The Suspension of Responsibility

(Written 13 November 2014)

Original question: Is DWI murder? What consequences should be brought upon diagnosed alcoholics arrested for DWI?

There is no doubting that DWI is homicide. But is it murder?  Murder is generally considered deliberate (though this is questionable in some cases), while DWI typically is not- and that is where the question stems from.

Generally people would argue that a lethal motor vehicle accident which does not involve drugs or alcohol is just about never murder (unless someone obviously has intentions to harm another person using their car, but that seems uncommon- plus it’s no accident). I would agree with this. Thus, the deciding factor of whether DWI is murder is solely the involvement of alcohol.

If you drink alcohol, you are arguably choosing to degrade your higher-order abilities such as sound judgment and decision-making. On top of that, if you drink alcohol and arrange your situation so that you either must drive, will feel compelled to drive, and/or you do not take measures beforehand to prevent yourself from driving, you are arguably choosing to make yourself a hazard to other people- who are, in this case, innocent.

From the perspective of choice and risk mitigation, the person who drives while intoxicated could very well be called a murderer.


The Medicalization of Responsibility

An increasing trend in our society, however, is the removal of responsibility by the medicalization of behavior (delinquency, especially). People say it’s not their fault what they do because they are victims of their genes, they have irreversible brain diseases (i.e. addiction), and they have developed deeply ingrained habits which they bear little to no control over.

I do agree that we should get away from our preoccupation with blaming people- who did it, whose fault is it, who should we shame. Such emphasis on the past and the negative typically do little for progress.

However, there is no escape from responsibility, no matter what we say. Sure, maybe that woman’s drunken driving “just sort of happened” and she was taken over by habit and addiction. That is a sufficiently valid explanation.

However, no explanation changes the fact that she is still responsible for her behavior. No one can do anything about it except her. No matter how tight her addiction’s hold is on her, she is responsible for its continuity, and she is the only one who can change it. Blaming her subconscious patterns won’t do much to help the situation, aside from possibly prompting people to support her rather than degrade and stigmatize her as immoral and idiotic.

And surely the removal of shame that the medical/subconscious perspective can facilitate is important in people alleviating their unhealthy behaviors; shame has a way of keeping us stuck where we are.

What we need to realize, however, is that removing stigma and shame does not also remove responsibility. Maybe all- even most- of your actions are not the result of conscious choice, but you are still responsible for them.

Anyway, a slight issue with this question, of course, is that the diagnostic criteria of pathological drug use now take less to attain. Ignoring that for now, if a diagnosed drug user is arrested for DWI it could be argued that the novel and emotionally-charged events (e.g. court proceedings, jailtime) that would follow might make his habits more malleable, and thus easier to change. However, this often doesn’t seem to be the case. Prisons don’t seem to help drug addicts much.


Take Responsibility and Forgive

So it is with all habits. Punishing ourselves and putting our actions to long-term shame doesn’t seem to bring about effective change. In fact, our shame can degrade us and deepen our problems, just as prisons often do to prisoners.

Instead, we have to forgive ourselves. That’s even if no one else does. Your own forgiveness is the only kind you can be certain of anyway. Of course, it is only when you take responsibility that you can forgive yourself.

It seems that forgiveness is a natural next step in taking ownership of a problem. Somehow I think attributing parts of the problem to external factors (e.g. other people) makes you more likely to beat yourself up about it, and thus stay stuck in it.

In this case, if forgiveness sets you free then so too does responsibility. The removal of responsibility does not set you free. That only puts you at the mercy of external forces, over which you have no control.

Rather, the recognition that you have full responsibility over everything that arises in your reality (what you do and what happens to you) gives you freedom. When you do this you are able to act consciously, and it is only by living consciously that we can truly live freely.

Living consciously really means the same as living responsibly. You cannot separate the two. To live unconsciously is to delude yourself into being the victim of a cold, cruel world. To live irresponsibly is to do the same.

Take responsibility so that you can start taking massive action to change your life now—even if that action takes place, to start, only within your heart.

Take responsibility and watch your reality change.