My Responsibilities as an Individual

I often think of myself as a sovereign nation of one, and get frustrated at people who talk about institutions, governments, and corporations as if they are not comprised of individuals with normal human emotions and motivations. Last night I read a passage that spoke to this in Spider Robinson’s book Night of Power:

“A rational anarchist — correct me, Russell — believes that he is solely responsible for his own actions, and admits of no authority higher than his own reason. He believes that governments and corporations and institutions do not exist — only self-responsible individuals.”

“He follows only the rules he’s made for himself,” Russell agreed, “and pays just enough attention to other people’s laws to stay out of jail.”

This resonates with me, in that I have always followed my own moral code very strictly. My moral code overlaps with, but is not identical to, other people’s moral codes or the law. I think most people are like this. If the law does not align with a person’s sense of right and wrong, and the person can get away with breaking the law, most people I know will break the law and do what feels right to them personally.

It does not resonate with me, however, to say that corporations, institutions, and governments do not exist. I think all these kinds of organizations have some kind of existence separate from their individual components, because every person in the U.S. government today is different from who was in it 100 years ago, yet the government itself has some kind of continuity. Every cell in my body is different from what it was 7 years ago, and I look different and have different thoughts and capabilities and memories, yet I feel as though there is some continuity to my identity, even if I’ve changed as a person.

The kind of existence these organizations have is different from my existence, though, in that it is not self-aware. Its existence is more like a template or blueprint. When an individual enters a corporation, they are given a task, a set of rules, and surrounded by the existing culture. In this sense, their individuality is folded into the corporation’s identity. They can fill the role the corporation needs them to fill, and when they no longer choose to fill that role, the corporation will most likely find someone else to fill that role. Some individuals are able to play roles in the corporation that actually alter the template; in this way corporations change and evolve over time. Some individuals, though, if they attempt to change the template, will be dismissed, spit out from the group rather than successful in changing it.

I know people who, following their own sense of morality, steal from corporations or the government when they would never steal from an individual. This is one example where I think people get confused about the nature of the existence of organizations. Even though the organizations have an independent existence as a template, they are still composed of individuals. There is no way to steal from the government without stealing from taxpayers. Taxpayers are people. All the money the government has comes from people. Even taxes that come from businesses came from the money individuals gave the businesses to buy their products. When people steal from businesses, they are also stealing from people. When people steal from businesses, who pays? The customers pay, in higher prices. The workers and owners might pay, in lower wages or profits. Customers are people. Workers and business owners are people. When people say, “I would never steal from a person, but I feel justified in stealing from corporations and the government,” what they are really saying is, “I would never steal from one person, but I feel justified in stealing a little bit from many people.”

The relationship between an organization and an individual is an interesting one. I see organizations as comprised of individuals who have chosen to participate in that template, and I as an individual can choose to either interact with or participate in the organization or not. Some organizations, like the government or oil companies, have accumulated so much power that it would take great effort not to interact with them, so I choose to interact with them rather than forego the convenience of fossil-fuel-powered vehicles or hike out into the wilderness and survive under the radar on my own.

I fear that people give their power away when they see organizations as a ‘they’ with power independent of what individuals give them. Organizations have as much power as their participants. If an organization cannot find individuals willing to play all the roles in its template, it dies. If an organization cannot collect money through taxes or selling products or receiving donations, it dies. Every organization that has accumulated power has done so because many individuals have ratified its existence by giving it money and time. In this sense, even if I choose not to give an organization my time and energy, the mere fact of its continued existence means that many other people disagree with me.

I recently learned, though, that humans are so socially motivated that they will say something that isn’t true in order to fit into the group. A friend was telling me about a game show in which everyone in the room except for one person was in on the secret that they were all going to give the incorrect answer on purpose; the majority of the time, the one person not in on the secret also gave the incorrect answer, because not fitting in with the group was more uncomfortable than not following their own truth. A minority of people went against the group and spoke the truth. I had a similar experience on a smaller scale when I was in the 5th grade.*

I still think that organizations get all their power from individuals; what seems more doubtful, though, given this example of the game show, is that individuals are thoughtfully choosing to which organizations to give their power. Perhaps individuals feel swept up by the group, and give their energy to whichever organization it is easiest to give, even if they don’t like what that organization is doing. They might complain bitterly about the U.S. government even as they choose to continue to live here and pay taxes, or complain about the wealth of the top 1% as they choose to shop at Walmart or use Microsoft software, or blame oil spills on corporations even as they choose to drive cars and use plastic in their lives.

This kind of doublethink helps keep organizations in power. I think it is healthier and more realistic to realize that we have a choice as individuals. We can choose where to put our money. We can choose who to work for. We can choose what country to live in. Part of realizing that we have choice is realizing that we’re part of the problem. If we choose to ride in vehicles powered by gasoline or diesel, then every oil spill is partly our fault. Instead of creating a false “us vs. them” mentality, we realize it’s all just us. The people making the choices that we might not like are our neighbors, our in-laws, our friends, and ourselves. For me, that means making the best choices I have the time and energy for while practicing acceptance and forgiveness of myself and others when our choices are harmful to others…to the trees, to the air, to animals, to people, to whole ecosystems. I hold responsibility for how the world is today; we all do. Knowing that inspires me to make the best choices possible; seeing the part I’ve played in things I wish were different helps me be less judgmental of others who have also played a part.


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