Science in Christian Perspective



The Future Becomes the Present

Responsibility in 1984

Department of Sociology
Trinity College
Deerfield IL 60015

Department of Sociology 
Trinity College
Deerfield, Illinois 60015

From: JASA 33 (March 1981): 24-29.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that one of the greatest impacts of social science at the popular level of consciousness has been its influence on how people explain their actions. Particularly in explaining their negative actions, people commonly refer to the influence of their parents, family background, social situation, or cultural deprivations. In addition, there are a number of societal conditions which have resulted in a dulling of our sense of responsibility-impersonalization, industrialization, urbanization, routinization, bureaucratization, etc.

In the emergence of our impersonal mass society the individual begins by feeling and ends by believing that one is not personally responsible for societal conditions nor for one's action within it. A good example of this is the recent testimony of a medical doctor who had been convicted of Medicaid fraud. In an appearance before a Senate investigating committee, this doctor frankly stated that it was the Medicaid system itself which so strongly invited corruption. Thus his defense was that he had no choice in the matter. In essence, he was blaming the legislators for setting up a system which was too tempting and in the process denying any personal responsibility for his actions.

In Orwell's 1984 life was lived in a totalitarian state in which individuals had no freedom and thus, by implication, no responsibility. As Heddendorf has pointed out in his introductory statement, western civilization has sought a free society, and has assumed that the individual is responsible for his actions. Although modern society cannot be strictly described as a totalitarian state in the Orwellian sense, it is still a society in which people increasingly believe that they cannot do anything about the societal problems engulfing them.

While we can point an accusing finger at the doctor convicted of Medicaid fraud, we are all tempted to feel that there is nothing that we as individuals can do about the problems of water pollution, air pollution, energy shortage, poverty and hunger, etc., and instead blame these conditions on the "system." To make matters worse, if we want to be completely rational about placing the blame for societal problems, we are probably right-the fault is with the system, and although we are a part of the system there most likely is little we as individuals can do about these immense societal problems. The effectively subtle way in which the concept of responsibility has been eroding in modern society may even rival Orwell's 1984 in its efficient pervasiveness.

A more intellectualized source of the erosion of responsibility is found in the view of social determinism. For the rigorous determinist, the concept of responsibility may seem useless. It makes little sense to hold someone responsible for an action in which he or she has no choice. In particular, it makes little sense to hold someone responsible in the sense of "punishing" them. Why should we punish determined individuals? We do not punish computers, we repair them. Similarly, a determinist might argue that we should not punish people but "repair" them through some type of rehabilitative "therapy" or resocialization. The rigorous determinist might then deal with the issue of responsibility by throwing the concept out.

In the modern world, the notion of responsibility is problematic not only for the determinist, but for all who take the social scientific perspective seriously. It cannot be denied that we are all greatly influenced by our sociocultural context. In view of this, how should the Christian deal with the issue of responsibility? The structures of modern society make the issue of responsibility extremely complex. Social scientists are not unanimous in their approach or in their conclusions regarding the nature of human responsibility. There are many different questions to ask. Before examining several differing sociological perspectives, we attempt to clarify some important dimensions of the meaning of responsibility.

The Concept of Responsibility

There are three dimensions of responsibility with which we should be concerned: (1) being responsible; (2) holding responsibility; and (3) taking responsibility. The first 
dimension equates responsibility with the concept of
freedom. Persons are said to be responsible for their acts 
when they have made some real choice in constructing those 
acts. Evans speaks of this type of responsibility in discuss
ing the deterministic image of man: 

There are three dimensions of responsibility with which we should be concerned. being responsible, holding responsibility, and taking responsibility.

In this framework are men not responsible for their acts in precisely the same sense in which machines (computers?) are responsible for their "behavior, "or in which an apple tree is responsible for producing the fruit which it does? Does the notion of moral freedom demand not merely that the person could have done otherwise if some things had been different (his genes, his background, his character), but that the person has at least some alternatives among which he may choose, even if nothing about the causal nexus prior to that point of decision had been different? When we hold a person morally responsible do we not say to him, "You could have done otherwise even given your past and present?"1

In this sense, being responsible is a type of moral self determination or freedom within a nexus of biological and social influence. When we speak of being responsible we are speaking of a nearly universal characteristic of human persons. There are certain persons in society who are presumably not morally responsible: infants, persons with certain psychological disorders, persons who are senile, etc. The existence of these persons opens the door for the question: who can be held responsible?

When we hold an individual or a group responsible for their acts, we presume that it is appropriate for them to suffer (or enjoy) the consequences of those acts. In holding someone responsible for the death of another person, we suggest that he/she should suffer some punishment. If someone has worked very hard, he/she should enjoy the economic benefits. This notion of "holding responsible" is perhaps the most problematic in modern societies. Holding people responsible seems to hinge on their being responsible, the first notion we discussed. Yet, social science, as well as modern societies themselves have challenged this notion. It is difficult to argue that persons should be held responsible or rewarded if they had no choice in their acts.

We can observe people holding other people responsible in many contexts, but the issues involved are most readily observed in the legal context. In western societies, legal responsibility has generally been based on the notion of moral responsibility. For this reason, small children and the mentally incompetent are not held responsible When they commit criminal acts.

Currently, in our society, we are witnessing the notion of legal responsibility being questioned because its foundational concept of moral responsibility is being shaken. Some examples that illustrate this are the Patty Hearst bank robbery trial, the trial of a young boy who killed an elderly woman in Florida, and membership in religious "cults." In all three cases "brainwashing" is said to be involved. In the case of Patty Hearst, kidnapping and deliberate brainwashing were involved. In the case of the young boy, brainwashing was described in terms of an overdose of television violence. The argument in both these cases is that environmental influences negate moral responsibility and should in turn negate legal responsibility. In the case of the religious "cults," members are said to have joined because of subjection to brainwashing techniques. The claim is made by angry parents that their cult children should not have legal rights because they are not responsible for themselves.2 These examples point to one side of the dilemmas of the modern legal system: who can be held responsible for their actions?

On the individual level, defense because of "innocent by reason of insanity" or "temporary insanity" has been stretched to its limits causing some legislatures to reject it. In its place, the argument, "guilty, but insane" has been substituted, thus allowing the judicial system to hold more people responsible. On the corporate or group level, the issues may be even more complex. How can motivations or responsibility be established when decisions are made bureaucratically? Can nations or groups be held responsible for actions committed in the past-when those presumably responsible are no longer leaders or even alive? Who can be held responsible for the unintended (or intended) consequences of technological development, e.g., pollution, occupational diseases, mechanical failure in airplanes, etc.? When the issue of responsibility emerges, "each person can now point an accusatory finger towards others or toward a faceless massive monolith-the corporate structure of modern society. We seek to find guilt in the other, to excuse or justify our own behavior and most often we are inert."3

Based on this all too brief discussion we suggest that being responsible is a given-that we are responsible unless certain circumstances, e.g., extreme illness, senility, interfere with our moral decision making abilities. Holding responsible is a social process-it is the attempt to assign responsibility and its consequences to an individual or a Froup. Taking responsibility is also a social process, which involves an individual or a group accepting responsibility for some past action or actively pursuing involvement in the future outcome of some situation. Taking responsibility includes a recognition of moral responsibility and a willingness to be held responsible. In taking responsibility, a person exercises his/her moral freedom, recognizing the limits of his/her sociocultural and biological situation.

Most social critics living in the shadow of 1984, however, have relegated the concept of responsibility to the same status as that of sin and guilt. Few social scientists consider the concept of responsibility as appropriate or useful in understanding our society and its problems. Yet, as our knowledge of social structures and processes increases, our sense of power over these structures and over our lives seems to diminish. Although society has never been able to

Dawn Ward received her PhD in Sociology from the University of Georgia in 1974. Since then she has been teaching sociology at Trinity College in Deerfield, Illinois. Her special interests include contemporary sociological theory and the sociology of religion. One of her professional goals is to develop a sociological perspective that is both essentially Christian and sensitive to contemporary thought and culture.

control sin, in modern society we seem even incapable of developing a coherent conception of sin and evil.

As Lyman suggests, "What is missing in the relation of evil to sin in the contemporary era is a tissue of guilt and responsibility that connects individuals and groups to institutions and corporate structures."4 Although no sociology has offered a conclusive understanding of the individual and modern society which would help restore this connective tissue, it would seem helpful to briefly consider three of the most popular competing sociological perspectives in order to better understand the issues involved.

A Sociology for 1984

One of the efficiently unique features of Orwell's 1984 is the way social scientific theory is utilized as an ideological support of the official state view. One way to assess the degree to which modern society approximates Orwell's 1984 is to examine the way in which responsibility is handled in contemporary sociological theories. Based on the differing moral and methodological assumptions that they hold, as well as the differing types of questions that they raise, we have selected three differing sociological perspectives on the issue of responsibility.

Structure-Functionalist Sociology . Structure-functionalism was the dominant sociological perspective during the development of the Welfare State and centralized bureaucracies in the United States during the 1950's and 1960's. Even though structure-functionalism offered no definitive statement on the issue of responsibility, theorists in this perspective do share certain assumptions regarding individual and collective responsibility that spring from a basically deterministic view of persons.

In structure-functionalism the focus on responsibility shifts away from the individual to the social system. The social system is said to be responsible for the adequate socialization of individuals who can function within the social system. When deviant behavior occurs which is harmful to the social system, certain aspects of the social system are held responsible. In this view social programs can serve as sources of social change that can potentially produce more adequately socialized individuals.

Interpretive Sociology. Interpretive sociology began to challenge the dominant structure-functional perspective in the late 1960's and may become the dominant perspective in the sociology of the 1980's. Rather than seeking for an answer to the question of ultimate responsibility for human actions, interpretive sociologists prefer to leave this question to philosophers, theologians or any persons who think they can clarify the issue. Instead, they focus on the uses that social actors make of "responsibility," "responsible" and related terms in social discourse.

In the interpretive view, our understanding of responsibility is a social construction that develops through social discourse over time in a series of socio-historical contexts. The issue of responsibility emerges when some behavior occurs that is exceptional, unexpected, or demands an explanation for some other reason. An interesting possibility in this perspective is that we engage in "responsibility talk" in ways that minimize our own responsibility and maximize the responsibility of other persons and groups.

A soldier in combat, for example, may justify killing other men by defining them as enemies deserving of their fate, or he may excuse these killings by reasoning that he was under orders to do so and therefore does not share in the responsibility. Negotiation of responsibility in this way takes place in social structures where individuals generally have assigned social roles: parent-child, teacher-student, doctor-patient, etc. Often there is a power struggle involved and something to be gained if we can assign and take responsibility in certain ways. Discourse regarding responsibility can become a competitive struggle in which the powerful take credit for the good in society and the powerless are blamed for the bad in society. The tables can be turned, of course, and a third sociological perspective, critical sociology, would like to help turn them.

Critical Sociology. Critical sociologists sense two dangers regarding responsibility in contemporary society. One is the phenomenon of "bad faith"-a denial or loss of the sense of being responsible.' A person exercises bad faith when he/she attributes his/her actions to his/her role and says in effect, "I had no choice but to act as I did."

A less subjective danger is the centralization of responsibility in decision making and reality construction. In an

          Action Being Evaluated

                                                                                  Positive                           Negative

Person to Whom                                   Oneself        A. Having                          B. Take
                                                                                       Humility                             Responsibility 
Responsibility                                       Another       C. Give                             D. Be        
Encouragement                 Understanding
Is Applied                                                                   

Figure 1. Applying the concept of responsibility to oneself and to another for both positive and negative actions.

analysis of the mass media, T. R. Young, for example, argues that the construction of social reality is now concentrated in the hands of advertisers and others who control the media.6 Such a concentration of reality defining power inhibits persons from taking responsibility for the development of their communities. Instead, people are content to be passive consumers of reality via the mass media and mass produced goods via the capitalist economy. Such passive behavior goes hand in hand with bad faith and alienation, and is the antithesis of responsible behavior.

Critical theorists then, are concerned with the problems people confront in attempting to take responsibility for the structure and quality of their lives. Underlying their analysis is the belief that responsible participation by individuals is crucial. They do not believe that responsible participation is possible for the vast majority of persons living in society as it is presently structured. For the critical sociologists 1984 is near, and they are seeking to offer a sociological view which will diminish the possibility of Orwell's prophecy becoming a reality.

Responsibility in Interpersonal Relationships

The concept of responsibility should be used differently depending on whether we are applying it to ourselves (taking responsibility) or to another person (holding responsible). In this context we are not using the concept of being responsible (as it is related to freedom) as an explanatory concept, but as a response that we make to ourselves and others as we act in ways that we evaluate both positively and negatively.

We are all aware that we act in such ways. Sometimes one act may be evaluated both positively and negatively. We may, for example, do a good deed but question our motives. For the sake of our analysis here we consider actions where we evaluate an act as either positive or negative, not both.

How should we respond in terms of responsibility when we or someone else acts either positively or negatively? In Figure 1, cell A represents the case where we recognize that we have acted positively-we feel good about what we have done. Perhaps we are excelling in our given vocation. We suggest that the proper response is humility. Humility involves giving credit to others that share the responsibility for our success both in the past (in our development) and in the present (our fellow workers). We do not deny our own responsibility but neither do we emphasize it. Finally we should avoid generalizing a judgment about ourselves so as to avoid pharisaism or inflated egos.

There is ample biblical support for a person having

Jack Balswick is Professor of Child and Family Development and Sociology at the University of Georgia. His books include Social Problems in the United States and Why I Want to Say 'I Love You.' Together with Dawn Ward, he is currently writing a book on the relationship between sociology and Christianity. He is a former Fulbright Scholar to Cyprus, and is currently (March-July 1981) serving as a Fulbright Scholar in Korea.

humility as a responsible response to a positive self-induced action: "The fear of the Lord is a training in wisdom, and the way to honour is humility."7 "Do not be conceited or think too highly of yourself; but think your way to a sober estimate based on the measure of faith that God has dealt to each of you."8 "Then put on the garments that suit God's chosen people, his own his beloved: compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience."9 "Thus Scripture says, 'God opposes the arrogant and gives grace to the humble."10

Cell B represents the situation where we recognize that we have acted negatively-we have failed to fulfill a responsibility, committed a sin (an everyday occurrence), or committed a crime. We suggest that a proper response involves taking responsibility for the action even though this may require repentance or punishment. We should attempt to understand the social context or influence if this is thought to be helpful, but not use this understanding as an excuse or thorough explanation for our actions. This would be a case of "bad faith," the failure to accept the fact that we have any self-determination whatsoever. We should be open to change and avoid fatalism.

Finally we should avoid generalizations about ourselves that lead to low self-esteem. Certainly we are sinful, but we should not be misled into thinking that others have achieved heights of righteousness which are beyond our capacity. There are numerous biblical examples which could be given in support of the Christian's duty to take responsibility for his or her own negative behavior, two of the most outstanding of which are David calling upon God for forgiveness following his act of adultery and the prodigal son returning as an unworthy servant to his father.

Cell C represents those instances when another person has acted in a positive manner. Perhaps they have been successful or helpful in some way. That person should be encouraged. Perhaps that seems obvious but it is not easy. Encouragement may take the form of praise or gratitude. Again we should avoid generalization about the goodness of this person so as to avoid both envy and hero worship. The right manner of giving encouragement can be seen in the way the apostle Paul encouraged his fellow workers, Timothy, Barnabas, Apollos, and Silas.

Cell D represents those cases that constitute the primary reason for this entire analysis: those cases where we judge that another person has acted negatively; perhaps they have committed a crime or sinned in some way. As an example, let us consider that person who appears to be a practicing alcoholic. Understanding is perhaps the key response. Understanding involves many things. It involves understanding the other person's situation, both socially and psychologically. This may help us to avoid selfrighteousness, and pious solutions. We should avoid judgmental attitudes. The Scriptures teach that judging others to be less good than ourselves is serious business.11

We are also to avoid categorical judgments of other people and primarily consider our own responsibilities and weaknesses. We see the tendency for people to make categorical judgements of others especially when the other is in a lower status. For example, the lower status person may be labelled a hopeless "alcoholic" while the upper or middle class person is simply admitted to the hospital for "alcohol abuse" or "misusing controlled substances." This does not suggest however, that we do not hold the other person responsible or accountable for their actions. Understanding does not imply excusing the other person. This encourages "bad faith" on the part of the other person.

Finally, we should not hold the individual solely responsible for his own actions or condition. We should consider the possibility of our collective and individual responsibility with regard to that person. In accepting our responsibility, however, we should realize our limited capacity to help another person change his behavior.

A Balanced Perspective

We need two perspectives on responsibility: an individualistic and a collective perspective. We need an individualistic perspective which states that ultimately each person is responsible for his or her acts that are not determined. This should not be mistaken for a "self-made man" philosophy. The primary manifestation of this individualistic perspective is that we take responsibility for our own acts, particularly for our "sinful" acts, and for our own lives. We do not persist in rationalizing our failures by reference to our socio-cultural conditioning. It is helpful to understand the socio-cultural factors that have influenced us, but nonproductive to blame our situation on other persons and events.

Another manifestation of the individualistic perspective is that we hold other persons responsible for their acts. Are we here falling into a form of "judgmentalism?" Hopefully not. In holding others responsible we acknowledge that they can be self-determining individuals and offer them hope. It is unlikely that any society could function without some system of reward and punishment. However, reward and punishment should be for particular acts. We should avoid labelling certain persons as "good" and others as "bad." The labelling theory of deviance suggests that by labelling certain persons as "criminal" we decrease their chance of finding alternatives to criminal living.

In holding others responsible, we should not confuse "deviance" with "sinfulness." That is, we must not confuse our society's definition of sin with sin itself. Society's definition of sin or wrongdoing is constantly changing, e.g., the abortion issue, and cannot be used as a yardstick. Society often punishes the sins of the poor and rewards the sins of the rich. For example, the car thief is considered criminal while the producer of sugar coated cereals (a promoter of tooth decay and sugar addiction) is rewarded with windfall profits.

A final manifestation of the individualistic perspective is that we will be humble in any attempt to "rehabilitate" other people. We realize the limits of reform based on a change in external circumstances and honor the other person as self-determining.

In addition to the individualistic perspective we need a collectivistic perspective on responsibility. This refers primarily to our responsibility for other people, both those we are responsible for directly (our family, friends, etc.) and indirectly (members of other social groups). We are responsible for creating environments in our families, in our churches, in our neighborhoods, in our economic and political institutions, etc. that do not oppress certain groups of people while giving other groups unfair advantages. In an individualistically oriented society, this kind of "collective responsibility" is often difficult to comprehend and even more difficult to accept and act upon. It is difficult to understand how we can take responsibility for the plight of poor people living in ghettos and on reservations whom we have never seen. Once we have been convinced of our responsibility, we become frustrated when we realize that there is little we can do individually to change the situation even if we are willing.

Although there are similarities between modern society and Orwell's 1984, perhaps nothing more graphically illustrates their differences in regard to responsibility than the extent to which Americans of various religious and political persuasions are taking responsibility for societal conditions which they deem undesirable, and together with likerninded others trying to do something about them. For

We need two perspectives on responsibility: an individual and a collective perspective.

those who fatalistically accept the notion that no amount of collective activity will bring about fruitful change, 1984 has already arrived. For the Christian living in modern society the problem is not only to decipher what is Caesar's and what is God's but also to know how much of society can be changed and perfected through Caesar and how much can be changed and perfected only by God.


1Stephen Evans, "Christian Perspectives on the Science of Man", Christian Scholar's Review 6 (1976), p, 104.

2Thomas Robbins and Dick Anthony, "New Religions, Families and Brainwashing", Society 15 (May/June 1978), pp. 77-83.

3Stanford M. Lyman, The Seven Deadly Sins: Society and Evil, New York: St. Martins Press, 1978, p. 269.

4Loc. cit.,
5Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy, New York: Doubleday,

6T. R. Young, The Division of Labor in the Construction of Social Reality, Red Feather Institute, 1978.





11See Matthew 7:1-5, Luke 6:37, Romans 14:10-12.