This has been rolling around in my mind for a couple of weeks now since two stories broke very close to one another. I’m thinking of the resignation of Mark Foley, the now former Republican congressman from Florida amid revelations about inappropriate communications with teenage congressional pages that were of a sexual nature. And I’m thinking of the tragic multiple murder-suicide in the Amish community by a 32 year old husband and father who seems to have been tormented with fantasies of abusing small girls. Frightening indeed.
Foley’s resignation was swift–as soon as the congressman became aware that information was going to become public. Since then we have heard reports from Foley and those surrounding him that he was abused by a preist as a young boy, thus providing some explanation for his problems.
Charles Roberts, the milk truck driver who shot the Amish girls, left clues that he was tormented by memories of abuse he had perpetrated upon a younger cousin many years before (though there is some debate as whether or not he actually did). He had fantasized about abusing again and seemed to have planned to do so, though that did not happen before he began shooting, finally turning the weapon on himself.
What sticks with me is this: Not long after each of these incidents, explanations surfaced that portray the perpetrators of terrible acts as themselves victims (though I’m not getting into saying if one of the events equals the other morally; I’m simply talking about them together because of comparative elements in the way the plot is unfolding and the fact that the plots have unfolded initially alongside one another in the news). They may be victims–Foley of another’s abuse, Roberts of a tortured psyche–but the implications seem to be that their ability to act fully as moral agents was impaired by these other factors.
Now, I want to be very careful to say that I’m not offering an opinion on these two persons or situations and about the nature of their moral agency or other factors involved that might shed light on why they did what they did.
What I do want to point out is the difficulty we seem to have in the modern world of discerning when people are morally responsible for their actions and when they are themselves victims of external factors that overpowered them, thus perpetrating evil through them somehow. It has been helpful for us to recognize and gain more understanding about how other factors (besides a person’s will) can be influential in a person’s actions. In some cases, we determine that a person was sick beyond the point of assigning moral fault to them. But how do we negotiate the interplay of our will and personal moral agency and other factors from our lives and experiences that contribute to our actions?