The Personalist Project

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.  

Comments (6)

Devra Torres

#1, Dec 20, 2012 7:44pm

It's true--it's so important not to presume to measure the proportion of evil and sickness, culpability and innocence in other people's souls that we end up talking as if there is no such thing as evil, no such thing as culpability.

And then there's the anti-personalist tendency to use the victims as a means to an end.  Everybody brings their own views on gun control, autism, mental illness and childrearing to the discussion, and they're all clearly relevant and worth talking about, but the temptation is to superimpose them on this particular reality without waiting to find out the facts.

Jules van Schaijik

#2, Dec 20, 2012 9:09pm

Let's also not forget that mental instability can be caused by moral evil. I tend to agree that a crime of this magnitude, or rather, a crime of this nature, "could only be committed by a mentally unstable individual." But that does not necessarily excuse the perpetrator. There are certain moral evils (jealousy, pride, ambition, lust for power, etc.) that drive a person insane.

Daniel Robinson

#3, Jan 6, 2013 11:37pm

I would caution against making too broad an assertion of individual culpability. You might thereby paint yourself into an individualist, rather than a personalist, corner.  A) To deny all culpability might equally deny all responsibility and therefore freedom and therefore dignity, but in the opposite extreme, B) to unquestioningly affirm total freedom and responsibility for the sake of defending personal dignity might also undermine the reality of our personal interdependence and leave us in a rather existential individualism.  

Example 1: My Father freely chose a certain lifestyle and developed certain virtues and vices.  Those choices of his had real world consequences in the fact that I learned to incorporate both the good and the bad into my own habits for life.   As a young child, I was objectively affected by the subjective freedom of another person, my father.  I am certainly capable of improving the moral inheritance I have received from my father, but it should not be disregarded that I had no choice in my starting point.

Daniel Robinson

#4, Jan 6, 2013 11:38pm

Example 2: Our primordial ancestors left to all of us generations of physical and psychological sicknesses, aka 'original' or 'ancestral' sin.  These sicknesses passed on from generation to generation through various degrees of awareness and culpability have left us all in dire need of healing as much as forensic 'saving'.  ("Only say the word and my soul shall be healed.")  While these sicknesses are the result of free personal choice, they result from our ancestors' freedom, more than ours.  Our freedom only comes into play once we are aware of our situation, which for some is unfortunately very very late.

To deny this interpersonal causal dependence might be just as dangerous as to deny personal culpability because it will equally sever us from personal relationship and all of the moral responsibility we have for our neighbor's salvation as well as our own.  We do not create our own worlds; we are created by the others around us, and  in turn can choose to redeem the sickness of our neighbor.  I think this is at least part of what it means to be incorporated into the body of Christ: we are saved corporately in the physician of soul and body.  

Jules van Schaijik

#5, Jan 6, 2013 11:56pm

Good points and examples, Daniel. I fully agree.

Devra Torres

#6, Jan 7, 2013 12:24am

Daniel, this is fascinating.  It cuts throught the usual way of opposing individual and societal responsibility.  I'll need to ponder it some more, but it seems like this could be key to cutting through a lot of misunderstandings, especially in areas that intersect with politics.  Both libertarians and collectivists miss out on the idea that moral responsibility is not necessarily either 100% individual or 100% understandable in terms of social structures.  We can do a lot of good for each other, and evil, too, in ways that are not easy to pinpoint and measure.  The communion of  saints is a reality.

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