The High Cost of Character Disturbance

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When people fail to take responsibility for their choices and actions — when they behave with a sense of entitlement and irresponsibility — it costs our whole society dearly. To remedy this social ill we need to acknowledge the issues and deal with them, otherwise our precious freedom will be eroded.

On November 29, Dr Conrad Murray, who was convicted several weeks earlier of involuntary manslaughter in the death of pop icon Michael Jackson, was given the maximum sentence by the judge overseeing the case. Now that the conviction and sentence are a matter of public record, I can speak a bit more freely about the relevant issues I think this case brings to the fore than I did in a prior article (see: “Are We Tired of Character and Ethics Scandals Yet?”). For some, Dr Murray’s conviction and sentence mean that justice has finally been served. But if that’s the case, it certainly came at a tremendous cost — a cost that might well have been avoided were it not for a circumstance at least as tragic, if not more tragic, than a famous entertainer’s untimely passing.

I have written extensively and posted many articles on the character crisis the industrialized world has faced for several decades now. And I have dared to assert that there’s hardly a social ill one can think of that isn’t directly linked to this crucial “phenomenon of our age.” The overall cost of this crisis to society on almost any dimension conceivable is staggering. And what most advanced cultures are doing in their attempts to deal with the problem (generally, passing more and stricter laws and penalties) has done little to stem the tide and has resulted in an unprecedented loss of freedom. But perhaps no real life testament to the truth of my assertions is better than the case of Dr Murray.

From the outset, Dr Murray knew the worst penalty he could possibly have to pay for his negligence. Although he had recklessly sidestepped every reasonable guideline and standard of care for the sake of a huge paycheck and considerable prestige, and in the process caused the death of a human being, the worst that could be demanded of him as a recompense would be the surrendering of his medical license and the loss of his freedom for a maximum of 4 years. Given that he had no prior record, and given the fact that there is no institutional bed space available (a phenomenon occurring in many places and a further testament to the scope of the character crisis), he would probably serve less than half that time and in a county facility under relatively benign conditions. This is, by any standard, a relatively small price to pay for the egregious conduct of which the doctor is guilty. And the likelihood is that had Dr Murray simply pleaded guilty to a lesser charge, the penalty he would have had to pay would have been even less. Yet Dr Murray was not willing to pay anything for his misconduct, and right up until the end (a fact that the judge took into consideration) he acknowledged no culpability and expressed no genuine regret or remorse for his actions. As a result, the cost to society was substantial: the devastating loss of a remarkable human being, the loss inflicted on the children, and the cost of the legal proceedings. In this case, we have a glaring example of what it can cost a society when just one individual refuses to hold himself accountable for his choices and actions.

In my book Character Disturbance, I argue that as long as we fail to address the institutional and cultural factors that promote the sense of entitlement and rampant irresponsibility evident in so many, we will continue to pay a very dear price. And if we persist in trying to remedy the situation solely by passing more and stricter laws, we will only succeed in eroding precious freedom and further burdening the already overburdened and responsible folks among us. To really address and solve a problem, you first have to acknowledge what the issue really is as well as the factors responsible for it. Then you have to confront the real problem head-on. It’s the ultimate cop-out to say there’s nothing we can do. We haven’t really called out or targeted at the core what we all recognize is the problem. And we won’t ever know what we can do about it until we actually try.

The case of Dr Murray, as tragic as it is, teaches us a great lesson about the high cost of character deficiency. Perhaps when the cost finally becomes great enough to break the backbone of society, we’ll find the motivation to confront the problem directly and do the things we really need to do to resolve it.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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