Responsibility, Rights and Compassion: Another Perspective
19.Nov.2014 - 22.Nov.2014 09:00am - 02:00pm
Menzies Hotel - Sydney
Australian & New Zealand Association of Psychiatry, Psychology & Law (ANZAPPL) 34th Annual Congress


Responsibility, Rights and Compassion: Another Perspective

Belinda Siew Luan Khong

LLB (Hons), Phd, MAPS MCcounP


Today, when responsibility is discussed, what often comes to mind is its counterpart, rights—individual rights, indigenous rights, refugees rights, parental rights and so forth. There is a tendency to treat rights and responsibility as disparate phenomena, rather than as interrelated. The frequent call is for the granting of more rights, often without requiring the recipient to take reciprocal responsibility. Similarly, compassion is often perceived as uni-directional, flowing from the giver to the recipient, without the recipient, if she or he is able, to give something back in return. At times, it would appear to be politically incorrect to speak of rights and compassion in the same breath as the taking of personal responsibility.  According to Noel Pearson (2006), “rights mean nothing without responsibility. …  Responsibility and rights… are inextricably bound together.”


While acts of compassion and the granting of more rights to vulnerable individuals and groups are worthwhile goals, what is often overlooked is the psychological impact of these practices on the recipients. These practices could have the psychological effect of entrenching those that are being assisted in their positions of vulnerability and reinforcing their sense of learned helplessness. Consequently, personal motivation and aspirations in getting out of this cycle could be reduced, resulting in a loss of dignity, self esteem and learned helplessness.


I believe that in order to help such well–deserving individuals and groups more effectively, we need to cultivate “respond-ability” – i.e., the ability to respond appropriately and skilfully. This means that our responsibility lies in being aware of what unique response is called for in each unique situation. Sometimes, this call for actions, and at other times, for restraint. In order to respond appropriately, we have to be mindful of what the situation really is, and learn to separate our responses to the situation from the situation itself, asking ourselves—“what are the effects of our actions?” “What is an appropriate response here?”


In this talk, I argue that there is a need for greater understanding and emphasis on the recipient’s psychological needs in our desire to help, so that we can truly give back to the individual the freedom to responsibility choose how she or he wishes to live. In short, human psychology has to play a greater role in the formulation of social policies. In this way, the recipient can learn to utilise these resources to explore other possibilities, rather than rely on them as an emotional crutch.


If individuals, governments and community leaders appreciate the intimate relationship between seemingly disparate problems, for instance between poverty and personal aspirations, between empowerment and dependency, and learn to respond appropriately, they can provide a circuit breaker for the vicious cycle of learned helplessness and an erosion of human dignity that often perpetuate human suffering and social problems.  





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