Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Robert LeFevre - Obligation and Responsibility

Index: Robert LeFevre Commentary Abstracts

The talk following this one, 'A Definition of Freedom', is an absolutely pivotal one in LeFevre's series. But before he gets there, LeFevre needs to ensure he has a complete foundation in place with the aid of this sixth discussion, on the related terms of 'responsibility' and 'obligation'. This talk is interesting in its own terms because it points out the subtle changes in language, over the last fifty or so years, where collectivists have assigned many of the language-based attributes of the individual to the group, with the individual subsequently becoming subsumed into collective groups via this culturally controlled shifting process.

The Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci may have been the highly successful prime mover here, from a Marxist point of view, with his brilliant cultural analyses on the prime importance of language. But this response, by LeFevre, is an equally brilliant riposte by one of history's great libertarians, to try to get the domain of our language back into the control of the individual. It is only ever an individual who speaks, after all, even if a Marx, or a Lenin, or a Gramsci, and never the disembodied voice of some will o' the wisp collective. But let's get back to Mr. LeFevre and his thoughts on responsibility and obligation:

Obligation and Responsibility - MP3 Audio File

Two very important concepts come close together, in the terms responsibility and obligation. These two words symbolize a pair of very important ideas, but their different meanings have become blurred over time until, in modern times, many people use the words as interchangeable synonyms. But LeFevre wants to clarify that they do not mean the same thing. They convey opposite ideas, he states, and we should be clear about each of them.

Responsibility begins with Latin prefix, re-, which means again, turning about, or turning backward, as in the words repeat, redo, or repetition. The word 'responsible' therefore possesses a chronological component going backwards in time. When we use it we are talking about things already done in the past. It should not be used when speaking about anything in the future, but only when talking about events in the past or in the immediate present.

(Other words making use of the re- prefix include rearrange, rebuild, recall, remake, rerun, and rewrite – see, http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/re-.)

It is only individuals who can be responsible, says LeFevre, but in modern times the word responsibility is often ascribed to groups rather than individuals, especially when an individual does something they shouldn't. For instance, a man may rob a filling station. But in the modern age he's not responsible. It is the fault of his family, his school, his society, his geography, his racial background, but never his fault. LeFevre contends, however, that it is the man's responsibility. He initiated the action. Therefore, he is responsible.

As an aside, LeFevre also notes that the word responsibility is often tied into negative actions. A man may be responsible for constructive or positive things, such as writing a great piece of music, but here the credit goes to group again, or to the school, or the church. In a neat twist, the group is made responsible for making the man good enough to do the great thing.

To come back to the main point, we tend to socialize responsibility and attach it to some kind of group. For example, notes LeFevre, the John F. Kennedy presidential assassination was nonsensically ascribed to the city of Dallas. But the city of Dallas didn't stand up and pull the trigger. An individual did. Which individual? We may never know, says LeFevre, because that's the way with government investigations.

(LeFevre is the master of the subtle dig.)

But it was somebody, who pulled the trigger, and not the city of Dallas.

This process of spreading responsibility grew as the assassinations spread through the 1960s. The second Kennedy shooting was ascribed to California and the whole of the United States was made responsible for the killing of Martin Luther King. Which is an absurdity, claims LeFevre, because it is always an individual who initiates any action. When a man initiates an action, he is responsible, and nobody else.

There is another aspect of the word 'responsible'. It is trying to indicate ownership. If a man initiates an action, he is the owner of that action. But once again, in our modern milieu, there is a peculiar tendency to always pass off responsibility and the ownership of actions, to a larger collective group.

This brings LeFevre onto the word obligation, which stems from the Latin ob- prefix, for looking forward or facing ahead.

(See http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/ob- , and words such as observe and obverse.)

An obligation, says LeFevre, is a requirement that must be faced in the future or a responsibility that will be assumed in the future. Imagine a line, representing 'right now'. Responsible actions are all to the left of the line. Obligations are to the right of line, but once you assume an obligation, it shifts behind the line into the past. You always have to assume an obligation.

If you initiate an action, you are responsible for the action. This is automatic and you cannot get out of out it. But obligation is totally different. It is a volitionally assumed responsibility, although these days we seem to get it all mixed up.

To a modern day collectivist, the man robbing the filling station is not responsible for his theft, but he does somehow have a moral obligation to join the army, or pay welfare taxes. He has no such obligation, thunders LeFevre! An obligation must always be voluntary, otherwise we get problems. If in the modern age we did agree that the individual could become obligated to the group, without deciding to become so obligated, we would end up, with many monstrous situations. Of course, this is where are, says LeFevre, and part of the reason why we're in such a mess.

(Once again, we have to pinch ourselves to remember that LeFevre is speaking in 1970.)

If a collectivist gets into trouble financially, they turn to someone else who just happens to be there and says 'you are obligated to help me, because we're part of the same group.' But what kind of a crazy world is this, asks LeFevre?

The world has become distorted and grotesque, where men in high places of authority make mistakes and then start passing these responsibilities off as obligations to the rest of us, saying we are obliged to pull them out of the mess they got themselves into. It is fine if you want to volunteer to help these men, but absurd to claim we are obliged to do so.

Even in law, a contract is always assumed null and void, if made under force or the threat of force. But now we have a society where it is assumed we have automatic obligations to the army, to the Red Cross, and to the poor. But we have no such obligation, states LeFevre, and we are not responsible. We have an opportunity to help, but it is no more than that.

LeFevre then rounds out his piece with two stories. The first story is about one of the readers of his newspaper in Colorado, whom he managed to convince wasn't responsible for a murder across the country in Oklahoma City. He then follows this up with a similar tale about whether he would be obligated to adopt an orphan, if one walked into his room. He ends by saying that he is not responsible for all the orphans in the world, and he not obligated to them. He may have the opportunity to adopt any orphaned child he came across, but that is as far as it goes.

And now we are clear about the meanings of the terms responsibility and obligation, we can move into a discussion on what freedom is.

(Which is a discussion worth waiting for.)

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