From sex addiction to “affluenza,” the rich and famous have shamefully demonstrated their ability to abuse the insanity defense and fancy terms that do little than say why they do harmful things in order to avoid consequences. 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 that 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 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 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 financial 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.
Although it helps explain the destructive decisions of the privileged, 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.
The objectives of a judicial system are to maintain order, protect the community by isolating dangerous individuals, and offer lawbreakers an opportunity to repent and reform. In a valid use of the insanity defense, the perpetrator of a criminal act is deemed incapable of understanding the harm of his or her actions. This means the individual cannot self-reform, thus any punitive measure becomes an exercise of futility without proper guidance.
The Courts are, of course, still responsible for protecting people from these criminals who struggle to make healthy decisions. For that reason, the justice system must do more than just incarcerate these criminals in order to neutralize them as threats.
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.
Indulging harmful behavior of any kind only reinforces the poor decision-making process. For those struggling with addiction, unhealthy substitution is a real barrier that prevents addicts from dealing with their issues. In the case of Couch, he needed to be isolated until he could be retrained to manage his impulse control problems, which is not going to happen in a rehabilitation center that indulges the every whim of its patients.
With that in mind, “the affluenza defense” is a huge symbol of the social problems in our society. In fact, the use of affluenza as a defense instead of an explanation demonstrates the problems the affluenza term describes have only gotten worse.
Wall Street executives made a lot of self-serving, destructive decisions that benefited them, but hurt the rest of us. In all likelihood, many of us would have made the same decisions if we were in their position. The same argument can be made when it comes to the dysfunctional decisions of public officials. 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 personal debt that weighs down the economy, the world is clearly afflicted by affluenza.
Although it helps explain that there is a problem, it does not solve that problem or make the problem acceptable. Our social environment does pressure us to engage in harmful decisions. Our decisions are, however, rooted in both situation and character. People in positions of influence and privilege should be held to a higher standard, 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.
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