One of my most active WhatsApp groups is for discussing stories.
We talk about all kinds of stories: novels (especially fantasy), anime, movies and TV (especially fantasy and superhero tales), comics, you name it. And we talk about all sorts of things, including the most recurring question in story discussions worldwide: whether a character was wrong or right. I particularly find these interesting because they end up really being not about the stories but about ourselves.
When we’re discussing who’s right or wrong, we’re really voicing our own moral viewpoints.
It’s even heavier if you talk about moral judgements. Years of hearing about the importance of not judging people has left us suspicious of something core to our humanity: the fact that our entire lives are built on making judgements. And especially on making moral judgements. It’s what we’re doing anytime we’re thinking in terms of right and wrong, anytime we’re praising or criticising. It’s what makes up a lot of conversation, from social media to face-to-face gossip, from family meetings to work appraisals.
And so my friends discussing who’s right or wrong in our favourite stories are really revealing our own viewpoints about what is right or wrong in general. In making judgements about the characters and their choices we reveal the standards by which we assess the actions of people around us (never mind how much we apply those standards to our own selves).
When you get down to it, though, it’s a question of responsibility. Consider 3 scenarios.
Scenario 1: A teenager trips and falls over you because a rat scurried across the room. You’re upset, but being the reasonable person you are, you understand that it’s not their fault, and you might even express your empathy for their rat-fright.
Scenario 2: The same event, but instead of a rat, it’s because they’re staring at their phone and not paying attention to you. Because, again, you’re reasonable you don’t make too much of it, but no one would blame you for being a bit peeved. You think, “Kids these days and their stupid phones!”
Scenario 3: Same as scenario 2, but you’re aware this tripping phone-engrossed person had just got a text informing them that they had failed their exams and would not be getting into uni this year. At this point, depending on your version of reasonable, you suddenly feel a lot less peeved and much more empathetic—or you think, “Well, it’s not for nothing people warn you to ‘sit down for this one.’”
At each point, you’re evaluating—and reevaluating—the responsibility of the other person.
In the first scenario you attribute their stumble to the rate and no fault of their own. In the second you’re according them full responsibility for not paying attention. In the third you’re sorry for their bad news but maybe still a bit annoyed they weren’t paying attention to begin with.
This little thought exercise highlights something interesting about responsibility: our allocation of responsibility has direct effects on our emotions. The more we assume someone is responsible for stuff we’re upset about the more upset we will likely be.
And over time I’ve come to recognise broadly, two ways we can think about responsibility: the line paradigm and the path paradigm. In the line paradigm you’re responsible for crossing a line, but in the path paradigm you’re responsible for starting down a path.
One of the films my friends and I discussed on our WhatsApp group was the hit show, Breaking Bad, which depicts Walter White, an everyday man, and his moral descent as he “rises” to drug baronhood. But as one incident piles on another tragedy, White maintains the entire time that the outcomes are not his fault, because he either does not intend them or feels forced to when he does. He also tells himself the entire time that he does it all for his family and long after it becomes obvious to the audience that he is very ego-driven, refuses to admit it.
It all fits with a pattern I’ve come to recognise, in stories and in everyday life: keep an eye out for the person who will not accept responsibility, because they will burn you if you get carelessly close, and then turn around to blame you for it.
The thing is people won’t typically directly refuse to take responsibility. We wouldn’t be debating White’s responsibility if it was obvious that he was shirking pulling his moral weight. And that’s where the line and path paradigm come in.
You see, White’s general approach was to focus on whether he had crossed one line or the other. He would convince himself again and again that he was doing okay because he hadn’t crossed some line—until he did, at which point he would move the line a little farther. Rinse and repeat.
When situations go wrong you often hear, again and again, some variation of: “I never imagined things could end up that way.” And it’s often true: unless you’re of a melancholic bent, many people tend to overestimate favourable outcomes and downplay unpleasant ones. But if we’re being honest, we often know from the outset that certain paths are better not taken but we convince ourselves we can handle or minimise or somehow escape the potential harm.
Walter White, for instance, certainly didn’t set out to be a drug baron. He just (as he convinced himself) wanted to provide for his family. But he certainly knew right from the outset that he was taking a dangerous path, which is why he kept it a secret. He just convinced himself, like we often do, that he could handle it. And each time things escalated he convinced himself again that he “had no choice” and that he was actually trying his best to minimise harm.
But at no point did he admit to himself that he chose the path he was on. Or that he could choose turn off that path and choose a different one, even if he couldn’t retrace his steps.
You’ve been there too, haven’t you? I know I have.
Responsibility is heavy—that’s why we talk about “the weight of responsibility.” So it’s hardly surprising we don’t want to take any more of it than we need to. And yet, it’s one of the most defining things about our humanity: to run from that is to run from our own humanity. But it is a weight we must bear with care, and with the understanding that responsibility is not about blame.
To take responsibility for the paths we choose doesn’t mean we are to blame for every single outcome, nor does it absolve others of their own choices. That would, in fact, be almost narcissistic, in its overestimation of our influence. No, it simply means that we recognise that our choices have effects beyond our intention, including how they influence the choices of others.
And that awareness—that we never know how our actions can cascade—creates space for both humility and hope.