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Obligation Is The Death Of Responsibility

Obligation vs. Responsibility. I could have written this article a year ago. I was actually kind of surprised I haven’t written it already. I had to check my past posts to make sure.

The topic of obligation vs. responsibility is something that is very core to my personal set of philosophies. To be exact, I strongly believe that a sense of obligation is the antithesis to a sense of responsibility to do something, and for this reason obligations such as rules or laws are often very counter-productive.

This can seem counterintuitive. Most of the time the people who put laws or rules into place just don’t think about the negative effects of the rules themselves. If, after putting the rule in place, people go against its intent even more than before, it’s usually just interpreted as a need to be even harsher with the imposition of the rule. Which is why it’s so hard for people to realise what a destructive thing obligation really is.

Living Through Responsibility And Living Through Obligation

I believe that there are two ways of living life.

On the one hand, you do things “right” because you feel internally that this is what is correct for you to do. This is what I’m referring to as responsibility in this article.

On the other hand, you can do things “right” because you feel threatened, pressured or simply ordered to do so. This generally implies fear – either fear of authority or fear of some specific punishment. It’s a form of external control. We’ll call this obligation.

Some people are so enamoured with the obligation culture that they don’t actually realise that there is a way of living without it. They believe that they only way to make people be nice to each other is to inspire them with fear of punishment for doing wrong. They believe that they only way to get someone to do something for someone else is to offer them a reward.

These sorts of people must be pretty common because that’s basically how our society is built. Money is a form of obligation. Society obliges you to earn money rather than just supporting you. Laws are obviously a form of obligation. Insofar as people’s actions are seen as insufficient, obligation is used to set them right.

But money isn’t needed to get you to support the other people in your community. Most people have experienced giving to their friends without any need for an obligation of anything in return.

Of course, there can be a sense of responsibility to give back. If you make a big sacrifice for a friend, it makes sense for that friend to give something back so that your resources aren’t too far drained. In this case we’re not talking about an obligation to give back. Your friend gives back just because he can see that it’s what makes most sense from a community perspective. It feels right internally and arises out of Love, not Fear, to speak in New Age terms.

Laws aren’t required for you to treat other people in your community civilly. Most people, when they get the opportunity for a “perfect crime” – 0% chance of recrimination – they don’t do it. Imagine you have the opportunity to kill someone and have it look exactly like an accident, and you’ll gain 5000$ for your efforts. A no brainer right? Who wouldn’t take the 5000$? Well, not exactly… because we have a sense of internal responsibility not to harm others in our community (a term which just means in this case those around us), a responsibility that doesn’t require obligation to exist.


But here’s the thing. Obligation is not only unnecessary. It’s actively destructive.

I think we all know about how kids do the opposite of what their parents tell them to do on purpose. I know I did it; I wanted to show them I had free will. Given that obligation requires the threat of violence on some level, I think resistence is only natural, even if the command is reasonable in itself.

This pattern in perhaps subtler ways happens beyond childhood. Things that are illegal become strangely fascinating to people. Sometimes law enforcement is mostly successful, and sometimes almost everyone defies it. Whatever the case, the force that holds people back from the illegal thing is countered by another, new force of a similar intensity.

Take the case of marijuana prohibition. I think most conscious people would agree with me that the law against marijuana is just dumb. People smoke it anyway, but millions upon millions are still spent on law enforcement to fight it while organised crime reaps the benefits of its sale.

What isn’t widely known is that before the law against marijuana, it was an obscure, almost unused drug. I drenched up the statistics and worked out that 0.08% of the USA population used it in 1930, when the laws against it were first being considered. (1) From a study in 2009, 10% of all people are estimated to use marijuana these days. (2)

*Note on statistics: I worked out the % for 1930 with the help of Wikipedia’s info on the USA population at that time.

I strongly believe that this increase was due to the illegality of marijuana. To begin with, making it illegal must have been a big publicity stunt in the first place. Then, more and more people tried it as a way of being rebellious. Maybe they wanted to feel a little bit of power taken back from a controlling govenrment. Or maybe they just thought that it must be good if it was so prohibited.

On this note, the Prohibition (of alcohol in the USA, 1920-1933) makes another good example of how obligation goes sour.

Wikipedia describes the situation:

Organized crime received a major boost from Prohibition. … A profitable, often violent, black market for alcohol flourished. … Rather than reducing crime it seemed prohibition had transformed the cities into battlegrounds between opposing bootlegging gangs. In a study of over 30 major U.S cities during the prohibition years of 1920 and 1921, the number of crimes increased by 24%. Additionally, theft and burglaries increased by 9%, homicide by 12.7%, assaults and battery rose by 13%, drug addiction by 44.6% and police department costs rose by 11.4%. … Despite the beliefs of the prohibitionist movement that by outlawing alcohol crime would surely be reduced, the reality was that the Volstead Act led to worse social conditions than were experienced prior to prohibition (…)

Furthermore, stronger liquor surged in popularity because its potency made it more profitable to smuggle. To prevent bootleggers from using industrial ethyl alcohol to produce illegal beverages, the government ordered the poisoning of industrial alcohols. In response, bootleggers hired chemists who successfully renatured the alcohol to make it drinkable. As a response, the Treasury Department required manufacturers to add more deadly poisons, including the particularly deadly methyl alcohol. New York City medical examiners prominently opposed these policies because of the danger to human life. As many as 10,000 people died from drinking denatured alcohol before Prohibition ended.


…in the year before the Volstead Act became law, it was estimated by the 1930 Prohibition Commissioner that the average drinking American spent $17 per year on alcoholic beverages. By 1930, because enforcement diminished the supply, this had increased to $35 per year (there was no inflation in this period), resulting in an illegal alcohol beverage industry that made an average of $3 billion per year in illegal untaxed income.

Let me add one more example, which isn’t a prohibition (a negative obligation) but a straightforward legal obligation. That is: schooling.

I’ve talked about why obligatory schooling is insane several times on this blog, but while we’re into statistics I can offer something very compelling here.

John Taylor Gatto explains in this chapter of his major work, The Underground History of American Education, that in 1940s, 96% of American men were literate. By the end of the twentieth century, only 83% were. So much for advancement. In this time more and more money has been poured into schools as a desperate solution to the literacy “problem”. As if it were that hard to learn to read and write for someone who really wants to!

Just as laws against alcohol or marijuana make people want to use those drugs, laws forcing people to learn have the effect of making people not want to learn. Whatever is obligatory is seen as undesireable: otherwise why would anyone need to force you to do it??


What if there were a different way?

Obligation causes the problems it intends to solve. It might not be the original cause of those problems, but it always becomes a contributor to them. Even if the problems are suppressed entirely by violent coertion, eventually the pushback always becomes too strong and the problem comes back in greatly multiplied force.

But what if there were no problems of that sort? What if we could just see these things as learning experiences?

Of course there are times when you can’t afford to let someone learn from their experience because they will be harming others in the mean time. If I were reforming laws according to my own criteria, I don’t know what I’d do about forced taxation. The minimum amount is needed while we’re aiming to work towards a society of mutual responsibility. There would probably also need to be something done about killers and rapists who need to be removed from society. However, there need be no sense of the rightness about their punishment, no vegeance when we come down on them, only practicality.

If we want to end the war of parent vs. child, government vs. citizen, we need to help cultivate in our children and citizens a sense of interconnectedness and responsibility. They have to understand that they are a part of us and we are a part of them; that the family, or society depends on them just as they are dependent in turn.

Everyone knows this at heart. I think most people don’t hurt or steal from others because they have concepts of kindness and decency. If they didn’t I think we’d be back in the feudal age, everyone struggling against each other to steal or enslave. We could only have gotten as far as we had gotten if there were some sense of communal responsibility. Sure, money facilitates exchange, but in the end it’s just an agreement. Without responsibility we’d just kill each other to take each other’s stuff and life would be about war, not creation. In feudal times everyone was expected to be a soldier, even if they were just fodder. Nowadays as little as 5% of our populations are soldiers.

A sense of responsibility is the only real, holistic solution to behaviour problems. Obligation is a temporary solution but in the end it perpetuates the problem by staving off any final learning of responsibility. In fact I believe it’s to some extent the opposite of responsibility, that you can’t have one or the other at the same time. I don’t believe we should stop using obligation at all ever, but we should stop seeing it as anything glorious or desireable, and start seeing it as only a temporary solution to be transcended as fast as possible.

What do you think about all this?


Addition 19/12/11. I think this article by Richard Branson shows how effective a responsibility rather than obligation based approach can be in “fighting” drugs. This guy is my idol.

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{ 1 comment… add one }

  • Eva November 16, 2011, 3:16 pm

    I think this post is really profound. This sort of goes along with how we are trying to raise our own daughter, who is almost 2. Before she was born, I started learning about Attachment Parenting. The main point of it is to stay connected at the heart. Instead of punishing behavior, you look into the behavior to find what needs your child has that are causing behavior that seems undesirable. I think your post ties into this concept, because it addresses the heart of the issue. When there is behavior that is not beneficial to society, the problem can’t be fixed with more laws, regulations, and punishments. I remember hearing about an experimental prison where they treated some prisoners with love and put them in a nice environment and helped them grow, so they all changed into more loving responsible people who did not return to crime. But I think punishment does put us into a battle mindset, and I think all the laws bother some people more than others. I personally don’t care if I ever use marijuana, but I don’t want to get in trouble for using it, so I won’t. But if it were legal, I would try it just because my husband really likes it, hates that there are laws against it, and wants to use it whether it is legal or not.

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