‘It might be the devil; or it might be the Lord
But you’re going to have to serve somebody’
(From the album: ‘Slow Train Coming’- by Bob Dylan)
Just who is responsible? Who is to be held to account? (‘By whom?’ – is a subsequent question for another article.) For now, we ask only whereabouts should we place praise and blame?
We hear from the ardent religious right that ‘no-one is innocent’. We hear from the courtroom ‘not fit to plead’. Lewis Carroll tells us: ‘All must have prizes.’ George Orwell says: ‘Four legs good; two legs bad’; the Book of Ecclesiastes affirms that ‘time and chance happeneth to all.’
Quite a mixed bag of opinion. It ranges from an excuse for us all: ‘Things are just the way they turn out’ right through to ‘we are all to blame for everything’.
A reasoned approach has to begin with asking about freedom. If a person is free to choose she is open to being called to account; often by the consequences of any of her actual life-choices. If she is not free to choose, the same life events but this time foisted upon her will be likely to yield the same consequences for her; but she will not have been called to account by these; they will have been consequences unavoidable for her.
So the essential item prior to any accountability is for a person to have opportunity to choose and to decide from alternatives to action. For her to have freedom of some kind and in some degree.
Theologians and philosophers are split on this. In the ultimate case; of the bald fact of our freedom; or else of our complete constraint in a state of un-freedom; they divide into two camps opposing one another irreconcilably.
Theology is helpful here to lay out the consequences of this conceptual gulf. If people are not free in any way, they cannot be to blame for their actions at all. Those people who are ‘saved’ are given by God salvation as a free gift and in no way deserve it any more or less than those who don’t receive God’s free gift. These are the logical conclusions (but they are not the psychological conclusions)
If people have an actual and present freedom to choose what actions they do they can at least in some measure be called to account by others for what they choose to do. Nonetheless a person cannot earn salvation from God by their making good choices for action. Salvation remains a free-gift from God in which God does not take into account in any way a person’s good or bad life-choices of action. But a person is able to improve his own and others’ sublunary lives by his making good choices for action in his life.
So either way God does not allow blame or praise to interfere with his bestowal on people of salvation, or his non-bestowal. God does not call people to account in regard to his deciding to bestow or not bestow salvation. (This does not mean that God does not call people to account, at any time or in any way or place)
This so far leaves us with men and women and their actions in the temporal sublunary world and with their being called to account and calling to account others in this temporal world and for those actions.
You might have heard the satirical jibe: ‘All persons are equal; but some persons are more equal than others’? You might know that the British Prime Minister is sometimes known when in camera in discussion in Cabinet as ‘first among equals’. What can these weird sayings mean? Are they not irrational? Yes, they are indeed irrational; but they do shed light on where praise and blame might be most likely to be applicable. And they even suggest that notwithstanding in democracies which boast hallowed constitutions which announce magisterially that ‘all men are created equal’ there is ever gradation and degree.
The Lord of the Christian faith clarifies for us here, when he says: ‘From whom much is given; much is expected’ and again (to Pontius Pilate) ‘”You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from [the Roman State] above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.”
Anyone who has observed politicians knows that they, like most of us, gladly and with open—arms will take credit for successes, whether these successes were well-designed by them or else wholly fortuitous; whereas they will shy away as if from plague from accepting liability for failures, whether designed inadvertently by them or else being merely fortuitous. This is the origin perhaps of George Orwell’s aphorism ‘Two legs good; four legs bad’?
Much is expected from leaders and from those who chase high office and great power with the aim to wield these, in any shape or form they might come in, over and above others. If a man or woman undertakes to set themselves temporally above many others then for sure he or she as part of the same package has to take up with any ambitious and arrogated status attained, a large portion (the largest part even?) of responsibility and accountability for any actions he/she carries out, or else gives the word to be carried out.
This applies across the board – to politicians, to MDs, Ministers of State, judges, principals, vice-chancellors, directors, head-teachers, controllers, to every person who is situated at the top of her/his profession.
When a surgeon messes up; or a civil engineer; or a shipbuilder; or an aeroplane service mechanic; there are real, massive and terrible consequences, first for persons under their care and then for their own futures. Very few of us would ever doubt or dispute this is the case or that it should be so. Persons who are tasked with acute critical work which entails enormous care and skill with their hands are expected always to be 100% dedicated, careful and vigilant.
On the other hand those who stand at the helm of large companies and those who run Nation States and head-up Educational and Financial Institutions, whose extent and consequence straddles the world in a global reach of emphasis; these are the guys and gals who are those most prone to ‘get away with’ their misdemeanours and abject wrong calls. Their employments are those of ‘hands-off’ workers; they proceed through discussion and by way of a direction and tasking of others who are under their delegation. Their hands are not covered with engine grease, nor bear industrial working gauntlets.
For these captains of society (and they grasp at and revel in all the kudos of their position and title, in the perceived auras of prescience and capability) their ‘slips between the cup and the lip’ are less tangible to their publics and subservients, less obvious to the naked eye, more defrayable, and will have passed through many tiers of command before their outcomes had begun to arise, for good or ill. Because this is the case there manifests itself all the more naturally greater room for a phantom divorce from accountability and responsibility to be brashly claimed and meekly allowed when disaster has resulted.
How many bankers went to gaol after 2008? How did Henry Kissinger win the Nobel Peace Prize? How do the tax dodgers continue to escape paying $£billions and remain at liberty able to carry on jiving and diving? The answer is that their ploy every time is with deliberation and craft to ‘muddy the waters’ by bringing in unnecessary fardels of complexity together with masses of extraneous circumstance so as to use these to build up their case for untoward occurrences having been ‘insurance company Acts of God’ and come about unluckily and so completely out of their hands.
Like the armaments industrialists, whose scruples would not save a saint from perdition, these people are dismal failures as human beings, and for the most part stand self-condemned because consumed with proud arrogance and self-conceit. To a man (and woman) they fail to see any reason even to wash their hands of their duties, as Pilate felt he needed to when in the presence of his Master.
[This article appeared as “Who is Responsible?“]
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