Have excuses replaced personal accountability? NO-FAULT BEHAVIOR

August 07, 1994|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Sun Staff Writer

In recent months, it seems as if newsmakers have made an art form of shrugging off responsibility: Baseball player Darryl Strawberry has blamed his alcoholism and drug addiction on the demands of being a celebrity. Erik and Lyle Menendez say they were abused by their parents and therefore not guilty of their murders. And when tennis star Jennifer Capriati was arrested recently for possessing marijuana, her father took the public rap by saying he pushed her too hard to compete when she was young.

Many of us remain perplexed: If a victim of privilege is not responsible for his actions, if a victim of poverty is not responsible for her misdeeds, if victims of addictions are blameless, if people who come from broken homes or dysfunctional families are not to be held accountable for their behavior . . . well, who is?

Uncertainty about the nature of personal responsibility has been brewing for a while, says Stephen Vicchio, philosophy professor at Notre Dame College. Since the 18th century, Western culture has embraced Jean Jacques Rousseau's notion that humans are "basically good" and that "if they do bad things, it's because something has happened to them."

But these days, it seems as if bad behavior is not so much explained as it is excused.

"It has become a kind of cultural reflex to think of people as being 'sick' rather than 'bad,' " says Charles J. Sykes, author of "A Nation of Victims: The Decay of the American Character."

"Our tendency is to redefine bad behavior as disease and to take behavior we used to regard as a function of character and redefine it as a medical complex. We have taken the seven deadly sins and redefined them as complexes.

"In the old days, if I spent my weekly paycheck on neckties instead of on my family, people would have called me greedy. Now they would say I suffer from compulsive shopping syndrome. If the reason is greed, then I am responsible. If it's compulsive shopping syndrome, then it's a disease and I am responsible to a lesser degree."

Fred Guy, co-director of the Hoffberger Center for Professional Ethics at the University of Baltimore, believes people have unconsciously replaced making judgments about morality with formula explanations from "so-called science and pseudo-science."

"It's uncomfortable to talk about ethics and character because it seems so quaint and the language seems so unknown. It's much easier to talk about [someone's actions] in terms of their environment or upbringing. When you go to a discussion of the soul or character of the individual, you risk sounding like a fool. It sounds too medieval -- or too religious."

Or too judgmental.

"In college in the 1960s and 1970s, a lot of us got hoodwinked into thinking that cultural relativism was the best explanation of the nature of moral good," says Dr. Vicchio. "It's as if everyone has their own values and you just have to uncover what they are. Of course, no one ever thinks that if you hold that view, you've got to hold it for Charlie Manson, too.

"It's almost as if there's a fail-safe mechanism that if you do good, then we give you credit. But if you do evil, then we excuse you."

How has this happened?

Over the past few years, various articles and books have attempted answers. Generally implicated are aspects of the legal system, the social sciences, Freud and the recovery movement: the 12-step programs designed to help people with such conditions as alcoholism and gambling.

:. And, of course, there's always television.

Blame it on TV

Some cultural critics believe talk shows such as "Oprah!" -- programs stocked with recovering sex addicts and victims of dysfunctional households -- have led audiences to develop a kind of knee-jerk sympathy.

"These shows operate on the [premise] that self-expression and self-esteem -- rather than rationalism and self-control -- are primary moral imperatives," says Wendy Kaminer, author of "I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional."

And they may impair everyday judgment. Media critic Mark Crispin Miller, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, thinks watching television is causing people to give more importance to subjective and confessional material than ever before.

Calling the hung-jury Menendez decision "a triumph of emotion over thought," Dr. Miller speculates that some members of those juries formed their judgments as if they were watching Erik and Lyle Menendez on television.

Deciding the brothers' childhood tales of victimization were emotionally compelling enough to excuse their acts of murder, some members of the jury judged the situation, rather than the persons, to be guilty of the crime.

Dr. Miller believes the manipulations of "what makes for good TV" puts people at greater risk of succumbing to the kind of skillful demagoguery that suggests culprits are actually victims.

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