In philosophy, the modern notion of “personal responsibility” consists of two threads woven together: one entailing what we should do and the other what we can do. In the political, normative sense, being responsible is acting out the duties that flow from our position in the social order and our status as moral agents. Immanuel Kant (Kant 1785) argued that we had – as rational agents – a responsibility to act only in ways that could be made into universal law (i.e., without human institutions falling apart as result). The second, metaphysical thread involves our ability to be the determining cause of our own actions. For most philosophers, this means that personal responsibly rests on the possibility that we could have done otherwise. Accordingly, this type of responsibility is closely associated with the notion of free will. Kant argued that the fact we should fulfill our personal duties and responsibilities proved that we are, indeed, free to do so; or, in other words, that ought implies can. Personal responsibility of this kind must be differentiated from a wider notion of collective responsibility. While “collective responsibility” addresses these issues at the level of the group and concerns what kinds of actions we (acting together) can and should undertake, “personal responsibility” moves the level of analysis to that of the individual.
Throughout the history of psychology, different movements have stressed the importance (and reality) of personal responsibility to greater or lesser extents. For the behaviorists such as B. F. Skinner, the notion of personal responsibility found little support (Skinner 1971). For Skinner, we do not choose to become the people we, in fact, are and so are not responsible for any of our decisions or actions. Our psychology is shaped by our environment – by those events that have reinforced certain behaviors and not others – along with our genetic endowment. Hence, neither the criminal nor the humanitarian is responsible for his or her actions. The criminal was subjected to a complex set of experiences that determined his or her criminality, the humanitarian likewise. Theorists from the psychoanalytic tradition adopted a more nuanced position on personal responsibility. Sigmund Freud thought of human psychology as determined by a confluence of unconscious drives and motives along with the demands of the culture and environment (Freud 1949). Despite his commitment to this type of psychological determinism, Freud did find a place for personal responsibility in his approach to therapy: the aim being to help the person’s ego gain enough control over the unconscious as to become more responsible of her actions. While Freud carved out a practical, therapeutic place for personal responsibility against a deterministic backdrop, the humanistic tradition pushed farther to make it a central concept in psychology. Humanists such as Abraham Maslow argued that we are not puppets of subconscious drives but active shapers of our own lives (Maslow 1954). In general, humanist psychology resists reducing the individual to subconscious drives or conditioned responses (as the psychoanalysts and behaviorists did, respectively). Instead the humanist tradition in psychology approaches the individual as an undivided whole neither completely determined by outside environmental nor intrapsychic, unconscious influences.
In the work of Carl Rogers, the humanistic tradition in psychology finds its most staunch defender of personal responsibility. Rogers viewed the person as the causal locus of his or her own developmental trajectory. Rogers does not derive this conclusion from a philosophical analysis of the possibility of free will. Rather, he took a more holistic, biological approach. He writes that “… [t]he organism has one basic tendency and striving – to actualize, maintain, and enhance the experiencing organism” (Rogers 1951). In the same way that an acorn has the potential, inside itself, to grow into an oak tree, the individual has all the resources and motivation she needs to become a fully functioning and self-actualized person. Rogers called this inherent drive the “actualizing tendency.” The end toward which this tendency is aimed Rogers called the “ideal self.” To the extent that we allow ourselves to be led by the desires and opinions of others, our actual self falls out of alignment – or “congruence” – with our ideal self. This is not to say that the ideal self is a destination that can be arrived at. For Rogers, the ideal self remains forever just that: ideal. However, knowledge of such an ideal does act as a guide on the path of self-actualization. Following this path without ever reaching a destination was what Rogers considered to be the definition of good life (Rogers et al. 1967). What’s more, no one apart from the individual herself was in a position to say what the content of such a life should be. In this sense, we are all the final arbiters of how we should be living lives. For Rogers, then, we all have both threads of personal responsibility woven into our nature as persons; we have the vision of what our ultimate responsibility consists of (enacting our ideal selves) and the ability to move toward it (our self-actualizing tendency).
Rogers made this view of personal responsibility the cornerstone of his therapy. Whereas psychoanalysis tasked the therapist with “fixing” the patient, Rogers turned this relationship entirely on its head. The patient had both the vision of what constituted therapeutic change and the means within them to enact such change. The therapist’s role was to create the conditions under which the person would be most likely to exercise her inherent response-ability and to move closer to her ideal self. Rogers even eschewed the accepted categories of “patient” and “therapist” favoring instead “client” and “facilitator.” This terminological shift underscores Rogers’ view that the client was responsible both causing and guiding her own positive change. Rogers’ commitment to personal responsibility – both in theory and practice – has had a lasting impact on psychology and psychotherapy in general.
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