Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Fate and Responsibility

Fate (or "destiny") has never been a very popular concept in America. Indeed, willful action is one of a few foundational axioms of Western culture--we like to say "make it or break it," and something about making your bed and lying in it.

But I have a question about Fate that I'd like to ask if I can get my readers to acknowledge its existence as even a small part of human existence--unfortunately, the question is about whether or not accepting the term (and the phenomenon it claims to describe) is unethical.

Consider: A man--a recovering alcoholic who has been sober for five years--this man's wife has been angry with him lately because the family is barely making ends meet; they do not have enough money to put any away for retirement or even for their children's college funds. Now imagine a very tense situation, one in which the man is presented with an opportunity to gain financial freedom, but that the opportunity somehow involves his participation in drinking (say he has a business meeting in Japan at a Karaoke bar, where custom dictates: thou shalt drink!). He does it, thinking it'll be no big deal. But, breaking his sober-streak, he falls of the wagon (gets the job!), and though he has plenty of money, his marriage falls apart because he's such a bumbling drunk.

Would it be unethical for this man to say, "I accept a lot of the responsibility for what happened -- but I do want to mention that Fate arranged one hell of a trap for me. The pressure from my wife, the pressure from the businessmen, all mixed up with my own personal/historical weakness... it was too much."

That's probably a very poor demonstration--but I hope you can imagine a good one. But here's the question: when do we find it acceptable for a person to disclaim responsibility by blaming circumstance? Ever?


Daniel said...

I think of ethics coming into play before the decision is made, not after. However, I (being a rugged individualist American) think our hypothetical lush should take off his victim T-shirt, but I don't think it is wrong to complain, just undesirable.

Wishydig said...

"We" find it "acceptable" to blame circumstances when "we" are convinced that "we" too would fail under those circumstances (or similar ones).


A little generalization leads to compassion. Instead of drinking I imagine television. Instead of succeeding at a marriage I imagine showing up to class on time. And if I'm able to sympathize and say "well... that's a good enough analogy. I'll not speak ill of the sot" I'm probably more compassionate than most.

But I probably wouldn't be willing to show such mercy. Oddly I've learned from enough personality tests that strangely one of my lowest traits is sympathy while judgment is also low.

It's like I don't care one way or the other about people.

Am I evil?

Casey said...

Michael, no. You're good.

Daniel, I like that you're willing to come out with it -- the whole individual-responsibility thing hasn't really been a popular ideology since I was about 9, and even then I think it was unpopular, but when your dad is the only ideology machine you listen to, well...

And Michael, I remember talking to a pastor friend of mine not long ago about the causes of stress, and she suggested that, for me, the combined tendencies of perfectionism-toward-myself and grace-toward-others (which doesn't really require effort for me--it's an impulse that stems more from indifference) led to a kind of... what to call it... "ontological separatism" that was unsustainable. I am like them; they are like me--that had to be my conclusion. Which means that all those years of my mom telling me "I was special" turned out to be true only insofar as we're all special. Or something.

So the idea of generalization appeals to me--analogy making. Still, is there such a thing as "Fate?"

Richard said...

Is fate really even the right word for your example? I suppose the idea is that, since the only opportunity presented for him to make money involved drinking, that's fate... but are we sure that that was the only possibility? beyond that, maybe his action was necessary, but what was his attitude towards his action? Does he decide that this act was necessary but not good (he doesn't want to drink, but needs money), or does he conclude that the act, being necessary, became good, and, gosh, look what happened next, how unfair!

(And, if he's such a bumbling drunk, does he keep the job he gets?)

Maybe we can "blame" circumstances without disclaiming responsibility. Like, we're responsible, to an extent possible, but we don't design the circumstances (except to the extent that our past behavior is precondition for current circumstances). Also, what is his wife's role in all of this?

Daniel said...

You're changing horses midstream. But I think there is "Fate" (not three ladies with scissors). Can we buck our Fate, should we? And what is fated? The big things only like mates and method of death, or little things too, like stop lights and pedestrians?

Oh, and while I think you are responsible for who you are and what you do, not placing the blame for me on someone else is a source of self-loathing for me. Meh.