RIVERSIDE — Those most in need of our compassion are the least likely to deserve it. Yet such people need not deserve compassion to receive it.
The needy are those people who take an active role in their own destruction. We are not talking about victims, the lice-infested people sleeping on the street, schizophrenics mumbling to themselves or those with life-threatening diseases. Such people--without homes or with disease--command sympathy; they are also more or less punished by circumstance. The people who seem least deserving of compassion are the criminals who are not yet psychopathic, the rapists and cheats, the people who beat the elderly to rob them of their savings--or even the passive alcoholics with their bottles wrapped in paper. These undeserving creatures are also in need.
There is a sensible reason why we hesitate to show compassion for them. It has to do with what we conceive of as free will and responsibility. We find it important to distinguish victims of circumstance from those who victimize, punishing themselves or others. They, the victimizers, \o7 are\f7 responsible for what they've done while a person suffering from bad luck is not. No compassion for the wicked.
Well, almost none. Not everyone quite agrees; many people say that criminals are victims too, because the conditions of their childhoods and upbringing made them what they are today, just as a person can be infected by a virus. These sympathizers have statistics on their side, correlating crime with social origins--poverty, ignorance or lack of psychological maturity as the breeding ground for aberrant behavior. The environment did it. Similarly, the biochemistry of the brain can be blamed for addiction, as neuro-chemical transmitters get confounded with cocaine or alcohol. The substances did it.
Most people in American society today have little patience for such excuses. And they have a point to make. Just because we can explain what led up to a person's doing what he did does not absolve him of responsibility.
There is a fundamental difference between what prompts someone's actions and the explanations offered for them. The sorry motivation of a criminal's behavior cannot serve as an excuse, just as a psychiatric patient cannot absolve himself of responsibility for addiction or repetitive compulsion even though he can explain it. What led a criminal to take up crime or an addict to take in drugs does not mean the violator was forced to do those things.
We hold persons responsible for acts they felt compelled to do because of circumstances they were in, crimes they have an explanation for. This is true of parking tickets and of larger offenses as well.
Consider polluting the environment and the compulsion of the polluter. A company that dumps heavy metals in the river, because it cannot afford proper disposal and also stay in business, is guilty of a crime, whatever its motivation. The private problem or private history of a criminal does not excuse his deeds.
From the point of view of the criminal this difference between explanation and justification is easily forgotten. Pressures of the situation obscure a sense of responsibility. The cocaine-addicted athlete may tend to blame constant public scrutiny for what brought him down. Those who work with prisoners know too well how psychological posturing can make a mass murderer or a petty crook portray himself as the real victim. Many probation officers and social workers have been misled by a criminal's confessional recounting of motives, wrongly reading confession as a sign of redemption. Recidivism is a natural consequence of using explanations to excuse responsibility.
Yet demanding responsibility while refusing explanation would strain the quality of mercy. The misuse of excuses is a problem for law-and-order activists as well. Critics of social "bleeding hearts" may be correct to insist that people are responsible for their actions, whatever the explanation. But they often overlook the plain fact that there is an explanation--sometimes useful--for everything people do. These same critics may also be selective in their opprobrium, singling out robbers but not always polluters, rapists but not always tax evaders.
Some truths are so fundamental they tend to be forgotten. Free will and explanation are not at odds with one another. A robber may have a psychological or circumstantial need to steal, but the minute he selects a particular victim at a particular time and place, he has made a free decision. At the same time one cannot ignore the reason for his crime. For if the motivation had not been there, he would not have done the deed. To ignore explanation and focus only on responsibility is to make too much a mystery of criminality.