Sunday, October 25, 2009

What I am and am not responsible for

Everything I say in this (long, rambling) post has been covered by countless wiser and more eloquent people than I, but it's nonetheless relevant to this blog, and important to me (and it's my blog, so nyah!).

One popular description of becoming an adult is that it entails both the development and recognition of one's responsibilities in the world. What is less often discussed -- perhaps because the first hurdle is already a pretty high bar -- is the recognition of what one's responsibilities are not.

To paraphrase Dr. Larry Brilliant (talk about an ambitious name), the question is how "to live ambitiously but without ambition." If this sounds paradoxical, it's not only the fault of the English language's imprecision. Consider the common maxim "live every moment as though it were your last." I don't know about you, but the images of mayhem that evokes for me are not really what I want the world to be like. And yet there's something to the idea.

Let's consider a different example. Suppose I educate myself on the ways in which I feel the meat industry is wreaking havoc on animal welfare, the environment, human hunger, or whatever my concerns are. I may rightly feel I have a moral obligation to stop eating meat. I may also feel that I have a duty to educate others on the industry's perils. But what if I start feeling responsible for actually changing other people's minds? That sounds like a slippery slope toward enforcing my will on others, which is how otherwise well-intentioned activists end up becoming terrorists.

Things quickly become murky: suppose I witness somebody kicking a dog, and I feel strongly that it's wrong. Is it my responsibility to stop him? What if there's a crazed gunman about to kill everyone in the building, and I am in a unique position to shoot him and save many lives? If the answer to either of these is that I am justified in taking action, then where is it that the "eco-terrorists" and their ilk are going wrong?

One answer that springs to mind is that killing the gunman and saving the dog will get you labeled a hero, whereas blowing up a Hummer dealership or abortion clinic will get you labeled a wacko (not to mention a felon). The latter is clearly not beneficial to your cause, so such rash actions fail to meet the criterion of practicality. That is, with a modicum of cleverness, you should be able to see that blowing shit up is not effective in helping people see things your way.

But that can't be all there is to it -- it's not that all people who are passionate about a cause can be partitioned into "people who blow shit up" and "people who want to." Well, a third obvious category is "those who seek more reasonable ways to effect change." But what if none of their efforts there seem to have any impact?

I'll stop here with a "to be continued..."

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