Dialectical Materialism (A. Spirkin)
Prev Chapter 5. On the Human Being and Being Human Next

Destiny, Freedom and Responsibility

The idea of destiny and necessity. Everything in the world is conditioned and takes place according to necessity. When we consider not merely objective events that occur in the world but also conscious human activity, the problem of necessity reveals itself in a new aspect: by becoming aware of it we turn necessity into freedom. The thinkers of the ancient world pondered the question of who governed the universe— the gods or destiny? Was the world ruled by reason or by blind necessity? According to Heraclitus, everything depended on destiny, and destiny meant necessity. The essence of destiny was reason, which guided everything.

At first destiny was regarded not as a universal abstract necessity but as the fate of individual mortals. Everyone had his own particular fate. Necessity was thus broken down into a large number of fatal forces, sometimes embodied in various creatures such as the oracle, the sorceress, the magician, and so on. Sometimes these forces of destiny came into conflict with each other.

Fatalism is based on the assumption that everything in the world and in people's lives is predetermined by natural or supernatural forces, that there is a rational being which sets the goal for everything that happens in nature, and that this being is called god. Everything in the world is predestined and no one is responsible for what happens.

Fatalism has a crushing effect on the individual. In human nature he sees a repulsive sameness, in human relations an irresistible force that belongs to everything in general and to no one in particular. The individual is merely driftwood on the waves. It is ridiculous to fight against the relentless law of fate. At best one may discover what it is, but even then one can only obey. Destiny leads the person who follows voluntarily, and those who resist are dragged by force. Freedom, according to the fatalist, is no more than the will of the horse, whose harness allows it to move only in one direction and in the framework of the shafts. Fatalism links up with religion, which asserts divine predestination. Both fatalism and religion grant human beings only a predestined role along with the illusion that they are acting independently. In any event the fatalist sees only a manifestation of necessity. Absolute surrender is what is expected of every individual in the face of imminent death.

Not only the religious idealist philosophers and superstitious people generally, proceeding from the idea that we can't get away from fate, adopt the standpoint of fatalism. It is also held by some philosophers who, as materialists, are opposed to religion and idealism, but believe that everything that happens in the world is predetermined by the "iron chain of cause and effect". Spinoza, for instance, maintained that people were mistaken in believing themselves free because they were only aware of their actions but did not know what causes determined them.

In contrast to religious fatalism, Holbach developed the conception of materialistic fatalism. All events were predetermined, not by the divine will but by the relentless sequence of cause and effect, a chain from which not a single link could be eliminated. Necessity commanded not only the physical world but also the world of the mind, wherein consequently everything was also subordinate to fate. Although this mechanistic conception differs from the religious in that it makes its appeal to the natural and not to the supernatural, the two coincide in their general principle. In both philosophies man is doomed to obedience, in one case, to the will of God, in the other, to the immutable laws of nature. Primitive society presupposes the complete identity of freedom and non-freedom for its members, none of whom are yet capable of separating their inner being from that of the tribe. Human actions are thought of as the expression of the will of supernatural forces, as the inevitable blind and capricious power of destiny, which man must obey just as he obeys the life cycle of his organism (blood circulation, breathing, etc.) and the compelling force of instinct.

As classes and states arise, the concept of freedom gradually becomes contrasted to necessity. In ancient Greece, for instance, a person's inner and outward life was deter mined by his status in the social system which he inherited in the same way as his natural "gifts". Fate did not come to a person from outside but unfolded like a scroll out of his very essence. It was the expression of his character. No matter how tragic their fate, people could not, in principle, desire another because this would mean becoming someone else. The characters in Greek tragedy are carved out of marble, as it were. For example, in the works of Aeschylus all the actions of Oedipus are programmed by fate long before his birth. Even the gods themselves obey fate. According to legend; the Pythian of Delphi proclaimed that even the gods could not avoid what was preordained by fate. No one knew the intentions of fate except the three fateful sisters, Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos. Clotho held the distaff of inevitability on which the thread of life was spun. Lachesis turned the spindle and decided the actions and events of life. Atropos held the scissors to cut the thread of life.

Although fate was thought of as something unknowable and absolutely mysterious, people sought to discern its intentions by turning to the oracles.

It was believed that fate could not be understood by means of causal explanation and could reveal its secrets only to the unconscious. The divinity, according to Plato, made prophecy the province of the irrational principle in human nature. The voice of fate could be heard in thunder and lightning, in the flight of birds and the rustle of leaves. Later fate came to be identified with coincidence, chance, something that could not be controlled. A person expected to receive not what was assigned to him by the objective logic of events, but what came his way in the course of the game. Circumstances could make a beggar into a king, or a king into a beggar. The destiny of whole nations was sometimes dependent on petty court intrigues. The only consolation and hope lay in the fact that fate could be regarded as "lucky chance", as a goddess who could be prevailed upon to act in one's favour. Later fate came to be seen as an all-embracing and inavertible determinacy, alienated from human life and assuming its own continuity and necessity—destiny. Man was thus divided, as it were, into what he was in himself and what he was fated to be. On the one hand, duty as the expression of a person's social mission and, on the other, his personal feelings and interests acted as forces operating in different directions and fighting to control the behaviour of the individual. Now one side, now the other was victorious, depending on a person's inner nature and on external circumstances. The resulting conflict permeated the whole history of humankind.

The Christian world-view condemns fatalism. It presupposes faith in divine providence, which leaves room for free expression of the individual will. Confronted by divine omnipotence, fate has to retreat from the sphere of mythology and philosophical disputes to the world of ordinary everyday notions. The religiously oriented conscience, dominated by fear of divine retribution, is opposed to the concept of fate. Everything of importance in human life must therefore proceed outside its influence. However, the idea of fate does not disappear. It is kept alive by the prestige of astrology, the principle of man's being part of the picture of the universe, whose forces determine the logic of human life. This form of belief in fate assumes that a person is born under a certain star and thus receives a certain programme in life, including even his personal qualities.

With the spread of the idea of historical progress and hope of the revolutionary transformation of social life, the concept of fate was defeated in its main citadel, a defeat that is expressed in both philosophical writings and belles lettres. Shakespeare's Hamlet fights to determine his line of conduct amid "the slings and arrows of misfortune". But the principles of the largely irrational life of bourgeois society continue to foster the idea of fate, particularly in social relations. Many bourgeois political leaders, including Napoleon, the "man of destiny", believed that politics were pure fate, understood as the play of chance defying reason. Goethe referred to a mysterious force that everyone felt but which no philosopher had the power to explain.

By studying the symbols of astrology Goethe tried to get back to the ancient conception of fate as something immanent in all living things, the irrational life programme. According to Nietzsche, man's selfhood is, in fact, fate. Spengler thought the idea of fate implied active rejection of individual conscience and good will and scorned all belief in human free will. Fate was the equivalent of such concepts as "life", "development", and "time". The idea of fate thus became symbolic of the pessimistic demand for activity at all costs. Though such activity was bound to be futile, people had to do something all the same.

By one-sidedly stressing the role of heredity, the fatalist can maintain that everything we are is predetermined in the Inseminated ovum from which the organism develops, that the conditions of our life play hardly any role or perhaps none at all. From this fatalistic principle several practical conclusions are drawn. One can do nothing about inherited proclivities and diseases, because no one can change his ancestors. This gloomy view of the world found its ultimate expression in the ideology of fascism, which exploited the idea of fate as a weapon of arch-reactionary propaganda.

In recent years numerous works interpreting the problem of fate in various ways have appeared in the West. The neo-Thomists combine the idea of fate with that of god. Interpreting fate as a manifestation of an infinitely remote and mystically frightening divine will, the neo-Thomists urge us to submit to fate. In their view a person is in the power of supernatural forces that render him helpless. At times of happiness and strength, hope or inward contentment he feels he is achieving success, but this is really an illusion. Basically the essence of life lies in obedience, awareness of the futility and hopelessness of existence.

In scientific, realistically oriented thinking the idea of fate has no categorial meaning. The word is often used to denote an unfavourable or favourable set of circumstances beyond human control and planning. The word "fate" is also used among people who have no faith in any kind of destiny. In the ordinary consciousness it serves to express the idea of necessity, chance or a combination of the two. It is used, for example, when we are talking of the law-governed result of development of certain events which are truly inevitable, although there is nothing mystical about this outcome. For example, we speak of a certain person's fate being decided in advance. The concept of fate is sometimes used to denote a person's path in life, not necessarily determined by any one person or thing but the outcome of a combination of the necessary, the accidental, the spontaneous, and the conscious in human life. By fate we may also mean a certain programme of behaviour determined by heredity, and by the features of temperament and character (wisdom or stupidity, restraint or hot-headedness) acquired during life. In folk wisdom this is expressed in the saying: sow a deed and reap a habit, sow a habit and reap a character, sow a character and reap a fate.

The problem of freedom. Stressing the complexity of the problem of freedom, Hegel wrote: "Of no idea can it be stated with such complete justification that it is vague, ambiguous, and capable of generating the greatest misunderstanding, and therefore liable to be misunderstood, as the idea of freedom, and no idea is discussed with so little understand ing of its nature."[1] Freedom is the key philosophical problem, the crown of all the efforts of theoretical thinking, the culminating moment of any mature philosophical system. There is nothing higher or more significant in any system of philosophical world-view or in the actual stream of human life. It encompasses the meaning of history and stands as the true criterion of social progress. The sacred word "freedom" has resounded throughout the centuries on the lips of the oppressed and is the guiding star of their social endeavours. For the sake of the triumph of freedom in the life of society, for the sake of the individual's right to self-expression and creativity, revolutionaries at all times and among all peoples have been ready to face deportation, the stake, the gallows, the guillotine. Guided by a profound social awareness, their hearts yearn for freedom in the name of the happiness of the poor and oppressed.

The entire system of connections between the individual, nature and society, all the demands that society makes on the individual and the individual's dependence on the world are in constant contradiction with the idea of free will. But this contradiction takes place in the framework of a unity—the unity of will and the real conditions for the manifestation of its freedom.

The actively creative nature of the human consciousness refuses to accept the purely mechanistic interpretation of people's dependence on external circumstances characteristic of the metaphysical materialism of the 18th century, which maintained that our life was a line that we were bound to follow across the face of the earth guided by external forces from whose control no man could deviate by a single step. If a person acted only under the influence of external forces, he would suffer the fate of Buridan's ass, which was unable to choose between two equidistant stacks of hay and therefore died of starvation.

Is a human being free in his choice of action or are his actions preordained by forces beyond his control and opposed to his will? If we say that man is free, how can we reconcile our answer with our acknowledgement of objective necessity? If we say he is not free, does this mean that people are only a means of realising the laws of social development? According to Kant, if human acts of will are empirically conditioned and necessary, no human being can be held responsible for them. That is why Kant maintains that there may be contradictions between freedom and necessity in one and the same human action. In pronouncing his final verdict on the human being, Kant states that although you, as a human being, acted thus be cause you could not act otherwise, your actions being conditioned by circumstances and, consequently, you are not to blame, it does not matter whether, after all, you could or could not have acted otherwise—you are still guilty, since you should not have acted as you did.

Where, then, is personal initiative, the constructive, creative and transforming role that human beings are able to perform? The doctrine of non-freedom of the will, which belittles the dignity of man as a self-determinant active personality, absolves man of all responsibility for any crime or action and disentitles him of any reward for heroism. If everything is preordained, where is the fault of the criminal or the merit of the good man and the hero?

The thinkers who built the Christian world-view had to face up to this problem at an early stage. The problem of the relation between freedom and necessity was understood as a relation between freedom and grace, that is to say the freedom of man and the freedom of god. Here an antinomy arises that Christian theology since the days of Augustine has wrestle with. If we assume freedom of the human will, what are we to do about freedom of the divine will and vice versa? Unlimited freedom for man must limit the freedom of God, while assumption of the latter deprives man of free will. Augustine solved the contradiction by acknowledging only the human right to do evil (the idea of the Fall), while only God had the freedom to do good. Here we have the basis of Augustine's theory of predestination, which is, in effect, a theory of the freedom of a personal god. Man's good actions are performed by the grace of God; he is free only to commit sin.

According to Kant, the ability to initiate events independently (i. e., without compulsion) is freedom. Man has many roads before him and he can choose any one of them. But they all lie in the zone of activity of knowable natural and social laws.

The problem of freedom cannot be solved (although many attempt to do so) by discussing free will, understood as a mental phenomenon that is not determined in any way. Such a psychological statement of the problem of human freedom reveals a tendency to contrast metaphysically two independent kinds of phenomena: the material, which are causally conditioned, and the ideal, the mental, which are not objectively determined. Thus, freedom and necessity are not seen as being intrinsically related but are referred to different spheres of existence, that is to say, mental and material phenomena are dualistically counterposed and an impassable gap is set between them. Free will is associated with indeterminism and thus, in effect, identified with arbitrariness, with licence.

Psychologists define free will as the possibility of performing alternative actions in one and the same situation, as the ability to choose one of them and to rule out all the other possibilities. This is related to the struggle of motives, and the domination and victory of one particular motive. In other words, human freedom amounts to the possibility of deciding which line of conduct to take and which to reject. In this sense freedom assumes a meaning full of vital importance. According to Spinoza, we are in bondage to the extent that what happens to us is conditioned by external causes, and free to the extent that we act upon our own judgement.

Free will takes the form of purposeful and selective action based on conscious necessity. Thus, every free action is a unity of necessity and freedom. The concept of freedom is ambiguous. For example, an individual becomes free in the positive sense of the word when he acquires the opportunity to fulfil himself, to realise his essential powers. In the words of Marx, man "is free not through the negative power to avoid this or that but through the positive power to assert his true individuality".[2]

Freedom is sometimes defined only in a negative sense, as personal independence, as the ability to say "no". However, every denial has to be made from certain, perhaps not fully conscious positions, implying a positive principle, which justifies a person's rejection of something and expresses the meaning and value of his rejection. Any rejection of one thing must imply an assertion of something else. Every struggle against one thing ultimately amounts to a struggle for something else. The significance of this struggle is determined by the goals it sets and the positions from which it is conducted. In this sense freedom is in direct contrast not to necessity, understood as determinacy, but to compulsion, to coercion, the use of force. But no coercion, even of the most violent nature, rules out the possibility of freedom, although it may severely restrict that possibility. The determinacy of freedom should not be confused and certainly not be identified with coercion. On the other hand, one should not separate intrinsic freedom as a psychological, personal phenomenon from external freedom, the moral from the political. The degree to which personal freedom is restricted by compulsion on the part of the ruling classes in a state based on exploitation has varied historically.

Freedom is a specifically human mode of existence and only that which is the realisation of freedom can be good in the human sense. One cannot live in society and be free of society. Freedom, as understood by the Greek philosopher Diogenes, who lived in a tub to show his independence of society, denotes the breaking of all human and social ties with the world and thus implies only an abstract symbol of freedom. Such freedom indicates either a withdrawal from life or a complete opposing of oneself to social standards on the principle "everything is permissible". However, there is no action that does not in some way affect another person, there are no completely isolated human beings. The person who alienates himself from the community does harm to that community. The individual is not free always to act as he sees fit. He must coordinate his actions with those of the people around him. It is his responsibility to correlate his behaviour with their interests and activities. He is compelled to suppress some of his feelings and impulses and channel them in different directions from what he may have wished. These channels are determined by historically formed social standards, which in relation to the individual have objective reality.

When speaking of freedom, one should not think of it as doing anything one likes. Such "freedom" simply does not exist. Human actions are restricted by various factors, legal, moral, aesthetic, and by various traits of character, natural abilities, and so on. According to Sartre, freedom is autonomy of choice. It is realised where a person initiates his own desires, chooses on his own behalf, on behalf of his Self. A girl wishing to become a singer discovers that she lacks the necessary gifts, so she becomes a teacher instead and her choice turns out to be a good one. Her personality, her character played a part in this choice. A person's decisions are also determined by external factors, and to an even greater degree by the whole make-up of his personality. For example, an honest person acts on principle and we say that he could not act otherwise. Remember Giordano Bruno, who stood for the truth and could not do otherwise.

If circumstances condition human life, and a human being himself changes the circumstances of this life, if a person is the product of social relations, the social relations are themselves a product of the activity of living individuals. Man's free fulfilment of goals which he, as a rational being, sets himself, can be based only on utilisation of the laws of nature and social reality, not on contempt for them. Consequently, freedom presupposes, above all, a knowledge of laws that are not dependent on human beings, and it is this knowledge that makes people intrinsically free. Thus free will emerges as a concept closely related to the concepts of consciousness and knowledge. Knowledge is not only power, it is also freedom. The only path to freedom is the path to knowledge; ignorance is bondage. The degree of knowledge determines the degree of freedom. One cannot desire what one does not know. The core of freedom is conscious necessity and action, governed by the extent to which we are aware of that necessity, of the possibility of its realisation. Knowledge in itself is not yet freedom, but there can be no freedom without it. Freedom implies not only knowledge of the conditions and laws of development in the present but also preparation of the future results of conscious activity, their prevision. Both personal and social freedom consist not in some imagined independence of objective laws, but in the ability to actively choose and take decisions with a knowledge of the case and, above all, to think and act in conditions that make it possible to realise one's intentions.

The conception of freedom as conscious necessity is an essential, but only the first, step on the road to an understanding of the nature of freedom. It allows us to distinguish freedom from arbitrariness and stresses the priority of objective conditions. Idealism, which maintains the positions of indeterminism, regards the will as an immanent, autonomous, self-contained spiritual force, supposedly generating certain actions from its depths. For example, the existential notion of absolute freedom has no objective roots. According to Nietzsche, "the will to power" has more need of lucky errors than the truth for which we strive. Why, he asks, is falsehood, the unknown, even ignorance not better than truth? Jaspers's statement that not truth but ignorance is the guarantee of freedom strikes us as a meaningless paradox. According to Jaspers, the freest people of all are the insane, because they have no logic. Existentialism interprets the human being as a force standing in opposition to the world and hostile to it. Its system of philosophy thus transforms will into what is, essentially, mere self-will. This is an apology not for freedom but for arbitrariness. There is a counterblast to this notion in Feuerbach, who believed that freedom was not the right of any man to be a fool in his own way. If we think that freedom is something absolute, independent of all objective necessity, we resemble the imaginary pigeon who believed that it would have flown much faster had it not been for the resistance of the air. It forgot one "little" thing: without air it could not live, let alone fly.

The framework of human freedom, its reality, is objective necessity. Freedom is a river that flows within the banks of the laws of life. The law-governed course of historical events in which people take part is realised not despite but through the human will, through people's conscious actions. A correct understanding of determinacy rules out any one-sided dependence of human actions on external influences. This dependence is mediated both by the nature of the person, his total experience, interests, character, value orientations, and so on. The effect of external influences on a person depends on how that person reacts to these influences, to what extent they affect the vital cords of his being. Depending on his personal beliefs and conscience, a human being is free to desire both good and evil. The content of a person's beliefs manifests itself in decisive actions. This is what makes a person responsible for them. When he chooses one action from a number of possible actions and rules out the others, the chosen action is also determined. But it was not predeter mined before it took place. Until the action is completed, not all the determining factors are present. To assume that it was completely determined before it took place would be to substitute predestination for determinacy and thus exclude freedom altogether. In human actions everything is deter mined but there is nothing predestined in them. Man is not ruled by the power of fate. What is more, the apparent incompatibility of freedom and necessity, in the sense of determinacy of events, arises because along with acknowledgement of the determinacy of human actions these actions themselves, and also the decisions involved, are thought of as being outside this determinacy. A person defends his freedom not from being determined by everything that exists but from the blind irrational forces, which impose the fetters of taboo and compulsion on his thoughts, his feelings and his will. Consequently the measure of freedom is part of the concept of man.

Man is free not from nature, not from society and their laws, but within the framework provided by the operation of both the laws of nature and society. When they are known, they make a person's will relatively free. But they also determine its limits, the limits to the realisation of goals that man sets himself: free will is not self-will, arbitrariness. Spinoza in his day thought that freedom should be understood as free necessity and not as arbitrariness. The will is the most active part of the human consciousness. It shows itself in the desire to act, in choice of the direction of action, in the decision to act in a certain way and realise a certain goal. A human being is not a piece of driftwood on the waves of cause-effect connections. He is active. Free will manifests itself precisely in purposeful activity.

To sum up, freedom is the ability, based on knowledge of necessity, to choose and to act in accordance with this necessity. It consists not only in knowledge of natural and social laws but also in the practical realisation of this knowledge. Realisation of freedom presupposes the overcoming of certain obstacles, and the more difficult the obstacles, the stronger and more freedom-loving the will must be. "... Freedom is not a reward or a badge of distinction that is celebrated with champagne. It is not some nice present, such as a box of chocolates. Oh, no! Quite the contrary, it is an imposition, a gruelling race that one must run alone. No champagne, no friends to raise a toast and give you their friendly encouraging glances. You are alone in a dim hall, alone in the dock before your judges, and alone you must answer to yourself and to the court of humanity. At the end of every freedom there awaits retribution, and that is why freedom is too hard to bear...."[3]

A human being realises his essence in material and intellectual activity, in its results, which appear as his "objectified" human abilities, skills, ideas, feelings and will. Consequently, the whole history of material and spiritual culture emerges as the external existence of man's inner world.

Free will is. the mode of realisation of one of the possibilities of action, the creative drawing up of an ideal plan of action, the process of goal-setting, which presupposes the choice of only one reference point from a whole hierarchy of possible directions and motives. Every choice means ruling out what is not chosen and emphasises the vital significance of what is. Thus in its very essence action presupposes a relative freedom of will, the possibility of choice. Some people believe that choice is made not so much by the individual as by circumstances, which choose for him. This also happens. But it is not characteristic of strong-willed people. Freedom lies not only in the choice of a certain aim from a number of possibilities, but also in creativity, in the setting of new goals. Freedom is not only conscious necessity, but also the existence created by human beings themselves, the social relations, the world of material and. intellectual culture. Historical necessity arises as the natural outcome of the subjective orientation of human actions and their objective result, which takes shape independently of will and consciousness. In this case dialectics means that the freedom of the individual acting in history becomes through the results of his actions his necessity.

The idea of freedom is wholly human and social. It differs in every concrete historical set of circumstances. In itself freedom is an abstraction. As a reality it is always full of concrete historical meaning. Freedom is a historically developing thing, a process of development that is never fully realised. Nature knows no freedom. "The first men who separated themselves from the animal kingdom were in all essentials as unfree as the animals themselves, but each step forward in the field of culture was a step towards freedom."[4] Because it is social, the idea of freedom is historical and reflects the metamorphoses of the idea of fate and necessity. By no means everything in human life and relations is the result of the realisation of freedom. They also contain much that is irrational and inevitable, they are bound by a framework that sets the limits of the permissible for every historical epoch. The degree to which the individual's personal freedom is curtailed by his duty to the state varies greatly, and is both concrete and historical.

All nations, the best minds of humanity have from time immemorial longed passionately for a just social system, for democracy, for freedom. When voiced by the people, this word makes dictators and tyrants shudder. Under the banner of freedom the rising people have toppled the thrones of monarchs and the power of capital. The whole history of mankind may be pictured as a stubborn ascent to the cherished peaks of liberty. The call for freedom has always had popular appeal. Despite all contradictions, freedom has blazed a road for itself even in the face of antagonistically contradictory social development.

The feudal lord possessed great freedom and arbitrary power because his subjects were deprived of freedom. In slave society this contradiction was even more striking. Through contradictions, including antagonistic ones, the history of mankind moves along the path of development of freedom for the individual, both in relation to the spontaneous forces of nature and to social conditions. To achieve social freedom one must first "kill the slave in one's own self".

"What kind of freedom?" asks Dostoyevsky. "Equal freedom to do anything one likes within the limits of the law. When can one do that? When one has a million. Does freedom give everyone a million? No. What then is a person without a million? A person without a million is not one who does anything he likes but one who has everything that other people like done to him."[5]

Reflecting on the exploiting society of his day, Schiller wrote:


Into the bosom's holy, silent cells,
Thou needs must fly from life's tumultuous throng!
Freedom but in the realm of vision dwells,
And beauty bears no blossoms but in song. [6]


The true freedom of the working man in an exploiting society shows itself in revolutionary action aimed at realising the objective laws of history. The desire for freedom is an essential feature of the revolutionary character.

The objective conditions for true freedom come about only with the abolition of the society based on relations of domination and obedience, on various forms of oppression. Marx and Engels defined personal freedom as the positive strength to manifest true individuality, they believed that to secure freedom "each man must be given social scope for the vital manifestation of his being".[7] In communist society, Marx observed, beyond the realm of necessity there would begin the development of the human personality as a goal in itself.

Responsibility. Human behaviour is regulated by many factors, including moral standards, the sense of shame, of conscience, of duty, and so on. The basic manifestations of the ethical life are the sense of social and personal responsibility and the awareness of guilt that this implies. Responsibility is not only a moral category, but also a psychological, legal and socio-political one.

Great controversy has raged around this problem for centuries. The idealists believe the sources of responsibility to be in the immanent principles of the human personality, even in the depths of its psychophysiology. For example, according to one conception of psychoanalysis, an individual is essentially helpless in the face of the forces that influence him from within. The responsibility placed upon him by society is merely an illusion. According to this conception, a person has got to realise that he is not the master of his own fate. Officially he is conscious. But although he himself is not aware of the forces that are at work within him, his choice is determined for him—his conscious will is only an instrument, a slave in the hands of the deep subconscious urge which determines his action.

The existentialists absolutise the individual's responsibility to society, believing that every person is responsible for everything that happens in the world. This thesis is based on the premise that the individual will is independent of the flow of historical events, and that these events are the product of the individual will. Every separate person is responsible for everything because this "everything" is consciously created by him. But this is subjective idealism. It is vividly expressed, for example, in Sartre, who maintains that man, being condemned to freedom, assumes the weight of the whole world on his shoulders; he is responsible for the world and for himself. There is no point in complaining because nothing external has determined what we feel, how we live or what we are. This absolute responsibility, however, is not mere submission. It is simply the logically necessary condition for awareness of our freedom. Such is the position taken by Sartre.

But would it not be more correct to assume that the objective foundation for the individual's responsibility to society and himself is the real relation between society and the individual, which is always contradictory. Responsibility expresses society's specific demand on the individual in the form of duty. There are certain social standards, but there is also freedom of choice, including the possibility of violating these standards. So in all societies a certain responsibility is laid down for such violations. Where there is no choice, there is no responsibility.

It is impossible to discuss morality and law without touching upon the question of free will, of liability, of the relationship between freedom and necessity. The individual becomes aware of his personal responsibility when he knows what other people expect of him. Responsibility may appear in two forms: retrospective and actual, i. e., responsibility for previously performed actions and for actions that are being performed at the given moment.

Responsibility is a state of consciousness, a feeling of duty towards society and oneself, an awareness of the purpose of the actions performed, their consequences for a certain social group, class, party, collective and oneself. Responsibility is society's necessary means of controlling the behaviour of the individual through his consciousness. As an integral attribute of the socially developed personality, responsibility takes the form of the spiritual aspect of all forms of the individual's activity in the moral, political, civic, legal and other spheres. There are no forms of non-responsible activity inasmuch as there is no activity whose consequences do not affect the interests of the individual himself, the social group or society as a whole.

Historically, individual responsibility to society shows a tendency to increase in the wake of social progress. In contemporary society the importance of every individual's civil, political and moral responsibility to society, his responsibility for the fate of nations and of all humanity has sharply increased. The individual is responsible to the extent that he is free in his actions. The individual is generally free only in doing or achieving something that is the realisation of his own intention. It is for this kind of action and achievement that the individual is responsible. He is not responsible and cannot be held responsible for what is done by others against his will. The blame for such actions cannot be laid at his door. Responsibility and liability have meaning only in so far as they induce positive change in the individual in relation to his future behaviour. Responsibility means much more than accountability. Inward responsibility for one's behaviour and intentions, that is to say, self-control, self-appraisal, and the general regulation of one's life, is also of great importance.

An important form of responsibility is responsibility for the future, both near and distant, which is built on the sense of responsibility for the present and the past.

The character of responsibility and its forms have changed in the course of history. The tribal system knew no personal responsibility. There was responsibility only to the community, which imposed a certain course of action on its members and controlled these actions. The slave society revealed the beginnings of a tendency towards individuality. While the commune fettered the actions of the individual, the slave society allowed him to act at his own risk, with a certain degree of independence. During the slave-owning period the individual was responsible not to the community, nor yet to himself, but to the polity and to the gods. With the rise of the state the concept of individual responsibility to the state, the monarch and to God began to take shape.

As the idea of state developed and with it culture, there arose the idea of personal responsibility, which was to be further developed in feudal society. On the historical philosophical plane the idea of responsibility to oneself begins with Socrates, with his persistent listening to his own inner voice, the voice of conscience. It was Socrates who sought in the individual certain eternal standards that could not be violated.

The Middle Ages saw a deepening of the subjective world and the formation of a complex hierarchy of personalities— the divinity, the tsar or king as god's deputy on earth, the servant of god, the feudal lord, the steward and so on. The whole gigantic pyramid took possession of man's consciousness and dictated certain modes of action.

Under capitalism the degree of individual responsibility to society further increases. The working class, all working people of both hand and brain, led by parties that truly represent their interests, take responsibility for the future of society as the general crisis of capitalism develops.

Individuals in large numbers, the masses strive to judge whether their actions are correct or not. This inner judge is what we call conscience. Historically, the prick of conscience was most vividly expressed in the immortal image of Hamlet, in whom this dawning self-consciousness became tremendously important as a spiritual motivator and controller of all his actions. Evidently it was at that time that the idea of conscience was making its way into social consciousness. Today the role of conscience is greatly enhanced by, among other things, the manufacture of the means of mass extermination.

When atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, causing monstrous destruction and suffering, many scientists, technologists who took part in the making of these deadly weapons, and the men who had used them, experienced agonising pangs of conscience and one of the pilots went mad. The usual argument is that they were only executors of the will of the politicians and the military, who in their turn excuse themselves on the ground of historical necessity, the interests of the nation, and so on. The argument thus becomes a vicious circle.

How are we to regard the idea of personal and social responsibility, the inner judge of socially significant human actions, the social conscience of the individual? Any scientific solution of this problem rests on the practical solution of the problem of the individual's right to real freedom.

The idea of man's responsibility for his actions has with great difficulty and suffering penetrated the consciousness of society. It has made its way as the individual has won the right to independent decision-making and freedom of personal behaviour. The early capitalist period placed a gigantic responsibility on the individual and helped to develop individuality. Individuals made discoveries and inventions, travelled to new lands, created masterpieces of literature, painting, sculpture, and so on.

To say that a person is responsible is to say that he is capable of correctly answering the question of what is right in the moral, legal, political and other respects. Any responsibility is based on knowledge of what is necessary in the interests of the group and society as a whole. A human being cannot be regarded as a cybernetic machine processing information fed into it. It is responsibility that expresses the individual's appraisal of his ability to be a personality, to control his actions, to combine word and deed, to be able to use his freedom rationally. If we want to decide whether the given individual could or could not have acted differently, our criterion is primarily the objective circumstances and possibilities, while the measure of responsibility is decided by the degree to which the individual made intentional use of the available opportunities.

The main difficulty of the problem of responsibility lies in establishing not so much responsibility as its degree, i.e., the individual's voluntary, conscious participation in determining reprehensible or criminal action. A closer inspection of the motivation of every individual act shows that independently taken decisions and actions are determined to some extent by such factors as the objective coincidence of circumstances, a person's habits and character, weakness or strength of will, and so on. All this and much else influence the direction of his thoughts, his choice of goals, his motivation. Added to which, the sphere of possible choice is sometimes so narrow that the choice itself is merely a formality. So the problem of the compulsory and the voluntary becomes extremely complicated and confusing.

The real measure of responsibility that a person bears for his actions depends on the real conditions that life has granted him for consciously evaluating the consequences of his actions and taking a corresponding personal stand.

Responsibility is the concern not of fists, but of the will. A person may bear responsibility only for intentional activity. Without intention there is no responsibility. When a crime is committed without intent, there is no complete unity between the external and internal aspects of the action. Guilt due to negligence lacks awareness of the possibility of the consequences that actually occurred. Oedipus, who killed his father without knowing it, cannot be held responsible for patricide despite the views held on this point by the ancient world. Depending on the conditions, people have to answer in different ways for their actions and they do answer for them in different ways.

Every human action, when it becomes part of the independent course of events, leads to results that do not coincide with its immediate aim. What is more, the aim that the person sets himself does not always coincide with his motive, i.e., with the goal that he seeks to achieve by his action. The question then arises as to what actually is a person responsible for—only for his aim, his inward intention and motive or for the result of his action?

In life there are cases when an action prompted by good intentions has disastrous or even tragic consequences. And on the other hand, a person may for discreditable reasons perform an action which produces good results. Such cases are used sometimes to contrast subjective intentions and objective results, so that the subjective can be distinguished from the objective on the practical plane. But this purely superficial contrasting cannot be accepted as logic. In fact, every intention of an individual performing some action stems and must inevitably stem from the foreseeable, desirable result of the action. When a person, guided only by good intentions, fails to foresee the results of his actions, this merely means that he has not fully considered certain consequences which do not form a part of his intention.

A person's action, which he willed to become part of external circumstances, develops in various directions according to a chain of cause-effect connections. Any separate action may have a large number of consequences. When they acquire an independent life, these consequences may run very far and lead to effects that were never intended by the person concerned. Thus the question is transferred to the practical plane and may now be reduced to a discussion of precisely what consequences should in fact be taken into account, and to what extent. Obviously all the consequences that could be foreseen must be considered. Any failure to take into account the consequences of one's action constitutes an irresponsible or not fully responsible attitude to what one is doing. At the same time, when appraising an action, the right approach is to consider not everything that might have followed but only what could have been foreseen out of everything that actually did follow. This is what a person is responsible for and this is where his guilt may lie. In contrast to such conscious responsibility, a group of physically involved people whose individual wills have been suppressed and who have lost conscious control of their actions and their sense of social responsibility, are nothing but a mob.

Freedom manifests itself not only in practical action, but also in thought. Something new can be created only by a person who is thinking freely, who has shaken off the fetters of obsolete orthodox doctrines, as was the case, for example, with the thinkers of the New Age, who broke down the spiritual prison of medieval scholasticism.

Human freedom is manifest not only in the choice of a line of conduct, not only in control over the forces of nature and conscious reform of social relations. It is vividly expressed also in the individual's power over himself, over his instincts, inclinations and feelings. He is responsible both to society and his own conscience, for the forms in which these are expressed. Man becomes more perfect when he learns, under the influence of education, of moral, social and state demands, to consistently restrain impulses that are forbidden by social standards. And conversely we see that the person who has lost the power of self-restraint speaks and acts in a way in which he would not allow himself to do in an ordinary frame of mind and which he bitterly regrets when he returns to normal.

The cosmonaut who ventures into outer space is moved by his sense of duty to his people, and this inhibits the innate defensive biological reaction which generates a sense of fear. Such actions reflect man's long battle with his emotions and biological instincts in the name of rational forms of behaviour. They crown man's centuries of struggle for the right to call himself a personality. Man's development has been not so much a matter of suppressing his various biological instincts as of their noble expression, based on the demands of the social mode of his existence.



Hegel. Die Philosophie das Geistes in: Werke, Siebenter Band, Berlin, 1845, S. 374.


Marx and Engels, The Holy Family in: Collected Works, Vol. 4, Progress Publishers. Moscow, 1975, p. 131.


Albert Camus, La Chute, Gallimard, Pans, 1956, p. 154.


Frederick Engels, Anti-Dühring, p. 137.


F. M. Dostoyevsky, "Winter Notes on Summer Impressions. An Essay on the Bourgeois" in: Collected Works, Moscow, 1956, Vol. 4, p. 105 (in Russian).


The Poems of Schiller. Translated by Edgar Alfred Bowring, G.B.N.Y. United States Book Company, Successor John W. Lovell Company, p. 289.


Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The Holy Family in: Collected Works, Vol. 4, p. 131.

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