Response to Aristotle and Austin on Responsibility
Aristotle is like a breath of fresh air. His treatment of the responsibility that drunks have for their actions reminds me of a most interesting phenomenon: the “blackout.” One of the reasons we exempt infants from responsibility is that we do not consider them conscious of their actions. Our standard for self-consciousness, however, is strongly tied to memory: I do not remember anything from my first year of life, and thus I feel removed from what I did then. Drunkards who are blacked out are like infants again. They can make a case afterwards that because they don’t remember what happened, they were not self-conscious and thus not responsible for their actions.
Aristotle’s response to this quandary is that a drunkard is in fact responsible for everything he does because he chose to put himself in that condition in the first place. I have asked some students this question in the past, and they agree with Aristotle’s conclusion but take a different logical path. They say that a drunkard’s actions are an expression of his subconscious personality; thus he is always being himself, even if he does not remember it in the morning. Either way, he shall have trouble in court.
Aristotle’s treatment of emotions also interests me. He says that one should be held responsible for decisions made for emotional reasons as well as decisions made for logical reasons because feelings are as integral to the human psyche as rational thoughts. No longer can one justify behavior with leftover psychic damage from something that happened five years ago. It would be interesting to see this principle applied strictly in domestic abuse cases, or in cases in which the defendant bases his arguments on his terrible past (“Antwone Fisher” comes to mind).
Austin’s work highlights the difficulty of making generalizations in the field of responsibility. He notes that subtle differences in the choice of words, or even the order of words in a sentence (“clumsily he trod on the snail” vs. “he trod on the snail clumsily”), can alter its meaning. Even then, a sentence can be unclear; for instance, “he ate deliberately” could either signify that he chose to eat or that he ate slowly and steadily. His treatment of Regina v. Finney also demonstrates this problem: the counsel and judge bandy about several terms haphazardly, and their arguments are less clear than that of the defendant himself, who is unschooled in law.
Perhaps the judge and lawyer were so reckless with their vocabularies because they didn’t want to be redundant. Since legal cases affect the lives of real people, however, there is nothing wrong with repeating the same word many times over for the sake of clarity. Save poetry for the lovers, I say, and let the lawyers sound like Aristotle.
Before Austin turns his attention to words, he points out a greater problem with responsibility: the impetuses for an action can be so disparate, or so subconscious, that one cannot even express why one did it. Conversation is one example. On many occasions, when asked why I said something (especially something random), I give a quick and dirty explanation rather than detailing the series of loosely connected thoughts that lead from point A to point B. I would not be surprised if this were an issue in some negligence cases. It is more convenient for a defendant and his lawyer to invent a simple and reasonable excuse for a person’s errors than to tell of his tortuous train of thought. Indeed, I doubt that anyone ever acts completely rationally for more than a minute at a time.