These are the 98th and the 99th rationalizations to join the Ethics Alarms List of Rationalizations And Misconceptions, an ongoing project here. I initially didn’t think that the listwould ever reach 100, but now that looks likely, and we have Joe Biden to thank for it. Thanks, Joe!
The strained logic of both new rationalizations were evoked in a recent New York Times article airing the desperate spin attempts by Biden’s campaign staff to try to minimize the significance of their candidate’s apparently incurable tendency to butcher his attempts at communications. While I realize these two mitigating arguments employed by Joe’s team were not being used as rationalizations for unethical conduct (exactly), that is often the use others find for them.
Rationalization 25B, The Irresistible Impulse, or “I can’t help myself!”
It was a close call where to file this one. I almost placed it under 1A, Ethics Surrender, or “We can’t stop it,” since the theories are similar: 1A argues that when a variety of unethical conduct is so embedded in the culture that eradication seems impossible, the conduct isn’t unethical any more, while our new rationalization posits that when an individual is powerless to stop his or her own habitual unethical conduct, the world should stop berating him or her for it. In the final analysis, however, “I can’t help myself!” seemed to be more closely allied to 25. The Coercion Myth, or “I have no choice!”
“Irresistible impulse” is sometimes, and in some jurisdictions, considered an element of the insanity defense. It was first adopted in 1887 by the Alabama Supreme Court in the case of Parsons v. State, in which the court ruled that even though the defendant could distinguish right from wrong, he was subject to “the duress of such mental disease [that] he had … lost the power to choose between right and wrong” and that “his free agency was at the time destroyed,” and thus, “the alleged crime was so connected with such mental disease, in the relation of cause and effect, as to have been the product of it solely.” Parsons was therefore found not guilty by reason of insanity.
Proving that a defendant is truly unable to control his or her actions at the time of a crime is difficult, and some argue that it is impossible. The distinction between “I can’t stop myself” and “I don’t stop myself” is filament thin, as can be discerned by speaking with any alcoholic. The Irresistible Impulse Test gained acceptance in some states as an addendum to the McNaghten Rule, which required the inability to distinguish between right and wrong for a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity. In other states, “irresistible impulse” became a wholly separate rule. Several states (Colorado, Florida, Georgia, New Mexico, Texas, and Virginia) currently use this test along with the McNaghten Rule to determine insanity, and the American Law Institute in its Model Penal Code definition of insanity adopted a modified version of it.
Several states have also abolished the insanity defense altogether, to which I say, “Good.” One must be accountable for one’s actions, regardless of what motivated them. “I couldn’t help myself!” is far too easy a dodge, and while there might be the rare occasions when that description is accurate, it is far more frequently used as an excuse to keep indulging in selfish, personally beneficial, anti-social and unethical conduct, and to try to attract sympathy for being “unable to stop” doing so.
The cynical nature of #25A is explicated in the James Stewart courtroom drama, “Anatomy of a Murder.” Stewart, a wily criminal defense lawyer, gets his client, a soldier who murdered the man he thought had beaten and raped his wife, acquitted by arguing that he was temporarily insane, in the grip of an irresistible impulse, at the time of the killing. After the trial, Stewart goes to meet his now freed client to collect his fee, and finds that he has skipped, leaving a note apologizing for leaving, but explaining that he was seized by “an irresistible impulse.” Stewart smiles the rueful smile of a man who knows he has been hoisted by his own petard.
Rationalization 38B, Joe Biden’s Inoculation or “I don’t deny that I do this!”
A sub-rationalization to #38. The Miscreant’s Mulligan or “Give him/her/them/me a break!,” Joe Biden’s Inoculation argues that habitual bad conduct is mitigated by one’s open admission and acknowledgment that one’s engaging in it is an ongoing problem.
As with The Miscreant’s Mulligan, Rationalization 38B relies on the warped logic of the infamous #22, “There are worse things.” Yes, I suppose it is better to openly admit one’s repeated wrongful conduct rather than deny it, lie about it or cover it up, but this is a bizarre excuse, essentially seeking dispensation for being ethical regarding one’s own unethical behavior. The fact that an individual “owns” his or her misconduct doesn’t make the misconduct any less unethical, and doesn’t justify reduced accountability or consequences.