Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Individualism Versus Societal Responsibility?

The other day, I was in Wal-mart at customer service and I noticed something. A customer was bringing back food where there was nothing wrong with it, they simply changed their mind about what they wanted to eat apparently. The customer service person told them that they would have to throw the food away and asked them to be more careful in the future. I found myself shocked to hear the customer answer with "at least I won't lose my money."

While this incident was isolated, the pattern of shortsighted self-interest continued as others brought back things like once used make-up and shoes, a toaster that was used but was just too hard for the people to figure out (how complicated can a toaster really be?), and other various things that I couldn't imagine that people actually could bring back without feeling ashamed of themselves. It is one thing to return a defective product, but quite another to turn a purchase into a rental.

What none of them seemed to realize was that Wal-mart would continue to profit as would the companies that probably gave Wal-mart credit by raising the prices on what you and I pay for their goods. They simply didn't seem to understand that they were raising their own prices by abusing return policies.

More significantly, this is part of a larger pattern I have noticed since moving to Texas last year where people are so focused on themselves that they have lost their relation to others. In the cases above, they lost the whole notion that they were hurting others around them (and I don't mean Wal-mart).

In the last year, I was in the car with a friend (I won't use his name to save him embarassment) who at one point complained about others parking in the fire lane in front of a store and how it made it difficult for him; and about two hours later pronounced his ability to do the very same thing because he had a big truck and everyone else could go around. Apparently, there had been a disconnect between his actions and its impact, and what had happened only a short time before.

It is leaving me to wonder if some have become so self-absorbed that they don't even perceive the world around them as anything other than an obstruction to anything they want to do, instead of understanding that we are all interlinked in our world. When someone abuses a return policy, it is accounted for in a company's pricing, which means you and I pay more for that product. When someone decides to obstruct traffic, it impacts you and I because of the ripple it sends through traffic that we are in.

I understand that people don't want to be told what to do or that times are tough, but at some point, it appears that we have lost track of our relationship to the world around us. Do we not have a responsibility to those around us also? Have we really lost all ethics or morals?

I realize that this is probably only a small percentage in our society, but it is potentially concerning as it spreads and worsens. I half expect to see someone bring in a bag of feces and proclaim the food was bad, demanding their money back on their Christmas Dinner.

It is important that we maintain our individual liberties, but it is also important that we understand that with liberty comes responsibility. It seems that we have embraced our individual liberty but ignored the responsibility. Could it be that same kind of ignoring of responsibility that has gotten us into this economic mess too? Hopefully President Elect Obama can bring us a dose of responsibility.

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