A primary concept in my personal and professional life is what it means to be accountable - accountable for myself, accountable for others, and, if possible, accountable for the morality in the public and political arenas. How can we maintain a civil society if we are not able to hold people accountable who threaten and harm us? My field of criminal justice, for example, is about establishing a process of holding accountable those who break the law. And how do I help to hold accountable the correctional system to see that those who have broken the law have an opportunity to heal and change? And then how do we hold public officials accountable who betray the public trust and their responsibility to serve the common good? These are serious concerns when applied to our personal and community’s safety and welfare.
I’ve become especially concerned about the erosion of accountability in our common and governmental lives these past few years. Even before Trump's flagrant avoidance of accountability to the law and the common good it has been increasingly assumed that it is acceptable to break the law and mistreat people at will because we know we can “get away with it.” The result is that we loose trust in our leadership and each other and the center of our social bonds fray. I have found it especially encouraging, however, that we continue to break new ground for holding each other accountable such as the ME TOO movement highlighting the need for accountability about how women are treated and respected when they report harm.
Instead I want to focus on the issue of personal accountability because that is actually at the heart of public accountability. Our personal willingness and ability to monitor and discipline our personal conduct - or to become numb or indifferent to it - is within our capacity to hold ourselves accountable. And right action with integrity provides the foundation to influence and persuade others to consider their own conscientious behavior.
In this divided world attempting to challenge the beliefs and behavior of someone with whom we disagree with logic or force is seldom effective. And clearly a better way is to relate to the better angels of others by sharing what we can of our own.
Ideally each of us has a built in means of monitoring our own personal ethics called our conscience. We have been taught right from wrong; we have been encouraged to be kind and considerate; we have been told, in one form or another, not to do harm; and there are always a parent, mentor, or friend who can remind us when we fail to act conscientiously. Perhaps there is a little voice in our head that says, “I’m a better person than that.” But, of course, developing a sensitive and clear conscience is never that easy and, unhappily, few of us have the loving and sensitive nurturing that helps develop the mature conscience. We probably develop our consciences by making mistakes about how we treated another person, or behaved in a way that was harmful or destructive of relationships and our environment, and that is part of the learning as well, of course.
And when we fail to follow our responsible consciences society provides us with reminders called parents, teachers, bosses, laws and police, most of whom we resent at the time because we don’t like our sense of conscience or ethics to be questioned. Or, of course, we believe somebody else’s rules don’t apply to us, and there is no violation of my conscience at least, so I don’t need to feel accountable for what some else thinks. The key concept in our developing our conscience is the ability to be aware where we have acted badly and be prepared to admit that and at least aspire to do better in the future. And we live in a a sad and often threatening reality where many do not have that awareness.
My Quaker tradition provides a unique, consistent and largely effective means to maintain our sense of conscience and personal accountability through the use of open-ended, self-reflective questions we call queries. Responses to the queries are not public or definitive, but are simply a way of examining whether our moral bearings are on track with our intended principles and aspirations of conduct. For example, we might ask “Do you live with simplicity, moderation, and integrity? Are you punctual in keeping promises, careful in speech, just and compassionate in all your dealings with others? Do you respect the worth of every human being as a child of God? Do you endeavor to create political, social, and economic institutions which will sustain the life of all?
What are three queries you would ask yourself today about your spiritual life, your social and familial relationships, your conduct in business and daily activities with your neighbors and the public that would encourage your own personal sense of conscience and accountability?
Our best hope for influencing the world around us, and perhaps beyond our immediate environment, is to maintain our personal sense of conscience and integrity and hold ourselves accountable through ethical self awareness. Changing the world indeed begins with ourselves.