An article appearing in the Feb. 19 edition of Science Daily brings an Ambrose Bierce quote to mind. He defines responsibility as, “A detachable burden easily shifted to the shoulders of God, Fate, Fortune, Luck or one’s neighbor. In the days of astrology it was customary to unload it upon a star.”
History and works of literature provide a wealth of stories of incompetent decision-makers who tried to duck responsibility for the consequences of their bad judgments. For example, in the Adam and Eve story, when the first man is caught red-faced in the middle of his first transgression, his knee-jerk reaction is to explain his misbehavior by saying, “It’s the woman’s fault,” (with the unspoken corollary “and yours for giving her to me.”)
Now science adds an additional note of credibility to Bierce’s definition. According to an article appearing in Psychological Science, authored by researchers from Duke University, when people are forced to make difficult decisions, they explain the outcome as consequences of “fate.” This research suggests people confronted with the negative by-products of their bad decision-making may simply shrug their shoulders, neutralize the role of personal responsibility and sing, “Que Sera, Sera.”
The researchers intentionally exposed their subjects to difficult choices and required them to make decisions. Thereafter, the subjects’ belief in “fate” was examined. The researchers concluded that decision difficulty can motivate increased belief in fate. There seems to be a soothing effect — almost narcotic — in saying, “OK, things turned out bad but there was nothing I could do about it.”
According to the researchers, “Belief in fate may ease the psychological burden of a difficult decision, but whether that comes at the cost of short-circuiting an effective decision-making process is an important question for future research.”
While we hesitate to tell these researchers how to run their business, we might have some suggestions, based on our real-world experience and our common sense, where there might be additional fruit for study as to how people cope with crummy decisions.
For example, one way incompetent decision-makers may have for dealing with the disastrous consequences of their foolish choices is to simply deny the outcome. No matter how catastrophic the fallout may be, some of these incompetents simply pretend nothing happened. Researchers might find that certain politicians and bureaucrats waste hundreds of millions of dollars on a thoroughly dysfunctional website and shrug it off by saying, “Glitches like this are normal.” This is one way to dodge personal responsibility for otherwise inexcusable waste.
If fate is not a usable scapegoat and if the disaster can’t be overlooked, the resourceful politician or bureaucrat might ease the pain of a monumental screw-up by blaming political opponents. If the problem isn’t fate, if it’s a genuine disaster, and if the “It’s somebody else’s fault” dodge won’t work, maybe it’s best just to change the subject. Even in instances where there’s no denying the stubborn facts, and someone is forced to or volunteers to take responsibility, there are no consequences. This “amputation” of consequences from responsibility may provide incompetents with an alternative to blaming fate, or … whoever.
Daily, American voters are hammered with disturbing news concerning the devastating results of official bungling; hundreds of millions of wasted dollars, inexcusable security blunders, parades of gross foreign-policy errors, runaway bureaucratic power abuses, undeniable misstatement of important facts, gross miscalculations of the real cost of government programs; the list could go on. Americans have never been so disaffected with the performance of their president and legislators.
Who bears the blame for this disaffection? Can we justifiably blame fate? Can we pretend none of this is happening? Can we allow ourselves to be conned into believing it’s always somebody else’s fault? The fact is, the dysfunctional, incompetent, irresponsible mob running this country was put in office by the American voter. Unfortunately, in many cases, voters exercise their franchise based on the, “What’s in it for me?” philosophy. I’m reminded of a statement by President Kennedy. “Our privileges can be no greater than our obligations. The protection of our rights can endure no longer than the performance of our responsibilities.” If voters are enticed to elect crooks and clowns based on their promises to furnish privileges unencumbered by responsibilities, how long can the sanctity of our rights endure?
G.K. Chesterton rightly summarized the operation of fate, “I do not believe in a fate that falls on men however they act; but I do believe in a fate that falls on them unless they act.” If the voters fail to elect competent presidents and legislators they may not shirk responsibility by blaming fate. I’m Hink and I’ll see ya.
MIKE HINKLE is a retired attorney and Edmond resident.