Individual Accountability

“We must reject the idea that every time a law’s broken, society is guilty rather than the lawbreaker. It is time to restore the American precept that each individual is accountable for his actions.”

Ronald Reagan,
Speech at the Republican National Convention, Platform Committee Meeting, Miami, Florida” (31 July 1968)

I’ve seen this quote posted a few times, usually without additional commentary. I assume that those posting it are responding to the arguments around systemic racism, particularly within our policing and criminal justice systems.

I grew up within a 20 minute drive of the Ronald Reagan Library. I’ve been a number of times. I’ve always enjoyed reading and listening to his words.

But something bothers me about this quote. It seems to support the idea that we simply need to create punishments for crime and then let people face the consequences. Society cannot or should not bear responsibility for the decisions people make.

But what if society does shape the decisions people make? If it shapes the way we think, do we have a responsibility to look at how that shaping is done? Should we then seek to shape it intentionally?

To help me answer these questions, I thought of parenting. Do I have an effect on my children’s behavior? When they misbehave, is that solely their choice? Or did I create an environment that contributed in some way to that misbehavior?

This is a major debate. You may have heard it phrased as “nature vs. nurture.” My own conclusion is that “nature vs. nurture” is a false dichotomy. Portraying it this way obscures the questions that I find far more interesting and helpful – how does the interaction between an individual’s personality and that individual’s environment lead to the choices they make?

Maybe some day I’ll write a post about this drawing on research, but for now you’re stuck with my anecdotes. Take it for what it’s worth.

The way I treat a child will change how that child behaves. If I am grumpy and raise my voice at my kids, it’s a lot more likely they will be raising their voices at each other. If I don’t take time to play or read to them I notice that they make poor choices that day.

This doesn’t mean that good parenting inevitably leads to good choices. Or that bad parenting inevitably leads to bad choices. That thinking leads to lots of parental guilt, because no matter how hard I try, there are days my children act out. There is still individual accountability. But good parenting makes good behavior a lot more likely.

The same can be said for society as a whole. Good social structures – good government, good schools, good criminal justice systems – will be more likely to lead to good choices by the populace. I believe this and act on it. I go to church because I believe that this is a good institution that results in myself and those attending with me making better choices. I chose a neighborhood with a good school because I believe good schools will be good for my children.

Of course, “good” as a qualifier is problematic. It’s way too vague. But I think it is sufficient to communicate my point. We want good institutions – we want a good society – because we believe that society influences our lives.

If this is true, then there is nothing wrong with striving to improve our institutions, which requires pointing out their flaws and then acting to fix them. Doing so does not deny individual accountability. In fact, refusing to do so is a denial of that accountability.

Democracy is an acknowledgement that we have responsibility for each other. We are founded upon the premise that government can do wrong but is less likely to do so when we all participate. We are also founded upon the idea of crafting a “more perfect union,” which requires that participation. Refusing to acknowledge the flaws in that system by arguing that it denies “individual accountability” is simply a refusal to acknowledge our own accountability within society.

For my fellow Christians, this is also a religious responsibility. We are called to love each other. We are called to serve each other. We are called to heal and support one another. We are not asked to simply save ourselves, but to do all we can to save the world.

So, was Ronald Reagan wrong? Not necessarily. But perhaps pithy quotes are inadequate vehicles for truth.

One thought on “Individual Accountability

  1. Daniel Derricott says:

    Hi Stephen,
    You said a lot of good things. I’ll play devil’s advocate and make one comment and point out one flaw I believe is contained in it.
    Comment (which doesn’t necessarily disagree with anything you said but I believe needs to be reiterated): despite any social conditioning, individuals are ALWAYS accountable for their choices.
    Flaw: Part of what you wrote seems to take the perspective that we are shaped by the government and laws. While this may be partially true, I believe a better perspective is that the laws and the government are shaped by us. In other words, the government is a reflection of our society rather than the other way around. Or, to put it another way, We the people are superior to the government and the government And it’s powers are derived from us. Looking at it through this prism is very important because it serves as a constant reminder of governments proper role: limited and inferior to We the people.


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