Responsibility assumption

Responsibility assumption is a doctrine in the spirituality and personal growth fields holding that each individual has substantial or total responsibility for the events and circumstances that befall them in their life. While there is little notable about the notion that each person has at least some role in shaping their experience, the doctrine of responsibility assumption posits that the individual's mental contribution to his or her own experience is substantially greater than is normally thought. "I must have wanted this" is the type of catchphrase used by adherents of this doctrine when encountering situations, pleasant or unpleasant, to remind them that their own desires and choices led to the present outcome.

The term responsibility assumption thus 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.


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 to be the cause of his or her own experience, ranging from partial but substantial, to total.

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 the Dale Carnegie books and courses or Norman Vincent Peale's 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.

Total responsibility

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." In this realm the doctrine can present controversial propositions such as, "you chose to have cancer and can just as easily become well if you choose," or the even more shocking and initially unpalatable proposition, "the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust did so because they wanted to die." Despite the extremity of these positions, there are indeed groups and schools of thought subscribing to the doctrine of responsibility assumption that would support these propositions and more. They point to offsetting benefits if such a causation system is true, such as the absence of personal sacrifice and interpersonal guilt, or the absolute safety such a system portends for the causative mind. In its absolute form, this doctrine approaches solipsism (the notion that only oneself exists), and strictly from this perspective causation may, perhaps, correctly be termed solipsistic.

Enfolding objectivism and the scientific method

Responsibility assumption is notable for its ability to fold within its own contours the reservations held toward it by the opposing doctrines of objectivism and materialism. In answering the criticism that convincing scientific evidence has never been shown that would objectively support the doctrine's existence, adherents of the total responsibility version of the doctrine counter that the appearance of such objectively overwhelming scientific evidence would itself violate the doctrine, due to its effects on unwilling observers. Analogizing the doctrine to an extreme application of quantum indeterminacy in which the observer not merely affects the outcome of the observed phenomenon but indeed completely controls it, adherents argue that it would be impossible for any skeptical observer to be presented with overwhelming evidence of the doctrine's validity (or of anything else, for that matter) if the observer does not mentally desire to receive it.

Proponents thus conclude more generally that the scientific method and the seemingly objective observations underpinning it can never resolve the larger metaphysical issues of an observer-driven subjective existence. They reason that if causation is always mentally driven by the observer, then the placebo effect is the only real effect there is, and the seemingly objective reportings of science are simply a description of those mental effects which multiple minds and/or a super-mind have agreed to respect in common.

Logical difficulties

Logically consistent application of the doctrine, especially the total responsibility version, encounters various logical and philosophical difficulties that must be handled, and which are handled by proponent groups in various ways. For example, if all physical effects in the world are merely the result of mental processes, it can be asked what truly causative, non-physical factors set those mental processes in motion in the first place; in other words, what caused the mental cause? The answer given to address this difficulty depends on the mythos or "backstory" in place for each proponent group. In the book A Course in Miracles, for example, separation from the mind of God and fragmentation into individual minds set up the mental conflict and tension that plays itself out on the screen of the physical world.

Another difficulty is the seeming stability and commonality of a physical world that, according to the doctrine, is the net result of so many different minds in apparently different conditions, or in other words, how could so many causative minds at odds with each other have caused one apparently stable external world to result? The answers given to this difficulty vary from solipsism to the many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics.

Meanwhile, proponents of the partial responsibility version must for their part grapple with questions such as to what degree and by what mechanisms the subjective internal and objective external factors of causation interplay to produce net effects in the world, and here again, multiple answers are offered.

Religious and philosophical roots and usage

The est seminars popularized the term "responsibility assumption" in the 1970s, but 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 that holds only one true being exists, and all people are one with each other and with God and hence possess Godlike powers, though often unawares. 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, the Quaker and Unitarian Universalist 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, wrote two songs about it, Farewell Andromeda (1973) and Looking for Space (1975), and 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.

The 1967 television series The Prisoner featured an ambiguous climax spawning several interpretations, one of which implicates responsibility assumption. Throughout the short seventeen-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 thus ultimately determined the prisoner's fate. The moment of revelation in which the mysterious leader was literally unmasked by the prisoner was brief and unclear, but there are fans of the series who believe the unmasked leader was the prisoner himself.

In a deleted scene from the 1999 movie Dogma, a fallen angel explained how the subconscious demands of the damned 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."

Though these are prominent examples, varying degrees of the doctrine of responsiblity assumption have formed a minor theme more broadly within the United States cultural landscape since the decline of the 1960s counterculture.

See also




  • Bach, Richard. Illusions - Confessions of a Reluctant Messiah.
  • Bach, Richard (1970). Jonathan Livingston Seagull.

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