In the third chapter of the biblical book of Genesis, we read an intriguing story about a man and a woman attempting to avoid blame for an act of willing disobedience. They’ve done something which their maker has forbidden them to do. Now, whether or not you believe there was a man named Adam, and a woman named Eve, who lived in a place called the Garden of Eden, doesn’t matter for present purposes. It doesn’t even matter whether you believe in God or not. What matters is to appreciate the deep insight into the human psyche that the story reveals. Humans, it seems, will do almost anything to escape blame, to avoid responsibility for something they have done, or not done–even when they don’t know what the consequences, if any, are; even when they don’t know what it is they are being accused of. Think about your own feelings if someone, out of the blue, begins a question to you with something like, “Did you use my…?” Weird, isn’t it?
In the story, God asks the man: “From the tree I commanded you not to eat have you eaten?” [This and all following Biblical quotations are from The Hebrew Bible, translated by Robert Alter.] The question requires a simple answer: yes, or no. But notice how the man responds? “The woman whom you gave by me, she gave me from the tree, and I ate.” This is a surprising answer. In a single sentence, the man tries to shift responsibility elsewhere for what he has done, twice, as a matter of fact: first, to God—the woman you gave me—then to the woman—she gave me from the tree. It’s as if he were saying, I would never have thought of doing such a thing on my own. It’s not my fault; it’s her fault, oh, and also yours.
God then turns his attention to the woman. He says to her, “What is this you have done?” Her reply: “The serpent beguiled me and I ate.” Like the man, the woman fails to accept responsibility for what she has done. She’s been tricked. It’s the serpent’s fault, not hers. God doesn’t ask the snake what he has done. He doesn’t need to. He then punishes all three players, the serpent, the woman, and the man. Even humans don’t (typically) punish someone they know is innocent; how much more so with God. The couple bears responsibility for what they have done, regardless of why they did it.
Not long ago, I read a story online in BBC Magazine, initially written in 2015, titled “Delhi rapist says victim shouldn’t have fought back.” It contains some background and details from an interview by Leslee Udwin with one of the men convicted of raping and murdering a student in 2012 on a bus in Delhi. Ms. Udwin spent two years making a film about the case. I need to caution you: if you choose to read the story, know that it is a tough read, extremely disturbing in what it says about humans and the lengths to which we will go to avoid assuming responsibility for our actions.
Ms. Udwin spoke with Mukesh Singh, the driver of the bus on which the rape occurred. He says he doesn’t understand why everyone is making such a big fuss about the rape. Then he says this: “A decent girl won’t roam around at nine o’clock at night. A girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy.” It is almost impossible to believe this. There is no better example of blaming the victim. But that’s not all. Later, we read this: “People ‘had a right to teach them a lesson,’ he suggested – and he said the woman should have put up with it.” The “them” here is the victim and her boyfriend. The terrible, horrific thing Mukesh Singh did, along with others, has now become his “right.” He was entitled to do it.
There seem to be three general categories of excuse that we bring forward to defend ourselves when accused of wrongdoing, namely, nature, nurture, or the other person.
Concerning nature, we often hear people say, I do what I do because I was born that way. Here, I’m not concerned with the science behind statements like this. Often the persons making these kinds of statements are merely appealing to a vague sort of genetic determinism only to escape blame for their behavior. My behavior, they want to say, is outside of my control. I can’t help it. If you are interested in some of the science behind this view, I recommend reading “Heritability estimates of the Big Five personality traits based on common genetic variants,” authored by R A Power and M Pluess. In the paper, the authors estimate “the heritability of the Big Five personality factors (extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness for experience).”
At other times we might hear someone say, “I’m sorry, but that’s the way I was brought up, the way my parents raised me.” For example, “I grew up in a family with parents who argued loudly, yelled at each other, that’s why I do it. I was raised that way. Don’t blame me; it’s my parents’ fault. And I can’t do anything about that.”
Finally, in my opinion, the most insidious attempt to shift blame is to claim that it is the other person’s fault. “You knew I was hungry, that I’m short-tempered when I’m hungry, so you shouldn’t have spoken to me the way you did. It’s not my fault, but yours.” This was the kind of reasoning Mukesh Singh used above. The woman he raped and murdered? It was her fault.
Nature may have predisposed us to specific characteristics; our parents may have raised us a certain way; perhaps that other person really should have known better. Only when we fully realize that all of these things may be true, yet still accept responsibility for our actions, for what we have done, or failed to do, only then do we begin to lead the moral life, to assume our ethical responsibilities. Only then do we begin to become what we are meant to be.
All the best!
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