Whenever someone says 'personal responsibility' my eyes glaze over. I've heard it said too much, and heard it say too little.
This phrase has become a magical incantation. A spell people use to ward off the boogeymen -- moral relativism, people blaming society for their problems, the decline in American values. Of course, these are boogeymen, not real problems but the invented crises of moral busybodies and superstitious fanatics who are concern-trolling our nation (I'm looking at you, Douthat). The idea that invoking 'personal responsibility' does anything is laughable - young men do not turn to the corner because some NPR liberal said it wasn't their fault, and telling them that it's their fault is not going to make them stop.
But as laughable as it is, it is invoked again and again can be deployed against drug users, teen moms, teens that aren't moms, poor people on welfare, poor people not on welfare, black folks and many others. And that's the sinister part.
This is because beyond being a magic charm that is wielded against imaginary demons, it is a very real and very harmful thought. The thought that anyone out there who suffers just needs to 'take responsibility.' It can be used against anyone who is in dire straits. Just recently I was reading an ESPN article on my lunch break. Ed Reed (a man who has brain damage from playing football) called the NFL 'Shady' for hiding evidence that repeated concussions in football could cause generative neurological disease. He did not say that the NFL was at fault for his own medical problems (though he could have). In fact before he has said that he and other plays got what they signed up for (perhaps the depths of the cover-up are making him rethink this). But despite the fact that Reed said nothing about his own health, commenters on the article accused him of trying to avoid responsibility for his myriad health problems. I bring this up because this is a naked example of the true use of 'personal responsibility' - as a way of saying that we have no need to feel compassion for other human beings.
Ed Reed made no claims for himself, he merely said something that was true -- it is shady when the NFL covers up medical facts. People are not invoking 'personal responsibility' to say that Ed Reed is responsible for his choices, but to de-legitimize his criticism of the NFL. More broadly, I think people want to de-legitimize the idea that we are bound to have empathy for Reed or Seau or Duerson. It is a defense mechanism - by telling other people to take responsibility we duck our own.
And this applies to so many things. After all, if 'personal responsibility' applies to every situation, then people are on their own and I have no moral duty to any of them. I only need to look after myself.
And there's the rub. Under the guise of American Values and common decency, the casual invocation of 'personal responsibility' is an attack on the very idea of people having an ethical obligation to one another. It is not an example of American individualism, but a flagrant attack on the very idea of society*. It is the rankest sort of nihilism, and it has spread through our discourse like a cancer.
*and, I might add, an attack on the very heart of Christian ethics