A Ricochet member linked today a thought-provoking essay in the UK Guardian on the medicalization of evil. It's written by a medical historian observing the public commentary on the massacre of innocents in Connecticut last week.
Anyone who has been watching the news over the past few days will have heard the gunman, Adam Lanza, described as "sick," "disturbed" and "defective". The perpetrator may indeed have suffered from mental conditions that led to his homicidal attack, but even before anything was known about Lanza (including his name), many people in the media assumed a crime of this magnitude could only be committed by a mentally unstable individual. Very little discussion – if any – was given to the role of personal responsibility in this tragic event.
This is a logical consequence of a materialistic/scientistic worldview so prevalent in our society—the disregard or denial of the spiritual dimension of human life.
Nancy J Herman, associate professor of sociology at Central Michigan University, notes that "the diminution of religious imagery of sin, the rise of determinist theories of human behaviour, and the doctrine of cultural relativity" have led further to the exclusion of "evil" from our discourse.
Materialists aren't the only ones doing this. Even Christians who recognize the spirituality of the person and the reality of evil have become accustomed to downplaying personal responsibility for wrong. We generally do it in the name of mercy. "He couldn't help it." "His hands were tied." "He did the best he could." "He's ill."
There is something reassuring in the idea that evil is caused, not chosen—and that it might be prevented through the right combination of therapy and pharmacology. And, inscrutable mixtures of body and soul that we are—beings who both act and are acted upon (by nature and by others)—it is very difficult to discern in concrete cases just where personal responsibility begins and ends. Ultimately, only God can do it.
But, we should at least take care to keep in mind that that to deny personal responsibility for evil is to deny personal dignity. Animals can't commit evil. Neither can they achieve moral goodness.