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Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Overcoming knee jerkiness....

An anonymous reviewer of a manuscript recently submitted to a journal has me reading H. Richard Niebuhr's The Responsible Self -- or I might say re-reading since this seems very familiar. But in fact this is my first time through this work. The reason it seems so familiar is because this work is central to that of Michael Harmon's Responsibility as Paradox -- a work of considerable importance in the field of public administration that receives too little attention.

Although the overarching purpose of Niebuhr's work is to establish the foundation of a Christian morality, his analysis is more secular than theological. On the theological side, his work explicitly derives from Buber in seeking a rationale for adopting a commitment to some god-like universal, but on the secular side he is just as explicitly tied to the pragmatic interactionism of George Herbert Mead. This mix is a bit of a stretch for a skeptic like me, but Niebuhr's view of responsibility is very useful for my own work, and in that sense the reviewer who suggested it was on target.

Most important from my perspective is the relationship among the basic concepts: responsibility, responsiveness and accountability. His approach does not subordinate accountability to responsibility or render it a mere synonym (as is common), but rather regards it as a distinct social and ethical condition. Half way through the book, I can already see its value.

Which brings me to the question of why I had been so reluctant to read this work earlier when it was so obviously related to my own projects, and I suspect part of the answer lies in the subtitle's focus on "Christian morality" which I associated (in knee jerk fashion) with religious fundamentalism. But another reason is my association of this and other works with pop psychology of the sixties (and today) which I have long detested as worthless and worse. But here I am guilty of the intellectual myopia I accuse others of.

Lesson learned -- at least for now....

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