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Katie van Schaijik

Persons and responsibility

Dec. 15 at 10:19am

An NRO interview with economist Dierdre McCloskey offers some food for personalist reflection.  Keep in mind a thought from the post below, viz. that pre-modern man did not conceive of himself as a person; “person” was reserved for trinitarian theology.

But, in fact, rhetoric and dignity are rather easily measured, and that is the task of the next book, The Bourgeois Revaluation: How Innovation Became Ethical, 1600–1848. Stay tuned. You can measure the shifting significance of bourgeois words: honesty, profit, responsibility, monopoly, etc., by looking in historical dictionaries and historical texts in all the languages of commerce, from 1600 to 1848. “Responsibility,” for example, is entirely modern (and thus measurable: It’s zero before 1800, commonplace afterward). The equivalent word before 1800, as one can see from the Oxford Thesaurus (based on the Oxford English Dictionary), is “duty.” In a hierarchical society, one has one’s duty to one’s master, period. In a modern and bourgeois society, the duty is turned inward and becomes a character trait essential for a modern enterprise: responsibility. It’s a fairy tale of scientism that only prices and quantities can be measured.

Setting aside the question of whether rhetoric and dignity are easily measurable, I am completely fascinated to learn that the idea of “responsibility” displaced “duty” as the central ethical concept of commerce in the modern era.  It strikes me as another proof that the realization of personal selfhood is both the central achievement and the central challenge of our times.  This needs lots more exploring.


 

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