There’s No One to Blame—Including Yourself
Here’s why justice without mercy really isn’t just at all.
Posted Jan 29, 2019
The claim made in my title might sound morally nihilistic. Or as coming from a foolhardy, head-in-the-clouds idealist. Or maybe some sort of “devout” determinist.
After all, if certain actions are deemed almost universally censurable, don’t we have to hold the perpetrator accountable? If we don’t, or somehow can't, wouldn’t it then be fair and reasonable to open the bars of jail cells everywhere and allow those who’ve seriously hurt others (and so been incarcerated), to roam about freely—quite possibly endangering more innocent citizens?
Typically, crimes have victims. So it’s incumbent upon me to demonstrate that ultimately none of us is to blame for our errant behaviors—and no matter how serious or anti-social they may be. So in this post I’ll attempt to show how the very concept of blame may do as much (moral) harm as good. And my whole argument will revolve around the notion that, in the end, all human behavior can be seen as compelled behavior.
My thesis here is full of paradoxes. And the first one is that, although dictionaries use the terms blame and responsibility almost synonymously, it’s crucial to distinguish between them.
Viewed humanistically, an individual might commit an act damaging to another because:
- Their emotions were so powerful at the time that they simply got the better of them;
- Another person’s behavior felt, however erroneously, gravely threatening to them;
- Directly or indirectly linked to their sense of personal survival, they were afflicted by an urgent need (e.g., cheating or stealing from someone to avoid financial ruin); or
- They were in the throes of an acute addictive process, virtually demanding that they perform a particular act—and regardless of its repercussions to themselves or others.
Admittedly, however, and regardless of their intentions or motives, we need to hold individuals responsible for their actions, whether they’re relatively petty or outright criminal. For fundamentally, innocent people—or, for that matter, institutions charged with sustaining a just society—require protection from unthinking or unprincipled behaviors. Otherwise, we’d simply be giving people permission to live their lives “id-driven,” to let their impulses and instincts run wild with impunity.
Most of us, after all, don’t yield to various temptations because our moral sense is strong enough to overcome innate, non-civilized drives and desires. But some people may not possess such an overriding sense of right and wrong. And to be perfectly honest, can you not think of a time (or times) when, for all sorts of reasons, you yourself failed to act conscientiously, to abide by your own professed ethical code?
A sobering inquiry, no? . . . Plus consider these two famous quotations: "There but for the grace of God go I" or (even more to the point) the biblical, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”
My perspective here might be perplexing, as though I’m trying to blend opposites. And given how language is routinely employed to characterize human action, that would definitely be understandable. For why would we punish someone if they just couldn’t help themselves from doing what they did? And, too, what if they weren’t able to grasp the malignancy of their behavior?
Still, once again, to safeguard the innocent, and the requisite rules of society, we really have no ethical choice but to penalize someone who endangers our safety and freedom. What a person does—even if it can be seen as largely, or completely, involuntary—has consequences. And so we need to have such an individual make amends we consider equitable and just. (And here the reader might wish to explore an earlier post of mine called “Don’t Confuse Revenge With Justice: Five Key Differences.”)
Continuing with the curious ambiguities underlying the whole idea of justice, or “due process,” closely connected definitions of blame take us in a significantly harsher direction. That is, dictionaries describe blaming someone not merely as holding them accountable for their misdeeds but as also taking a belligerent stance against them. From this more aggressive perspective blaming someone entails downright shaming them. Not only are they responsible for their bad behavior but they themselves are to be seen as bad. Consequently, they’re to be rebuked and reprimanded, castigated and censured—in a sense, condemned for their errant action.
Beyond whatever retaliation they’re subject to, they’re implicitly judged as somehow unworthy of compassionate understanding—their action regarded as intentional, spiteful, nasty, or pernicious. And while I’m certainly not against (necessary) retribution for harm done to innocent people, I still think that perpetrators (like everyone else) warrant being looked at as more or less victims themselves—that is, enchained by their own genetics and maladaptive programming. Which, logically, isn’t really their personal fault.
By now, it’s established science that many human characteristics—not just physical but psychological, too—are biologically ruled or regulated. These qualities relate to certain inborn predispositions, such as individuals who, genetically, are:
- on the autistic spectrum;
- tend toward introversion or extroversion (with all that implies about their fundamental, unalterable personality);
- born with more (or less) ability to control their impulses;
- beset with a variety of symptoms specifically pertaining to ADHD;
- likely to develop schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or a troubling personality disturbance;
- and so on, and so on.
Not, of course, that a person’s inward, innate environment operates all by itself. For a person’s outward environment is also instrumental in determining certain facets of their development, personality, and behavior. In most instances nature works through nurture. So what an individual might naturally be predisposed to may, or may not, be realized or restrained (depending on the particular circumstances they were born into and, to whatever degree, controlled by). Whether one is raised by mentally healthy caretakers or by abusive, pathological ones can at times make all the difference between a child’s growing up to be a “mensch” or a monster.
If we can see virtually all human behavior as resulting from some combination of biology and biography, then we need to ask ourselves precisely how “accountable” anyone might be for their words and deeds. It could be argued that in some measure, at least as adults, we choose our surroundings. But might that choice be primarily governed by our earlier childhood environment, which on our own we were never afforded the opportunity to select? Our so-called “formative years” means just that—in effect, that our basic personality is pretty much “formed” prior to maturity.
New Age thinkers might postulate that we actually choose the family we’re born into, to cope with issues left unresolved from a former lifetime. And spiritualists might speak of the “payback” of karma as a kind of divine justice. But scientists can’t give credence to such claims because they’re unable to find empirical evidence supporting them.
So, if we're scientifically oriented, down what philosophical pathways does this cause-effect analysis lead us? If we believe that for every effect there is a cause, or that one of more causes can lead to one or more effects, then—however we parse it—we need to modify our perception of free will.
How at liberty are we to make truly independent, autonomous decisions when they’re predetermined by our biological heritage and everything that, formally or informally, we’ve learned since birth? And this viewpoint is hardly to suggest that we can’t change our behaviors, that we’re destined to stay who and what we’ve been in the past. Longer-term psychotherapy, for example, can effect profound changes in how a person thinks and acts. Nonetheless, whether or not we embark on a therapeutic journey, just how such treatment will affect us, or how we’ll will react to it, still depends on our genetics and earlier conditioning. In short, some people are capable of altering their programming, and some are not.
If I seem to be overstating my case here (and I’ve no doubt many readers will take exception to my position), it’s because my favorite word in the English language is compassion. And to me, justice without mercy is finally not really just at all.
If, for instance, some people are born with a far greater ability to control their impulses than others, should those others be punished because they weren’t “blessed” with this gift? If some individuals were born to wealth and others to poverty, are not those in the former group more likely to receive crucial advantages not available to those in the latter? If some people exit the womb with a really high IQ, doesn’t their mental superiority almost guarantee that they’ll go substantially farther in life and in what they can achieve than their lower IQ counterparts? And such questions, or qualifications, could go on ad infinitum.
In all too many respects, we’re not created equal, so if we’re to act humanely we need to extend compassion and forgiveness to those who inherited an unfavorable combination of genes, and/or were born into an environment unable to provide them with the nurturance that I believe is—or should be—every child’s birthright. My own sense of fairness dictates that we all try to be as understanding as possible to everyone on this so imperfect planet. And, in turn, that we administer justice to those who are, indeed, blameworthy with utmost consideration, caring, respect, and kindness.
For, finally, isn’t that what the highly admired Golden Rule asks us to?
NOTE: It’s certainly no coincidence that earlier I composed a 4-part series on the golden rule. So, for interested readers, here are their titles and links: “The Golden Rule, Part 1: Don’t Take It Literally!”, “. . . . Part 2: What Is It Missing?” “ . . . Part 3: Its Uncanny Resilience,” and “ . . . Part 4: Dreams of Utopia.”
© 2019 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.