Chaos and Personal Responsibility

We all know the thing about chaos—a chaotic system is sensitive to initial conditions, where the effect of a minor variation grows exponentially. But it has just occurred to me what it means for personal responsibility. 

It is often said that a feature of modernity (late capitalism, as Marxists would say) is the increasing “bureaucratization” of society, where we all seem to be a “cog in a machine,” powerless to do anything, trapped in a terrible system with nowhere to go. This is to a large extent true. But does this mean that, in face of this despair, we should just give up? For it doesn’t matter what we do, whether we actively try to make the world a better, or a worse, place? I don’t think so. Far from it. 

The remedy is exactly a shouldering of personal responsibility, a Kantian following of the moral law (where you assign the moral law to yourself, so although you are following some law, you are also at the same time responsible for the law and the actions done following the law), a striving to do the right thing, irrespective of how worthless these attempts are. For they do make a difference, because the world is probably the most chaotic system that we know of. A small change can lead to some great impact. (It is Tolstoy’s genius, as Isaiah Berlin writes in The Hedgehog and the Fox, to focus on the mundanity of historical events—that each outcome is never inevitable, but forged by thousands of actions decided by individual will.)

But at the same time, this means that we have to be incredibly careful with whatever we do. Action is the most perilous affair. Our act, once it leaves ourselves, start a life of its own. An act of goodwill can destroy a country, an act of bad will can save the world. This does not mean that we should not be responsible, but that we have a duty to make sure that we act righteously and prudently, to the greatest degree possible. 

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