Living Dangerously

AEI Bradley Lecture Series, 14 March 1994.


The importance of accepting and fostering personal moral responsibility leads me to say, for openers, that I do not see myself as my foolish brother’s keeper. Neither do I regard anyone else as responsible for protecting me from my own follies. Human action is based on human freedom, human freedom is manifested in choice, and human dignity in action resides in making our choices in full cognizance that we are the sources of our deeds and responsible for their effects–including even for their unintended and unanticipated consequences. Dignity through responsibility necessarily cheers for justice, for a world in which people get what is coming to them, first, because it is rational and right, second, because a belief in justice is a necessary premise for all human effort. If the world were utterly irrational, if there were no relation between cause and effect, if the cosmos thwarted human attempts to match effort and success, human beings would do little to advance their own cause. And while we all know that the world is far from wholly just–lightning striking the innocent as well as the guilty (but, please note, the reckless more often than the prudent)–all societies and institutions and most human lives work on the premise that the world makes sense. Moreover, by our responsible practices we contrive to have it make even more sense. Parents read children stories like “The Little Red Hen,” and children immediately see that it is right and just that those who work for their food should get to eat and those who refuse to work should not. Most people are pleased when ingenuity, hard work, and fair play are rewarded; our passion for competitive sports is at least partly due to our love of justice: for in this realm of our public life more than any other virtue and playing by the rules are rewarded. At least until recently, whiners, complainers, and those who blamed others for their own failures only made themselves look worse. A man who pleaded drunkenness as an excuse for his ignorance or violence was doubly punished; a woman who went to a man’s bedroom and then got drunk with him could not escape bearing some responsibility for what happened next. Our country grew strong–and justly so–because people believed and acted in the spirit of the maxim, “By the time a man is thirty, he is responsible even for his face.”

American Enterprise Institute