29th Great American Think-Off
Announcing Honorable Mentions
Read Essays Below

In 2022 the Think-Off Committee selected 10 honorable mentions, 5 on each side of the question:

Which should be more important: personal choice or social responsibility?

The 2022 Honorable Mention Winners on the side of personal choice are (in alphabetical order): Peter Gagliardi, writer/cashier, Wilkes-Barre, PA; Susan Grant, teacher, Addison, ME; Nancy Krier, retired attorney/writer, Olympia, WA; Hunter Liguore (original finalist, unable to participate due to family medical emergency), professor, Everett, CT; and Phil Terrana, retired letter carrier, Virginia Beach, VA.
The 2022 Honorable Mention Winners on the side of social responsibility are (in alphabetical order): Mark Bland, retired teacher, Virginia Beach, VA; Rick Brundage, CEO, Minneapolis, MN; David Lapakko, college professor, Richfield, MN; Thaddeus McCamant, agriculture consultant, Frazee, MN; and and Edward Tsoy, physician, Potomac, MD.
Read the 2022 Honorable Mention Essays Below!
You can also learn more about the 2022 Great American Think-Off debate by clicking these links:
2022 Think-Off Debate Results 2022 Think-Off Finalist Essays Watch the 2022 Think-Off Debate on YouTube

Peter Gagliardi, writer/cashier, Wilkes-Barre, PA

Personal Choice: I Choose To Serve My Fellow Man

My Life Experiences: Based on my life experiences, I am convinced that personal choice is more important than social responsibility.

When a person makes a decision to support the community or society, that person is highly motivated, and nothing can stop that individual. He or she will be highly successful, and make a significant contribution to the community. When people act out of a sense of social responsibility, they are less motivated, they do not work very hard, and they are not very successful.

When the corona virus hit in March 2020, I had a very important decision to make. Should I keep on working and put my life and health at serious risk, or should I quit working and go on unemployment? I decided to keep on working and serving people as this is my mission in life, and no one forced me to continue working to meet my social responsibilities. Since it was my decision, I was highly motivated, worked extremely hard everyday, and was very successful serving my people.

The pandemic transformed me and my view of my life and my work. I am a cashier at the Wilkes-Barre Price Chopper Supermarket and before the pandemic I thought my life was meaningless and my job routine and unimportant. Then the pandemic hit and suddenly everyone’s life was in danger and they were determined to stay strong and healthy by buying, storing, and consuming as much food as possible. Suddenly there was a great demand for my services, as our sales and my hours skyrocketed. The Department of Homeland Security classified food workers as Essential Workers and urged us to continue working.

Suddenly, I developed a positive view of my life and work, as I was now an “essential” and not just a mundane worker.

Essential Workers: Grocery store workers are classified as essential workers during the pandemic. The U. S. Department of Homeland Security categorized the protection and continued operation of the food and agricultural industry and related transportation activities as “Critical Infrastructure” under the COVID-19 emergence conditions. In the President’s Corona Virus Guidelines for America, the White House emphasizes that food industry sector workers should continue to work and stated: “If you work in a critical infrastructure industry, as defined by the Department of Homeland Security, such as food supply, you have a special responsibility to maintain your normal work schedule.”

My Decision To Keep Working: As a senior citizen I could have refused to work because of the obvious health risks. I decided to keep working, and I learned to overcome my fear of death during the Corona Virus Pandemic. When the pandemic hit, I came face to face with my fear of death, and I had some important decisions to make. I decided that it was my mission in life to support my customers in their time of need so I kept on working. Working through the pandemic was always very dangerous. In the beginning, it was extremely dangerous, as there were no protections and hundreds of customers were breathing on me. I was sure that I would get the virus and it would kill me. The supermarket I work for was determined to serve its customers and community. I shared my employer’s objectives and decided to continue working on the Front Lines.

It was the right decision, as I have not been infected with the virus, and for about the first year none of my teammates were infected. It was not until the highly contagious Omicron virus came about that some of my teammates got infected. To the best of my knowledge, none of my teammates or customers got the virus at the store! While so many institutions have suffered through outbreaks of the pandemic, we have not. Statistically, we should have had a major outbreak of virus infections, but we were spared by the Grace Of God!

As a senior citizen, I believe I should take the risks before my younger teammates, those with health issues or children, and those who are victims of discrimination. Moreover, I wanted to serve my customers, and I was willing to die for a legacy and a testimony of serving my customers, the people I love. I was really surprised that when I made this decision, I was free from my natural fear of death and illness, and willing to accept the consequences of my decision. I am taking the same risks even today.


Susan Grant, teacher, Addison, ME

Personal Choice

Because I teach middle school English, I have to keep the students engaged in my writing assignments. One way I do this is having them respond to a daily journal prompt. One of their favorites is: What are some questions your parents ask that you’d be better off not answering? They giggle quietly as they pull their laptops close and jump right in. Some of my students’ responses are: Do you think you were born in a barn? Am I made of money? If someone jumps off the Empire State building, do you need to?

When the students finish, they are eager to share their list and after the laughter dies down; I point out that each of these rhetorical questions is ultimately addressing personal responsibility. Should you leave the door open when you enter the house? Do you understand the limitations of our household budget? Have you considered that following a crowd and giving no thought to your actions can lead to bad results? In light of these thoughts, I realize personal choice is more important than social responsibility.

Personal choice has a power that surpasses social responsibility. After all, who has control over what I say and do? The answer is obvious, and it is within this personal control that I give birth to actions.

How I choose to grow and harvest depends solely on choices that are always within my power. It is in these choices where I gain motivation to take part in social responsibilities I deem as important.

When personal choice is the foundation of social responsibilities, I will commit to an important opportunity because I have chosen it from a place of priorities and values within.

If I choose to champion the cause of caring for those who are elderly and are living a life on the poverty level, my zeal ignites my planning and action on the peoples’ behalf. My personal choice to help these people is a thoughtful investment that spurs me into action. It is within this recognition where change takes place in our communities and country.

Personal responsibility is also important when I realize that I have been blessed with many gifts and talents. Taking the time to evaluate each will motivate me to seek opportunities where I can use them. If I can organize and motivate others, then I have a responsibility to use these for the betterment of my community and country. I can choose to volunteer at the Red Cross, helping to organize and motivate people to give blood. My personal responsibility acknowledges that, in making the choice not to use these gifts, I am withholding my ability to be useful within the community.

Personal choice is the power behind social responsibility.

Finally, when commitments are made to a social cause only on the emotional level, when the embers of what was once a blazing fire die and turn cold, the commitment and motivation often lose its fervor. This is not to suggest that plans and actions that originate from an emotional response cannot be useful, but rather commitments based solely on these responses rarely last.

For example, if I see a moving infomercial about a social cause, my emotional reaction may create a verbal commitment, but the next day, when my emotions are no longer stirred, my commitment often wanes. If, however, I choose to commit to this cause because I am aware of the ways I can contribute toward it and I make a thoughtful commitment, this choice is more likely to be helpful for both the organization and myself.

There are a few questions in life when it’s prudent not to answer, as in my students’ writing prompt, but we should answer the vast majority within. I can make lasting and profitable choices and apply them to many social causes.


Nancy Krier, retired attorney/writer, Olympia, WA

Personal Choice

As I walked along a trail that was edged by nodding daffodils during a long-awaited warm spring day, I heard a black-capped chickadee repeatedly whistle its cheerful “fee-bee” tune. I saw it perched comfortably alone on a wire high above the evergreens. I wondered, is it singing for itself, for its own choice to delight in welcoming the sun? Or is it singing to warn or invite fellow songbirds? Scanning the area, I saw no predators or potential mates. In that moment, the chickadee was simply celebrating the glorious day.

Its personal choice to break into song came before any sense of social responsibility dictating that it must engage with others. And I agreed with its choice. I thought about that tiny bird on the rest of my woodland hike. I mused over how I had recently retired, and I remembered the important personal choice I had to make more than 35 years ago.

Back then, was I right to choose a job doing what I wanted rather than opt for what was considered at the time to be more “socially responsible”? I was correct, I concluded, to have chosen myself first. And giving precedence to my personal desires over social responsibility ultimately brought me much joy.

It was 1986. I was finally done with school. The university I had attended for postgraduate work was expensive, especially for someone from a family of modest means. I had paid out-of-state tuition, taken out loans, and was living in an enormously costly city. Stiff pressure directed recent alums like me to land jobs at big prestigious firms so we could pay off those substantial debts and experience a young professional’s metropolitan life. Not to mention we felt the unspoken expectation to donate generously back to the school that gave us our careers, and in the future to give significantly to noble causes. We knew that the obvious socially responsible thing to do was to interview with large companies and get a position paying a sizable salary. Simply put, these things were well understood in the 1980s.

So, I dutifully sat through several of those interviews. It was a miserable experience. I kept thinking, “I do not want to work for you. This is not what I want to do with the rest of my life.” That’s why, despite debt and fear, I decided to do what I really wanted, which was to take a high-satisfaction but low-paying job. That choice meant it would take me many more years to pay off my loans. That choice meant I had to move out of the glamorous big city. That choice meant I could not donate handsomely to my university or to worthy community organizations. But I was happy. Poorer, yes, but at peace. I made the choice that was authentic for me.

Selflessness, we are often told, means always placing others’ interests first, come what may. It’s made clear that doing what is “socially responsible” — however society defines that phrase at the moment we are making an important decision — is the only honorable path. We are advised that it’s unseemly to choose a narrower personal benefit over broader community interests. These zero-sum teachings are wrong.

If we do not realize that our own soul’s needs are equally worthy to those of other humans, then we diminish not just ourselves, but all of us. One good choice by one decent person, a decision which seems to elevate only that individual, nevertheless can lift everyone.

My job choice unexpectedly reaped rich rewards. What first appeared to be a loss later became a gain. My choice gave me a solid career spanning more than three decades. My choice brought me lifelong friends and my husband. My choice made me find other ways to give to my community, with my time. Significantly, my choice provided me a modest pension enabling me to retire early and be fully present with my family during a global pandemic.

At the end of the day, who can say that a personal choice will not turn out to be the socially responsible one as well? Society’s priorities evolve. The COVID-19 disease taught us that what is “socially responsible” one day can be meaningless the next. Things can change in a heartbeat. Or with a slight cough.

Like the chickadee, sing your own song in the moment, just for yourself and not for a broader society. Put your own personal choice first. That was exactly the right choice for me.


Hunter Liguore, professor, Everett, CT

*NOTE: Ms. Liguore was an original finalist, but was unable to participate in the live debate due to family medical emergency.

Personal Choice: First Principle of Peace

Every semester I assign students a final essay on the topic of ‘small efforts,’ which asks them to consider what one (immediate) small thing can you do today, in order to impact tomorrow? To support the assignment, we read and discuss Ray Bradbury’s “The Sound of Thunder,” which popularized the Butterfly Effect—or the notion that one act of killing a butterfly can cause catastrophic or positive change in the future.

Students continue to amaze me with the ideas they come up with to make change. Without needing permission, they’re actively finding ways to feel like what they think is important and matters… they do the research to see ‘how’ their one small effort can make improvements in the world… and they want to do more of it! Often, as we share the ideas in a group, it generates large discussions. We are given inroads to learn how others see the world and what’s impacting and concerning others. We leave ‘armed’ with easy ideas we can use to make a difference.

At the same time, the circle of ideas—as we discuss them—goes through a review of whether or not we should make these changes mandatory (as a social responsibility) or if we should make it a matter of personal choice. Like the use of plastic bags or bottles, today, seems Old School, even though there are plenty still using them. The question is if we should give plastic bottles/bags up for the social whole… or should we always have personal choice to decide?

The gas-guzzling muscle car versus e-cars or public transit is another popular debate. There are people on all sides… and depending on which one you choose, creates a type of assumption about who you are and how you believe. In my classes, I’ve heard students debate the importance of all three, making each one compelling. We might say that the socially responsible thing would be to…

Who decides what is socially responsible? Even when war is waged, one side believes it is right. When you advocate personal choice, you’re not permitting the ‘whole’ to decide for you what might be integral. Your choice, may not be my choice.

For instance, you might feel it’s socially responsible to ban the marriage between a person and a building (see: Objectum)—or to imprison people who practice the religion of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Deciding for another person what’s right brings us into the domain of parental governing or collective-thinking, which might appear to be ‘right’ thinking, but actually stifles out anyone who doesn’t share the view. For instance, if collectively, it was socially responsible to round up Flying Spaghetti Monster practitioners, and you disagreed, you wouldn’t be able to voice this, and to aid them, would be deemed unlawful. Your personal choice becomes mute as it’s replaced with a collective vote.

While debates about cars, religion, marriage, or war, seems certain from whatever side you’re on, I’ve learned from my students that there are always other viewpoints—there’s always someone for and against it, even in secret.

Noble Peace Prize recipient, John Hume—often credited with negotiating the peace treaties between the Republic of Ireland and North Ireland—had three principles of peace, which had the foresight to understand that there’s a danger in eliminating personal choice in favor of social responsibility. His first principle was respect for differences. While there are many ways to interpret this idea, I offer that when we respect the beliefs, traditions, and ideas of others, we can find common ground—in a way, when we hear, we are heard; when we respect, our ideas are respected. Through this type of discourse, we can find ways to negotiate peace where there is opposition.

There’s room for true democracy—in fact, it’s a very tender and rare space, where you can actually advocate for personal choice AND social responsibility.

During one memorable debate between the gas-guzzling car and public transit, there was a pig pile in favor of public transit. As the majority left feeling victorious, one student (in favor of the gas-eating muscle car) lingered, disappointed. “I get what they’re saying,” he said. “But I also know how beautiful a muscle car is; I wish they could see that too.”

Maybe the best we can do for social responsibility is to grant personal choice by listening—and by trusting that common good and common ground is possible when we respect the differences of others.



Phil Terrana, retired letter carrier, Virginia Beach, VA

Personal Choice: All the Difference in the World

The personal choices we make are the most important acts we, individuals with free will, can engage in.

Quo Vadis? Where are you going? Mankind’s destination continues to be a more perfect society—more perfect governments, fairer economies, fewer wars, less disease. These are what cavemen wanted and remain our basic goals today. Reaching this utopia depends, and has always depended, on an infinite number of personal decisions made by individuals at every level. Utopia may very well be unreachable, and our journey remains a difficult one, as we live in an imperfect world.

Therefore, the choices we make, responsible or irresponsible, are even more important. Personal choice is the currency that society employs to move either forward to the desired state of perfection or backward into societal bankruptcy.

I, along with millions of others, am vaccinated and relatively risk-free from serious illness, which is good for me at a personal level. Many, having chosen not to take the vaccine, remain personally at risk. Whether society succeeds in eradicating the disease at best, or at least reducing its human toll, hangs in the balance, with the outcome resting on incalculable millions making a solitary choice. This choice, which impacts our lives immeasurably, is but one confronting every individual every day.

My first significant opportunity to make my own decisions occurred when I went to college in 1964. I changed majors several times, joined a drinking fraternity that even other fraternities considered irresponsible, cut classes often, and took fun summer jobs, never considering the role more practical employment might play in establishing a career after graduation. My actions resulted not from conscious decisions, but rather from haphazard choices given little or no thought—because I didn’t realize their importance.

After my easily predictable delayed graduation, only the military bogged down in Vietnam was interested in hiring me. I had every intention of enlisting in the navy when again, with little thought to the consequences, I joined the army, at a time when more soldiers than sailors were dying. The fun decade from 1964 to 1975 was one of almost continual bad, not well-thought-out, or ill-informed decisions. I didn’t realize the importance of personal choices and took them lightly. How they affected society never entered the picture because I didn’t appreciate the role I, as all individuals do, play in the bigger picture.

My 1976 marriage challenged me to be more responsible, which I did, and for which I’ve been rewarded. I wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t become more personally and socially responsible, but where I am today is the sum of all my actions—good and bad. Only when I realized the importance of my decisions, did I start making more responsible ones. Thankfully, we can recover from mistakes, as I did.

A more perfect society resulting from social responsibility is everyone’s goal, but social responsibility rests on the shoulders of every individual understanding the utmost importance of their choices.

Mankind’s potentially rewarding journey continues to be fraught with danger because of the choices we make. Mankind has always teetered on a seesaw often powered not by tiny feet, but rather inflated egos exploiting their freedom to choose at the expense of making smart choices. If the freedom to make choices outweighs the duty to weigh the choices we make, we will have fallen by the wayside on our journey toward a more perfect society.

If the freedom to choose becomes more precious to an individual than the actual choice he makes, then he’s chosen poorly, and the personal satisfaction will be short-lived and might very well turn out badly for him and society.

Life is an ongoing process of deciding: to be or not to be, to go or not to go, to stay or not to stay. Every choice, be it good or bad, is crucial. Mankind has been cursed by selfish, irresponsible choices. We’ve also been blessed by socially and morally responsible choices made at both the highest level and sometimes the most personal level.

Until mankind realizes the importance of every choice, made at every level, every day, the road to a more perfect society will be littered with our mistakes, and we will have wasted the currency of personal choice given us. I hope everyone here tonight makes socially responsible choices but that will only happen if each of us realizes how important all our personal choices are—too important to be taken lightly, they make all the difference in the world.


Mark Bland, retired teacher, Virginia Beach, VA

Social Responsibility

I like ketchup on my eggs. I love to watch Westerns. I could play chess ten hours a day and not tire.

I don’t need to stop for that red light. No one ever comes by here. I don’t need that shot. I’m young and healthy. It’s no problem to me. If I robbed a bank just one time, I could get a good start.

Obviously, some personal choices have nothing to do with social responsibility, but those that do weigh heavily on the safety and welfare of others. Because of this, we have an obligation to all those with whom we share our lives.

Law and order dictate that we can’t run red lights, we should get the vaccination for everyone’s safety, and we can’t rob banks for our good start.

Personal choice is fine as long as the result of that decision doesn’t have a negative effect on others. True, a personal choice can be positive, in which case, it contributes to the good of the social order, but the social order should take priority. That order speaks for a multitude of people whereas the personal choice reflects the voice of only one. Thus, social responsibility becomes far more important than any personal choice.

We don’t live for the sake of “me,” rather for the sake of everyone.

In the first grade, I learned that personal choice almost didn’t exist. “Wait your turn in line. Don’t talk without permission. Don’t fight with Jerry. Keep your hands to yourself. Show respect for others. Treat others like you would want to be treated.”  Personal choices were simply not a part of the deal; social responsibility won every time.

Home and church echoed the same tune—others, others, others. Be kind to others, help others, pray for others. Should I wear my blue shirt or red shirt was about the limit of my personal choices, and that had nothing to do with social responsibility.

By the time I had reached high school, I had played on many teams—football, baseball, and track. In each case, the coaches’ cries were, “You’re part of a team. What you do affects everyone. It’s not about you; it’s about the team.” There it was again—others. The lessons learned were: work hard, become a part of the whole, be a winner, but don’t cry about a loss, and be proud of being part of the team. The groundwork for the importance of social responsibility continued to be defined.

By the age of eighteen, I found myself in the United States Army. The Vietnam War was at its peak. Lives were taken by the thousands for the sake of the whole. I remember during a formation in basic training, a sergeant said, “I want each of you to look at the person on your right. Now, I want each of you to look at the person on your left. One of you three will die in Vietnam by the end of this year. You will have spent your life for the sake of your country. No greater cause exists.”

He went on and on about how great it was to die for your country. I must admit that I had some personal choice problems with his ideas. However, I was young and immortal. I wouldn’t be the one in three. I would fight for the good of the whole. Social responsibility can’t go to any greater lengths.

Should that responsibility take priority over personal choice? Of course, otherwise not a single battle would ever be won.

Two years later, I was out of the army. I went on to college, and twelve jobs later, became a school teacher for thirty years. As a teacher and coach, I found myself repeating the same principles I learned in school and at home long ago. Before every game, I would always say, “You are nothing without the others. It’s not about you, it’s about the team. When we win this game, we all win.”

Yes, we can have personal choices, but when they affect others, social responsibility takes priority.

So remember: Wear your red or blue shirt if you want, or play golf on Saturday. This causes no harm to anyone, other than what your wife may say. But don’t run that red light, and get vaccinated for crying out loud. Everyone will thank you. Your teachers and coaches will be proud. Oh, personal choice what a pity. Far more important is social responsibility.



Rick Brundage, CEO, Minneapolis, MN

Social Responsibility

What gives our choices meaning and what do we owe each other? There is no doubt that we are free to do as we will, but I’ll argue that we should constrain our choices based on social responsibility because first, choice for choice’s sake is not categorically good, and second, being socially responsible ultimately makes our choices more meaningful.

Too often we see people defend their choices by saying, “But it’s my right!” Just because something is within our rights doesn’t necessarily make it the right choice. We owe each other some basic consideration guided by social responsibility.

If you’re a smoker, you don’t have to do it in front of a kindergarten class. If you feel like you’ve got something important to say, you don’t need to go yelling outside of houses of worship during services. I’m reminded of Jeff Bridge’s admonishment of John Goodman in The Big Lebowski, “You’re not wrong, Walter, you’re just a [chucklehead].” Sometimes, the right choice is individual restraint.

Then there is another matter – when our choices are not checked by social responsibility, it ultimately limits our choices. In 1833, British economist William Forster Lloyd wrote about an open pasture where folks could graze their cattle. These ranchers thought, “Super, I can feed my cows, and not worry about keeping up my field!” The problem? This was the rational choice that every rancher would come to, and what was once beautiful pasture would soon become a desolate wasteland.

When people choose to pursue their self-interest unconstrained by social responsibility, we’ll collectively take it to a breaking point, even though any specific act of taking only seems like a drop in the bucket.

Forster called this problem the “Tragedy of the Commons”, and we’ve seen it play out time and time again. If any of you are sushi fans like me, tuna is now so overfished that, according to one study published in The Atlantic, 59% of tuna tested served at sushi restaurants is counterfeit, likely because of overfishing. That’s right – it is more likely than not that you are not getting the tuna that you ordered because of this fishy conundrum. We saw this with commercial whaling in the 1700s and 1800s, and now whales are almost extinct.

We currently see this with the carbon emissions in our transportation and the pollution of our waters. If we don’t start making some compromises in our choices now, very soon the food on our plates, the water in our glasses, and the air in our lungs will become more and more compromised, and our lives will look much different in ways that radically undermine both our individual choices and what we owe each other.

Choice constraint became more important to me in my own struggles in recovery. While I was using, I was certainly free to pursue my short-term choices that might have scratched a fleeting itch, but they ultimately left me incredibly unhappy, alone, and eventually, knocking on death’s door. Now, I absolutely do not mean to rehash an obsolete discourse between addiction being a personal choice or a disease. What I do mean is that I, and many others I’ve met on my recovery journey, have turned to finding something bigger than ourselves to rely upon when our personal choices would otherwise lead us down a dark and desperate path. For me, that looked like being there for others when they struggled and to actively look for ways to better my community. In social responsibility, I find hope.

As a concept, we get to continually shape what being socially responsible means together – the social nature of it is inherent in the concept itself. All it requires is an ethos that holds that our shared needs are worthy of the same consideration as our individual needs.

Especially in this time of polarization, we would be better served by a spirit that seeks to bring people together at the table than one where we are only concerned about our own individual bubbles, which is what a focus on choice encourages.

None of us are islands unto ourselves. Our lives wouldn’t be very interesting if we were. Our choices would lose meaning and viability very quickly if we were all to become the atomistic, rugged individuals embodied by individual choice unconstrained by social responsibility. Instead, we should embrace social responsibility, see the value and texture that it can give to our lives, and work to build a world where all of us can thrive.



David Lapakko, college professor, Richfield, MN

Social Responsibility

One responsibility that comes with adulthood is a concern for others in our immediate world. For example, as a parent, I always need to consider the things I say and do and how those choices will affect my family and loved ones. If I change jobs, I must evaluate its impact on our financial security and the welfare of my spouse and the kids. If I wanted to travel abroad for a year, I would have to deal with how everyone else in the family would manage in my absence.

Such concerns would apply to a wide variety of situations: if I decided to run for public office, if I bought a motorcycle, or if I wanted to become a lounge singer or a social media star. Indeed, it’s incomprehensible that any of us would callously ignore those who are close to us when considering our personal choices. Why, then, should such a mindset suddenly vanish if we’re thinking about the rest of humanity? What makes everyone else so irrelevant?

When did we decide that it’s only my needs and desires that matter, and to hell with our collective needs as a society? And so it only follows that I believe social responsibility is not only important, but should be more important than personal choice.

We have learned the virtue of such a mindset in many ways. Martin Luther King, Jr. was not a “me” person but a “we” person, and we are all indebted to his passion for social justice. Gandhi helped free an entire nation from British rule through his quiet but very persistent sacrifice and leadership. The late Paul Newman established a foundation in his name, with 100 percent of its profits on food products going to charity. Bill and Melinda Gates exercised the personal choice to end their marriage, but they continue to maintain their own charitable foundation, which is the social responsibility that follows from great wealth. Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had the freedom to flee his own country–we even offered him safe passage to a safer location–but he stayed in his homeland out of responsibility to the Ukrainian people.

Dr. King could have chosen a life of solitude; Gandhi could have simply become a run-of-the-mill attorney; Paul Newman could have left his estate to the kids; the Gates empire could have just put a personal yacht in every port. And as for Zelenskyy, he could have never aspired to serve his fellow citizens and simply settled for life as a stand-up comic. But in every case, social responsibility was paramount.

Face it: the world will seldom remember people whose only claim to fame is that they fulfilled their personal whims. In U.S. culture, words such as “freedom” and “choice” resonate throughout many things we do. They have almost a religious feel to them; whatever promotes freedom or choice is worshiped. But consider a world where personal choice is routinely privileged. People might elect to drive however fast they desire, endangering themselves and the rest of us. People might decide they can toss their garbage out the window and let someone else handle the mess. People might say whatever they feel like on social media and ignore how many people they might hurt.

That said, at the heart of this issue also lies a huge misconception. To focus on social responsibility hardly means that personal choice ceases to exist–far from it. There are countless ways to exercise personal choice and still be socially conscious.

And many times it’s a win-win situation anyway; for instance, if I buy a car that uses little or no gasoline, I’m saving some money but I’m also helping to save the planet, and there are lots of different vehicles that can make everyone a winner. This is seldom an either-or situation. Still, life is a constant series of personal choices that we make every single day about what to eat, what to wear, who to see, where to work, what to buy, how to entertain ourselves, and a host of other things.

But at the end of the day, what really matters is not our solitary little self, but how we prosper as a society; to think otherwise is almost the very definition of narcissism. So as much as we might celebrate the ability and the pleasure to make such choices in our little world, the bigger world is the one that must be on our minds in the collision between personal choice and social responsibility.



Thaddeus McCamant, agriculture consultant, Frazee, MN

Social Responsibility

Social responsibility is always more important than personal choice.

The reason why we can discuss this question is due to a convergence of cultural and economic trends that have allowed people to live apart from their group. For nearly the entire history of the human race, a person’s survival was tied to the survival of the group. Women needed other women during and after childbirth. Men could not bring down a large, wild mammal without the help of other men. An Inuit who rocked the boat while walrus hunting put his whole village at risk.

As boats grew larger, people no longer had to paddle in unison. In large boats, people can try to rock the boat without causing the boat to sink. As societies grew in size and wealth, individuals could make personal choices without endangering themselves or their group. By the early 19th century, our country had become large and wealthy enough that individualism became trendy. In 1848, Henry David Thoreau promoted individualism by stating “would have each one be very careful to find out and pursue his own way, and not his father’s or his mother’s or his neighbor’s instead.”

In reality, when people pursue their own way, even the most conscientious person will inadvertently make decisions that hurts the social fabric.

In the 21st century, so many people are pursuing their own interests that the giant ship known as the United States of America is threatened.

Pursuing social responsibility is not only better for the country, people who belong to social groups are happier and healthier.

For much of the world, happiness means being with friends and family. The Danes use the word hygge, which typically refers to community. The Wolof in West Africa use the word teraanga, which always includes hospitality and community. The Wolof drink tea in groups. The Danes form communities while drinking alcohol. Thousands of other societies have developed traditions around eating and drinking to increase social bonds. To belong to the group means forgoing personal choices. A Wolof can get a caffeine buzz more quickly with a soft drink. A Dane can get drunk faster with vodka. In most cases, the community is more important than the drink.

In the 20th century, individualism became so popular in the U.S., that “rock the boat” took on positive connotations. Intellectuals became infatuated with Thoreau, while the working class adopted myths concerning the settling of the American West. Like every expansion of humans, the European settlement of the Intermountain West was accomplished by communities whose members worked closely together. The dry climate of the Intermountain West forced people to cooperate while diverting rivers to irrigate crops or supply towns. Large labor forces had to be organized to exploit deposits of copper and silver. Women played an outsized role in western communities, and they were rewarded by receiving the right to vote before the rest of the world.

The true history was quickly swamped by fictitious stories of the loner with his gun that filled novels, films and finally television. Growing up in the Intermountain West, I idolized the rugged individual, fantasizing about leaving the confines of society and my bickering family to live off the land. As an adult, I see problems created by people who believe the myth.

Communities struggle to educate children or repair roads because newcomers believe in self sufficiency. A contemporary of mine, Chris McCandless, pursued my dream of moving into the wild, and died at the age of 24. Loneliness can be deadly.

When those who live by themselves are compared to those who belong to a group, those who participate in the group are healthier and live longer. Loneliness can increase cortisol and inflammation. Being in a group increases oxytocin, which then decreases cortisol. People who volunteer their time in group activities receive the same health benefits as eating more fruit and vegetables. The interactions people have with vendors and other customers at a farmer’s market may be just as healthy as the vegetables they consume.

Another example of the harm created by Thoreau’s vision of “each pursuing his own way” can be seen on our highways. Increasing numbers of drivers feel constrained and angry that they must drive according to the dictates of society. When the coronavirus pandemic emptied the highways, fast drivers were no longer constrained by slow drivers, and traffic fatalities rose rapidly. It turns out, adjusting behaviors in the best interest of the group can also save us from ourselves.



Edward Tsoy, physician, Potomac, MD

Social Responsibility

I hesitate to say this in a country where individual freedom is a dominant theme in every founding document, but when personal choice and social responsibility come into conflict, social responsibility must prevail because the alternative is every-man-for-himself anarchy. Many choices we make have social consequences because we are all interconnected and therefore affected by the actions of others.

Ideally, ethically motivated personal choice and the common good coincide and everyone benefits.

I am a physician, and I believe it is a privilege to help people take care of their medical problems. Altruistic doctors who choose to spend their lives serving others deliver quality medical care, an unquestioned common good. Personal choice and social responsibility collide when a governing authority defines the common good in a way that is inconsistent with one’s beliefs. But if we are going to behave in a way that counteracts an important benefit to society, we should do so in pursuit of a socially responsible principle of even greater importance.

Governments and insurance companies that are removed from direct patient care believe that limiting medical expenditures serves the common good. But physicians who deal face-to-face with patients believe a higher responsibility exists – taking the best care you can of your individual patients, who are not statistical abstractions. When a fearful patient facing blindness due to an acute retinal detachment came to me for treatment, I chose to advise him to undergo emergency surgery that evening, thus reducing his risk of additional damage. Some contend that less expensive routinely scheduled surgery is appropriate in this setting even if it delays the procedure for several days. Statistically, he might have done as well if we had waited, but the patient was grateful to have the repair performed without delay, and I felt that I did everything I could to maximize the chances of a successful outcome. The treatment costs were greater due to the higher evening emergency support staff charges from the hospital. But the patient’s medical needs were met, fulfilling a critical social responsibility.

We have experienced a pandemic where choosing to disregard the health of the people around us is considered by some to be heroic behavior. Many assert their right to personal free choice, proclaiming they are patriots and that mandated constraints moderated as the risk decreases are tyranny disguised as social responsibility. But freedom of choice is not unconditional. We can choose to speak, but we can’t yell fire in a crowded theatre. We may travel where we please, but not at 60 mph through a school zone. It has been said that our right to swing our fists ends at someone else’s nose – to believe otherwise leads to the aforementioned anarchy.

Although we are often allowed to act on our choices, our neighbors must have some say in the matter if we want to reap the benefits of membership in this society.

Our freedom also comes with some responsibility and a tacit willingness to accept consequences should our actions cross a carefully drawn line. In our pluralistic democratic nation, non-violent advocacy and choices must be broadly tolerated. But a society can impose rules for its general welfare after reasonable debate. History will judge whether these constraints on choice were justified. Winston Churchill said, “democracy is the worst form of government except for all the other forms that have been tried.”

One of the challenges of an inherently messy democratic process is how to create an agreed-upon sense of the welfare of the whole while simultaneously giving voice to those who would choose differently.

Recently, it seems as though everyone has become tribal and unwilling to see their choices from another viewpoint. Many consider compromise tantamount to capitulation. How much discord can be tolerated before the foundations of our society are irreparably fractured? A concerned citizen once warned about how factions “agitate … with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms; kindle the animosity of one part against another, foment occasionally riot and insurrection,” and how “cunning, ambitious and unprincipled men will … usurp for themselves the reigns of government.”

While this could have been written yesterday, it is actually from George Washington’s Farewell Address to the Nation in 1796. Somehow, despite these recurring challenges, we have endured. Our nation survived its tumultuous creation, the trauma of the Civil War, and the social upheaval of the Great Depression and the 1960s, so I remain hopeful. I can’t predict the future, but I am convinced that a predisposition toward social responsibility represents the best pathway forward.



Congratulations to the 2022 Great American Think-Off Honorable Mentions! Learn more about the Think-Off here: https://www.kulcher.org/think-off/the-great-american-think-off/