Society & Culture

A Philosophical Questioning Of Personal Responsibility: On Ethan Couch And George Saunders

I had started a piece for Luna Luna this week—a piece about parenting that I’ll be postponing to another week—but I dropped it as soon as I read this article on the Huffington Post. Here’s the gist of the situation: Ethan Couch, age 16, gets behind the wheel with a blood alcohol level of .24 (.08 is the legal limit for someone over the drinking age, which he is clearly not), kills 4 people, and subsequently receives a sentence of exactly zero years in jail. Why? Because his lawyer and their testifying “expert” argued successfully that the boy suffers from “affluenza,” their ridiculous term for growing up rich and spoiled. According to the defense, Couch’s family “felt that wealth bought privilege,” and he therefore saw “no rational link between behavior and consequences,” courtroom press reports.

The HuffPo article makes the very valid argument that, essentially, this teenager is being relieved of a potential 20-year sentence based solely on his wealthy background. He’ll be sent to a $450,000 counseling facility, and the only redeeming factor to this entire case is that his parents will be paying for it. But there’s so much more at work here. If, as the defense claims, this boy has never seen the consequences of his bad behavior, why on earth would this not be a good point to start? Is he essentially going to be given a pass on all future wrongdoings based on the fact that he’s never been punished for them before? It’s a cyclical logic that ends up in the same place it began—a spoiled boy who will grow into a spoiled man, relying on his money and his background to keep him out of trouble.

Now, maybe I watch too much Law & Order: SVU (but really, how much is too much?), but these types of cases always have me battling it out in my head, Benson-and-Stabler style. So many, many, many people come from dysfunctional backgrounds, with families that are abusive, neglectful, or even just poor communicators. At what point do we start expecting people to take personal responsibility for their actions?

The larger issue at hand here is much broader than just this case. Every single one of us interacts with the world in a way that is informed by our upbringing, our past experiences, and our individual traumas—our “circumstances,” you could call them. How much of the way we behave—socially, creatively, professionally—can be blamed on, or excused by, these circumstances? It seems to me that we have a personal responsibility to self-examine, to be aware of our own shortcomings. This is a responsibility that we have to those with which we carry on relationships, to the world at large, and to ourselves. Therefore, we should be held accountable for our bad decisions and our bad behavior. As a person who is constantly self-examining and self-questioning (perhaps, in fact, a bit too much), this makes so much sense to me. I can identify the dysfunctions that have been instilled by my upbringing and my life experiences, reflect upon them, and actively work to improve them.

However, I know full well that there are others, many others, that are much less self-aware than I. Let’s say, for example, that someone is brought up to be completely unaware of their own flaws. How, then, are they expected to correct for them?

About a year ago, I read an essay by the brilliant George Saunders called “Thought Experiment” that explores this issue extremely well—you can read excerpts here. Saunders sums up my philosophical questioning of personal responsibility much better than I ever could.

You would not blame a banana for being the banana that it is.  You would not expect it to have autocorrected its bent stem or willed itself into a brighter shade of yellow.  Why is it, then, so natural for us to blame a person for being the person she is, to expect her to autocorrect her shrillness, say, or to will herself into a perkier, more efficient person?

I now hear a voice from the gallery, crying: “But I am not a banana!  I have made myself what I am!  What about tenacity and self-improvement and persisting in our efforts until our noble cause is won?”  But it seems to me that not only is our innate level of pluck, say, hardwired at birth, but also our ability to improve our ability to improve our level of pluck.  All of these are ceded to us at the moment that sperm meets egg.  Our life, inflected by the particulars of our experience, scrolls out from there.  Otherwise, what is it, exactly, that causes Person A, at age forty, to be plucky and Person B, also forty, to be decidedly nonplucky?  Is it some failure of intention?  And at what point, precisely, did that failure occur?

You can take Saunders’ “shrillness” and replace it with almost any negative personality trait, and the logic will still stand.

So my question to you, dear Luna Luna readers, is this: at what point does a person evolve from a victim of circumstance to an autonomous creature, responsible for their own behaviors? In a feminist context (since that’s our thing here), we could see this in two ways—at what point are women responsible for opening their own eyes to the misogyny they may be inadvertently perpetuating? And, on the other hand, how much of our lives as women can be attributed to, or blamed on, our historical and modern day oppression?

Ponder on this one, and then get back to me. I’d love to hear what you think.

Image via.

Alecia is a logophile and a library bandit wanted in several states. In addition to feminist rants, she also writes essays, short stories, bad poetry, recipes and very detailed to-do lists. She currently resides in a little blue cabin in Woodstock with one fiancé, one Dachshund and one pleasantly plump cat. Find her tweeting @alecialynn. See her portfolio at


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