Is it acceptable to throw your cigarette butt on the street? Is it understandable to be a draft dodger? If you can get a discount for paying in cash, should you take it?
In recent years, the expression “social responsibility” has appeared often in Armenia’s political discourse. We explain numerous unresolved everyday problems, even political events like national elections, by pointing to our society’s low level of social responsibility. Although the term is relatively new, the relationship between the individual, society and the state has always been the focus of philosophers, religious figures, governing authorities and ordinary people since ancient times.
Different people can exert different social behaviors; some want to give back to others, some are indifferent to the plight of their neighbors, others may think nothing of causing outright harm. Such is the human being. Over the centuries, social laws and norms have been shaped to reduce the worst manifestations of human nature and ensure stability within society. Social norms are those boundaries of an individual's life and lifestyle which, when crossed, lead to consequences of different kinds. If an individual has a high sense of social responsibility, and lives and works within the established norms, then he is encouraged. For particularly significant actions, she may even be held up as exemplary.
If the behavior of an individual or any group does not correspond to the established social norms, then it is met with public reproach. Leaving aside professional observations and various approaches on the issue, we can say that the most important question is “What are the limits of the socially acceptable norms for society?” Without understanding this, it is impossible to imagine whether a given action violates the norms accepted by society or not. If people throw cigarette butts on the street, then it is first necessary to understand whether their action is reprehensible for other members of that particular society.
“The word responsibility is not that accurate, because by social responsibility we mean obligation, even debt. The problem is viewed in a moral context: no one is forcing you, but you feel your obligation,” explains Nvard Melkonyan, PhD in Sociology and co-founder of Spring PR.
You #StayHomeSaveLives, But I Don’t Have To
Discussions on social responsibility are especially prevalent to the problems caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Practically all medical professionals agree that wearing a mask reduces the spread of the virus, and encourage the use of masks as one of the essential tools to reduce the scope and scale of the pandemic. In addition, vaccination is an effective way to mitigate the impact of the pandemic. In Armenia, the vaccination process is slowly improving, but with great difficulty; it took coercive measures by the state to force people to get vaccinated. Public indifference and rejection of vaccines is also part of social behavior and responsibility.
“People who create opinions and command authority in society (influencers) are also important for increasing social responsibility. We have thousands of citizens who follow personal examples. When we say that 60 people die daily from COVID-19, but influential people do not care about all the rules, the common person, naturally, does not follow instructions,” says Melkonyan.
In particular, the recent public health order requiring employees who are not vaccinated to present a negative COVID-19 test every 14 days explicitly exempted Members of Parliament. The clause was explained as necessary by the Ministry of Justice because MPs and certain other constitutional positions do not have a direct supervisor with the power to fire them. Nevertheless, what the public heard was that the measure was not acceptable to be imposed on important people who could say no to it.
The Greater Good in East and West
In addition to social responsibility, the term civic virtue or behavior is often used, which is one of the most important principles of modern societies and is widely used in Western political philosophy. If we try to present it more clearly, civic virtue is the duty of individuals before their community and society, which should be placed above personal interests and desires.
Civic virtue has a number of characteristics that allows us to understand how it is implemented in practice. These are self-sacrifice (the subordination of personal interests and desires to the needs of the community), participation in the governance of the community and the country, and fulfillment of responsibilities. These contribute to the accumulation of public goods and the further improvement of society.
A society cannot prosper if its citizens only pursue their own narrow personal interests. The responsibility of citizens cannot be limited to participating in a vote or referendum once every few years. For the longevity and success of democracy, it is necessary that each and every member of the community participates in intra-community life. On the other hand, it is necessary to pay attention to the fact that the absolutization of individual rights is very one-sided and encourages the individual to separate himself from other members of society. In that case, the general community interest, i.e. the common good, suffers once again. If we imagine that everyone demands and attaches importance to their own rights, then it is possible that, at some point, it will be impossible to exercise anyone's rights at all. Therefore, it is desirable that at least the majority of citizens, if not all, have some contribution to their communities, and share the responsibility of political and social processes.
Some experts studying social issues believe that there is a difference between Western and Eastern civilizations. In the former, the individual and his interests and goals are of paramount importance. In the latter, the community, the family and the state are of primary importance. Though, according to Melkonyan, the individualistic approach of the West does not hinder the concept of social responsibility and public interest.
”When we say that, in Western civilization, the individual is important, a priority, we must understand that it is the same for all members of society. When the individual is considered a value for society, everybody realizes that each person has the same right. In the East, they say that there is a nation, a family, a state, etc., and all the rest are just the screws. In societies like ours, applying individuality means shifting responsibility onto others, while in the West, it means sharing the responsibility,” she explains.
Sociologist Samvel Manukyan argues that the formulation of the issue in this way already testifies to politicization. “So it turns out that there is social responsibility in the West and not in the East. I am of the exact opposite opinion. If we are talking about people's living norms and relations, which are not defined by law and come from ancient times, then the East has a much higher standing today than the West. Western egocentrism is very important, which is nothing else if not pride. Today it has become a norm, a powerful component for succeeding in business and life. The most useless person praises themselves in such a way… They teach one to write a CV, that is, how to praise oneself in order to be hired. The notion of modesty, which is one of the most important Christian virtues, has been pushed aside nowadays because of capitalism,” he says.
We know that people are egocentric, but if everyone is like that and no attempt is made to reduce this innate human trait, social instability will follow. Manukyan continues, “If we compare egoism and collectivism, the latter is better. In the Soviet value system, collectivism was constantly taught and preached. Naturally, not everyone in the Soviet Union was guided by these principles, and there were also double standards. What is important is what direction society is moving in and what it values.”
Perceptions of Justice
One of the most important components of social responsibility is justice and the public perceptions of justice; that is, what does society understand as just or unjust. Even more importantly, how does it behave in real life, when the problem concerns everyone. In our country, the issues of social justice and protection of human rights seem to be viewed mainly from the point of view of a struggle against certain civil and social phenomena, the protection of the rights of certain groups. Examples include the civil movements of the 2010s against increases in the price of electricity and public transportation. It is important to view these phenomena in the context of social or intercommunal justice, honesty, public responsibility, integrity, mutual trust, etc.
“Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought… Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override. For this reason, justice denies that the loss of freedom for some is made right by a greater good shared by others… Therefore, in a just society, the liberties of equal citizenship are taken as settled; the rights secured by justice are not subject to political bargaining or to the calculus of social interests. The only thing that permits us to acquiesce in an erroneous theory is the lack of a better one; analogously, an injustice is tolerable only when it is necessary to avoid an even greater injustice. Being first virtues of human activities, truth and justice are uncompromising… Distrust and resentment corrode the ties of civility, and suspicion and hostility tempt men to act in ways they would otherwise avoid.”
-John Rawls, A Theory of Justice
Social justice, which we often talk about, is based on a number of basic institutions, including the constitution, economic and social structures. Lack of justice and discontent with injustice has been a perennial issue in post-independence Armenia (and also earlier). Violations of social justice can be pinpointed as among the causes of numerous political protests from 1991 to the present. Adding to the difficult economic situation of the 1990s and scarcity, these violations polarized considerable dissatisfaction within Armenian society.
“What do we mean by justice? Do we want an equal opportunity to achieve something, or do we want no one to have any opportunity? I have the impression that we want others not to have what we do not have,” says Nvard Melkonyan.
Samvel Manukyan mentioned that he has participated several times in studies on evaluating the value systems of Armenia. “The elements of double standards are very common in our country, which is apparent in people's answers. For example, military service; everyone thinks that every young male without exception should serve in the army. Perhaps about 5% of respondents do not share this opinion. But when it comes to their own child's military service, the actual behavior changes fundamentally. There are many such examples. If you ask anyone whether it is right to litter the streets, they will say of course not. But the streets are dirty. So, people’s behavior suggests it is acceptable. The same is true of justice. There is a well-known principle: standard of living impacts one’s conscience. Although it is put very generally, it is applicable in almost all cases. When a person is poor, and can hardly make ends meet, their position on justice is as follows: money should be taken from the rich and distributed to the poor. But if the same person inherits several million dollars, be sure that their position will change in a very short time,” says Samvel Manukyan.
The lack of justice, together with public discontent, contributed to an increase in emigration. The large sociological study published in 2016, known as the Independence Generation Youth Study Armenia, states that “the independent Armenian state has not provided genuinely equal opportunities for different social groups—including young people—to achieve their aims. The socially unjust situation creates certain anxieties, makes the prospects uncertain for the youth, and forces them to tie their plans for the future to moving abroad.”
It is also worth noting that social responsibility is a moral, perhaps even ideological, theory. It suggests that the government, large companies, organizations and individuals all bear overall responsibility for society, voluntarily assuming responsibility for a larger unit of society, as opposed to only narrow corporate interests. In this respect, it is important to find the boundary where the interests of the individual and society begin to diverge. When the two are aligned, the responsibility assumed before the community does not turn into an unbearable burden for the individual. The most obvious manifestation of social responsibility is respect for the rights of another individual, another member of the community; it reflects social solidarity.
Civic responsibility and the ability to do public good, to respect the interests and rights of others, is not innate; it is acquired in the early stages of human life. Education and upbringing play a crucial role in increasing social responsibility in a person. Therefore, if we attach importance to having a virtuous and civilized society that is involved in public life to the maximum, then we need to pay close attention to programs in the education system that encourage these phenomena. A high level of civic consciousness and responsibility will not only contribute to solidarity within society, but will also increase public knowledge in terms of state governance, law and political literacy, which, in turn, will make society legally aware, stable and protected.
Education and Media
However, personal example is the best way to teach others. As we have already mentioned, double standards negatively impact social responsibility. “Laws and upbringing do not exclude each other; they complement one another. The principle of not harming others encompasses everything. Throughout life, a person learns and teaches what it means not to harm others in various situations, i.e. to show responsible behavior. Of course, it is necessary to regulate social relations by law, but there must also be a sense of responsibility. In my opinion, the best way to educate a person from an early age is by personal example. In many societies, including Armenia, there are double standards, which cause the greatest damage to social responsibility. For example, if the teacher says that one should not lie, but the student sees the teacher herself lie, then the student internalizes the wrong values,” says Samvel Manukyan.
Both our interviewees and other experts in this field believe that social responsibility is formed by education and upbringing. In turn, we would add that talking about social issues, morality and public responsibility can be important, and this is where the media plays a big role.
Online social networks also seem to address this issue. Facebook is littered with public outrage at certain types of behavior, but can we conclude that there is a public demand for increased social responsibility in Armenia? “When taken separately, the environment of each one of us is small, and those included in that circle are similar to each other. A larger number of people are different from us. We are more different than alike. Today, these differences are very prominent: the difference between urban and rural populations is more prominent than ever, the difference between regional cities and Yerevan is more conspicuous than ever. Nowadays, the youth of Yerevan, Moscow, Singapore and Dubai have more in common than the residents of Armenia have with one another,” says Nvard Melkonyan. She believes that Armenian society needs to deal with who is included in the concept of “us”, to understand what our society has in common, and what we can successfully unite around to form our social relations. “In the West, something that is ‘public’ is understood as belonging to everyone. In our country, things that are ‘public’ are understood as belonging to no one,” she concludes.
Issues of social responsibility need to be considered at the forefront of public policy. These perspectives are not only important to Armenia but to every society, where double standards and wealth inequality have risen to prominence in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. Social responsibility leads to social stability, and that is the most important public good of all.