On responsibility

I’ll leave the “sloppy thinking” series for now, although I expect to return to it in the future.  In this post I’ll share some thoughts about personal responsibility, especially as it pertains to the insanity defense.  It’s a topic much in the news lately, due to tragic actions by now-household names such as James Eagan Holmes and Jared Loughner.  The matter goes much further though.  We normally assume that adults are responsible for their actions, and that these actions are freely chosen.  The extent to which we treat this as absolute versus a matter of degree determines our fundamental political views, and how we view our neighbors and ourselves.

Many facets of everyday life are premised on personal responsibility.  The criminal justice system is the most obvious example.  In a wider sense our willingness to live in community with others depends on each person taking responsibility for his or her behavior.  Nonetheless, we’ve recognized exceptions to this default assumption for centuries.  Adults who are severely sick or injured may temporarily be unable to assume responsibility for themselves.  Likewise, infants and young children lack the ability to make informed choices and to exercise personal responsibility.  Non-human animals are exempt from personal responsibility and are never considered guilty of a crime — well, not anymore.

English common law recognized that the same lack of responsibility extended to insane adults:

By the 18th century, the British courts had … developed what became known as the “wild beast” test: If a defendant was so bereft of sanity that he understood the ramifications of his behavior “no more than in an infant, a brute, or a wild beast,” he would not be held responsible for his crimes.

The history of the insanity defense then records the trial of Daniel M’Naughten in 1843, where inability to distinguish right from wrong was established as the crucial legal test. This became the standard, both in Britain and the US, for more than 100 years; the “M’Naughten rule” is still the legal standard in many states.  Later modifications tended to liberalize its application, as with the “irresistible impulse” and “diminished capacity” doctrines, until the pendulum swung the other way in the wake of John Hinkley’s attempted assassination of President Reagan in 1981.

As a society, we seem to be losing our inclination to forgive the mentally ill, and children, when they commit horrific acts of violence.  Even young teens are now tried as adults when an alleged crime is bad enough.  And although insanity defenses are rare in U.S. courts, and their successful use often results in involuntary hospitalization longer than the prison sentence would otherwise have been, there is nonetheless a popular view that the insane “get away with it.”  Jared Loughner recently plea-bargained for life imprisonment despite clear evidence of mental illness and the possibility of an insanity defense.  The court will decide whether James Holmes has severe psychosis, an antisocial personality, or just a very bad attitude.  As in Loughner’s case, this determination is unlikely to make a difference in terms of public safety — Holmes won’t be freed for decades, if ever.  But the way we handle the question of legal insanity bears on how our society views itself.

Now that we are in a presidential campaign season, we hear rhetoric that cleaves the major parties around the question of personal responsibility.  “You didn’t build that,” a slightly misspoken point by President Obama about the government’s role in promoting business, became a rallying cry for Republicans in defense of the entrepreneur.  Yet both sides have a point:  The government makes and maintains highways (and founded the internet); individuals create trucking companies (and online businesses).  It’s really a matter of emphasis, and yet this emphasis is what most of the fighting is about.

Decades ago, social psychologists coined the term “fundamental attribution error” to highlight our tendency to over-apply dispositional or personality explanations to others, in the same circumstances we apply situational explanations to ourselves.  E.g., if others are unemployed we often imagine they are lazy or unqualified (personal factors), whereas if we are unemployed, we often blame a tough economy and a lack of jobs (situational factors).  Of course, some of the unemployed really are lazy or unqualified, just as some killers really have the criminal intent (mens rea) to be convicted of murder.  The question is whether and to what extent we allow for exceptions in cases other than our own.  Denying such exceptions flies in the face of our own legal tradition, our recognition of the fundamental attribution error, and our human kinship — the idea that we humans are more alike than we are different.  We are wise enough not to punish infants or “wild beasts” even if they hurt us; the severity of their behavior and its consequences has no bearing on whether they are personally responsible.  A person who cannot tell right from wrong due to severe psychosis is operating at the same level, and should be treated, not punished.  Personal responsibility is a strong enough concept that it can withstand some nuance and flexibility — especially when that happens to reflect reality.

4 comments to On responsibility

  • TK

    Still reading!

    Great post. I wonder if you might comment on the “fundamental attribution error” as it applies to individual psychotherapy. That whether therapists too often attribute patients’ conduct and responses to the world as a function of individual psychology, when in fact it is a reaction to a particular situation. That is, the same patient in a different situation or circumstances would present very differently.

    • Hi TK. You make a a good point. This probably happens a lot; I have no actual data of course. Psychotherapists are trained to assess and assist with personality issues, whereas we have little or no ability to intervene in external situations that affect our patients’ lives. This may promote dispositional/personality attribution: “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Moreover, we initially know our patients “cross-sectionally,” i.e. at one point in time, not longitudinally. While I attempt to assess a patient’s presentation in light of his or her immediate situation, it takes some time, and often a significant amount of conversation, before I get a clear sense of whether this presentation is a “state” or a “trait.” As usual, it is smart to withhold judgment and keep an open mind, but also not to wait forever for proof before acting.

  • TK

    Wonderful answer. I agree with you on everything you’ve said.

    But I can’t help thinking that a therapist’s self-perceived “little or no” ability to help patients with the circumstances of their lives isn’t akin to a doctor’s decision to treat a patient from the heart up to the head, or the heart down to the toes.

    There’s much a therapist can do to help patients directly change the circumstances of their lives, from counseling and recommending child-rearing practices, giving advice about relationships, marriage, and divorce, living situations, job-change or retention, etc. And sex, too, since it’s so often correlated with relationship satisfaction.

    To many therapists, this is an arena of anathema. Therapists don’t want to do it, for a number of time-honored reasons. But it is definitely possible!

    • I realize I may have invited this sort of criticism. However, I didn’t say therapists can’t help patients with the circumstances of their lives, only that we can’t, except very rarely, intervene in the circumstances themselves. Many times I’ve had patients come to the office and regale me with stories of bad bosses, insensitive spouses, discouraging job prospects, etc. In one form or another, my question to them is: “What can you do about it?” Or: “What in you stands in the way of tackling this problem?”

      Pure advice can be useful occasionally, but in my opinion it is vastly overrated. Most people have a modicum of common sense, and most can look things up on the internet as well as I can. Recommending books on child-rearing or job-hunting falls under counseling, not psychotherapy. I’m certainly not opposed to it, and will gladly share what I can. But it’s not why people come to see me, and not why they’re paying for my time and expertise. Frankly, people who don’t want to work on themselves should save their time and money, and consult a less expensive job coach or read a self-help book.

      Back to your original point: Since my practice focuses on personality factors, there is a risk of discounting situational factors. But even if I accurately take account of the latter, it’s the former I treat.

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