What Are Our Responsibilities To Others?

In pre-flight instructions, you are always advised, in the case of emergency, to take care of yourself before assisting others. This makes sense, because you won’t be able to help another if you yourself are in jeopardy.

This reasoning could be extended, however, to never actually helping anyone other than yourself. That doesn’t seem right. Helping others can end up helping you — a rising tide lifts all boats, as the saying goes.

Related: Listen to an episode of the Intellectual Roundtable Podcast, where Lee and Michael discuss this question: ‘What are our responsibilities to others?’ We also discuss another question as well, ‘Are we too busy?’

A balance between yourself and others needs to be found. Hence the question: What are our responsibilities to others?

Related questions: What is the best way to help others? What is the best way to help yourself?

3 thoughts on “What Are Our Responsibilities To Others?”

  1. In essence, is their a social contract or a moral contract that we are bound to by a religion or a society? Some religious views on the subject are very dogmatic one way or another on the subject. The legal state weighs in as well as with constitutions, statutes, and regulations. Many institutions we join (work places, community organizations, etc.) also define these obligations the way they see them. However, this question seems to be coming from a more personal and philosophical place.

    I don’t want to go too far down the path of formal ethical theory with my response. While it’s interesting to debate the difference between broad ethical standards — like virtue ethics (embodying virtues of mind and character), utilitarianism (the best outcome for the most people), duty of care, pragmatism, etc. — I’m really much more interested in how the question FEELS to people. In that regard, George Lakoff in Moral Politics provides some great insight for me. He argues that we think in metaphors, develop moral judgments using metaphors, and the principle metaphor we apply is “the family,” which we project onto everything including society as a whole.

    In the modern American context, Lakoff sees two competing family metaphors: Strict Father, and Nurturant Parent. These are two different competing moral views that see our responsibilities to others very differently. The Strict Father view sees a world based on competition in which the ultimate goal is self-sufficiency and the greatest capacity you can instill in others is the self-control necessary to achieve self-sufficiency that you reinforce in them through strict punishment. The Nurturant Parent view on the other hand sees the world as neither inherently hostile or friendly, but rather what we collectively make it. Therefore, the greatest capacities you can instill in others are empathy and compassion in order to be able to exercise self care and care for others in order to most fully develop.

    When it comes to my personal view on our responsibilities to others, it certainly falls in line with the Nurturant Parent view. But, also the pragmatic ethics tradition, since my views were really crystalized as a young adult by some traditional community organizing concepts. In organizing, you focus on finding that middle group between selfishness (denying others) and selflessness (denying yourself) that represents enlightened self interest. You pursue your individual interests while taking the interests of others into account, and your also recognize that their are collective interests to pursue as a group. From both perspectives, Nurturant Parent and pragmatic ethics, the best way to help others is to do things with them, rather than either competing with them or doing it for them.

  2. Practically and philosophically, I believe that there is enough bounty in the world for us all to thrive. Societally, our responsibilities to others comes in constructing systems that foster proper individual and community growth. Materially, yes. But also it’s in coming to realize the conditions that help individuals reach their full potential and build communities that foster bonds to each other so we care enough to contribute to the common good.

    On the other hand, and practically, our systems (e.g. financial, municipal ordinances, agricultural, treaties, etc.) do not reinforce the building of a common good. If budgets — individual, communal, nationally, and between nations — reflect values, we value wealth accumulation and stability. Bounty for an elite (to whom some say have proven and deserve their worth) as well as national and international agreements. The latter two reflect budgets and systems that use might to ascribe right.

    I could go on for a long time describing the paragraph above, but I’ll save that for questions if people want to ask specific questions. Let me just restate succinctly that we need a more perfect union … one that binds us together in a way embraces potential versus stability.

  3. Reading history from the days of the cave men to the present makes me think that it is the human destiny to become more and more dependent on each other. This dependency on the group leads to a responsibility to the group. That seems to be the essence of civilization. Interdependency generally adds to the prosperity of a culture, but it does not automatically lead to the equality as one might wish. But, those groups that unite seems to become stronger as they grow in number. Individual tribes are no match for a nation state; they don’t have the resources. Yet, the strength and cunning of the individual is still necessary and adds to the strength, ingenuity and prosperity of the group.

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