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Modernity and Individual Responsibility

In today’s world, the consolidated effect of modernity, the picture of man as the rational
autonomous individual endowed with free will, is complete. The individual is individualistic: self-
interested, egoistic, clamouring for more and more power, wealth and social status. He has
stopped thinking about life considered as a whole. There is no overall spiritual meaning to life. His
life is divided between purposes which are contingently thrust upon him by his environment,
requiring fulfilment with a speed and efficiency which occlude any evaluation of their meaning for
life as a whole. Indeed, he finds it difficult to apprehend life as a whole, to consider it as a unity,
except chronologically. As MacIntyre in his most perceptive discussion of the contemporary scene

Modernity partitions each human life into a variety of segments, each with its own norms and
modes of behaviour. So work is divided from leisure, private life from public life, the corporate from
the personal. So both childhood and old age have been wrenched away from the rest of human
life and made over into distinct realms. And all these separations have been achieved so that it is
the distinctness of each and not the unity of the life of the individual who passes through those
parts in terms of which we are taught to think and to feel.1

Moreover, the very character of the social has changed so much, as many post-modern thinkers
have emphasized, that the individual need not even bother about the unity of life and its overall
inclusive end to provide a teleological framework for his endeavours. The social no longer
demands conduct in which human relationships are informed by virtues. Indeed, most social
institutions of the past which provided for the cultivation of virtues and qualities of character in the
individual have either totally disappeared or have been rendered underdetermined by the vast
changes in the character of relationships sought by individuals. This is the age of shifting relations
of interdependencies, where even the most basic forms of human bonds — pair relations,
sexuality, family, kinship and friendship, for example — have become institutionally
underdetermined. The individual is faced with the stark reality of a communitarian alienation and
competitive insecurity. The notion of rational autonomous subject has been taken to its ridiculous
limits — freedom into anarchy, individualism into self-centred egoism, rejection of the substantial
self into total fragmentation. The blemishes that have warped our ethical consciousness and
disfigured our conscience are many, but perhaps the most serious one emerges, ironically though
unselfconsciously, from what must be considered the virtue of modernity. Modernity which brought
freedom from the unthinking callous authority of various non-secular traditions went too far and
liberated the hidden greed lying curled up in the human heart.

But surely, in the culture of greed-satisfaction there is no hope for peace — peace as a cultural
realization must manifest itself first in the social spaces of interpersonal attitudes, intentions and

The extent of degeneration in the values of interpersonal relationships is obvious when we realize
that today we have come to need a justification for treating others equally and impartially — the
rational precept which could provide the underpinnings for law. And philosophers have discussed
the question ‘Why should I be moral?’ And if we need to discriminate protectively in favour of those
who are severely marginalized, we need a veil of ignorance about their real human status so that
we can be convinced in our hearts that we are not being unfair to ourselves in going out of our
way to help the needy. In this extraordinary situation we find that the ethics of compassion, love
and caring has suddenly ceased to be relevant. There may be no basic ‘given’ (eternal) structure
of human relations but, under the surface of sophistication, it certainly seems to have become
what Hegel’s famous image of ‘master-slave’ anticipated. Even the most ardent believer in human
freedom, Sartre, succumbed to its temptations.

While I attempt to free myself from the hold of the Other, the Other is trying to free himself from
mine; while I seek to enslave the Other, the Other seeks to enslave me. We are by no means
dealing with unilateral relations with an object-in-itself, but with reciprocal and moving relations . . .
within the perspective of conflict. Conflict is the original meaning of being-for-others.2

We need not accept this verdict upon the nature of interpersonal attitudes as a description of the
fundamental, ontological structure of human relationships, but as a correct representation of what
has become of it, it is surely undeniable. We face one another with the motive to prevail over the
other, in a moving situation of perpetual conflict.

The individual is oriented towards ends which are discrete, unrelated, making for no coherent
ethos or even style of life. But what is most frightening is the ethical and aesthetic dislocation of
sensibility. The aesthetic consciousness is ingrown, has lost communion with nature and the life of
the universe as a whole. It is churning out stuff in the name of self-expression, as though self-
expression were the highest form of a characteristically human achievement. It has forgotten to
take note of what has become of the human self (a social product, conditioned in its virtues and
vices), which has grown on the stage of conflict and which has accumulated all the filth of
consumerist modernity. There is a point where the line between life and death is too thin, just as
the line between art and vulgarity, but the line all the same is there. That we fail to recognize it
only shows that we have forgotten what it means to be an Artist on Life.

The world of human relationships has lost its intrinsic worth. The world is my world in which
everything is organized instrumentally for the satisfaction of some undefined, intangible need of
personal security and individual fulfilment. The fragmented life of this divided individual is glowing
with the feeling, the fear, of being left out of the race — an insecurity whose origin and character
he is blissfully totally ignorant of. Man is lost in the wilderness of a civilization of his own

The loss of the ethical perspective upon life both in thought and in social action is evident enough.
For the former, modernity having admirably freed the moral agent from the stifling hold of the
esoteric authority of ‘revelation’ and the blind precepts of superstition, landed him into the hands of
another, equally esoteric authority of ‘rational intuition’. God may have died (as per Nietzsche) but
man could not have killed him. Perhaps He committed suicide in utter disillusionment and
frustration over his proud creation. And again, having unhooked the understanding of the moral
agent from the mysteries of ‘foundationalism’ and ‘essentialism’, modernity has thrown him into
the hands of the unmerciful loneliness and uncertainty of his subjectivity. The modern moral agent,
devoid of any inner spiritual strength, dependent upon externals and lacking reference to the
ultimate worth of his activities, is constantly afraid of losing, or being too late to collect, the visible
and immediately affective pleasures of life. He is left with no choice but to continue to struggle in
the pursuit of his own personal achievements with a sustained drive, greed and competitiveness
so characteristic of the contemporary engagement with life. And such choice, in turn, has landed
us into deeper crises. The by now familiar environmental crisis is nothing but an outer aspect of an
inner crisis of meaninglessness in the ethical consciousness.

As for the loss of the ethical perspective in social action, the degenerate state of the relationship
between culture and politics is amply in evidence. Cultural politics has turned into the politics of
culture. Moreover, the fragmentation and short-sightedness of political enterprise the world over
exposes the ethically ambivalent inner state of mankind.

On the one hand being egoistic, and realizing that everyone is trying to get there (God knows
where) first and possess as much as he can, he must submit, in a quasi-Hobbesian manner, to the
rule of law, apparently based on the moral idea of equality. On the other hand, being impelled by
the desire to dominate over others, (as we saw in the primary structure of human face-to-face) he
must try to seek power in all forms and ways accessible to him. He must then (unconsciously
perhaps) introduce loopholes in the systems of society, in particular in the laws, and hope to retain
control over them through a system which has all the pretensions of equality but is inherently open
to subversion by the cleverer and stronger. He thus submits to the rule of law (allows the law to
take its own course) only to ensure a smooth transition to his desired inequality. His purposes are
perhaps best served in the installation of modern liberal democracy.

The social ideals of justice and democracy which the Western Enlightenment admirably struggled
to realize is inherently aporetic, based upon a deep contradiction in the modern consciousness.
We are content to believe that though liberal democracy is not perfect, it is the best that can be
realized. Or those who are not so pessimistic contend with the thought that human rationality will
one day find a solution. But even if a rational solution could be found it will be limited and short-
lived, we cannot install the gains of reason into new institutions. The old institutions are fast losing
their grip on reality, if not already dead or rendered ineffective. And the new would need infinite
flexibility and versatility to cope with the infinite disorder in the fragmented but fast reshaping river
of all consciousness. Shattered beings can best represent reality in bits and pieces.3 The
resolution of the conflict cannot come from the ready-made ‘objective’ social morality, from
determinate moral rules to be followed or virtues to be cultivated, or from the calculations of the
‘greatest good of the greatest number’. For, as Zygmint Bauman has observed,

morality is endemically and irredeemably non-rational — in the sense of not being calculable,
hence not being presentable as following impersonal rules, hence not being describable as
following rules that are in principle universalizable. The moral call is thoroughly personal; it
appeals to my responsibility, and the urge to care thus elicited cannot be allayed or placated by
the awareness that others do it for me, or that I have already done my share by following to the
letter what others used to do. Being moral means abandoned to my freedom.4

Today we are faced with making a resolute choice between getting swallowed up by a culture
thrust upon us by the dictates of a technocratic capitalism, and working towards creating a culture
sensitive to the spiritual dimensions of human existence which respects nature and life in all
things. This choice cannot be made by the collective: it is not a politico-economic choice. It can be
made only by a ‘true’ individual, who, unfortunately, somehow lost his way in the new industrial

Contemporary critics tend to overidentify the ills of capitalist modernization, which encouraged
monopolization and misuse of power, which distorted knowledge to suit manipulative techniques
for economic subordination, with the rather honest and noble intention of intellectual
modernization to create a rational and scientific approach to knowledge and social progress, and
consequently wrongly identify the aggressive individualism encourage by the former with the
essentially ethical individualism of the latter. The intellectual modernity rejected the grounding of
practical reason in blind ‘authorities’ of occult subjectivity both in matters of morals and in objective
truth. And by and large it (notwithstanding the claim of ‘rational intuition’) placed a premium on the
honest, dispassionate and unprejudiced judgement of the individual, in the final analysis. But the
spirit of the enterprise left all judgements open to revision, though no doubt always aiming at
objective finality. In this attempt they, perhaps inappreciatively, invoked the authority of the ‘ethical’
in final adjudications of all truth claims. The individual had to feel responsible for his truths and
social commitments, and had to arrive at them through honest impartial consideration. Such
individualism is not dictatorial or idiosyncratic. It is another matter that this healthy individualism
lost its battle for humanizing culture against ruthless capitalism, and irresponsibly grew into a ‘fat
and selfish’ egoism.

The upshot of this brief reflection on the odds and evens of some contemporary myths and
insights is to invite us to give the devil his due, to face ourselves to realize that any programme of
social action for cultural regeneration stipulated by seminarists curls up upon the participants
considered as individuals. It is the individual human being in whom alone there lies, first and
foremost, the creative energy needed for cultural transformation. He must somehow realize that
he is responsible for the way the world is today — violent, uncaring, unsharing and unloving; not
he alone nor he collectively, but he individually. And this means that social action must begin from
action upon himself, the action of making ourselves integrated beings, whole and true individuals.
This would require the discipline of self-knowing, of understanding oneself as a total process.

The process-view of the self that I am invoking here recognizes that the self, though a unitary
centre of consciousness, is not a totally separate psychological or psycho-physical entity, cut off
as it were from the rest of being. At every stage of the living process, it is embedded, sustained
and carried over by the extraordinary life of the whole. Today this view has been made available to
us by the insights of scientists into the way living systems sustain themselves and support one
another and move forward together in evolution. Their participation in the whole is a form of
mutual cooperation. The realization of total interconnectedness and interdependability can
promote an almost mystical sense of unity with the whole, with the consequence that the
consciousness of separateness is rendered insignificant and is even ontologically incinerated. But
perhaps more to the point is the fact that the sense of unity with the whole is sufficiently real for
the individual.

What we are saying is nothing but a retrieval of an aspect of the Indian spiritual heritage central to
which is a holistic perspective upon life. In the holistic vision of life there is also the ending of the
fragmentation of life. And in the ending of fragmentation there is the ending of conflict within. Such
a conflict-free individual, the true individual, is the proper foundation for peace in the world. We
have experimented with impersonal objective approaches to ending conflict ‘outside’, but without
success. It is not enough to see conflict ‘out-there’ and offer pragmatic solutions for immediate
relief. Such an approach can only control tensions temporarily. But a non-erupting volcano is not a
land of flowers. If the individual is conflict-ridden on the inside, if he is fragmented and feels
separated from the world, he is bound to project it upon the collective. Greedy, envious, egoistic,
pleasure-hunting individuals will inevitably produce wars and fragmentation. Only conflict-free
individuals can neither be manipulated not will desire to manipulate others.

The ever-present feeling of insecurity due to the consciousness of separateness on the one hand
and the consciousness of the essential unabidingness of the self on the other, constantly pushes
the individual to seek salvation in various forms of the collective. The being of the individual needs
to be protected. But it is not easy to do so when each one has set himself in competition with the
others. The collective offers the power of the state, of legislation. But who is to wield this power?
Obviously, individuals of the same kind as those who need protection — scared, insecure, lonely,
and therefore aggressive, possessive and manipulative. Is it surprising, then, that everywhere in
the world state power tends to acquire an oppressive personality of its own? In the typical
consciousness of oneself as a necessarily acquisitive and consumerist self — an essentially
separate entity which nevertheless continues to retain its personal identity throughout its history of
seeking satisfaction of the vagaries of desire — there can be no peace.

To transform the acquisitive culture of conflict and aggression into a culture of peace and care,
man must return to himself, perceive the hidden motivational springs of his action and in knowing
himself thus and so, discover the sacredness of life, of nature and the wholeness of his
interrelatedness with it. As it is, the culture we have created, which in turn has conditioned us, is
the result of our constant endeavour to succeed and dominate, to acquire personal power in one
form or another, as separate beings. It is a sad story of human misery and suffering and endless
conflict. Each one of us is composed of these cultural universals. One has to realize, not only
intellectually but experientially in the structures of one’s consciousness, perceive the truth that ‘we
are the world and the world is us’. ‘The world is in each of us; to feel that, to be really committed to
it and to nothing else, brings about a feeling of great responsibility and an action that must not be
fragmentary, but whole.’5

The culture of peace is the way of life of individuals who have put themselves on the road to total
freedom — freedom from the conditioned dictates of the acquisitive culture. Such individuals do
not succumb to pressures for the blind run for what glitters like gold but alas! melts away like wax.
The promised land of happiness through single-minded devotion to material (industrial) growth is a
mirage whose true nature one fails to see in the culture which has given us the unquenchable
thirst for more. We must assume the responsibility for regenerating the culture of peace through
re-making ourselves into integrated wholes, beings that are at peace with themselves; and then
the spiritual quality of the feeling of the unseparateness of the ‘me’ would enable us, naturally and
quite spontaneously, to relate to others in love, freedom and understanding.


This is not to suggest that no institutional action is needed on the ‘outside’, in society. Creativity is
necessary for a robust culture of peace. Such a culture must keep blossoming, comprehending
the contemporary ethos, it must be reappropriating its resources towards a meaningful telos. In its
aspect of creativity, a living dynamic culture, as I have argued elsewhere,6 must be seen as a
quest for (to put it generously) the ‘holy trinity’ of Truth, Goodness and Beauty, which signify the
three generic perspectives upon life available to man. The goals of a ‘quest’, in contrast to those of
a ‘search’, cannot and should not be given determinate definitions. We understand them and
move towards them through the negation of what are empirically known to be their opposites. For
example, we embrace non-violence by the negation of violence. ‘Non-violence’ does not represent
a being, but violence is recognizably actual. Non-violence is a way of being in the world without

If cultural processes signify a creative quest for the meaning and truth of life, then their logical
relationship with educational processes is evident enough. Holistically speaking, education must
awaken the integrated intelligence of the learner rather than encouraging conformity to patterns of
canonised knowledge, education should enable the individual to comprehend himself as freedom,
understanding and creativity. Educational processes have lamentably become merely informative
processes. True, there is always a considerable amount of technical, factual data and concrete
utility-skills to be transferred from the teachers to the taught, but surely to exhaust the meaning of
‘education’ in solely ‘that’, is a vulgarization of a form of life which the ancients rightly considered
sacred and which they approached with great humility.

But today educational institutions have turned most violent — the violence, for example, of
ideological brain-washing and the marginalization of those who refuse to surrender to power
relations of dominant epistemic discourse, or of those who simply cannot afford to buy it. The
system and its operations are imbued with the egoistic, acquisitive and domineering character of
modern man so characteristic of the ‘liberal individual’ of contemporary culture. His ruthless
pursuit of a notion of truth which is laboriously constructed on utilitarian foundations, on what may
be called the ‘pragmatics of material advancement’, and the notion of goodness signifying
manipulative success, and of beauty that lures and earns, offers only a sad caricature of the
educational process.

Surely it will be generally agreed that when we behold education in all its beauty, depth and
richness, we see it as the power which liberates, and enables and inspires man to live creatively.
This power is freedom — freedom from the fear and insecurity of non-conformity and
non-‘success’. Education, particularly in the humanities, must awaken the integrated intelligence
of the learner; instead of encouraging conformity to patterns of canonized knowledge, education
should enable the individual to comprehend himself as a total process. Thus, self-knowing must
be a simultaneous and non-cognitive (i.e. without the subject-object separation) accompaniment
of knowing the external, the objective.

To live creatively, no doubt one needs a matrix of facts, knowledge and techniques. But though
such a framework is logically necessary, it is not sufficient. To live creatively one needs to be
perpetually transcending the ‘given’, the conditioned and determined. In the spontaneity of
freedom and the insights of understanding of life as a whole, one is always going beyond the
literal meanings of traditions, enriching them with newness and thus carrying them forward.
Creativity is the very dynamic of living, and living is an artful quest of the meaning of life.


1. Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, Duckworth, 1981, p.190.

2. J.P. Sartre, Being and Nothingness, New York, 1956, p. 474.

3. To echo Rainer Maria Rilke: ‘Shattered beings are best represented by bits and pieces’.

4. Postmodern Ethics, Blackwell, 1993, p. 60.

5. J. Krishnamurti, Unconditionally Free, KFI, 1995, p. 34.

6. Manascharya, Vol.1, No.1, 1995, pp.1-10.

One perspective

"Ask not what your country can do for you ask what can you do for your country."

These are perhaps the most famous words President John F. Kennedy ever spoke and the
words have been echoed for close to fifty years now as a patriotic call of the individual to
accept his or her responsibility towards society. Most people have heard the quote but
who knows what Kennedy said exactly after that? The actual quote is from his inaugural
address given on January 20th 1961 in which Kennedy said: "My fellow Americans ask
not what your country can do for you ask what you can do for your country. My fellow
citizens of the world ask not what America will do for you but together we can do for the
freedom of man." It is a sad commentary on both society and the individual that most
people have no idea what followed Kennedy's call to patriotic duty and that duty to
country is all that is remembered. The call for individual freedom, in today's world, has
taken a backseat to duty towards society and duty towards society is a reckless and erratic
driver at best, at worst a journey towards dictators and totalitarianism.

What exactly is an individual's responsibility towards society? Does the individual have
some sort of unwritten contract with society where terms of the contract were decided by
the will of the people? Is the individual required to submit his or her own free will to that
of the general will? These are the hard questions that come with asking what our
responsibility towards society is. For those who subscribe to the political thought that a
social contract does indeed exist then there is an absolute requirement of the individual,
implicitly agreed upon by the individuals decision to live within society, to submit to the
general will of the people. This social contract however, can not be produced in a court of
law as evidence of any binding effect. Constitutions are contracts made "by the people"
that have some force or binding effect on those who live within that constitutional
government but the so called social contract is no more than fancy phrasing intended to
give collectivist politics some form of legal authority.

Before one asks what his or her responsibility is towards society one should first ask what
is the responsibility towards oneself. Do you have a responsibility to survive? Do you
have a responsibility to flourish and prosper? Surely, if you truly wish to fulfill some
responsibility towards society shouldn't you at the very least ensure your own survival in
order to fulfill responsibility towards society? If you are not flourishing and prospering
just how much responsibility of society's can you accept? Accepting responsibility is not
at all easy and one can easily look at their own past actions to find many refusals to
accept responsibility for their actions. As more and more individuals get comfortable with
the idea of refusing to accept responsibility for even their own actions, increasingly a
society of irresponsible people prevail. What responsibility would one have to an
irresponsible society? It is a fallacy to presume that one can accept responsibility towards
society. Society does not exist in such a way to facilitate any meaningful end. Accept
responsibility for yourself and your actions and accept responsibility for others and their
actions, these are the only two possible choices to be made when it comes to accepting
responsibility. One can chose one or the other or chose both but outside of those three
choices accepting responsibility becomes empty rhetoric.

There are many examples of historical figures and unknown soldiers who sacrificed their
lives for the "good of society" but in each instance the actions defined as "sacrifice for the
good of society" were made by individuals who acted upon their own individual free will.
The soldier who falls upon a grenade to protect his fellow soldiers from the same death
he has accepted is not an action made out of obligation towards society, it is a selfish
action made by an individual who had the presence of mind to understand that his life
was forfeit the minute the grenade landed in his vicinity and he can stand there and die
with his comrades or act to save his comrades minimizing the tragedy of his own death. It
is a good and noble action not because it conforms to responsibility towards society but
because it aims to accomplish the greater good. The greatest good to the greatest amount
should be anyone's primary goal when accepting responsibility.

No one will ever achieve the greater good by accepting an idea that their own needs are
less important than the needs of a collective. If any collective is to prosper and flourish it
must necessarily have individuals within that collective who prosper and flourish. The
more individuals with in the collective who flourish and prosper the more prosperous the
collective becomes. The collective can not ensure any individuals prosperity but
individuals can ensure the collectives prosperity only by first ensuring that they as
individuals flourish and prosper. What is your responsibility towards society you ask?
Ask not what your country can do for you nor should you ask what you can do for your
country but instead ask what can you do for yourself and how can you be free to do for
yourself and when you've done this and when you finally begin to flourish and prosper
then look around and ask those around you what you can do for them and their freedom
to do for themselves. If we all did this the question of responsibility towards society
would never be asked at all.

Corporate Social Responsibility seems to be the term of the day for an emerging
corporate India. As corporate citizens, people seem to be more than willing to come up
with innovative models for the up-liftment of society, using their own resources. Starting
from teaching the underprivileged children, to sharing resources with flood victims, to
green planet fundamentals and to whatever else the organization feels it can give back to
the society, everything is being done today.

So, now, a natural questions arises: Why were we not responsible towards the society, as
individual citizens, earlier? Were all the people who pull up their socks now, and work
towards the aim of corporate social responsibility not responsible as individuals earlier?.

There can be two answers to these questions.

A few people who felt responsible earlier were contributing to the up-liftment of society
using whatever little means they had. Some of them donated money to NGO’s that helped
underprivileged students, while others took classes over the weekends to help the NGO’s
in the field of education. And that was not all, there were people who tried to help others
by doing whatever little they could, in whatever form they could, while the rest continued
to enjoy living a life of ease and comfort.

The second school of thought feels that it is difficult for an individual to achieve much,
and it needs a collective pull to convert all the people in a community into responsible
citizens of the society. The organizations and corporations, therefore, are in a much better
position to initiate such a process, and turn their employees into socially responsible

The important question, however, still remains: Why are we not individually responsible
to live as socially responsible citizens? Do we always need a collective cause to pull us
towards responsibility?

There’s a proverb which says, “For a nation to prosper, each citizen has to be accountable
to his task rather than communities being accountable to their task”. Communities here
refers to various groups of people, and in our current context we can consider
organization, companies etc as communities. So, to really take a country forward
whatever we do in the name of the organization has to be carried out individually too.

The best place to start is the home. If we accept the responsibility of being moral citizens
in all the activities of our day to day life, it will automatically be reflected in our offices,
and then on the nation as a whole. Working collectively for higher benefits to the society
is commendable, but working individually towards the good of all is even better.
So, pause for a moment and think. How many of are ready to be individually responsible
for the activities we carry out and be a socially responsible citizen, rather than have a
collective pull through Corporate Social Responsibility.