Accountability as a Social System

Here’s a social hypothesis. A strong feature of hunter-gatherer societies was/is personal accountability; in “modern” society we’ve lost this.

Accountability is a modern term. It refers to the scope of culpability and answerability in regards to actions or property.

So why would hunter-gatherer societies have this? Dunbar’s number is a hypothesis suggesting that humans have a cognitive limit of only being able to maintain about 150 social relationships. It’s believed that pre-agricultural societies were often about this (but also much smaller or larger). Small societies are too close-knit to get away with chronic shirking or cheating. Everyone knows each other so the group members hold each other accountable.

Beyond 150, it becomes hard to keep up with everyone. New methods of maintaining social order and stability are needed, so laws emerge and hierarchies solidify.

Laws aren’t perfect. They attempt to assign accountability en masse. Inevitably they will incriminate some folks who have good (pro-social) intentions and fail to incriminate some folks with bad (antisocial) intentions. I talk about pro-social and antisocial intentions in this post.

Large, “modern” societies are thus fated to lose the personal accountability that once existed in small, preagricultural societies. The perfect social system should seek to maximize personal accountability. Morality is too subjective to accomplish this.

One thing that might increase accountability in our society is information technology and systems. The prospect of being held accountable for all of your actions recorded in information systems may seem uncomfortable. But then again, living in a small society in which everyone knows everything about us is also uncomfortable to us “moderns.” Maybe we’ve gotten too comfortable with our sense of privacy.

Here’s another hypothesis: if people knew they’d only be judged based on their intentions as pro-social or antisocial, they’d be less squeamish about losing privacy. You fear a loss of privacy because 1. you fear your non-antisocial (but nonconforming) behavior might get misinterpreted or 2. you’re actually doing something antisocial/wrong. If we could guarantee that people are judged on intentions, we could all be more comfortable in being held accountable via information systems.

Personal accountability might be the single most important characteristic for a society to have. If every adult is held accountable for his or her actions and property, freedom and fairness come in tow. They are free to reap the rewards of their actions and are held liable for negligence or aggression.

Thank you CD for talking it out and suggesting that kindness (translated as pro-social) is as important for society as accountability.