A man, the defendant, sits solemnly and silently, while his lawyer paces the room. We, the audience, just now getting into the scene, know nothing about this man, what his charge his, etc. We do, however, catch the final argument from the lawyer.
“Ladies and gentleman of the jury. What my defendant did was unlawful, unjust, evil, say what you will. But the fault was not of his own. It was not his hand that started these actions, but the hand of his father as he beat the defendant as a young boy so many years ago. And by the hand of his mother as she neglected him and shared his drug use as a teenager. This past no doubt has set my defendant up to do this crime. It started, not from his own free will, but from the coercion of others horrible actions.
Do not find my friend here guilty. He being him is not responsible.”
We don’t know about all of the man’s past. We don’t know what the crime is. But considering a terrible childhood, should he still bear the responsibility? I answer with a resounding, Yes.
Getting Things Straight
To say that the past never bears on responsibility is a bold claim. Especially when you consider that children who grow up in a certain lifestyle involving abuse, drugs, or harassment tend to turn out living those same lifestyles.
But I’m sticking to my guns. When judging responsibility, two young men’s past have no weight in the argument, no matter the differences in those pasts.
That’s right. Even if person A grew up with the most scoundrel of parents while person B grew up with the greatest of them.
Let’s say two men commit the same crime.
Jimmy and Billy both robbed a convenience store and in the heat of the moment, shot and killed the man at the register. Both did not want this to happen and it was largely out of accident.
Jimmy grew up with parents who followed a similar lifestyle of crime. He grew up around drugs, guns, and danger.
Billy on the other hand grew up with wonderful parents by any standard. He went to an amazing school and had great friends.
I’m arguing that these two men should be treated exactly the same when it comes to responsibility for the action.
What Does Bear?
Why throw out a man’s past? Because someone’s past distracts you from the main things that do bear on responsibility: Awareness and Control.
Awareness is the ability to see and understand what is going on around you. You are aware of how breathing works if you understand the mechanisms involved.
Being aware can occur on different levels. The expert mechanic is more aware than a doctor about what is going on under the hood of the doctor’s car but less so than the doctor when it comes to what is going on within his own body.
The mechanic knows the basics. Yeah, some organs work together to get the machinery going, just like different parts in the car.
How does awareness bear on responsibility?
You have to have the capacity to understand that what you are doing has or could have a certain consequence. If you don’t have that capacity then you cannot be held responsible for what you have done.
This is the reason we do not hold children responsible for some things until a certain age. They just haven’t learned our moral framework yet. How could you have expected them to? As they age, though, we continue to shift our way of assigning the responsibility to them and act accordingly.
This is also why we don’t judge the mentally handicapped in the same way.
You may be fully aware of something and its consequences but still not be able to change what is occurring. Let’s say you have a mental condition where you have a split personality. When your other personality comes out you begin to throw violent tantrums and injure people. While you refuse to believe it at first, you eventually become aware of what is going on.
The thing is, there is no cure. Drugs have not been produced to help with this condition and doctors are not aware of anything that remedies it.
Because of these circumstances, you are not responsible for what is happening to you. There is literally nothing you can do to stop these tantrums.
Fault and Responsibility
Now that you are aware of your condition, though, you have become responsible for its consequences. How is this possible? Because even though you cannot control the tantrums, you can control where they would occur.
If your doctor advises you to join an institution where you will kept safe and you decline, then the next time you throw that tantrum and someone gets injured or killed, then you are responsible.
This is because there is a difference between fault and responsibility. It’s not your fault you have the condition, but now that you are aware of what is going on, it has become your responsibility. The weight has been put on your shoulders, so to speak.
Judging From The Past
So, a man’s past does not matter in responsibility, unless that past has somehow limited his ability to be aware or to be in control.
Let’s say that our original defendant was made to be dependent upon drugs at a young age. As such, it had a profound impact on his mental ability. In this way, his past does count, only because it allows us to see whether or not he should be capable of being aware of the consequences of his actions. If it has left him severely hindered in that area, his responsibility is effected.
The Take Home Lesson
Do you blame your past for things you are doing now? If so, you need to quit. It has no bearing on your responsibility. It is not your fault, but you are now responsible for it, whether you like it or not.
The best thing to do is to accept this. Carry your cross, so to speak. If you are aware of how your past has effected your current mindset, for good or ill, then you are already one step ahead of most.
The next step is to find your control. What you can and can’t. Sure, you can’t control what you do when you drink alcohol, but can control whether or not you drink it.
Everyone’s past differs. Some have had great, some good, others horrible. But awareness is what counts. Taking steps to see how your actions have or could have certain consequences will ensure your actions are on the path towards authenticity.