I always thought personal responsibility meant not just taking responsibility for how your actions affect you, but also how your actions affect others.
I mean, if you throw a ball and it breaks a window, you don’t just check whether any of the glass shards cut your own skin and then move on. You also apologize to the person whose window you broke. You especially apologize to the person whose window you broke.
You definitely don’t say the owner of the window is to blame for not using safety glasses or putting up shutters or for having the bad luck to live in a house within easy shot of a playground.
And okay, sure, there will always be people who hide or run or deny that ball was theirs. But they’re the ones who are failing to take personal responsibility. We all know that.
So how did we come to believe that, during a pandemic, personal responsibility instead means just taking responsibility for whether our actions cause us and our loved ones to become sick, disabled, or even die? How did we come to believe it only matters if the glass cuts our own skin?
That’s not how it works. If I willfully act in ways that increase my chances of infecting others, I’m personally responsible for that.
Even if the people I infect choose to be around me of their own free will. Even if they’re high risk or have comorbidities or are just in poorer health than me. Even if they seemed “healthy” but got hit hard anyway. I’m personally responsible.
Even if no one else around me was acting to protect others, either. Even if there’s peer pressure not to protect others, and I don’t want to speak up or say no or be the only person in the room wearing a mask. I’m personally responsible.
Even if the people I infect are fine but they go on to infect strangers I’ll never know and never meet and never hear about who aren’t fine. I’m personally responsible.
Even—yes, even—if they failed to get vaccinated, failed to protect themselves as fully as they could have. I still threw that ball through the window. It doesn’t matter if the window should have had safety glass in place. I’m still the one who broke it.
If we remembered what personal responsibility meant in other contexts, would we act to protect others during this pandemic, instead of mostly only acting to protect ourselves and those closest to us?
Or is that too much to ask, in any context? Have the stresses of an ongoing pandemic broken somehow inside us, making it too much to ask?
Leaving us unwilling to be personally responsible for our actions after all?