The Tethers We Choose

Roles, Accountabilities, Responsibilities, and Freedom. These are the roots of so much pain and joy in life. And we have choices in how to handle them, more than you might believe.  

About Roles

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) looked askance at socially defined roles and all the other structures and norms of “civilization”. He felt that they might alienate us from our more authentic and natural sources of self and vitality. And over one hundred years later, Max Weber, a founder of sociology characterized the bureaucratic systems arising in the industrial age as an “iron cage.” 

Both men lived in sophisticated in sophisticated European cultures, France and Germany respectively, and both adopted roles in life. They also thought critically about what role-taking implies and were keenly aware that to be free is to electively adopt a role. And they knew that in this choice, we make ourselves susceptible to role-based demands others, to accountabilities.  


In taking a role, we face expectations from others, for it is after all a socially defined mode of being that we are taking on as a commitment, a burden or duty that becomes greater as we enter adulthood. To be a committed life partner or spouse, an employee, a manager, a citizen, etc., at least insofar as we take these roles seriously, implies accountabilities to others. 

We can live in fidelity to what’s expected of us in these roles or not. At some level, even if it’s tacitly, we will be aware of whether we’re fulfilling this role, honoring our duties to others, to those to whom our role is accountable. We may even choose to defy established ways of defining such accountabilities, but if we are concerned about virtue, we’ll take responsibility for stipulating and justifying these deviations.  


What is that warrants our choice to defy established norms? I think it is value-based considerations of what is good, right, and proper about living out this role. And we don’t simply invent such values. We feel them as imperatives that register with weightiness, meaning, importance, and consequences. And among them may be a sense of responsibility to embrace the role with a vision of good looks like. 

Even though the norms of Christianity seemed to require Dietrich Bonhoeffer (a Lutheran minister in Germany) to obey the commandment to not kill, he felt a higher duty to prevent a greater evil that was represented by Hitler’s reign. He joined others to plot Hitler’s assassination, and he was hung for doing it. It was a significant deviation from what people generally accepted of a Christian minister. 


Responsibilities are freely accepted claims on us as persons. They may be grounded in vital values (what is healthy and adaptive), prudential values (what will best achieve the goal), and moral values (what is good, right, and proper). These values are embedded in historically shaped traditions of belief. Still, it is our heart-felt attachment to them, our identification with them that give them their claim on us.

We choose to live and act in fidelity to them because it is a preferred way of living, more virtuous. We are most free when we honor these claims. We are most responsible when we approach our choice of roles and our accountabilities from this inner-directed sense of responsibility. We take responsibility not by mere fiat, but by fidelity to our values and with a duty to help other understand them when asked.  

The Power of Dialogue

We can assert our freedom through independent action based upon private reflection. But even then, there is inner dialogue, what a 17th century British philosopher, Lord Shaftesbury, call soliloquy. Self is, after all, is social isn’t it? We are situated in a world and communal experience in which we feel needs to love and be loved, to act and to interact with others – it’s a world that we inherit, but we also shape. 

Therefore, let me close by suggesting that whether you find the locus of dialogue within yourself or with another person, or both, it’s a dialogue worth having more than once because the roles we take and the challenges we face continually present us with needs to make more choices.