How would you feel if you were being held legally responsible for someone else’s actions?
In the Star Trek: Voyager episode “Random Thoughts,” the crew of the starship Voyager is visiting the Mari homeworld. The Mari are a telepathic people who’ve virtually eradicated crime by outlawing violent thoughts.
A man bumps into Voyager’s chief engineer, B’Elanna Torres, while she’s on the surface negotiating a trade. Being half-Klingon and having the temper Klingons are infamous for, B’Elanna thinks about hurting the man who bumped into her. A few minutes later, he beats up another man in the main square and claims he doesn’t know why he did it.
B’Elanna is arrested for harboring violent thoughts. The punishment is a dangerous medical procedure called an engrammatic purge, which is designed to remove the offending images from her mind. The equipment isn’t designed for Klingons and could leave B’Elanna with permanent brain damage.
Captain Janeway argues with the Mari officer that B’Elanna can’t be held accountable for something someone else did.
“His mind was contaminated by the image,” the officer says, “and it resulted in a loss of control. He may have committed the physical act, but it was instigated by you.”
B’Elanna barely restrains herself from going toe-to-toe with the officer. “Where we come from, people are responsible for their own actions.”
I can see both sides of the argument.
In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell talks about people being “infected by examples.” Studies have shown that when a suicide is highly publicized, the suicide rate skyrockets for a few days after. The effect is so powerful it even determines the mode of suicide. For example, if a single person kills themselves by driving into a pole, that kind of suicide increases. But if a person commits a murder-suicide instead, that kind of suicide increases. To someone who’s already troubled, another person’s actions make it more acceptable for them to act in a deviant way.
Gladwell gives an example we’ve all had experience with—jay-walking. You’re standing at a crosswalk, waiting for the light to change…right up until someone crosses against the light. Somehow their law-breaking gives you permission to break the law, and you’re trotting across the road after them.
While I don’t think B’Elanna (or any of us) should be held legally responsible for someone else’s actions, I wonder if we don’t have some moral responsibility for the way what we do affects others.
Yes, we’re all ultimately responsible for the choices we make. None of us has the right to blame someone else for what we’ve done. But, on some level, aren’t we also responsible for how our actions hurt, help, or push someone else toward a specific path?
What do you think? Should we feel any responsibility for how our actions influence the actions of others? Or is what they do 100% on their heads?
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Image Credit: Nicole Shelby from Stock.Xchnge