When you really think about it, nothing is anybody’s fault. The unamicable youngster in customer support was having an awful day. The school bully comes from a broken home. The violent alcoholic is powerless against their addiction. The serial killer is a victim of their own deranged mind. Even the ruthless dictator can’t help their innate megalomania.
“But everyone can choose not to do evil,” you may object. “Your past and your disposition notwithstanding, if you choose evil, you’re weak.” Well, sure, but weakness isn’t really something you can help either, is it? If someone is weak, they were probably raised that way by their weak parents, who were raised that way by their weak parents, and so on. Or perhaps the gamble of genetics just gifted them a shortage of whatever hormone regulates willpower. Either way, they’re too weak to stop being weak. So how is it their fault?
Every evil act committed by a person, every negative trait they possess, can be traced back to something that’s beyond their control.
It’s true at a global scale, too. Humans are killing the environment and each other, but can we really be blamed for that when we’re just a bunch of insecure primates who feel lost in the simultaneously rational and beastly minds that we never asked evolution to give us? No, I don’t think that’s fair. I don’t think it’s fair to blame anyone for anything, actually.
And yet, we’re all expected to take responsibility for our actions. We’re not allowed to blame our childhoods, our environments, or even our genetics (with some exceptions). When we screw up, we must apologize and make amends. If we screw up royally, we’re punished for it. It might be the single most unfair fact of life. The fact that we have to live as if things are our fault, when nothing really is.
Am I suggesting that we all stop taking responsibility? Of course not. The world would collapse without responsibility. The school bully must be disciplined. The ruthless dictator must be toppled. Humans must stop with the killing. Ethics, and, by extension, society, couldn’t possibly function if we let everyone get away with everything. We’ve got to differentiate between victims and perpetrators, although we’re all victims of circumstance. Our concept of justice can’t take into account the injustice of merely being alive. I know that. I’m not writing this to let my bleeding heart try and erode the field of ethics.
I’m only writing this to give humanity some credit. The fact that we accept this unfair premise is commendable. We do struggle to be good, and we do take the blame when we’re not, when we could easily blame the world. We do believe in the choice between right and wrong, in spite of the countless cruel external factors that life throws at us. We’ve built our whole civilization on that impossible challenge. That’s darn impressive for a primate 🙂
I think a shift in attitude would benefit us. Instead of the hard-boiled, slightly condescending “everyone can choose not to do evil”, let’s say to ourselves: “You’ve experienced a lot of evil. You’re very strong for still doing good.”
If everyone talked that way to themselves, we’d have much more good in the world.