Flat White

Whatever happened to responsibility?

31 March 2021

4:00 AM

31 March 2021

4:00 AM

In 2009, I became aware, via media reports, of the death of David Iredale, a perfectly fit and healthy 17 year old who had died of thirst while on a bushwalk in the Blue Mountains just outside Sydney. 

Despite being on or close to a well-known walking track and making contact with emergency services by mobile phone on seven separate occasions, David died and his body was not being found for eight days. 

For a tragic event such as this to occur virtually within shouting distance of 5 million people in this modern age was hard to fathom. 

The Coroner’s Inquest was critical of much that occurred, both during and after David’s calls for help. Reading about this young man’s death, and overcome with a feeling of devastation at the thought that it simply should not have happened, did not prepare me for the following words of His Honour, Magistrate Carl Milovanovich some two and a half years after the tragedy:

I confess that I was astonished that at no time after the death of David Iredale or any time leading up to the commencement of this inquest, did the Ambulance Service of NSW conduct an appropriate review and/or analysis of their performance in the circumstances leading to David’s death. 

This lit a fire in my brain. It was incomprehensible. How could that be? I could not simply just accept it and move on. I needed answers and understanding and so my search for an explanation of the role of responsibility in society had begun.  

Almost daily there were reports of people in high places failing to act responsibly and in many cases not being held to account. These were people who, one would have expected, were aware of the moral or ethical guidelines but had simply failed to act accordingly. 

So pervasive were these examples, across virtually the entire spectrum of society that it was impossible to deny a trend, which I came to refer to as the diminution of responsibility. 

After 10 years of observations, research, reading and much thought I have reached the following conclusions, which are expressed here in the briefest possible terms. 

Responsibility is difficult to define and is often conflated with morality. They are each at the same time independent and also inter-dependent. 

For ease of reference, my definition is as follows: Responsibility is the act of doing the right thing when viewed through society’s moral lens.  

Morality provides instructions on how to behave. Bad behaviour results from ignoring these instructions. Continued bad behaviour makes morality obsolete. 

For simplification, I have coined the phrase: responsibility is morality in action. 

The notion of the moral decline in the West has received much attention in recent years but when one examines the reasons put being forward, the term is a little misleading. Most commentators refer to the rise of government as the principle cause but when one examines the role of legislation and regulation it is evident that they are in fact replacing responsibility. As a general rule, morality still provides the basic framework for laws. It is the freedom to act and interpret them that has been eroded.  

It is probably correct to refer to a moral decline but I hypothesise that it is as a result of the diminution of responsibility. 

There are other instruments at play in this process including political correctness, technology and the lack of effective discipline in schools. It is also difficult to avoid the conclusion that the deliberate avoidance of even the use of the word responsibility is becoming widespread, especially in the world of academia. 

The 20th-century philosopher Hans Joseph, author of The Imperative of Responsibility had this to say:

Responsibility has become the fundamental imperative in modern civilization, and it should be an unavoidable criterion to assess and evaluate human actions, including, in a special way, development activities…

Our duties and responsibilities as human beings must be shown to be so incontrovertible that even atheists must recognize them. There are ultimate taboos. 

A state school principal who has been primarily involved in the design, formulation and implementation of a programme to teach responsibility has written:  

Without a deliberately developed strategy to teach and instil the characteristics of ‘responsibility’ within human existence and endeavour, I personally believe that our collective quality of living cannot be sustained. 

The notion of responsibility must be installed as the basic building block in primary school education programmes. This would require an environment in which discipline is pre-eminent and supported by an appropriate system of reward and punishment. 

In the first instance, university teacher training must encompass the development of a belief that responsibility is the root from which student success is most likely to emanate. 

A practical starting point for the promotion of responsibility would be the re-introduction of individual class rankings. This would provide an opportunity for the development of graciousness and humility amongst the top performers as well as to allow for all class members to know where they stand and the encouragement to strive for improvement. 

Simply ranking everyone as satisfactory is counterproductive.   

Responsibility promotes self-awareness, self-esteem and curiosity, (a need to understand). 

It creates an appreciation of how best one can contribute to society’s overall wellbeing.  

It develops caring and compassionate aspiration. 

It builds resilience and an ability to deal with adversity. 

It leads to a society of people who have a desire to become the best they can be. 

A society that lacks a good measure of these characteristics is destined to become a subservient mediocracy, where every human activity, including thought and speech, is legislated and controlled by a malfeasant ideology, and easy prey for evil intent. 

The benefits and downsides here are obvious. Failure to recognise them will be catastrophic. Not the least is the failure to learn the lessons from events such as the death of David Iredale, who will sadly have died in vain. 

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