Let’s Hypothesize: modern day responsibility

After hearing about reflexive modernization in one of my sociology classes and attending a masterclass by Theodore Dalrymple, I started to wonder about modern day accountability and responsibility. I’m gonna put several ideas forward that might already be part of contemporary theories on societies. I will argue that society’s structure can influence perceptions of responsibility.

Society’s structure
Complexity. Complex societies have existed before, there are countless examples of civilizations with hierarchical structures, institutions, and laws. However, nowadays with ongoing globalization, we have established diplomatic relations between countries. This means that decisions made by one society can affect the status quo in another society. Laws are often updated and adjusted to modern day situations, such as the emergence of a virtual space (the internet) in which regulations are also imposed. The difference between today’s societies and ancient societies is that changes are happening so quickly that modern citizens can’t even keep up with the changes. According to the law, you’re supposed to know what is allowed and what isn’t. You can’t blame ignorance. But it’s almost impossible to know every rule implemented by the government. Not knowing the rules and rights means being unaware of responsibility and accountability. Thus, the complexity of today’s societies has made it difficult to know all your responsibilities according to the law. A consequence of the law being strictly imposed on a society, people might only fulfill lawful duties and cast aside their moral duties.

Institutions. With the emergence of a myriad of laws came institutions. In bureaucratic societies, institutions exist merely to monitor other institutions. Many examples exist where the web of institutions might have had an effect in the failure of achieving a goal or unsuccessfully intercepting problems. For instance, in the Netherlands different institutions exist to aid those in problematic situations, each institution has a task in helping these individuals. Though, it’s not always possible for these institutions to effectively work together. When things end badly (e.g. children suffering domestic abused not being helped in time), it’s often the question who’s responsibility it was.

Anonymity. Moral responsibility is also harder to impose in complex societies,  such as helping out your neighbor, being empathetic towards strangers in public spaces (e.g. giving up your seat for elderly), no littering, or being inconsiderate in traffic. In several countries, you can get fined for some behaviors associated with the aforementioned examples. For instance, I have been told that there are strict regulations on littering in Singapore. But not every society has such set rules and it comes down to unwritten rules, norms. But are norms enough for people to feel responsible for their behavior? Or do need people the threat of being fined? Many studies have found evidence for social pressure being enough to either stop people from behaving a certain way or to get them do something. Though, when people live in bigger cities, this social pressure diminishes, suddenly they are anonymous for a large part of the day. In such a setting, people might not feel entirely responsible for their actions.

Individualism. Not only are people in larger societies more anonymous, but they might also be more individualized. In a structured society with many institutions to provide aid to people for their problems, and paid services to meet their daily needs, people’s ties to groups might have weakened. People still organize themselves in groups, and it can greatly help them to get things done. However, they no longer rely on these groups to provide in all of their needs. For example, I do not need to establish a relationship with the cashier at my local supermarket before she’s willing to trade food for money with me. It’s easier to not be responsible because people have less risky relationships to maintain overall.

‘Let’s Hypothesize’ is part of an article series in which I do not rely on scientific references. Instead I will speculate on topics related to consumer behavior. Plus I will include more historical facts and sociological theories.


Why do societies disappear?

In a previous post, I discussed Jared Diamond’s book Germs, Guns, & Steel. In this book, Diamond explains his thesis on how societies developed in terms of agriculture, language, and technology. He starts off asking an intriguing question: why didn’t the natives come to Europe? However, in Collapse he forms a thesis on how societies cease to exist. In history classwe learned a great deal on societies that no longer exist in their original forms, such as the Mayans, Easter Island, or Greenland. The question is: what pushed them toward their collapse? Diamond looks at different past societies that are no longer around and explains their collapse along a list of detrimental factors that comprise his thesis.

Easter Island is especially intriguing, as we’re all familiar with the impressive statues that decorate the island. It is often asked how these colossal sculptures were chiseled, transported, and put into place. Conspiracy theories that tell the tale of aliens visiting the Earth and having something to do with these massive monuments are floating around on the internet. Diamond explains that there are many plausible theories on how the statues got transported, for instance by using logs or ‘canoe ladders’. But how is this possible when there are barely enough trees to sustain such a phenomenon? It turns out that Easter Island underwent grave deforestation due to the settlers’ high need of wood.

Thus, Diamond lists the destruction of natural habitats (e.g. deforestation of lands, damaging coral reefs) as one of the factors that could lead to the collapse of a society. Climate change can also severely affect the environment we live in. We know that the environment needs to adhere to specific conditions for humans to be able to adapt themselves. If there isn’t sufficient food, water, shelter, and protection from predators, there is no way to sustain human life.

Though in regards to current societies, an interesting point that
Diamond makes is that photosynthetic
potential that is on the decline. Plants need sunlight to synthesize certain nutrients. However, since we keep investing urbanizing areas to accommodate the population increase, we’re “losing” the photosynthetic potential. These new buildings create more shadows, which makes it difficult for plants to grow and effectively utilize sunlight.

In Collapse, Diamond thoroughly explains the detrimental factors that play a role in the disappearance of past societies. Though, it is also a cautionary tale, as the author explains the problems we’re currently dealing with. We are far from being stable, infinite societies. Who knows in how many years researchers will wander through the remnants of New York city, excavating the once lively city, to figure out what ultimately led to its collapse.

Buy Collapse on Amazon or Bol.


Why didn’t the natives come to Europe?

The history of how plants and animals spread the Earth is a fascinating one. But it is often strange to reason what caused the great differences between societies. Some people have attributed these to intelligence, which is an incorrect conclusion. Jared Diamond discusses these differences and the evolutionary process of agriculture in his book Guns, Germs & Steel. We can probably all remember from our (western) history classes that Europeans went on trips at one point, and started establishing new societies outside of their own continent.

However, why did they go on this trips? Why didn’t the natives visit Europe and create establishments there? Diamond reasons that it has to do with the environments people were in and not their innate abilities. A lot of it is dependent on the soil and other cues in the environment that made agriculture possible at one point. And Fertile Crescent is one of those places, this is an area in the Middle East. When people started domesticating plants and animals, they had more free time to invest in other projects. For instance, they could create new political systems or focus on technological innovations.

Another interesting point the author makes is the east-west major axis in Eurasia. Trade and ideas spread much easier and faster in in Eurasia, because of the limited boundaries on this axis. However, it is much different for North America, where such travel would have been more difficult.

Diamond also spends a great portion explaining how languages spread around the globe, especially focussing on Polynesia. He goes a great length to explain how and which factors contributed to the formation of agriculture and the voyages of the Europeans. And how these affected that natives living in the Americas. It is a very thorough, interesting read, definitely worth the try if you love learning more about the macro factors in history!

Societies also fall apart, leaving behind traces from which researchers try to reconstruct their story. The interesting and simultaneously scary part is that current day societies show signs that can result in their collapse, think rapid deforestation and climate change. In Collapse, Diamond explains the factors that contributed the fall of societies we mostly have heard about through history classes, such as Easter Island or Greenland. I will discuss this book in a future post.

Buy the book on Amazon or Bol.com.