Taking Responsibility for Ourselves

Ronald Aronson

What does it mean to live without God today? Surely that has to do with responsibility: taking it and ascribing it. Yet here we are wrestling with the Sphinx’s riddle for the twenty-first century: What kind of being is it that is profoundly free and yet whose decisions and actions are profoundly affected by forces beyond its control? As we try to answer this, we are swamped by other questions: Are we or are we not ultimately responsible for what we do? What is our relationship to what befalls us? What is our responsibility for how our lives turn out? Of course, we have the absolutely indubitable sense of being the author of our actions—and yet it is no less certain that many of our possibilities are given to us, that many of our thoughts and feelings, needs and desires, come unbidden. Is the correct answer that we are really responsible only for some of our actions? Or are we free and active agents but only to a limited extent? These are followed by questions about our social responsibility: Do we see ourselves as isolated, separate individuals or instead recognize ourselves as belonging to, and depending on, a wider world? What is our responsibility for the world beyond ourselves?

These are high-stakes questions. Because they affect how we live our lives, in one form or another they have bedeviled Western philosophers since the Stoics. They bear on how we stand in relation to everything that we do and everything we are. Answering them involves sorting out who and what causes various events and results and requires decisive further moral, psychological, and even political steps. It entails deciding who deserves credit or who or what is to blame. It entails taking the world on our shoulders and taking responsibility for ourselves. All this may mean asking what needs to change so that things may turn out otherwise in the future. But it is above all a key question that atheists, agnostics, secularists, skeptics, and freethinkers have to answer for and about ourselves.

The two-thousand-year unresolved history of philosophizing about such issues on a more abstract level suggests a general reason for our sometimes being convinced by the one side, sometimes by the other. Both sides are partially correct. The many compelling philosophical perspectives on freedom and responsibility reflect the fact that persons are made up of more than a single aspect. Much of the debate, and much of our confusion, follows from gaining insight into one of these dimensions and then going on to ignore or minimize the others. Intellectual historian Jerrold Seigel has made a major contribution to our self-understanding by discerning three essential dimensions in the arguments and writings about the self over the past three hundred years: the bodily, the relational, and the reflective.

As physical selves, we are creatures driven by bodily needs and urges. As relational selves, we are social and cultural beings. As reflective selves, we become conscious of the world and our own existence—and contemplate our bodies and social relations and even our own consciousness. My point is that we need to think these selves together.

As bodily selves, we obey all physical and chemical laws; we are biological beings determined by forces beyond our control. On this level, our selves, and our self-awareness, are directly physical and rooted in the needs of our body. Even as we labor and transform the world with our bodies, we must submit to the laws of both. As the various sciences make clear, we are a rigorously determined part of a rigorously determined universe. And, because we are bodies, we may be decisively harmed by a panoply of negative causes: inadequate nutrition, or early illnesses, or poor health care, or harsh environmental conditions. Or we may live in constant conflict between our physical needs and the possibilities for satisfying them. Or, if we are fortunate, no such problems may trouble us and we may mature in full strength and health.

Scientists are sometimes tempted to explain persons wholly from within this physical perspective. For example, recently a group of neuroscientists has proclaimed that “within the foreseeable future science will be able to both explain and predict thoughts and decisions, as well as sensations and emotions, based on observable physiochemical processes in the human brain.” As philosopher Jürgen Habermas stresses in response, we disappear as persons if we give in to the temptation to take ourselves as no more than objects of explanation. What are the purposes of their observations, and what values do they attach to them? This conscious, acting subject, imbedded in language, is the creator of norms and goals. Habermas points to an inevitable dualism entailed in seeing ourselves from the outside and objectively on the one hand, and approaching our activities as intentional, rational participants who follow norms and give reasons for our actions on the other—as free subjects.

These subjects are social beings. With others, they develop collective identities, shared perspectives and values, using a specific language and following specific cultural styles. Yet in this second perspective, our selves are what our relations with society and with others shape us to be. We become persons only by growing up among other persons, members of a particular society and community with all of their essential idioms and forms of expression, and as more or less advantaged participants in their hierarchies. It is largely as members of a social world that we receive our life possibilities, not only those that are strictly social but also many of those related to our bodily needs insofar as these are experienced and satisfied in certain socially determined ways. Accordingly, our social belonging—to gender, class, ethnic group, race, or nation—can also be seen as strictly defining us, conditioning us, and habituating us to live according to certain other patterns and expectations. But at the same time our social belonging is also the terrain of our freedom, giving us our powers, including first of all our capacity of consciousness.

This third dimension of the self, the reflective, conscious self, is what we have in mind when speaking of being free to decide and to choose. It is on this level that our self becomes an active agent, the center of its own realization, directs its own actions, and creates order among its various attitudes and beliefs. Our sense of free will has its home here, and just as no human self is conceivable without language, so is it impossible to imagine persons without consciousness. In becoming self-conscious, we place ourselves at a distance from our own being, and as a result can examine, evaluate, and even change it. Here is where the self appears self-creating. Our attention to ourselves makes us the beings who perceive alternatives, who give reasons, who are able to remember—and thus to be—who we are.

So far I have been talking as if human beings have always existed as they are today, as if the terms I’ve been describing were not, each and every one, deeply historical. Yet it took millions of years for a human self to emerge with our ability to reflect. The capacity was not even present when fully evolved anatomically modern humans possessing our brain size appeared and made cave paintings thirty thousand years ago. It is a product of our history. Even the characters of Homer’s Iliad, so familiar in so many ways and written down only about three thousand years ago, don’t yet seem fully capable of giving reasons and being held morally responsible for their actions. Their gods, after all, are the ones who get them into and out of trouble, just as they are responsible for all cosmic and natural phenomena. Since Homer, humans have identified more and more of the forces responsible for making the world as it is and our lives as they are. We have e
volved socially and culturally in ways that make use of our evolved biological capacities to see where outside forces leave off and we begin. This historical process entailed no longer seeing supernatural forces all around us, separating supreme beings from daily occurrences. Then it required studying and acting on the world without referring at all to a god or gods. Over this long development, we have developed whole new dimensions of our being, including explaining why we choose to act as we do.

Does this three-dimensional picture of the self, now cast historically, set us on the path to resolving our Sphinx’s riddle? Almost. It certainly begins to clear up some of our confusion if we see persons as at once bodily, social, and reflective and thus in a sense both free and shaped by forces beyond their control. But something is still missing: a dimension of our being that we have developed the vocabulary and tools for understanding only relatively recently. Spilling into these three dimensions uninvited lies a distinctly different and fourth dimension: our unconscious self. This is our hidden self, seat of our dreams, source of unbidden urges and feelings, sometimes in conflict with what we know to be good for us. It often puzzles our conscious selves to the point where we get used to asking why we act this way or that, often discovering motives and needs of which we were first unaware. Regardless of the waxing and waning of Freud’s reputation, we are all Freudians to this extent: an inward search can lead us to unconscious drives or desires that have been imposing themselves on us covertly but with compelling force until, or even long after, they are comprehended.

Does the notion of “mitigating factors” in criminal law introduce a note of relativism that by explaining our behavior in terms of forces beyond our control undermines our ability to make moral judgments? Not at all. It affirms that persons can and should be held to social norms of morality. When they transgress these, they should usually be seen as free and held fully responsible. But in some circumstances, the law acknowledges that people lack self-control and rationality or are driven by negative and destructive impulses of such force that they are less than fully responsible for their actions. When we come to this conclusion we do not ignore the norm-centered understanding of personhood but conclude that to a certain extent the individual was incapable of the free and responsible action it entails.

But how then can any of us call ourselves free and responsible for ourselves when we are moved by unconscious needs and desires, when harmful external forces become internalized and motivate us without our knowledge? In principle we may always be able to reflect, to weigh alternatives, and to give reasons for our decisions, but in practice we will sometimes discover that our stated motives were a smokescreen for unconscious needs that were actually impelling us. Even accepting the fact that humans have a highly evolved consciousness with a sense of responsibility built into it, circumstances beyond their control favor some people to develop this consciousness fully and others to have it become distorted or underdeveloped or constantly overwhelmed.

Asking about freedom and responsibility leads to a multidimensional self, but how does this clarify our understanding of how the self operates? Are people sometimes ruled by one dimension, sometimes another, even though the dominion of reason is to be preferred? Do our freedom and responsibility peek in and out like the sun on a partly cloudy day? “More or less” or “sometimes”—are these the best answers we can give to the freedom and responsibility question?

Yet even the most driven and fearful individuals will make themselves. People, no matter how conditioned by external forces, no matter how unaware of the actual processes at work within them, no matter how passive they seem, are always responsible for their lives. What does this mean, Sartre’s great insight, the heart of his philosophy? Sartre electrified and scandalized people everywhere immediately after World War II by claiming that humans are free and responsible for themselves in any and every situation. He famously asserted: “The slave in chains is free to break them” and “We were never so free as during the German Occupation.” Despite their extravagance, Sartre wrote these startling lines only after carefully and patiently explaining the specific ways consciousness makes all humans free, all of the time—even the person being victimized by another’s power.

This has a vital meaning in a world that has so many oppressions built into it, in which much of what we think, feel, and do escapes our control. As Sartre deepened his thinking to incorporate our social selves, he embarked on a great adventure of the human spirit, beginning with this core of freedom and then exploring the ways we are unfree by examining the social, economic, and psychic conditions under which we develop as persons and the severe restrictions on this freedom. Integrating Marxism into his thought, he came to say: Yes, we do make ourselves—but the situation within which we do so, and even the terms in which we do so, are imposed on us and remain beyond our control, in ways deriving from social structures and systems of power and privilege. Even in talking about mental illness, Sartre appreciated it as “the solution that the free organism invents in its total unity in order to be able to live in an unlivable situation.” Neuroses, in other words, are our own, yes!, freely invented solutions to enormous stress.

But doesn’t this amount to giving the individual a kind of absolute freedom able to be exercised no matter what the circumstances? And has this always been so, or has it evolved historically? In thinking his way through these issues, Sartre came to qualify his argument without abandoning his starting point, winding up with a modest, but still decisive, margin of free activity. Freedom is “the small movement which makes of a totally conditioned being someone who does not render back completely what his conditioning has given him.”

Yet what remains of freedom in situations where we feel compelled to develop certain self-defeating behaviors for the sake of physical or psychic survival? It is difficult to hold ourselves responsible for who we are and what we do when many of our behaviors are dictated, when social and survival pressures to conform are overwhelming and our capacities for reflection are stunted.

Although our freedom to choose at times is so shrunken that it is hard to talk about with a straight face, humans never simply receive the imprint of the forces acting on them. In making myself into what is expected of me, I am affected by demands, limitations, and threats, and these enter into my particular personality, habits, way of living my life, and goals. Whatever forces have shaped its components and imposed themselves on me, the resulting whole is mine, because I then make them into—me. I am not responsible for the materials I start with, or even my own skills, but it is me who makes something of them. I may, and often should, be angry at who or what gave me my starting points and who or what continues to limit my possibilities—but even so, it is me who constructs a life out of these. No one else, nothing else. In this limited but absolute sense I am responsible, as have been all humans before me, for the life and self I have made.

Though we are not yet free, we are free to become free. We need to see that we do indeed make ourselves and that we can change both the process and the results if we take responsibility. This means becoming fully conscious of what we have created or submitted to while we were only half aware of it. This means shaking off the sense of being objects of our fate and noticing, among other things, our own comp
licity in situations we may lament. This means deliberately and consciously assuming our place in a given spiral of responsibility. Taking responsibility means overcoming the vague mood of helplessness, deciding to see ourselves as having created our lives. Of course doing so depends on conditions being propitious. It means asserting a will to consciously control future conditions as far as possible. It means accepting that we are free to become free.

So assuming responsibility for our lives does not mean that we exonerate all the forces beyond our control that have shaped our alternatives and limited our development. Just as we acknowledge what we have made of ourselves, our situation and capacities, so we can hold other individuals, social structures, and institutions responsible for the conditions they have created for us. Sometimes this means giving credit, of course—and experiencing gratitude. But it also entails a sharp awareness of the disabilities not only imposed on and built into people in the recent and distant past but the limitations and distortions continuing to be structured into people at this very moment.

Gaining this awareness demands two things of us. The first is a complex understanding, one capable of integrating both a sense of responsibility and of being subject to forces beyond our control. The second is a decision to take responsibility for our own actions and our role. This leads to the determination to bring under our control as much of our world as possible. Yet it also demands acknowledging our unfreedom. Assigning responsibility for this means naming and combating habits, practices, values, ideologies, individuals, institutions, and forces that continue making us unfree.

Living without God, it turns out, not only entails taking the world on our shoulders but also demands a self-confident determination to take responsibility for our own lives. Both tasks may appear as enormous burdens, but they belong to us only because they have become historically possible. Human life, and self-awareness, have evolved to the point where, today, it is becoming clear where we leave off and the world begins, as well as where the world leaves off and we begin. Our choice is no longer to take full and unlimited responsibility for areas of our life and to assign others to a supreme being, but to take and assign responsibility for ourselves and our world as appropriate. Living without God gives us such burdens only because they are our heritage, the product of human achievements—in fact, they are our privilege.

Once the world was alive with spirits and gods; rituals, sacrifices, and prayers sought to appease, satisfy, and cajole them. Early human consciousness ascribed much of what was most vital and vulnerable in life to immanent but superhuman powers that required constant attention to remain friendly and in our favor. Eventually, such powers became simplified and placed beyond the sensible world. When people saw the world as ruled over by a transcendent God, they thought prayer and obedience would gain his goodwill. As anthropologist Marcel Gauchet describes it, seeing God as a distinct being having less to do with daily life, usually interpreted as religious progress, was in fact a decisive step toward going beyond religion. The history of religion can be described as the growth of secular consciousness—as a slow process of humans reappropriating from the natural and human world what they had once assigned to the deity.

Here, after all, is the deep link between living without God and becoming appropriately responsible for ourselves and our lives. As it emerges, then, secular consciousness simultaneously becomes aware of itself and its limits. The end product is humans animated by a clear sense of the various and multifaceted ways our world and our lives are within and beyond our individual and collective control. Living without God is only one side of a historical process in which we come to know ourselves and the forces in our lives, know who and what to blame, and know when to claim and when to assign responsibility.

Ronald Aronson

Ronald Aronson is the author of the book Living Without God: New Directions for Atheists, Agnostics, Secularists, and the Undecided (Counterpoint, 2008), from which this excerpt is adapted. He is distinguished professor of the History of Ideas at Wayne State University.


What does it mean to live without God today? Surely that has to do with responsibility: taking it and ascribing it. Yet here we are wrestling with the Sphinx’s riddle for the twenty-first century: What kind of being is it that is profoundly free and yet whose decisions and actions are profoundly affected by forces …

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