In December of 2013, the infamous Ethan Couch was able to find a psychologist and a judge willing to support an “affluenza defense” in order to justify his poor decisions, which happened to kill four people. Although millions of teens choose to engage in similar destructive, impulsive, and ill-considered behavior, particularly when it comes to alcohol, driving, and sex, neither they nor Couch are victims of a psychological disorder. “The affluenza defense” is, however, a powerful symbol of the growing social and cultural problems faced by modern society. The use of “affluenza” as a defense, instead of just an explanation for someone’s misdeeds, demonstrates that the problems described by affluenza are only getting worse. Not only are more and more people increasingly selfish, short-sighted and impulsive, there is a growing sense of entitlement. There appears to be an affluenza epidemic that needs tackled.
Public officials, for example, make a lot of self-serving, destructive decisions that politically benefit them, but hurt everyone else. One example is the willingness to shutdown the government over relatively trivial partisan priorities. Catering to special interests over the common good, political figures no longer feel beholden to majority rule. They and their supporters feel entitled to have their public policy priorities enacted and those they oppose eliminated without considering the views of those who support those policies. The same can be said of business leaders, whose decisions impact the lives of their employees and the broader economy. The same is true of all parents who cause far-reaching, deeply entrenched socioeconomic problems, because they neglect their children in favor of their careers or out of apathy.
Looking at the self-centered, short-sighted mentality of the baby boomers or the mountain of consumer debt that weighs down the economy, the world is clearly afflicted by affluenza. The inability to recognize the consequences of one’s actions is a natural human limitation that is overcome as we age and develop as decision-making creatures. Assuming “affluenza” is truly a disease in any sense, the term was intended to describe a cultural deficit created by impulse-driven over-consumption and a lack of immediate consequences for poor decisions. In short, it is what happens when any person or animal is shielded from the harsh laws of economics and nature by a glut of resources. That said, affluenza helps explain the destructive decisions of the entitled, but it does not excuse those affected by affluenza. If anything, it says there is a broader social responsibility shared by people like the parents of Ethan Couch and community leaders who shielded Couch from the consequences of his harmful behavior.
Although the “affluenza” term helps explain that there is a problem, it does not solve the problem or make the problem acceptable. The problem in the case of people like Ethan Couch is that his defense was designed to help him shirk responsibility by using an alleged disorder as a scapegoat. People with sex addiction, as another example, struggle to control natural impulses that others are able to regulate, because they are properly socialized. Addiction of any kind does not, however, absolve people of the costs and consequences when they choose to indulge their impulses. Addiction makes it harder to make the proper choices, but it does not make it impossible. Our social environment pressures us to engage in harmful decisions. In an affluenza society, that pressure is even greater. Our decisions are, however, rooted in both situation and character. Only by cultivating good character can people and communities overcome bad situations.
People in positions of influence and privilege in particular should be held to a higher standards, because communities need those at the top to be personally responsible for their decisions and the impact they have on all of our lives. The driver of a car is, after all, responsible for the lives of his passengers and those on the road. What is not needed are community leaders using explanations to shirk their personal and social responsibilities. There is such a thing as healthy selfishness. It is unhealthy selfishness that hurts our communities, families, and selves. Unfortunately, our modern society rewards us for unhealthy selfishness instead of encouraging healthy selfishness and selflessness. Both healthy and unhealthy selfish behaviors, of course, stem from hereditary traits that guarantee our species' survival. It is when we put our immediate interests aside, including essential ones, that our species, i.e. our families and communities, is able to thrive. By putting the needs and wants of others ahead of our own in cooperative, constructive efforts, we are able to thrive as individuals. Sadly, selflessness should be rewarded, but we tend to treat charity as a burden of the noble and kindhearted, not the community.
For those who are essentially human doormats, recognizing the need to be selfish in certain circumstances is absolutely critical. Whether talking about overly self-sacrificing parents or friendly neighbors who just cannot say, "no," the well-being of such people depends on their ability to fulfill their own needs and wants. At the extreme, there are those who forgo the wellbeing of their family and community on a constant basis. The damage done can only be healed by prioritizing those closest to us above outsiders. In contrast, greedy individuals, who ensure they get what they want without regard for the needs of others, tend to hurt their communities with their egocentricities. Thanks to the "greed is good" mentality, our society has enjoyed some rather immediate, yet relatively small benefits, by indulging the self-serving behaviors of people. Regrettably, we have also felt the devastating costs of such recklessness. Those who are driven to behave so poorly need to be pushed to act socially responsible through positive peer pressure, community building initiatives, and public policies that encourage healthy, pro-social behavior.
Over the past two centuries, the human race has accomplished seemingly impossible tasks through our technological and intellectual pursuits. To improve upon our great works and go beyond the impossible, scientists and engineers have turned to nature as a model. From nanostructures to birdlike jets, the world is headed into a new age where our technology can better serve our needs with fewer costs in terms of dollars, resources, environmental damage, etc, because we seek the opinion of nature. Technologies enhance the human experience. If it enhances the negative qualities of humanity, the experience will be devastating. Given the economic and political turmoil in our world, social scientists, especially economists, need to help create governing and economic institutions that better reflect the interests of the broader human population in order to cultivate more constructive human behavior. There are few models in nature for society to follow, but human nature provides some important lessons.
Animals survive in nature by pursuing their own self-interests at the expense of weaker animals. The same is true for humans and this impulse has certainly been built into our society. On the other hand, the human race has been far more successful than any other species largely due to our altruistic behavior. It is our capacity to seek out and respond to the needs of others, coupled with our ability to work as a massive community, that enables us to pursue impossible tasks. Emotions, values, and other subjective concepts are very difficult for business leaders and economists, for example, to justify in terms of their current thinking on profit, outside of pursuing these social interests for good PR. They need, however, to look at what a deficit of these social constructs is doing to society. “Greed is good” and other bad thinking do not serve the needs of most people. They simply encourage people to undercut each other. We need to cultivate the altruism of mankind instead of affluenza.
Read old posts