August 14, 2004

Individual and Collective Responsibility

"I am a gay American..." These were the words of New Jersey governor Jim McGreevey as he admitted to an extra-marital affair that exposed his government to scandal. With those words, he contextualized his individual sins within America's over-arching sin of homophobia. Many have blamed the governor for trying to use the typical liberal excuse, blaming society for one's own mistakes. In our culture there has been a moral argument between those who tend to blame society for the wrongdoings of individuals and those who tend to blame individuals for their own sins without taking into account the ills of society that promote the need to commit the sins in the first place. However, there is a third perspective: perhaps Governor McGreevey is guilty of what he has done, and society is guilty for what it has done.

Few people, whatever their stance on this argument, deny the concept of individual responsibility. However, few on the side promoting the primacy of individual responsibility acknowledge that indeed there is a valid concept of collective responsibility. Society does commit sins. Society does have responsbility for what it does wrong.

Governor McGreevey certainly has responsibility for his own actions. But America has responsibility for fostering a society in which he has felt necessary to hide his nature from everyone close to him, from his colleagues, and from his constituents.
To use another example, if a society fosters an environment where there is widespread hunger, the individual still has the responsibility to refrain from stealing food, and must suffer the consequences if they do not adhere to that restriction. However, the sympathy that should be shown to the person who steals food in that context is much greater than that which should be shown to an individual who steals food out of laziness in a world of plenty.

Both McGreevey and society at large are both responsible for their own specific wrongs in this situation and both should be held accountable.