Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Responsibility

June 8, 2015

In writing Beyond Liberty Alone, I was convinced that the exclusive focus on individual rights in our contemporary political discourse had become one key part of our culture dilemma. Somehow we had lost sight collectively of other critical values that complemented and constrained rights. In fact, the original concept of rights had arisen within a tradition that also valued and defined responsibility. In this chapter of Beyond Liberty Alone, I set out to recover the idea of natural responsibility. If we are to continue to invoke self-evident or natural rights, then we should also be willing to recognize that some responsibilities are natural as well.


If we still choose to use the concepts of natural and self-evident rights, then we should also insist on the concept of natural responsibilities. The notion of “natural responsibilities” is similar in some ways to the notion of natural law discussed above, though we will be more modest about words such as “natural” and “law.” What is natural is by no means self-evident, since notions of what is natural in human beings are themselves up for grabs and interpretation. And the notion of law (in natural law) implies either a power that can make and enforce the law or a rule that is embedded in nature itself. My notion of natural responsibilities is more modest, implying a set of moral obligations that have the force of right on their side from within a particular but compelling way of understanding ourselves and our place in the world. The notion of natural responsibility insists that there is something about what it means to be human that places responsibilities and obligations on us and that limits what we can rightfully do. I wish now to develop this idea in language that is more contemporary but that builds on both seventeenth-century insights that made rights so important to us, and on notions of responsibility that were also available in traditional Judeo-Christian religious traditions.1

The notion of natural responsibility emerges from an understanding of our human character as a dependent and interdependent creature that benefits from the lives and contributions of thousands of people who have lived before. To restate this in language that can resonate for religious people, God created us to be dependent and interdependent and to be social creatures. This dependence and interdependence provides the conceptual foundation for realizing we have obligations and responsibilities to the species as a whole first and to each other as individuals second. This interdependence we have is part of what it means to be human, and it precedes the creation of individual political societies and provides the framework within which individual political societies should operate.

We are not born isolated as individuals, like the biblical Adam and Eve, but as members of a species with a long and rich history, and as dependent creatures who can’t survive without the care of a parent or other adult. The dependence and interdependence I am speaking about is both historical and personal. Historically, the human creature that we are today is the result of countless other efforts, activities, risks, and choices of human individuals who preceded us. From an evolutionary perspective, we in fact became human through countless smaller changes brought on by alterations that reshaped our very nature and made possible our upright posture, our opposable thumb and forefinger, our higher symbolic cortical functioning, and the various other characteristics that make us human creatures.

These capabilities provided the foundation on which our human ancestors discovered fire, learned to hunt and cook, and realized they could domesticate animals, practice agriculture, count numbers, and create abstract symbols, among other great achievements. Even if one prefers to see these evolutionary developments as under the guidance of God, one can embrace the idea that humans have become what we are through countless contributions of thousands before us. We did not do this alone. Everything that we presuppose today was bequeathed to us by others.

Engines, electricity, light bulbs, penicillin, automobiles, airplanes, computers, lasers; the list goes on. While there are great scientists and inventors such as Leonardo da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, Marie Curie, Alexander Graham Bell, to name only some of those who broke through to new insights and inventions, they stood on the shoulders of countless earlier inventions and insights. They could not have done their work without the prior contributions of those who created fire and invented language, symbols, math, telescopes, wire, lenses, plastic, the microscope, electricity, and countless other inventions that made their work possible. So even the greatest inventors of the human species relied on work done by countless unnamed individuals who came before.

You can download a copy of Chapter 3, Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Responsibility.