history moves forward not on the basis of individual action, but instead by that of organic bodies with concerted purposes and power—groups or races—a form of medieval corporatism. Progressive ideology replaced individual responsibility with the collective responsibility of groups. The New Deal, supported by social science, began the turn of American society from individual towards collective responsibility. “The individual,” wrote sociologist Lawrence Frank in a memorable article, “Society as the Patient,” in the American Journal of Sociology (November1936), “instead of seeking his own personal salvation and security, must recognize his almost complete dependence upon the group.”

By 1950, in The Lonely Crowd, David Riesman (with Glazer and Denney) concluded that many Americans had already come to have “other-directed” personalities, supplanting the “inner-directed” personalities that characterized the earlier nation. The principled and purposeful individual was being replaced by the socially constructed individual relying on others to provide meaning for his life. This type of social personality, which exists widely today, suffers from deficiencies in leadership and self-knowledge.

In the early 1960s, academic social science led the change to the entitlement mentality. A report from Columbia University’s New York School of Social Work, Public Welfare: Time for a Change (1961), opposed any emphasis on personal responsibility for economic well-being. Academic cultural Marxism fostered self-centered expressive individualism. Freedom from responsibility replaced acceptance of responsibility. The social construction of self-esteem created a growing number of narcissists with an empty self, but feeling entitled to special privileges. The welfare state reinforced the most narcissistic side of expressive individualism.

NAS has shown that social work education in today’s academy stresses the “empowerment of oppressed people” to provide “social justice,” or more egalitarian access to income through state-sponsored redistribution. Empowerment is not to be earned through individual responsibility, but is to be granted as entitlements to oppressed groups through collective responsibility.

In Hard America Soft America: Competition vs. Coddling (2004), Michael Barone divides our elites into those within Soft America, the parts of our country where there is little competition, and those of Hard America, the parts of American life subject to competition and accountability. The elites who operate in Soft America are in educational, cultural, and public institutions; in the therapeutic and care-giving professions; in foundations; and in the legal profession—including rapidly growing numbers of college-educated women. Largely insulated from marketplace experience and reality, in their vocations as well as their education, they are the core believers in social constructionism and social justice—collective responsibility rather than individual responsibility.

Most of the products of American education are not being prepared for the demands and rigors of Hard America. In colleges and universities, inflated grades for little work or learning, a curriculum reflecting popular culture or obscure subjects, a focus on the psychological comfort of student customers (highlighted most recently by Ashley Thorne in Your Comfort is Our Priority ) and preferences and quotas for identity groups pay little heed to accountability or individual responsibility for real learning.

In The Sovereign Individual: How to Survive and Thrive During the Collapse of the Welfare State (1997), James Dale Davidson and Lord William Rees-Mogg argue that the power of the state to effect large-scale income redistribution “has existed for only a few generations of the modern period. Now it is fading away.” In a global economy, they predict, the ability of government and politics to subsidize “persons of low or modest skills” in the name of “fairness” will become no longer possible. Ironically, recognition of at least the prospect of a far more limited role for government should reinforce a return to the responsibility of the individual.

The nation needs energetic government for our emerging hard times, but with appropriate limits and an ethic of common provision founded on the individual and reciprocity: focused once again on personal and family responsibility before collective responsibility or communal sharing. These are commensurate with greater development of the innate potentialities of human nature as the means to spread prosperity and provide autonomy and esteem.

To begin to overcome the attitude of the Millennial Generation, all young Americans should be asked by their parents to affirm the following: I, not others or the state, am primarily responsible for achieving a realistic standard of living for myself and my family and for making provision for long-term needs such as education, health care, and retirement, not just immediate consumption and gratification. I have freedom of choice, but with choice go individual responsibility for the means and consequences.

Our colleges and universities reflect what Stephen Balch calls “a misunderstanding of humanity’s condition” in Part II of his April 2011 essay Is Our Civilization a Bubble?  The academy needs to recognize the differences between the impoverished dogma of the chimerical world of Soft America and the competition and accountability of the real world of Hard America. As NAS has long recommended, the principles of Western civilization, including the important role of individual responsibility, should once again form the basis for education.


This is one of a series of occasional articles applying the lessons of Western civilization to contemporary issues relevant to the academy.

The Honorable William H. Young was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and served in that position from November 1989 to January 1993. He is the author of Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (2010) and Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002).

Image: Individual in a Suit by Flazingo Photos / CC BY-SA 2.0 

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