America was not founded on the cult of individualism. The Founders had no such notion of putting the individual above the common good. The guarantee of liberty was conceived as the way to enable citizens to fully and responsibly participate in the society.
Following the Civil War, the idea of the individual in society began to shift, until today, it has shifted 180°. In modern America, individual liberty has lost all mooring to social responsibility, becoming an end itself, rather than a means to an end. Social responsibility is no longer discussed in tandem with individual liberty.
One area seriously impacted by this shift is the ownership of firearms. Citizens at the time of the founding of the nation would be shocked to see that ownership of firearms carries with it no concomitant responsibility for safe usage. The modern gun owner argues that he should not be restricted by government from selling his weapon to whomever he pleases, whenever he pleases. And, this is a core axiom of NRA positioning on the sales of firearms.
Gun owners further argue that, if an individual commits a crime with a gun, the responsibility for that act rests solely with the individual, and no blame or culpability attaches to the individual who provided the weapon.1
This question was actually raised by Socrates in Plato’s The Republic 2500 years ago. In The Republic, Socrates offers a scenario.
A man gives you his weapons for safekeeping. Some time later, he returns and asks for his weapons back, because he intends to murder someone with them. Do you return the weapons to him? They’re his weapons, and surely it is just for you to give him back his own weapons. On the other hand, says Socrates, surely it is not just for you to give him the weapons, when you know his intention is to commit murder. By giving the man the weapons in these circumstances, you are enabling injustice, a murder, to occur. 2
In modern America, the question is no longer a question. Of course, you are obligated to return the weapons to the man, because what he does with them afterwards is not your responsibility. The individual is solely responsible for his own actions. This theme of ultimate individual responsibility is woven into American society in many ways. It’s the justification for letting poor people go hungry, for leaving people homeless on the streets, for being indifferent to police officers’ brutalizing and murdering citizens, for allowing criminals and the mentally ill to purchase and own firearms.
Ultimate individual responsibility is how we justify economic inequality, school systems segregated by income class, racial profiling by police, discrimination in hiring, denial of voting rights. In each case, the individual is solely responsible for not putting himself into the situation, or for getting himself out of the situation, and fellow citizens have no role nor obligation in the matter.
This attitude of ultimate individual responsibility has no religious nor ethical foundation. The United States was founded by men educated in the philosophies of the Enlightenment, who would have been, and were, repelled by such antisocial ideas. No words of Christ can be found in the Bible to justify it. No words of the ancient philosophers can be found to justify it. It’s a philosophy and ideal that grew out of the peculiar and parochial American way of life that developed in the 19th Century.
One is forced to make accommodation to some elements of the nature of one’s society. After the school shooting in Newtown, CT, in 2014, which left 20 children dead — 20 seven and eight year-olds — a mighty flood of rhetoric was released about controlling the easy access to firearms in America. This flood filtered through the sieve of American conscience and drained away, with no impact. At some point afterward, I realized that no change was going to be made, in this case nor in any other, to Americans’ reckless indifference toward homicide with firearms.
So tightly woven into American culture is the notion of ultimate individual responsibility, now, that the idea of social responsibility is completely dead. Modern American life is conducted with the sense of social responsibility, the sense of personal responsibility, to be found in a drunk driver. Citizens desiring to change this pattern of life cut around the edges, occasionally pulling loose a thread or fraying a pattern. But such measures have no impact over the whole fabric, and people continue to live in misery, and die sudden and violent deaths.
The thing has arrived to such a height, that we are actually threatened with, becoming a nation of drunkards.
— Temperance pamphlet, Green and Delaware Moral Society, 1815 3
The moral drunkard who has become the epitome of American life feels no restraint upon his actions. We will continue in this manner for the foreseeable future.
- No blame or culpability attaches to the gun owner who does not secure his weapons, as a result of which they are stolen and used criminally. Many states now have Stand Your Ground laws, which indemnify an individual who shoots another person to death, no matter what the circumstances, as long as the shooter maintains he was “in fear for his life or safety.” ↩
- Plato. The Republic. Trans. Georg M. Grube. Ed. C. D. C. Reeve. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1992. Print. ↩
- Rorabaugh, W. J. The Alcoholic Republic, an American Tradition. New York: Oxford UP, 1981. Print. ↩