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Responsibility assumption is the doctrine that an individual has substantial or total responsibility for the events and circumstances that befall them in their personal life, to a considerably greater degree than is normally thought. Strong adherents of responsibility assumption consider that whatever situation they find themselves in, their own past desires and choices must have led to that outcome.
The term "responsibility assumption" has a specialized meaning beyond the general concept of taking responsibility for something, and is not to be confused with the general notion of making an assumption that a concept such as "responsibility" exists. In particular the general use of the term "responsibility" in everyday life and the legal field in particular is about assigning or apportioning blame for an event; responsibility assumption suggests a greater ability to affect the future.
Variations in degree of personal responsibility postulated
The main variable within various interpretations of the responsibility assumption doctrine is the degree to which the individual is considered the cause of his or her own experience, ranging from partial but substantial to total responsibility.
Partial but substantial responsibility
In its forms positing less than total responsibility, the doctrine appears in nearly all motivational programs, some psychotherapy, and large group awareness training programs. In programs as non-controversial as books on the power of positive thinking, it functions as a mechanism to point out that each individual does affect the perceived world by the decisions they make each day and by the choices they made in the past. These less absolute forms may be expressed within the rubric that we cannot control the situations that befall us, but we can at least control our attitudes toward them.
In its more absolute form, the doctrine becomes both more pronounced and more controversial. Perhaps the most prominent dividing line of controversy is the threshold of reversed mental causation, where sufficient responsibility is assigned to the individual that their thoughts or mental attitudes are considered the actual cause of external situations or physical occurrences rather than vice versa, along the lines of the catchphrase, "mind over matter". Detractors of this absolutist interpretation view this as victim blaming, whereas proponents view it as victim-empowering.
Religious and philosophical roots and usage
The est seminars popularized the doctrine "responsibility assumption" in the 1970s although they did not explicitly use the term. The doctrine both predates est and is found in a far wider variety of settings. The doctrine has spiritual roots in the monism of Eastern religious traditions which hold that only one true being exists, and all people are one with each other and with god and hence possess Godlike powers, though they are often unaware of it. It has been likened to karma, which however tends to suggest later retribution for earlier acts, while responsibility assumption posits more of an immediate link between the experience desired and the outcome received. The doctrine also has associations with the neoplatonist notion of an illusory world, which the doctrine's adherents would phrase more precisely as an illusion of external worldly effects on inner mental states. It finds further support in philosophical idealism, which posits thought as the one true substance.
Among historically Christian churches, denominations have belief systems that incorporate doctrinal elements similar to responsibility assumption. The doctrine can be found in the work of psychotherapist Georg Groddeck assigning mental causes to physical ailments, has been more recently propagated by self-help authors such as Arnold Patent, and can be found in a number of New Age and new religious movements. Prominent among these are Christian Science and the New Thought Movement, whose constituent theologies espouse mental approaches to bodily healing and express precepts such as, "to each, according to his belief." The doctrine combined with reversed causation can further be found explicitly expressed in works such as A Course in Miracles.
In popular culture
The theme of responsibility assumption appears in several places in popular culture. For example, it appeared in Richard Bach's bestseller, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, and Bach addressed the topic more directly in a less-popular later book, Illusions.
John Denver, a proponent of est Erhard Seminars Training, wrote two songs about it, "Farewell Andromeda" (1973) and "Looking for Space" (1975); the opening lines of "Farewell Andromeda" capture the essence of responsibility assumption:
- Welcome to my morning, welcome to my day
- I'm the one responsible, I made it just this way
- To make myself some pictures, see what they might bring
- I think I made it perfectly, I wouldn't change a thing
The 1956 movie Forbidden Planet featured an analogous concept to responsibility assumption, about a race who, through technology, became able to materialize their thoughts, to disastrous ends and chose to die out (cf. above, on the willing victims of the Holocaust).
The 1967 television series The Prisoner featured an ambiguous climax spawning several interpretations, one of which implicates responsibility assumption. Throughout the short 17-episode series, the eponymous prisoner, a man held against his will by a mysterious group, attempted to determine — and in the final episode apparently succeeded in determining — the identity of the mysterious person who led the group and ultimately determined the prisoner's fate. The moment when the mysterious leader was literally unmasked by the prisoner was brief and unclear, but there are fans of the series who believe the leader was the prisoner himself.
In 1962, the comic book superhero Spider-Man, created by Stan Lee, adopted the maxim, "With great power there must also come great responsibility" after his refusal to stop a thief led to the death of his Uncle Ben. The phrase has come into common usage as, "With great power comes great responsibility" and was used as the tagline for the 2002 Spider-Man movie.
In a deleted scene from the 1999 movie Dogma, a fallen angel explained how the subconscious of the damned demands that they be punished, as they believed God could never forgive their sins, remade the face of Hell from a simple separation from God into a "suffering pit."
In the spiritual Carlos Castaneda's book Journey to Ixtlan that was released in 1972 there is a chapter "Assume Responsibility."
Though these are prominent examples, varying degrees of the doctrine of responsibility assumption have formed a minor theme more broadly in the United States cultural landscape since the 1960s counterculture.
More generally, cultures place different weight on individual responsibility and that this difference is manifested in folklore. In this view, the tale of the Fisherman and the Little Goldfish (in which the protagonist makes little effort to improve his lot) illustrates the denial of responsibility. In the late 20th century US, the best-selling didactic and allegorical fable Who Moved My Cheese? underscored personal responsibility for one's livelihood and thus well-being.
- Anonymous (1992). A Course in Miracles (2d ed.). Mill Valley, CA: Foundation for Inner Peace. ISBN 0-9606388-8-1.
- May, Rollo, and Irvin D. Yalom (1984). Existential Psychotherapy, pp. 354–391 in Raymond J. Corsini, ed., Current Psychotherapies (3rd ed.). Itasca, IL: Peacock.
- Bach, Richard. Illusions—Confessions of a Reluctant Messiah.
- Bach, Richard (1970). Jonathan Livingston Seagull.