George Will

This last categorization illustrates the serious stakes in the categorization of behaviors. Extremely irritable or aggressive children are frequently diagnosed as bipolar and treated with powerful antipsychotic drugs. This can be a damaging mistake if behavioral modification treatment can mitigate the problem.

Another danger is that childhood eccentricities, sometimes inextricable from creativity, might be labeled "disorders" to be "cured." If 7-year-old Mozart tried composing his concertos today, he might be diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and medicated into barren normality.

Furthermore, intellectual chaos can result from medicalizing the assessment of character. Today's therapeutic ethos, which celebrates curing and disparages judging, expresses the liberal disposition to assume that crime and other problematic behaviors reflect social or biological causation. While this absolves the individual of responsibility, it also strips the individual of personhood, and moral dignity.

James Q. Wilson, America's pre-eminent social scientist, has noted how "abuse excuse" threatens the legal system and society's moral equilibrium. Writing in National Affairs quarterly ("The Future of Blame"), Wilson notes that genetics and neuroscience seem to suggest that self-control is more attenuated -- perhaps to the vanishing point -- than our legal and ethical traditions assume.

The part of the brain that stimulates anger and aggression is larger in men than in women, and the part that restrains anger is smaller in men than in women. "Men," Wilson writes, "by no choice of their own, are far more prone to violence and far less capable of self-restraint than women." That does not, however, absolve violent men of blame. As Wilson says, biology and environment interact. And the social environment includes moral assumptions, sometimes codified in law, concerning expectations about our duty to desire what we ought to desire.

It is scientifically sensible to say that all behavior is in some sense caused. But a society that thinks scientific determinism renders personal responsibility a chimera must consider it absurd not only to condemn depravity but also to praise nobility. Such moral derangement can flow from exaggerated notions of what science teaches, or can teach, about the biological and environmental roots of behavior.

Or -- revisers of the DSM, please note -- confusion can flow from the notion that normality is always obvious and normative, meaning preferable. And the notion that deviations from it should be considered "disorders" to be "cured" rather than stigmatized as offenses against valid moral norms.


George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
 
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