There is a common fallacy in modern discourse that goes something like this:
Little Bobby has just been caught beating up little Timmy on the playground. It turns out he’s been bullying him on a regular basis for weeks. But then, when Bobby is hauled into the principal’s office, it’s discovered that his father is out of the picture and his mother is an abusive drunk. Therefore, the argument goes, since Bobby is only reacting to the abuse he has received, his bad behavior is not really his fault. It would be cruel to punish him further, and may drive him into further frustration and cruelty. Instead we must see it as the cry for help that it really is and do what we can to help him.
So, in this scenario the principal decides to commute his punishment and find a way to help him. From then on, whenever Bobby gets caught misbehaving or bullying the other kids, the teachers are reminded of his troubled background and are advised to be lenient with him and to give him special attention.
Meanwhile, Timmy continues to have his lunch money stolen.
The Broken Home Fallacy
This is what I’m going to call the Broken Home fallacy, a variant on the genetic fallacy. The basic idea is that, because the offending party has himself been the victim of offense, that somehow invalidates his offense and makes him an object of pity rather than punishment.
Now, as with most fallacies, there is a kernel of truth here; namely, that if someone is mistreated, those who mistreat him cannot expect him to act any kinder to them than they have to him. So, if Bobby lashed out at his abusive mother, she couldn’t then say that it was shocking or abominable for him to do so. She would have forfeited any right to expect more from him. In any case, we shouldn’t expect Bobby to be the most well-adjusted kid in the world.
But, as in the illustration above, the problem is that in most cases, the person actually being punished had nothing to do with the original offense. The very nature of abuse generally requires that the abuser be in a stronger position than the victim, meaning that when he lashes out, he attacks people who are, in turn, beneath him and hence innocent of the initial abuse.
Which means that if we decide not to punish Bobby for his bad behavior, we are in fact punishing Timmy for the bad behavior of Bobby’s parents.
When we follow this logic to the end and Timmy decides to bully anyone down the line, he would be equally as justified as Bobby. So, if Timmy grew up to be a business executive, for instance, then his mistreatment of his employees would be entitled to the same indulgent treatment as Bobby’s school yard bullying. And his secretary Sally’s abusive behavior toward her children would be likewise justified on account of Timmy’s bullying, and so their bullying on the playground would be as well, and on and on in an endless cycle.
Not, of course, that we do follow the logic of this fallacy, because it isn’t based in logic but emotion. We feel bad for Bobby and don’t know what to do about it, so we “mercifully” permit him to escape punishment for doing wrong in the hopes of thereby somehow compensating him for the mistreatment he receives elsewhere. The real, present evil is permitted in penance for a past evil that is now outside of anyone’s power to stop.
An Abundance of Excuses Does Not Make Up for a Lack of Justice
Bobby’s situation is lamentable, and his abusive parents reprehensible, but the fact is that that does not excuse his behavior. He still chooses to deal with his pain by inflicting pain on others, which is itself reprehensible. Indeed, part of what makes the abuse he suffers so reprehensible is that it encourages him to become an abuser himself. But none of that changes the fact that he is being an abuser and other people are suffering for it just as he has suffered. None of that changes the fact that he ought to know better and consequently ought to be punished.
Indeed, not to punish him would be, in effect, to justify his own abuse; to say that it is not bad in itself, but only creates unfortunate effects. It is to his own good and his own vindication to impose the justice on him that he does not receive himself, because that shows him what justice is and that there is such a thing. He may not take the lesson, but it is far kinder to give it. Besides which, in a practical sense, Bobby has to learn that, whatever his sufferings, beating up other kids and taking their stuff is not the way to deal with it.
And there is something else as well. We don’t know what Timmy’s situation is. For all we know, he may be suffering just as much from a bad homelife as Bobby is. He might be facing completely different, but equally difficult challenges. We know, at least, that he’s being bullied at school. In short, Timmy demands as much of our sympathy and interest as Bobby does.
This is true even if Timmy comes from a richer family or a more stable home environment. A teacher who responded to Bobby’s bullying Timmy by saying that Timmy can suck it up because he’s evidently more ‘privileged’ than Bobby would be a monster. And even if we know that Timmy has a happy homelife and is otherwise a good, well-adjusted kid, even if Timmy has everything going right for him and Bobby everything against him, that would still be irrelevant to the fact that Bobby should not be bullying Timmy. Again, Bobby’s abusive home life is not Timmy’s fault.
The Broken Home fallacy depends upon a fairly simplistic either-or understanding of morality; either Bobby is a thoroughly bad person or he is an innocent victim. The thinking seems to be that if he does wrong in reaction to wrongs being done to him, then to punish him would be to ignore the effects his own bad experiences: saying he is simply bad without taking into account the influences that made him so.
A more mature, traditional understanding of morality has it otherwise. Each person is primarily responsible for his own actions, and in a secondary manner for how they affect others.
In any case, though we truly may say of Bobby “there but for the Grace of God go I,” the fact remains that Bobby is there. However much we may lament over his past or hope to help him in the future, in the present (which is the only time we can actually do anything) he is acting in an unacceptable manner and people are being hurt by it. For the moment, it really doesn’t matter why he is like this, only that he is like this. Timmy is actually being beaten up right now, and that fact is far more important than the question of what led Bobby to become a bully and what exact degree of guilt ought to be assigned to him.
It is similar to what C.S. Lewis called ‘Bulverism,’ the fallacy of answering a logical objection by explaining why someone would think that without establishing that what was said is wrong (you’ll notice that most of our debates these days operate on this principle). There is a similar deflection at work here; passing over the fact of right and wrong behavior to try to get at the ‘root cause.’ But the real important point is the fact that what is happening right now is wrong and needs to be stopped. The question of why doesn’t enter into it until that first point is dealt with.
I shall allow you, the readers, to judge whether any of this can be applied to any broader social issues.