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Victim Culture and Personal Responsibility

I. What I believe about Personal Responsibility First of all, Personal Responsibility is a way of life. It isn’t something I have or don’t, it is a way of making choices in my life, based on some basic assumptions:

1. The main assumption is that the past is dead. Nothing that happened in the past can be changed, so I am stuck with that historical baggage. The only choices I have are about what I’m going to do now.

2. Because I can’t change the past, I (and I alone) am personally responsible for my actions, behavior and choices AND the consequences thereof.

3. Life is not fair. I’m going to make some bad choices. I am responsible for those choices. I am responsible for the consequences of those choices. Furthermore, my external circumstances will sometimes be unpleasant. The world won’t always be the way I would like. The people around me won’t always interact with me the way I would like. Sometimes life just sucks. I (and I alone) am responsible for dealing with those circumstances. The fact that I may believe I deserve better is completely irrelevant.

4. Nobody promised me “fair.” My parents didn’t promise me “fair”. No religion I’ve ever practiced or studied ever promised me that life (in this world, at least) would be fair. The government didn’t promise me “fair.” (Obviously I’m not talking about what individual politicians may have promised in any of countless campaign speeches.) The only thing the government ever hinted at was the notion that I am entitled to the “pursuit of happiness.”

5. If I am not happy with my current circumstances I am free to “pursue” improvements, but such pursuit is my responsibility alone.

6. Whining about how “life isn’t fair,” is childish, unrealistic, counter-productive and annoys the hell out of anyone around me who has problems of their own.

II. The Erosion of Personal Responsibility It seems to be human nature to want to blame others for our problems; it makes us feel better about ourselves, sometimes it allows us to avoid the unpleasant truth that we did something stupid, and it has also become lucrative ( see notes in later sections). Historically, individuals, groups, institutions and leaders have all been willing to divert our attention by blaming someone or something else for our problems.

In the past century we tried to come to grips with the primacy of science. Science could do anything; we could split the atom after all, surely, science could solve any problem. As the social sciences developed, we had faith that we could use them to solve problems too. We found more and more causes for behavior and circumstances, both on the individual and societal level. Being basically decent people, we found out what was wrong and we tried to fix it using the knowledge our science brought us.

We found more and more reasons why individuals should not be held accountable for their actions due to the horrific circumstances they had endured. We decided that in a land of plenty, no one should be “disadvantaged” so we started a war on poverty. The more social ills we found the more we tried to fix, and we used the tool that seemed most logical: money.

Over time, the process escalated. But somewhere along the line, the process became less about rectifying what was wrong, and more about financial compensation. There were lots of people telling people it was not their fault, and since the obvious solution was money, there were always lawyers around to help victims get compensation for their suffering.

(Please note that I am not suggesting that there was some golden time in our culture where everyone was personally responsible and no one blamed anyone else for their problems. I am only suggesting that our current culture makes avoiding personal responsibility socially acceptable for most segments of the population.)

III. The “Personal Non-Responsibility” Paradigm

Our basic impulse is that one should not be held accountable for, or have to endure the consequences of things that one is not responsible for. We protect Juveniles from the full consequences of their actions because we believe they are not fully responsible for their actions. We protect the Mentally Ill from the full consequences of their actions because we believe they aren’t fully responsible. We allow that injuring or killing someone is self-defense may be justified because the person defending himself was not responsible for creating the situation.

However, from that basic impulse, we have progressed (or degenerated, as the case may be) to a new impulse. In the words of Susan Martinuk:

A fundamentally wrong assumption now governs our society: No one should have to endure difficult circumstances. Every aspect of our human situation has become the responsibility of society at large, and when one has a difficult life, one is instantly transformed into a victim of evil societal forces. Where there is difficulty, there is a victim; where there are victims, there must be compensation. Feb. 18, 1999 – from “Cashing In on Victimhood”, published in Reader’s Digest Magazine, originally published in the National Post

Stated differently, the paradigm is this:

It is not fair or right that I should have to accept the consequences for things that are not my responsibilty.

There is always someone out there explaining why it isn’t my responsibility.

I shouldn’t have to endure unpleasant circumstances.

Any consequences for my actions are unacceptable.

There is no such thing as bad luck. Someone is always to blame.

By definition it can’t be my fault, I’m a victim.

IV. The Personal Non-Responsibility Paradigm in Action

The Infamous McDonald’s Coffee case

A 79 year old woman, a Ms. Liebeck, ordered coffee in a McDonald’s drivethrough. It was served in a styrofoam cup. After getting his order, her grandson (who was driving) pulled up and stopped so she could put cream and sugar in the coffee. She put the cup between her knees and tried to take off the lid. As she removed the lid, the entire contents spilled in her lap. Her sweatpants absorbed the coffee and held it next to her skin, causing 3rd degree burns over 6 per cent of her body. She spent 8 days in the hospital. The burns required skin grafts.

She asked McDonald’s for $20,000 for medical expenses. McDonald’s had the unmitigated gall to refuse her request. So, in the finest American tradition, she sued them because the coffee was “defective”.

The trial did not focus on whether a 79 year old woman (or anyone else, for that matter) should try to hold a styrofoam cup filled with hot coffee between her knees and pry the lid off. It did not focus on whether it is physically possible to exert enough pressure on the sides of a styrofoam cup to keep it from dropping and still take the lid off without crushing the cup (thereby dumping the contents in your lap). Instead, it focused on McDonald’s “callous, reckless” behavior.

There was documentation of more than 700 incidents of McDonalds coffee burns in a 10 year period previously, many similar in nature to this incident. Testimony revealed that McDonald’s coffee is held at 185 degrees, and at that temperature, 3rd degree burns can occur in 2-7 seconds. An expert testified that if the coffee had been 155 degrees, she wouldn’t have been burned.

Basically it came down to the facts that McDonald’s knew their coffee was really hot (because they keep it that way deliberately) even though other people had been burned by it and they didn’t warn anyone that it was dangerous. The jury awarded Liebeck $200,000 in compensatory damages. Because of McDonald’s “callous” attitude about the incident, the jury also awarded Liebeck $2.7 million in punitive damages, which equals about two days of McDonalds’ coffee sales.

(most of this information came from a summary of the case I found online www.lectlaw.com/files/cur78.htm although there are hundreds out there.)

In all the write-ups I’ve seen, there is one common thread: It wasn’t frivolous, it was really, really very serious because the burns required skin grafts. There is never any consideration of the possibility that this was just an unfortunate accident. And on top of everything else, McDonalds committed the unpardonable sin of being “callous” by not immediately admitting the coffee was “defective” and taking full responsibility for Ms. Liebeck’s pain and suffering. For that reason the jury thought it was justified in awarding $2.7 million in punitive damages.

Contrary to popular opinion, I am only a cold, unfeeling, heartless bastard part of the time. I am truly sorry that Ms. Liebeck got burned. I’m sorry she was in pain. I have nothing against her. I’m sure she’s probably a really nice person. I’m not saying that this was an abuse of the legal system. But what’s legal and what’s right aren’t always the same thing and from my perspective, this is a nearly perfect example of the Personal Non-Responsibility Paradigm. This case demonstrates the unspoken assumptions that nothing is an accident. It can’t be an accident. If it truly was an accident, there would be no one to blame. Someone is to blame because there has to be someone to blame; suffering without blame is not allowed. And, it can’t be the victim because she suffered. So who is left to blame? McDonalds.

(although I was surprised to discover that the original compensatory damages awarded by the jury were reduced from $200,000 to $160,000 because they found her “20% responsible” ???. I also discovered that a Judge reduced the whole award to around $450,000 (which a number of writers championed as a triumph of the legal system…). I also found that the matter was later settled out of court in a secret agreement, so no one outside the parties involved really knows what the settlement was.)

The unspoken assumptions are so pervasive that the assumption that someone is at fault is taken as a given. So there is no sense of “why should we even consider why it might be McDonalds’ fault?” in any of the write-ups. And there is no sense of “what were you doing putting a cup of hot coffee between your legs and trying pry the lid off, anyway?”. Just the notion that she shouldn’t have had to endure unpleasant circumstances, someone was to blame for those circumstances, it couldn’t be her fault because she suffered, so she should have been compensated.

It occurred to me after I wrote this that maybe I was wrong about the notion that we are looking for someone to blame more than we used to. Perhaps we have always had to have someone to blame, but in an earlier, more religious time we accepted misfortune with a more Job-like resignation because it was “God’s will.” In our current lawyer-dominated society, we have to find someone else, because God isn’t likely to cough up $2.7 million in punitive damages.

V. The Personal Non-Responsibility Paradigm taken to the next level

Unfortunately, it is no longer enough that “victims” must be compensated. Now we must prevent others from being “victimized”. For example: since children are easily victimized, let’s talk “child safety” in general and bicycles in particular. In a world of personal accountability, we would simply acknowledge that bicycles are inherently dangerous and hold the owner/user responsible for what they do with their bicycles, the unpleasant consequences of misuse, and understand that occasionally kids will get hurt riding bicycles. In the current “victim’s world” we try to prevent all bad things from happening by loading up kids with helmets, elbow pads and knee pads, trying to eliminate all risk.

In my opinion, that was part of the fun of riding a bike: going way too fast. I would never have ridden all the places I did as a child if I had to load up on safety equipment, and I certainly would never have gone anywhere in the 100 degree Kansas summers.

Then, there’s McDonald’s coffee. In a world of personal accountability we would assume it is the consumer’s responsibility to assume that coffee (unless you’re buying iced coffee) is a hot liquid and that hot liquids are dangerous, assume it is the consumer’s responsibility to be careful with hot liquids and hold the consumer responsible for the unpleasant consequences of not being careful. In the current “victim’s world” we try to prevent unfortunate consequences for all future customers by requiring that McDonald’s serve their coffee lukewarm or plaster warning labels all over every available surface a customer might look at prior to taking possession of a hot cup of coffee in a drivethrough.

Or, let’s talk “gun safety.” In a world of personal accountability we would simply honor the individual’s choice to own or not own a gun and hold the owner responsible for what they do with their guns and the consequences if someone else gets access to their gun (other than theft, of course). In the current “victim’s world” we try to prevent bad things from happening by restricting access to guns, banning guns, or eliminate guns by sueing manufacturers out of existence under the premise that the company (one of the entities which by definition can’t be a victim) is responsible for damage done to the victims of gun crimes (by definition, misuse by an individual) and accidents (also by definition, misuse) and should therefore compensate the victims.

“Victim,” in some lawsuits, is twisted to define the victim as a city government, the premise being the city should get money from the gun manufacturer because of the increased cost of law enforcement caused by individuals misusing guns. By this logic, cities should sue all car manufacturers because they have to have emergency services and law enforcement to deal with car wrecks. Or better yet, because we like cars but alcohol (like tobacco) is evil, maybe cities should sue all brewers and distillers for the costs of dealing with drunk drivers? Or, better still, why don’t some fat people sue fast food restaurants for selling greasy, cholesteral-laden, heart-attack-on-a-bun hamburgers that made them fat and caused health problems? (Oops, sorry, that one’s already been tried.)

VI. Where do we go from here?

There are several things we could do. At the public level we could change the legal system. For example, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” Henry VI, Part 2, Act IV, Scene 2 While it might be a nice thought, its probably not practical.

I hear a lot about tort reform. The problem I have with tort reform is; how do you decide what to allow or not allow? I’ve heard talk of limiting damage amounts (both “actual” damages and punitive amounts). What I personally would like to see is limits on damage amounts and on punitive awards. I would also like to see attorney fees limited to 1% (or less) of the total award. You would think if an attorney got $10,000 instead of $350,000 on a million dollar judgement, the situation might improve some.

Unfortunately, there are some problems with these ideas. First, they aren’t likely to ever happen. Given the fair number of congressmen who are attorneys, limits on damages would be a miracle. And while limits on fees would be emotionally satisfying (for me, anyway) the idea is simply wishful thinking and probably exactly wrong. Besides being impossible to pass into law, it would probably encourage lawyers to seek truly astronomical awards thereby defeating the whole purpose of the idea.

And, as for the folks who say the problem is just too damn many lawyers, in this instance I have to say (with some bitterness) we get what we deserve. The number of lawyers is simply a function of supply and demand. There wouldn’t be all these lawyers if they couldn’t make a living. And they do make a living, because almost all of us, down deep, can’t resist the idea of something for nothing. (Look at the success of casinos and lotteries.)

So, I’m not in favor of trying to change the rules of the legal system. Trying to “improve” the system is likely to make things worse. Probably the only way to change the system is for individuals to decide not to hire lawyers to get them compensation for whatever dubious (or not so dubious) suffering they might have experienced. Nothing will change until individuals take a stand and take responsibility for their own lives and refuse to allow others to avoid responsibility for theirs.

I have a lot of faith in individual people. I have none at all in people in general, especially when you look out and see other people being compensated and an attorney is telling you he can get it for you too. So after all of this, while I deplore the situation we are in and where I think we’re heading, demanding government action would be the same as the people I loathe who are out there trying to get the government to protect me from myself. Part of being personally responsible is the truth that change is up to us, not the government.

We’re screwed.

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