Shots Across the Bow

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What is Accountablility?

Luke asks a very good question in his comment on my last post, and I started to answer it in the comments, then decided to put it all into this post, since I was going to talk about this soon anyway.

I love it when y'all pick my next topic for me!

Luke's comment was:
Rich, I continue to appreciate your posts and your willingness to lead this conversation and keep it open.
Here, I'm troubled a bit by your comment that "when people are incapable of making rational decision... we no longer hold them accountable for their actions, and rightly so."
Maybe I don't fully understand your meaning, but as I read your post this statement struck me as incorrect - or at best, a matter of degree. We certainly hold drunk drivers responsible for their actions, however impaired they may be.
As I've followed this discussion, I've begun to wonder whether we all intend the same meaning in our use of the word "accountability." What is the difference between someone who is held accountable, and someone who is not? Who decides, and how is that decision carried out? When do we consider the account paid?
I guess what gets me started with these questions is that I see a distinction between the ideas of accountability and forgiveness. They're not unrelated in my mind, but they're certainly not the same thing. Accountability concerns consequences; forgiveness implies love and community. With respect to public policy and addiction, I can't imagine either of these points of emphasis functioning well in the absence of the other.


First of all, Luke was exactly right that my comment there was unclear. I implied far to much that I should have spelled out. Sometimes my brain runs faster than I can type. My wife would tell you I have the same trouble with my mouth, but that's a post for another day.

The key to unlocking my point lies in the phrase Luke ellided, "...whether through accident or illness..."

I was trying to point out that when people are adjudicated as impaired, say through brain damage from an accident or an illness like Alzheimer's, then we place them into a guardianship situation, recognizing that they are not capable of making rational decisions about their lives. We protect them from the consequences of their bad decisions. We also protect them from the influence of predators who would try to take advantage of them.

In a like manner, we insure that defendants are mentally capable of participating in their defense before they stand trial. Again, if they aren't, they are placed in a guardianship situation until such time as they are capable of understanding the charges and participating in their defense. We also recognize that children do not have the same capacity for decision making as a mature adult, and so we hold them to a different standard of accountability for their actions. Finally, mental incompetency is a legitimate defense against many criminal charges.

I'm not saying that addicts escape all accountability for their actions, just that there are precedents for acknowledging that a person with a diminished capacity for making decisions is not fully responsible for their actions while in that diminished capacity.

Now in the case of people who voluntarily decide to diminish their own capacity, like the guy who drinks and drives, we do hold them legally accountable for that decision, an if they hurt somebody as a result of that decision, we prosecute them to the full extent of the law. By the same token, a drug addict who commits a crime while high, say, beating and robbing a man so he can get high, should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

What I am saying is that once we step outside of the criminal justice system, we must acknowledge the diminished capacity of the addict and account for it in any plan or policy we devise to deal with drugs. This becomes particularly important when we're talking about juvenile addicts, who get hooked before their brain is fully matured.

I use the word accountability a lot, and I guess I need to define what I mean when I say it. Accountability is the the recognition that actions have consequences, and those consequences devolve upon the actor. It differs from responsibility in that responsibility is internal; it refers to your perception or action. Accountability is a perception or action taken by others. For example, if I drink and drive, I am behaving irresponsibly. If I am arrested and taken to jail, I was still irresponsible, but I am being held accountable for my actions.

Because accountability is imposed externally, it is always going to be a reflection of the values of the culture. Our culture makes value judgments when it decides who is to be held accountable, and for what. When I wrote yesterday that I'd changed a position, what I was saying was that my values had changed so that I now saw the irresponsibility of drug use as no longer just an issue of personal freedom, and that the consequences of that decision were so devastating to the addict, his family, and to society at large that I could no longer say that the addict was accountable only to himself. In fact, the addict was accountable for considerable damage to others far beyond himself.

Now, if you think I'm arguing against myself, when I started out saying that we can't hold them fully accountable, and I'm now saying we must hold them accountable, well, you're absolutely right. But it is this conflict between the need to hold the addict accountable for his actions and the need to recognize that he in mentally impaired and can't be fully accountable that is driving this debate.

If we shift too far to either side in our search for a solution, we'll get it wrong. We're sailing between Scylla and Charybdis (my English teacher just swooned at that metaphor) and to make matters worse, we've got the Sirens singing as well.

Like I said yesterday, I don't have all the answers yet; right now, we're just laying out the parameters of the problem. But we have to do that honestly, accurately, and realistically if we hope to come up with a workable solution.

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