Contemporary self-help teachings are attractive because they assure us we are the makers of our own destiny. They preach that we have within us the power to change our lives for the better, even to make ourselves anew. Self-help thought leaders, from Tony Robbins to “spiritual gurus” like Robin Sharma and Deepak Chopra, ask us to take responsibility for our lives.
September 10, 2018
The idea is simple: By taking responsibility for our emotions and what happens to us, we rid ourselves of dependence and thereby potential weakness. By accepting wholeheartedly the value of personal responsibility we become empowered, for no longer do we allow our lives to be dictated by sheer happenstance or the unpredictable whims of others.
Personal responsibility is not merely a core value of much self-help. Harvard political scientist, Yascha Mounk, has recently argued, we are today living in The Age of Responsibility. Lauded in presidential speeches as well as bestselling books (like Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules For Life) the value of personal responsibility has become central to contemporary moral and political discourse.
Obsession with individual responsibility
The focus on personal responsibility distracts us from structural inequities. Yet this has not always been so. Mounk describes the historical shift from a conception of “responsibility-as-duty,” prior to the 1960s, to a conception of “responsibility-as-accountability” that emerged forcefully during the tenures of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. This has since become “common sense.”
In the wake of the “neoliberal turn,” collective responsibility was exchanged for a myopic obsession with encouraging individuals to become self-sufficient.
This shift in the meaning of responsibility has redirected attention from wider structural transformations to the actions of individuals and, in the process, led to the scaling back of the Welfare State. Thus welfare regimes have been under siege since the eighties.
The “responsibility framework” changed the meaning of the Welfare State: once conceived as a public institution based on multiple values, it is now regarded as a mere instrument designed to reward the responsible and punish the irresponsible.
This perspective casts the popularity of self-help teachings in a new (more sinister) light. Deregulation and large cuts to social services have produced dire socio-economic conditions that demand a high degree of personal responsibility just to get by.
Some scholars argue self-help and spiritual teachings offer individuals a message of personal empowerment and are popular because these are a useful means of coping with the intense precariousness and social insecurity experienced by many today.
We do not lack agency
One response to the responsibility framework on the part of progressives has been to deny the possibility for personal responsibility. Some egalitarian philosophers and sociologists have countered the rhetoric of responsibility, most commonly invoked by conservatives, with the claim we are, in fact, wholly byproducts of social circumstance: we lack any agency at all.
This tactic, although understandable, is deeply misguided. The fact most people on both the Right and the Left accept personal responsibility is an important value suggests this strategy is nothing short of political suicide.
In other words, telling ordinary individuals they lack agency is unlikely to be met with enthusiasm, no matter their ideological leanings. Additionally, personal responsibility is central to so much of modern life: democratic institutions, intimate relationships, the rule of law. All of these presuppose the possibility for responsibility.
Indeed, it’s hard to imagine what a society that took seriously the idea we have no agency whatsoever would look like.
A partial defense of self-help
A progressive view is correct in suggesting not enough attention is paid to the role of social structures in determining how people’s lives go. One of the core problems with self-help teachings is they tend to distract us from the myriad ways our successes and failures depend on factors beyond our control. We are encouraged to see our lives as self-made, rather than as the byproduct of collective efforts and contingencies.
Still, the popularity of self-help cannot be reduced soleys to the insecurity caused by neoliberalism. For one, self-help can be traced back to the Stoics of antiquity. Although certainly modernized, it nevertheless preaches a similar gospel of self-reliance.
Second, self-help empowers people by giving them a sense of agency, the feeling what they think and do actually matters. To recognize the value of this, we need only consider what happens when one is told the opposite: when people believe they lack agency, they generally act accordingly.
Finally, modern life, given the scope of freedom it affords, requires self-regulation. Ask anyone currently on a diet, raising kids, or working on their anger issues whether or not taking responsibility for their emotions and actions is important.
Self-help is both useful (and sometimes necessary), but it needs to be tempered by a sociological understanding of the reality of social life. Self-help teachings can empower, but they also can convince people they are responsible for their own misfortune when in fact they aren’t. In these instances, self-help can become dangerous and destructive.
Self-help does not make for good public policy. It is one thing to take responsibility for our lives, and quite another to punish someone (or let them be punished by the State) because we think they didn’t do the same.
It is an injustice to the Welfare State to view it as a mere instrument for dolling out rewards to the responsible. It is more than that; it is a public institution meant to embody the values of trust, equality, benevolence, justice, freedom, and social solidarity.
If we allow self-help philosophy to inform our approach to public policy, it will shrink our moral imaginations. It will leave us less able to see when it is inappropriate to apply the value of personal responsibility, and also less willing.
To maintain our prohairesis (moral character) in the proper condition – the successful accomplishment of this being necessary and sufficient for eudaimonia (‘happiness’) – we must understand what is eph’ hêmin (‘in our power’ or ‘up to us’; see Discourses 1.22.9–16). If we do not do this, our prohairesis will remain in a faulty condition, for we will remain convinced things such as wealth and status are good, when they are really indifferent, troubled by frustrations and anxieties, subject to disturbing emotions we do not want and cannot control, all of which make life unpleasant and unrewarding, sometimes overwhelmingly so.
This is why Epictetus remarks: ‘This is the proper goal, to practise how to remove from one’s life sorrows and laments, and cries of “Alas” and “Poor me,” and misfortune and disappointment’ (Discourses 1.4.23, trans. Dobbin).
No one is master of another’s prohairesis [moral character], and in this alone lies good and evil. No one, therefore, can secure the good for me, or involve me in evil, but I alone have authority over myself in these matters. (Discourses 4.12.7–8, trans. Dobbin)
What is in our power, then, is the ‘authority over ourselves’ we have regarding our capacity to judge what is good and what is evil. Outside our power are ‘external things’, which are ‘indifferent’ with respect to being good or evil. These indifferents, number those things conventionally deemed to be “good,” and those conventionally deemed to be “bad.”
Roughly speaking, they are things that ‘just happen’, and they are not in our power in the sense we do not have absolute control to make them occur just as we wish, or to make them have exactly the outcomes that we desire.
Thus, for example, sickness is not in our power because it is not wholly up to us whether we get sick, and how often, nor whether we will recover quickly or indeed at all. Now, it makes sense to visit a doctor when we feel ill, but the competence of the doctor is not in our power, and neither is the effectiveness of any treatment we might be offered. So generally, it makes sense to manage our affairs carefully and responsibly, but the ultimate outcome of any affair is, actually, not in our power.
What is in our power is the capacity to adapt ourselves to all that comes about, to judge anything that is ‘dispreferred’ not as bad, but as indifferent, and not strong enough to overwhelm our strength of character.
The Handbook of Epictetus begins with these words:
Some things are up to us [eph’ hêmin] and some things are not up to us. Our opinions are up to us, and our impulses, desires, aversions–in short, whatever is our own doing. Our bodies are not up to us, nor are our possessions, our reputations, or our public offices, or, that is, whatever is not our own doing. (Handbook 1.1, trans. White)
That is, we have power over our own minds. The opinions we hold of things, the intentions we form, what we value, and what we are averse to are all wholly up to us. Although we may take precautions, whether our possessions are carried off by a thief is not up us (but the intention to steal, that of course is in the power of the thief), and our reputations, in whatever quarter, must be decided by what other people think of us, and what they do think is up to them.
Remaining calm in the face of adversity and controlling our emotions no matter what the provocation (qualities of character that to this day are referred to as ‘being stoical’), are accomplished in the full Stoic sense, for Epictetus, by making proper use of impressions.