There is evidence to suggest that in the Untied States our culture is becoming more individualistic and less collective. This has interesting impacts for how we see and think about our responsibility toward each other. A more individualistic society may say that the best way for us to be responsible for the good of society is to be the best that we can possibly be. We are responsible for how healthy we eat, responsible for how much we contribute to economic productivity, and responsible for how good of a role model we are for young people. A more collective society may think that we are more responsible for whether other people are able to eat healthily, whether others are able to find productive employment, and whether there are sufficient activities for young people to participate in to be around good role models.
This contrast is interesting because it highlights a distinction between who we are responsible for. In the most extreme of individualistic cultures we may not be responsible for anyone other than ourselves, not even for our family members. In the most extreme collective cultures, we may be responsible for the wellbeing of the entire universe.
In the book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari suggests that in reality most human cultures generally end up in some place of feeling responsibility for themselves and for an in-group to which the individual belongs. He writes, “evolution has made Homo sapiens, like other social mammals, a xenophobic creature. Sapiens instinctively divide humanity into two parts, we and they. We are people like you and me, who share our language, religion, and customs. We are all responsible for each other, but not responsible for them.” The argument is that evolution would not support the most individualistic society, because the single individual would not be able to pass on their genes as well as an individual supported by a strong tribe with social responsibilities among the in-group. Simultaneously, a group that was too collective in responsibility would be spread too thin to foster evolutionary advantages in terms of who felt responsible to support others.
But there is still a lot of flexibility in terms of how this personal versus group responsibility manifests. Humans seem to discern between people like them who they feel responsible for and people dissimilar to themselves who they do not feel responsible for. It is interesting how in the United States we are becoming more individualistic, seeing ourselves first as responsible for our individual self and less responsible for the collective while the world becomes more globalized and dependent on everyone – as our current supply chain issues demonstrates. Somehow, it seems, the challenge for us is to expand the scope of who we are viewed as being responsible for while maintaining a reason to still be responsible for ourselves as individuals. Perhaps this isn’t possible, perhaps it simply layers more responsibility over the individual, but as we continue to globalize and become more globally dependent on each other, we have to find a way to understand that we are responsible for others, even if evolution appears to have made us xenophobic and hasn’t given us a sense of responsibility for people who seem different from us.