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Issue Date:  September 10, 2004

It's never our fault these days


Who is responsible for the recent abuse of prisoners in Iraq? The individuals who inflicted the punishment? Their superiors? The secretary of defense? The president? All of the above? None of the above?

The answer will depend to great extent on one’s view of “the nature of human nature.” For centuries the predominant view in the West held that human beings are intelligent creatures capable of rational thought whose behavior is a consequence of free will. We are deservedly rewarded for appropriate conduct and just as deservedly punished for inappropriate conduct.

As of late there has been a significant erosion of the behavior/responsibility linkage in contemporary American society. In his book The Diseasing of America, psychologist Stanton Peele argues that the “disease theory” of addiction in 12-step programs views addictive behavior as occurring largely, if not exclusively, independent of a person’s free will. Individuals are driven to undesirable conduct by psychological and/or physiological factors beyond their control, admitting that they “were powerless over the specific addiction,” that their “lives had become unmanageable.”

The behavior-as-addiction model engendered by Alcoholics Anonymous has become increasingly popular and resulted in the creation of spinoff organizations such as Narcotics Anonymous, Child-Abusers Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, Sex and Love Addicts, Spenders Anonymous, Workaholics Anonymous, and Co-Dependency Anonymous. These organizations have reversed the cause-and-effect relation with the “addict” now recast as victim rather than abuser.

With the exception of maladies such as HIV/AIDS via unprotected sex or intravenous drug abuse, we do not typically fault people for the afflictions they contract. Similarly, individuals labeled with addiction diseases are exempt from any culpability for contracting their sickness. In addition, promoters of this new wave of maladies excuse sufferers from ordinary moral standards and codes of conduct related to their “sickness.” You say you’ve embezzled money to pay off a local bookmaker? It’s not you, but your gambling addiction that’s at fault (a not uncommon defense used by criminal attorneys). While 12-step programs instruct members to make amends to people they have harmed, this is distinct from stating that one is morally responsible for causing that harm.

Sociologists have also contributed to the reduced responsibility view of humanity. In a 1961 article entitled “The Oversocialized Concept of Man in Modern Society,” Dennis Wrong noted that many of his colleagues viewed human beings as little more than mindless “acceptance seekers,” all but programmed by social norms. While it would be foolish to ignore the importance of social class, political and economic factors as well as race and gender on an individual’s life, Wrong argues that it would be equally foolish to dismiss the “obvious and measured fact” of free will and autonomy.

A hundred years of sociological research has consistently found a relationship between poverty and street crime. This relationship has been explained by way of a limited or blocked opportunity structure including inadequate schools, a dearth of well-paying inner-city jobs, institutional racism and a disproportionate number of single-parent families. But while even conservatives have come to admit that these factors contribute significantly to high rates of crime and incarceration among the poor, it is also true that most poor people are not criminals. Even with the social, political and economic deck stacked against them, they choose not to engage in criminal activity.

Both the “addiction as disease” model and the “oversocialized view of humanity” perspective arrive at the same conclusion: Individuals are all but helpless in the face of powerful internal and external factors that severely limit, if not completely nullify, their free will.

The demise of responsibility is especially troublesome at the highest levels of society’s political and religious institutions, where it occurs in at least two guises. The first is the empty apology -- empty in that it is devoid of negative consequences for the offender. Speaking of the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at the Abu Ghraib detention facility, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told a congressional committee, “I take full responsibility.” What were the ramifications of the secretary’s failed leadership? High praise from the president and much of the Washington establishment for the wonderful job he is doing.

Recent sex-abuse scandals in the nation’s churches are a tragic example of a “see no evil, hear no evil” way of ducking responsibility. More than a few Roman Catholic bishops denied there was a nationwide abuse problem until the whole sordid affair could no longer be contained. Their failure to acknowledge -- and sanction -- abusive priests was compounded by a lack of accountability to countless victims and a lack of restitution to them.

How many priests, ministers and rabbis have been held criminally liable for their transgressions? Relatively few, with some even boasting that their actions were neither sinful nor criminal, that they were simply introducing children to sexuality. And what has the church learned from decades of ignoring sexual predators within its ranks? A yearlong investigation by the Dallas Morning News found that since the 2002 scandal, “hundreds of priests accused of abuse have been moved from country to country” where they live and work in “unsuspecting communities.” Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, who sheltered a priest accused of child molestation stated, “I’d be prepared to go to jail rather than harm one of my priests.” Rodriguez likened journalists who cover the abuse scandal to Hitler, describing them as obsessed. So much for responsibility.

A survey by Christian Ministry Resources reported that although the Catholic church was at the center of media attention, “most American churches being hit with child sexual abuse allegations are Protestant.” Rabbi and law professor Arthur Gross concluded that the rate of sexual abuse among Jewish clergy is approximately the same as that among Protestant clergy.

Personal responsibility is a key ingredient of the glue that holds democratic societies together. Honor, trust and a sense of duty are predicated on a consensus that we are accountable for our behavior. While we rightfully worry about our children being exposed to excessive amounts of sex and violence, we pay scant attention to the impact the withering of responsibility will have on their moral development. A society in which this fundamental character trait becomes the exception rather than the rule is a society moving toward chaos.

George Bryjack is a professor of sociology at the University of San Diego. He can be reached at

National Catholic Reporter, September 10, 2004

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