Can you be blamed for forgetting?

I read an interesting news story recently about a tragic case of a baby dying in a hot car. The mother had forgotten to drop off the baby at a childcare center on the way to work. She spent 8 hours at a school, where she was assistant principal, only to return to her car and find the baby dead.

The mother now travels around speaking out about the risk of leaving children in hot cars—something that people do all too often, with tragic consequences. So she’s not only suffered terribly, but also tried to make something constructive out of her personal tragedy. In an interview the woman sobbed about her child’s death (and you’d be crazy not to feel for her) but she said something I found strange. She said she wasn’t to blame, because she forgot.

Well, you can sort of see it. The fact that her baby was in the car simply never entered her mind. There was nothing deliberate or intentional about it. She hadn’t even done anything overtly reckless, like drinking and driving, or texting while driving. It just didn’t occur to her that the baby was in the car.

It does seem puzzling how a person can be held responsible for forgetting something. Remembering isn’t exactly something we do, but something that happens to us. But on the other hand, there’s a lot a person can do to increase the chances of remembering.

You can write things down on pieces of paper. There’s also a sort of mental writing we do all the time. You maintain mental lists and keep looking at them throughout the day. If you have young children, you do this a lot, asking yourself where your kids are, and under whose care, and what they may need from you, and whether they’re OK.

But (she would say) she forgot to jot, she forgot to check! How can blame get a foothold here? I leave you with that question, but my sense is that there must have been a crossroads. She must have chosen, at some point, to obsess more about her job or whatever was preoccupying her, instead of keeping track of her most important mental list, the one about her baby.  Or must there really be a choice, a crossroads, for blame to make sense?

It’s striking what a huge role luck plays in determining the gravity of an error. If only the woman’s car had been parked in a busy parking lot. Somebody would have seen the baby in a short time and saved the day. If that had happened, I imagine the woman would have blamed herself, but for a much lesser mistake—for being dangerously distracted. For imperiling but not harming her baby. It’s understandable that she doesn’t blame herself for the events that actually occurred, considering their enormity, but it doesn’t seem true that forgetting is always innocent.  Is it?

And one last thing. Mea culpa. I have sometimes forgotten important things.  Fortunately, not with tragic consequences.

75 Comments.

  1. Ghads Jean….
    I don’t know what to say.

    You need to write a paper on this, because this is a fantastic topic, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like this in the literature (but I don’t profess to be the most caught up on the literature either).

    My intuitions tell me that she really isn’t morally responsible since forgetting isn’t something we choose to do. But I don’t like saying that.

    Maybe as a parent she ought to have some kind of habits, one of them being checking the seats of her cars when she leaves her car. So we can pin her down on a character flaw or something? I know its not quite a virtue, checking the back seats of your car, but that seems to be the closest we can come to holding her morally responsible for her act.

    If we go with your crossroads idea, this crossroads idea could be really stretched… Lets say she goes for a LONG drive, a drive that lasts for a couple of days, and lets assume that she keeps all of her faculties and she doesn’t get tired etc. And at the begining of the drive she thinks, I need to remember to take the baby out of the car when I’m done with this long drive. Then immediately she starts getting lost in other ideas and thoughts. Two days later she gets out of her car and the infant dies. Are we really going to hold her morally responsible for not remembering something that entered into her head 2 days ago, because she choose, lets say, to turn on the radio? That was the crossroad…. but it would seem odd to say that she had a moral obligation to keep this idea in her head for the next two days.

    But then again… We do say this about things like Promises…. and saying I forgot about a promise doesn’t seem like a very satisfying response.

  2. I simply fail to see how a non-mentally disturbed mother can forget that she has left her baby in her car. People forget their keys, their eyeglasses, their cell phones, but a baby? Perhaps forgetting her baby indicates something about the woman’s priorities in life, and it does not speak well of her priorities in my opinion. Generally, one remembers what is important to one, which leads me to think that her baby was not a priority to her.

  3. Why does she bother talking to people about the consequences of leaving babies in cars if in her eyes her ultimate “sin” was to forget? If that’s the case, then nothing she says will prevent another person from forgetting their child and leaving it to die a horrible death alone in a hot car.

    Her reasoning that she can’t be blamed because she forgot is more than likely her attempt to not take full blame for her actions. How do you forget your child for an entire day? And even if she truly did forget her baby, which I doubt, I think that points to an even greater failure as a parent. A baby isn’t a daily task like taking out the trash. A child should not require jotting down notes on Stickies and placing them on the dashboard of one’s car.
    I can’t help but wonder if a woman who forgets her kid and leaves it to die in a car is dealing with similar issues like a woman who drowns her children in a bathtub. Is the forgetting intentional? A subconscious desire to not be a mother?
    I personally believe the consequences in this situation are more important than the actions, or in-actions.

  4. Lets not get stuck on the baby example… Jean’s point is that it seems difficult to put moral blame on to someone because they forgot, and forgetting isn’t a willed act.

    Lets say I make a promise to my wife to pick up some onions on the way home from work. I forget about the promise and consequently we have a bland dinner. I’m not morally culpable for my breaking of my promise, because I simply didn’t will the forgetting of my promise. We typically only hold people MORALLY responsible for acts that they will (not to say we don’t hold people LEGALLY responsible for their forgetfulness).

    How can we say I’m a bad person because I forgot about a promise if I didn’t will it?

  5. So are you implying we should come up with a blanket agreement on the issue of forgetting and make it apply to all situations whether it be babies or onions?

  6. I wonder under under what circumstances she made the statement she wasn’t to blame because she forgot. I don’t think
    that can be used as a legal argument with any hope of success. How do parents fare in court whose child kills someone or themselves because they forgot their gun was loaded? Outside of court, I doubt if her argument would have convinced anyone of her innocence except perhaps a person with a philosophical bent. If her statement was to ease her conscience, and it had even a modicum of success, even if she had a philosophical bent, I’d think she was one cold fish.

  7. No, I don’t like blanket anythings when it comes to ethics, but one of the basic foundations of assigning moral praise or blame is that the person had the ability to choose to engage in their action.

    Choosing requires at minimum knowledge and reason. In this case, the person couldn’t make a choice because they forgot relevant knowledge.

    So if it wasn’t a choice, then we can’t really assign moral blame on the person unless we can somehow hold them responsible for forgetting, which is what Jean is trying to do with her crossroads talk.

  8. Ralph- We hold people legally responsible for all sorts of things that have nothing to do with morality. Its a separate issue. I don’t think its immoral for speeding 1 mile over the speed limit, but we can hold you legally responsible for it.

  9. The more I think about the mother, the more horror she inspires in me. You just can’t compare a baby to onions. One cold fish, as you say, Ralph. Manipulative, uncaring, and probably, as you affirm, Tree, hostile towards her baby. Instant pop diagnosis: psychopathic personality. By the way, I’ve raised three children and now live with another, so I have experience in multi-tasking.

  10. I don’t think its fair to start judging her as a cold fish towards her baby. People make mistakes. Sometimes those mistakes have dire consequences.
    Its easy to call her a cold fish since we don’t know her, or how she grieved over her child, etc. So I reserve judgment on it.

  11. Wayne,
    I wasn’t questioning the morality of her action. That’s something I don’t feel very well equipped to do. The only judgment I made was that if her statement was enough to assuage her conscience that I’d consider her a cold fish, and I’ll stick to that conclusion.

  12. Yes, she is to blame. Guilt by omission. She has already shown a willingness to do community service, but it should be imposed by the court.

    Our legal system demands specific shared values. We must value whoever is in our care and we break the law if our behavior indicates less or no value and therefore neglect. The woman remembered to go to work and remembered what time to leave and I assume remembered her work responsibilities.

    Her abandoning her baby is a clear indication of twisted, wrong, evil, sinful, values.

  13. Wayne, you write: “Choosing requires at minimum knowledge and reason. In this case, the person couldn’t make a choice because they forgot relevant knowledge.”
    One of my points in my first comment is that I question the very idea that a mother can forget her child for an entire day, especially if the baby was less than two feet away from her in the car. So I argue strongly over the claim she did not have relevant knowledge.
    You claim to reserve judgment yet the above statement and others imply that you have made a judgment on this woman in her favor because you automatically believe she truly forgot, made a mistake, which implies you don’t hold her responsible for the death of her baby.

    Of course people forget but oftentimes forgetting cannot be proven by anyone and so remains in question as whether or not it’s truthful. The reaction and the consequences should then be relative to the actions, whether it involve onions or babies. In the example given by Jean, it should not matter so much if the mother forgot because that doesn’t change the fact that the baby is dead due to the mother’s negligence, intentional or not.

    By the way Jean, please feel free to no longer be nice to me. I’ve decided if I vote at all, it will be for Nader. A wonderful act of defiance on my part and I’d be voting my conscience. :-)

  14. Tree- I agree… Terrible consequences have occurred. I don’t know if she forgot. But lets say that she did…

    I think everyone is getting caught up in the example here, and not getting to the more interesting philosophical point. Forgetting things seems to relieve people of their moral obligations, which I think is the point of the blog entry. I’m taking the example she’s used as being only ancillary to the discussion.

    I mean anyone can change the thought experiment, and get different results. She didn’t really forget. She was a terrible mother. Fine. It becomes just a case of, wow, people can be real dicks sometimes. But if we assume for the moment that she did forget, then we have a a very problematic issue with the foundations of moral judgment. I can prove there are dicks in the world quite easily, and I’m sure everyone knows a few personally. Thats uninteresting.

    Heck leaving babies in cars is relatively COMMON place. http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&q=hot+car+baby&btnG=Google+Search&aq=f&oq=

    That doesn’t make the situation less tragic, but it does make you wonder that at least some of these people could have genuinely forgotten. If you simply don’t believe that any of these people could have genuinely forgotten, then I think you overestimate the intelligence of the general population.

  15. I just want to say I really do feel for this mother, whether I blame her or not. I assume she says she can’t blame herself because it’s just too excruciating. Maybe it went like this–she forgot to take the baby to day care, but then she felt as if she had. She may have even thought about the baby during the day–as if the baby was safe and sound at day care. (It’s possible!)

    The woman was not prosecuted. As I recall, the authorities decided it was an “accident.” I find that surprising–it strikes me as involuntary manslaughter. Maybe there’s no point in punishing her, since she’s already been punished, but it does seem as if she was criminally negligent. So yes, I’m blaming her, but still scratching my head about what that’s based on.

    Tree, Ouch. My “Why you really should vote for Obama, especially if your name is Tree” post will appear before Nov. 4.

  16. Just to confuse things for us, what do you do with the claim that praise and blame depend not just on acts and consequences, but on character? She might not have willed the forgetting, you might say, but she is the sort of person who forgets her child. You might argue that such a person is a lousy mother, and she gets the blame for being that kind of person.

    This sort of thought depends on the further thought that our character is up to us in some relevant sense. Or maybe it doesn’t. If someone’s an awful person, maybe I won’t shake hands with her, whether or not she is the way she is out of conscious choice.

  17. Wayne, you’ve mentioned a couple of times that we need to not focus so much on the example given but rather on the underlying point. I think the example is so extreme and heartbreaking that it needs to be addressed along with the underlying point. I also think that both have been addressed by people here, even though you don’t seem to think that’s the case.
    You are correct in that this isn’t that uncommon. Pets and babies both.
    Here’s what we invent: before getting out of the car, the parent pushes a button on the dashboard. If the button isn’t pushed, something drops down from the open door and smacks them in the face reminding them the baby is still in the car. OK, too violent. But how about an alarm goes off?

    Jean, I was going to post this earlier then changed my mind but in regard to your comments about this woman not being charged with any crime, if this is the person I think you mean, then what I’ve wondered all along is what would’ve happened if the woman had been poor and/or a minority.
    i have felt compassion for this woman, I can only imagine the horror she felt and the pain she’s caused her family, but at the same time, I just don’t think she innocently forgot and to imagine what the baby went through obscures any further compassion for the mother. Sorry to say, but that’s how I feel.

    As for your future post, I’m flattered but it won’t change my mind. Still, bring it on. ;-)

  18. there is another possibility i havent seen anyone mention:

    At some level the woman may have assumed that having been in the car before that it was safe to be in the car for length of time and simple extended that reasoning (unconciously or otherwise) to the baby.

    If that had become an automatic assumption to her, because she deals with the car everyday, and the car and the baby perhaps everyday, then why would it not be possible for her to forget her child?

  19. tree- Okay. I think its tragic that this happend to the lady. If she truly forgot, then she’s not MORALLY responsible for her action, just like we are not morally responsible for tripping and breaking someone’s favorite mug. It was an accident.

    If she didn’t forget… well then she’s just a cold hearted person. But I don’t think that there is any real evidence for this judgment.

    Okay… So I’ve given my two cents on the example… How do you make sense of the deeper philosophical problem?

    James- I thought about evaluating her character… If she’s just the forgetful type, then that isn’t something that is virtuous. But on the flip side, if she isn’t the forgetful type, then she’s done nothing wrong, and one lapse in her non-forgetfulness (whats the opposite of forgetfulness?) wouldn’t damage her character would it? Surely her character has improved from this experience as well. We don’t look at the virtuous person and point out their failures on his or her way to becoming virtuous for Aristotle. Otherwise we as infants are just plain despicable.

  20. Wayne, let me pull something I wrote earlier that addressed the “deeper philosophical problem.”

    “Of course people forget but oftentimes forgetting cannot be proven by anyone and so remains in question as whether or not it’s truthful. The reaction and the consequences should then be relative to the actions, whether it involve onions or babies. In the example given by Jean, it should not matter so much if the mother forgot because that doesn’t change the fact that the baby is dead due to the mother’s negligence, intentional or not.”

    If you have a child and they tend to forget things, do you let this go and just accept it as part of their nature or do you teach them the importance of remembering and how forgetting can have bad consequences?
    Someone may not be morally responsible for forgetting something, but what if they continually forget the same thing? Does that cross over into negligence? Laziness? The woman we’ve been debating about in this thread left her baby alone in the car often before it died. Does this make her negligent? Immoral? Or just someone who accidentally forgot one too many times?

    I have a lot on my plate at work, I know I forget things. I consider it my responsibility to make notes, keep tracking databases, print out emails, anything in order not to forget certain things. If I did not do that, it wouldn’t matter if I was too busy and forgot, it would mean I was not being responsible in remembering and reminding myself.
    On the other hand, if I go to the grocery store and forget to buy milk because I was distracted, tired, annoyed then big whoop, I forgot milk. No harm, no foul because it only affects me and possibly my plans for dinner.

  21. Forgetfulness like ignorance is no defense against breaking the law. Not-intending to break the law does not mean the law has not been broken. We recognize that intentional acts are worst then accidents. Although murder is worst then manslaughter, you kill someone in both cases. If you kill then you are responsible for a death. The principal to me showed bad faith by consciously denying responsibility, while showing full signs of guilt, remorse and practicing active contrition by warning others of her folly. One cannot feel guilty without accepting responsibility at some level. Instead of accepting responsibility (and healing and moving on), she denies responsibility by saying she can’t be blamed because she had forgotten her child was in the back seat. For her, she is both responsible and not responsible.

  22. Yeah I’m beginning to come around on this idea that we have a moral obligation to remember things. And like Tree said, if the obligation is about a strong thing like someone life, versus milk, then we have stronger or weaker obligations to fulfill this duty….

    But I still equate forgetting as a mental accident, so I have a hard time reconciling the blame attachment here.

  23. I’ve been trying to imagine what kind of person forgets his or her baby in a car. That’s the only way that I can understand the situation: putting myself in her place or creating a fictional character like her, two processes that are very similar. I find her to be “below good and evil,” to paraphrase Nietzsche.
    Ethics (in my opinion) exists for normal people, that is, people who react without a certain range of normal behavior: from robbing cars for profit to killing rivals out of jealousy to cheating on tests in school. I find this lady to be so far outside or below the norm that I cannot situate her within any ethical scheme that I know. I don’t feel sorry for her. I don’t trust her. I don’t think that she should be the assistant principal of a school and I certainly would not leave my child for five minutes with her. Her sobs are not convincing. Just as for Nietzsche, some actions are beyond good and evil, her actions are below good and evil. She is below the community of moral agents.

  24. Error: I should read: “ethics exists for normal people, that is, people who react within a certain range of normal behavior, not “without a certain range”. I forget to proof-read too often.

  25. Wayne,

    Normally forgetfulness is a sign that someone has not been seriously treating or fulfilling their responsibilities.

    Underlying all of your comments is the idea that one can’t assign or accept moral responsibility for accidents. I don’t understand it would apply in this case. As a parent, you are responsible for the well-being of your child. One either lives up or fails to live up to that constant responsibility. I is one thing to say “I am not responsible , because I didn’t do it”. It is another thing to say “I suspend my responsibility, because I didn’t mean it.”

    Instead of a case of bad-faith or double consciousness, maybe we’re simply using “moral responsibility” in two senses.

  26. Freud would never have accepted this rationalisation. In hisPsychopathology of Everyday Life he held that consciousness goes all the way down. We are responsible for being the sort of person that could erect the barrier to awareness of such an important fact. Denial is a cliché now but once it was brand new fresh minted truth.

  27. Which rationalization?

  28. Tony- True, it is a sign of that, but not always a sign of it. I could have a lot to do that day, and while I’m organizing the things I have to do in my head, I simply forget or mentally misplace an idea. An accountant for a large corporation forgets to carry the 1. Millions of dollars are lost. Is this person morally responsible for it? I don’t think so. Is he causally responsible for it? Sure. Might he be punished for it, perhaps. As we know in the real world punishments are given for moral and non-moral infractions… and punishments are not given for all moral infractions (lying or adultery), and there may be very good reasons for not punishing all moral offenses.

  29. Keith McGuinness

    Wayne: “If she truly forgot, then she’s not MORALLY responsible for her action, just like we are not morally responsible for tripping and breaking someone’s favorite mug. It was an accident.”

    I have NO doubt that she is responsible. Forgetting is not an excuse.

    As a parent, I believe I am responsible for the health and welfare of my children.

    That requires that I remember to do all sorts of things: minor and of minimal lasting impact (have they got their lunch); and major and of potentially substantial impact (have they been vaccinated).

    If I know I am a forgetful person (and I can be), then I have to ensure that I do something about that (I have notes all over the place).

    As far as I am concerned, “I forgot” is a reason, not an excuse.

  30. An accountant losses millions of dollars and you’d damn well better believe s/he would be in a lot of trouble for doing so.
    An accountant is supposed to NOT make huge mistakes like that, that’s part of the deal. If they forget to carry a number, they have not made a harmless mistake, they have failed at their job. Millions of dollars are lost and then what? Profits are lost, people lose their jobs? There are moral implications in your example.

  31. Keith McGuinness

    Wayne: “But I still equate forgetting as a mental accident, so I have a hard time reconciling the blame attachment here.”

    I don’t believe that forgetting IS a mental accident.

    I think that we (normal people) forget something because, as a few have said, we do not pay sufficient attention to it.

    When it is something important that we are supposed, or required, to do, then we have a responsibility to ensure that we don’t forget.

    I have a class to run which starts in three hours. If I don’t turn up, is anyone going to absolve me of responsibility if I just say: “I forgot”.

    I don’t think so.

  32. The responsibility of not forgetting is a bit scary at times.

  33. But responsibility comes in flavors, and the one I’m particularly concerned with is moral responsibility. Sure you’re responsible for your class, as am I. But I’m not sure if missing class as the professor is a moral transgression. It might be your professional responsibility to do so, and as citizens we have legal responsibilities….

    If you want to argue that forgetting is not a mental accident, then whenever we forget, we are doing so purposely, no? And if it isn’t purposely, then what is it?
    I think we can choose to forget things, but I don’t think all cases of forgetting are chosen acts. Even Jean says,

    There was nothing deliberate or intentional about it.

  34. -tree It would appear to be an all consuming one if this is the case. Which is what keeps me from subscribing to it fully.
    When I wake up, should I run through my mind all my moral obligations, lest I forget?

  35. I forget very often.

    I believe it’s my fault because I don’t pay too much attention to things and I cannot appreciate the consequences. Put simply, I forget because I don’t care too much.

    Forgetting is involuntary but not caring is 100% voluntary: you either choose to care or not to care.

    If we agree that the lady forgot because she didn’t care as much as she should then I think she is morally culpable.

  36. Wayne: The world doesn’t neatly divide itself into moral responsibilities, professional responsibilities, legal responsibilities and the responsibilities of a good citizen. Nor do I think that blame or non-blame is the issue here (although Jean may think that it is from her original post). What strikes me is what kind of person forgets her baby in a car all day while she works as an assistant principal, a job which supposedly has to do with caring about children. As I said above and as others have said, one remembers what is important to one, and the fact that the woman did not remember where her baby is indicates that her baby was not important to her. I often baby-sit a child, who irritates me immensely and by constantly calling attention to himself, does not allow me to read or to write or to participate in this blog. At times I feel like slapping him (which I never do), but I cannot imagine leaving him a car or even forgetting to serve him dinner. It’s not that I feel that I have a moral responsibility towards him nor that I especially “like children”. It’s more basic or primal than that. He is important to me, my priority when I baby-sit, because he is a helpless (but bothersome) child. Basic instinct, maybe. Now, that a mother does not have a basic instinct about caring for her own child, forgets her child in the car as if her child were yesterday’s newspaper (she probably would remember that she forgot her cell-phone in the car and go back to get it) is monstrous.

  37. I just found this. I think this interview shows someone who’s taken no responsibility.

    http://www.wcpo.com/news/local/story.aspx?content_id=5aaee61f-8f6d-4f4a-8466-02435ac66a28

    A couple of excerpts:

    Julie: Was there just so much going on in the busyness and the craziness in your lives. What do you attribute it to that you had that moment of forgetting? Thinking you did something that you hadn’t done?

    Brenda: Forgetting is the worst word, to think that you could forget your daughter, and I’ve spent a year trying to figure out why, why this happened. There was so much going on. Life was so hectic at that point. Routines, the routine piece has so much to do with it too. Along with being busy it’s the routines that we get used to, and our brain, over time I think our brain checks things off where I thought she was at the sitter’s.

    Julie: Did you think about here through the day?

    Brenda: I did. You know how moms think about different things.

    Julie: So you thought about her that day?

    Brenda: I talked to teachers at lunch about her, never realizing what was going on.

    Gary: And the morning routine was always mine. I got ‘em, I moved ‘em. you know, to daycare or to the sitter’s, because she went in earlier than I did, then she got out earlier than I did so she picked ‘em up. The dental appointment changed the routine, and it was new because she hadn’t really been taking the kids at all anywhere so…didn’t think any more about it. She was gone before I ever got up, and I got Allison dressed and took her up to daycare.

    Julie: One of the things you said to police, “I don’t know how you go on having done this to one of your kids and ever forgive yourself.” Where are you now with forgiving yourself?

    Brenda: That’s one of the hardest questions. Cognitively, I know I can’t blame myself, because I know I didn’t consciously do this. I know that. In my heart, how does a mom do that? It gets easier, and it gets easier with every day. It’s going to take time, but again I can’t let the guilt dominate my life, and I’ve discovered that any parent that’s lost a child feels guilt. Really, no matter how and again, we have to go forward for our other children and have to have the strength to move on and it’s still there.

    Julie: When you go to see a counselor, what do they tell you to help you work through it? What’s worked to help you get better day by day?

    Brenda: I think it’s just reminding me that this wasn’t my fault, that I just that I …didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t remember, and that’s the primary thing is reminding me that this wasn’t my fault. It was something we can’t understand, we can’t explain, and like I said intellectually.

  38. Keith McGuinness

    Wayne: “Sure you’re responsible for your class, as am I. But I’m not sure if missing class as the professor is a moral transgression.”

    It is getting a bit off topic, but, in the absence of a justifiable reason for missing the class, I think I would consider it a moral transgression.

    Having taken on responsibility for the class, then it would be both morally and professionally wrong to not fulfill that.

  39. Tree:
    The rationalization is a causal story which explains in terms of events at the same level. One event derails another event in a cybernetic manner as though we were dealing with information. That is true as far as it goes. However we can ask as everybody here is doing about the hierarchy which elevates certain facts into context. Here the context is being a parent. At this level the woman was blank and that we find reprehensible. Of course we all are aware, in our 4:15 am reviews, of passages of blankness in our own lives so the pointing finger has a barely perceptible tremour.

  40. Think for a moment of the last time you said goodbye to anyone before taking off for work or play. Within minutes did you not envision that person, especially that baby, waving bye bye or whatever to you? Did that image not repeat itself all day until it was mostly supplanted by images of the expected greeting on your return? Did an hour go by without any thought at all of the person, especially little person, who sandwiches your day?

  41. James, Yeah, I’m puzzled about what you can blame people for. Definitely for choices, so I’ve zeroed in on fleeting choices that may have led up to this disaster. Maybe for the kind of person you are, in so far as that’s up to you.

    Tree–That interview is with the woman I’m talking about. Interesting how she says a therapist encouraged her to think she wasn’t to blame. I can’t believe that’s the only road to recovery. There’s also the idea that you fully take responsibility and atone (somehow). Maybe that notion comes to mind because today is the Jewish day of atonement. There’s something to the idea of ritualized atonement.

    rtk–Yes, weird as can be. If she forgot, it’s extremely strange that she forgot. Most parents are extremely focused on their kids. You only get your mind on other things after you’ve got them securely place in other responsible hands. Even then, they come to mind.

  42. Michael, just some musings…
    yesterday I questioned myself quite a bit in my judgment of this woman and what I wrote here. Was I too harsh? Am I setting myself up for a harsh lesson if I were to forget something important? Maybe my own horror at the thought of how the baby died is the only issue that colors this idea of forgetting, within the context of this thread, and I cannot make a fair, objective argument. Maybe not.
    This woman’s claim of not consciously knowing what she did is purely subjective, ultimately there is no penetration from another of this claim which will always leave open many questions. We live in a world where world leaders stand on trial and claim to not remember and then are not punished for their crimes. This refusal to take responsibility for one’s actions by claiming forgetfulness is woven into our society.
    However, I have a good grasp of human nature and the excerpts of the interview I posted above show me a woman in denial and a woman whose priorities were way off balance. It may not be fair to point a finger at this woman, but how about pointing a finger at a society so wrapped up in itself that it forgets children and leaves them to die in cars? There is, at its core, something seriously wrong with this situation.

    I am well aware of the mistakes I have made in my moments of blankness. Nothing at the level of what this woman did, certainly beyond forgetting onions. At work I am confronted regularly with contracts I’ve put together with wrong dates, wrong sums of money, etc. These can be fixed, fortunately, but there is always that embarrassment and frustration I feel, as well as that familiar fear that there’s something “wrong” with my brain.
    Is it comforting enough to know people in my department make even bigger mistakes due to their own blanks? Not sure. Probably not a good idea to compare myself that way, as that seems to be a way to excuse my own mistakes.
    Maybe that’s part of this here. This woman messed up so badly, she makes the rest of us look good.

    Jean posed the question, “can you be blamed for forgetting?” Yes you CAN. But SHOULD you? No easy answer to that. For me, aside from clear cut issues like dementia, I feel there should be accountability. Maybe it’s because of what the alternative means.

  43. tree- Could it be that you’re coming around to what I was saying all along? Should is a moral ought isn’t it?
    If we shouldn’t blame her, then she’s not morally accountable, not that she isn’t accountable in other ways.

    As for the therapy stuff, I kinda know from experience that therapists have this belief that blame isn’t psychologically healthy, and they very much encourage not to assign blame. So I read the exerpt that Tree posted and still doesn’t give me any reason to dislike her, or think she’s being ingenuine.

  44. Wayne– No. Not coming around. She is most definitely morally accountable for what happened.

    As for therapists and blame, by what context do you place that? Example: someone is an alcoholic which they believe stems from being abused as a child. This may very well be true but at some point you have to deal with what’s going on now and not what happened in the past in order to fix the problem, so blaming the abuser is not a viable solution but instead is a way to avoid the problem of being an alcoholic.

    I think think this woman confuses blame with accountability. When she says she can’t blame herself, etc. I think what she’s saying is she won’t take responsibility for her actions. A neat little escape hatch for her conscience. Maybe that’s why she sees this particular therapist, because she knows she won’t be challenged.

  45. Having read the interview, I’m impressed by the shallowness of the woman, by her glibness. Is there no depth to her? Emotionally shallow, intellectually shallow, spiritually shallow. If Marcuse denounced One-Dimensional Man, here we have a woman with half a dimension.

  46. I think maybe the shallowness is a result of bad therapy. Apparently her therapist thinks taking responsibility is a bad idea. The idea seems to be that if you admit fault, then…you should be shunned, you have an indelible black mark on your character, you may as well kill yourself, there’s no recovery. I think this is completely the wrong way of thinking about blame. If the woman’s blames herself, none of that has to follow. When I say I think she’s blameworthy, it’s not a total rejection of the woman. It doesn’t mean she ought to be banished or hanged. It doesn’t mean I have no sympathy. I think this is another thing in need of clarification–we need to understand what it takes for a person to be blameworthy, but also what it means. What are the attitudes entailed when you blame yourself or someone else? Not unforgiving hatred.

  47. Isn’t that her shallowness? Her therapist tells her not to feel blame and she no longer feels blame. For people with more ethical depth, it’s not that easy.

  48. This woman’s claim of not consciously knowing what she did is purely subjective, ultimately there is no penetration from another of this claim which will always leave open many questions.

    This to me is the crux of the argument. It makes me think we need to have two debates, one stemming from the assumption she cared for her child at the expected level but, for some spurious and tragic reason, her memory simply failed her, and one stemming from the assumption that she failed to remember the child because she didn’t care enough about the child.

    On the other hand (and perhaps controversially), maybe the issue of whether she cared for her child enough is morally irrelevant? Of course it horrifies us to think that might be the case but I’m not sure it’s a moral issue as such. Maybe it’s better to talk about her duty as guardian, and whether she cared enough about that? For instance, if a stranger (who had no attachment to the child) had accepted temporary guardianship but failed to care enough about that responsibility (with similar tragic consequences) then surely this would be just as bad in our eyes?

    It’s also interesting that in cases like this our attributions re moral responsibility get polarised. The more catastrophic or repugnant the consequences, the more responsibility we attribute to the moral agent. Maybe this is fair, maybe it isn’t?

    With regard to her current state of mind, I don’t think we should give the individual in question too much of a hard time for possibly being in ‘denial’ (if that’s the right word to use). If she was to accept the enormity of her inaction, willed or otherwise, it would probably kill her (and possibly will at some point). Entering denial may not be under her direct control.

  49. And I certainly agree with all the criticisms of the therapeutic world-view (where no-one is to blame). Questioning this outlook is one road to unpopularity…

  50. While I agree with Amos about her shallowness, I do wonder also about what Paul wrote, regarding denial as a form of protection. At the same time, if this is true, what does it say about those around her who engage in this as well? Her husband, friends, therapist, family?

  51. Perhaps denial is required because the implicit message from those around her is something like ‘if you were responsible it would be unforgiveable’. This gets back to something Jean wrote previously…

    The idea seems to be that if you admit fault, then…you should be shunned, you have an indelible black mark on your character, you may as well kill yourself, there’s no recovery

  52. By the way, did anyone notice in the interview how she blames God for taking the baby away? Yikes.

  53. Yeah I think when she says she doesn’t blame herself, or that she’s not at fault, she’s meaning something else than what her words are saying. Because clearly her inactions led to the death of her child.

    Blame and fault here are being used as moral expressions.

    She still has to suffer the consequences, and she says she feels plenty of guilt.

  54. If I may put in a good word for religion (but not for a god who lets babies die in hot cars–I don’t think there is one)…

    Isn’t there some therapeutic value in the idea of confessing your sins and then atoning, being forgiven and being redeemed? (There are many religious versions, but also some secular equivalents, I would think.) Maybe it would help her “confess” if she recognized that what she did was dangerously imperil her child, not kill her. The tragic outcome was partly due to a terrible mistake on her part, but partly due to bad luck (nobody walked by the car and saw the child before she died). That certainly gives the mother something huge to atone for, but she is not a murderer.

    Philosophical footnote: the idea of Thomas Nagel’s concept of “moral luck” is precisely that we can’t disentangle what a person did (strictly speaking) from what happened because of bad luck, but maybe (when all is said and done) we can, and should, and that’s important, therapeutically speaking.

  55. Jean: For the great religious thinkers, Paul, Augustine, Pascal, Dostoyevsky, none of whom could be called “shallow”, God’s forgiveness is not a question of pop psychology. They are never sure that God forgives them for their sins. In fact, God’s existence, that of, the existence of a perfectly good being, rather increases their sense of sinfulness and their need for forgiveness. This woman ain’t no Kierkegaard, a thinker for who I have an infinite respect.

  56. In Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky portrays taking responsibility as very therapeutic indeed. Raskalnikov actually experiences “infinite happiness,” as I recall, once he owns up to his crime.

    In any event, I’m surprised that today’s therapists don’t avail themselves of any religious or quasi-religious notions, which probably wouldn’t be so widespread and popular if they didn’t resonate with people. I’m not saying anything about God being the one to forgive and redeem, it’s the underlying pattern that has appeal. First confess, then somehow seek redemption. Admit errors, then ask for forgiveness, maybe from yourself, maybe from others.

  57. Ha! Has Paul been struck by lightning yet? ;-)

  58. Jean, therapists do say that, but saying that is very different then assigning blame. You admit your faults, Again, I think the lady is admitting she is causally responsible for the baby’s death, and then you work through the grief and pain, which she says she’s been doing for the last year. Heh… Recognize, Honor, and then let it go. Sheesh, thats been ground into me.

    Forgiveness is given by other people for transgressions against them. The only person here that can do the forgiving would be the baby, no? Anything else would just be symbolic… maybe therapeutic, but I know it wouldn’t help me, since I would be able to see right through that.

  59. Jean: You’re simplifying Crime and Punishment. I reread the book about two years ago, and it was much less Christian than I had feared. Raskolnikov confesses for two basic reasons. First, the detective sees through him, and Raskolnikov knows that the detective knows that he is the killer, although there is no proof. Second, after commiting the murder, Raskolnikov realizes that he has passed a line which separates him from those around him, his mother and his sister and that he is totally alone, that he cannot share his thoughts with anyone. That is his condemnation. Thus, he seeks out Sonia, who as a prostitute, is also cut off from the rest of society. Sonia, as a Christian, asks him to kiss a cross and to confess his crime. You will recall that Raskolnikov enters the police station, decides not to confess (why be a fool?) and as he walks out, sees Sonia waiting for him and realizes that he cannot face Sonia without confessing. Thus, he confesses However, even after confessing, at times Raskolnikov wonders if he confessed out of weakness, because, unlike his hero, Napoleon, he is not strong enough to kill in order to reach his ends, to will the means (in this case, murder) necessary for his ends. In the epilogue, in Siberia Raskolnikov begins to read the Gospels, but that is hardly emphasized in the novel. What is emphasized is Raskolnikov’s recognition of his need to belong to humanity, through his tie to Sonia, which becomes stronger and stronger. I’m now rereading the Brothers Karamazov, which is more Christian, but far from simplistic. In fact, two very different visions of Christianity confront each other in the section called the Grand Inquisitor.

  60. Amos, I also reread C&P and TBK recently. I think it’s fair to say that C&P portrays taking responsibility as therapeutic. Raskalnikov is tormented and delirious until he confesses. Dostoevsky uses thes phrase “infinite happiness” to describe how he feels in prison. It’s complicated, because there’s the devotion to Sonya, some glimpses of Christian salvation, etc., but I think (clearly!) the predominant theme is that owning up to his crime is curative. He is much better off, psychologically, after he confesses, than before. Isn’t that much clear?

  61. Haven’t read Crime and Punishment in years but didn’t R’s greatest joy come from the love of Sonia? I do remember being greatly disappointed with the ending.

    However, I read Brothers Karamazov pretty much on a yearly basis. I see it as the anti-Christian Christian book ;-)

  62. Yes, confessing is therapeutic for Raskolnikov.
    However, what purpose would confession serve for Ms. Shallowness? Raskolnikov is a complex, tormented person, who feels cut off from the rest of humanity because of his crime; confession bridges that distance. Comparing Raskolnikov with Ms. Shallowness is like comparing Wittgenstein with Paris Hilton.

  63. Past occasions she left the baby alone in the car. I’m relieved to know the donuts were ok.

    http://www.wcpo.com/mostpopular/story.aspx?content_id=bdaedd71-ae0d-412a-9db4-46ad09e2094f

    Don’t worry. No more links or posts after this, I promise!

  64. Uh…I mean about this topic.
    I didn’t pay this much attention to this situation when it happened, even though I live nearby and work with people who live in the same neighborhood as her and know her.

  65. I consulted a friend, a single, working mother, underpaid and stressed-out, often forgetful of things like recharging her cell-phone, buying onions, and paying bills. Her verdict: a perfect crime. Intentional homicide. Well-planned by an extraordinarily manipulative woman.

  66. Amos:
    Roskolknikov did his felicific calculation. I knock the pawnbroker on the head who is an odious person anyway and get some money. My sister will not have to sacrifice herself for me and I will be able to continue my studies. That’s overall good, because it renders the greatest happiness for the greatest number, and I have established myself as a Napolean above all morality. Michael Katz has an essay about Dostoevsky’s resistance to the nihilism of the 19th. Century.
    http://www.utoronto.ca/tsq/DS/09/063.shtml
    You may recall the discussion in ‘Brothers’ whether the torturing of a single child would be justified if it brought universal felicity.

    Causal level analysis ignores the incommensurable and vital element of soul.

  67. Michael: Thanks for the link. The anti-utilitarian strand runs through all of Dostoyevsky, beginning with his Notes from the Underground.

  68. Amos, I wasn’t comparing Raskolnikov to the mother.

    My point was that the mother, or her therapist, seem to assume that blaming yourself puts you on a permanent downward trajectory. It leads to self-hatred, being shunned, self-annihilation, suicide…who knows what. So the mother mustn’t blame herself, if she ever hopes to recover. But there are other patterns and possibilities, which we learn about from various religions and from literature. By taking responsibility, Raskolnikov puts himself on an upward trajectory.

    In lots of religions, too, there’s confession and then atonement, sin and redemption, etc. I find it curious that these alternative patterns might be losing favor in the world of therapy. (Then again–“12 step programs” seem to start with “confession”–I am so and so, and I am an alcoholic.)

    Tree–Great links. Now I’m even more surprised they didn’t prosecute. This is a careless person.

  69. Jean: There seems to be an assumption in pop psychology that even a minute of psychic suffering is bad and that life should be one big chocolate ice cream cone. After my son’s death, I saw a therapist once, a serious person in this case (as Tree says above, one selects the therapist according to what one wants to hear), and she said to me: you’re never going to get over this, learn to live with it. Good advice.

  70. Amos, I think that’s good advice too. I didn’t really mean to say everybody gets to erase past tragedies with a flick of some wand or other. I just think that acknowledging responsibility can sometimes be a positive step…though maybe my powers of imagination don’t really encompass what this particular woman is going through.

  71. Tree, Ralph, amos, rtk, NO ONE can account for memory or attentiveness. You are projecting your own account of mental skills if you would prosecute her for simple forgetfulness and you are irrational and hateful. I realize this cannot be allowed to become a loophole for unwilling mothers, but at most it is only a case for breeding restrictions. The child’s death can only affect you emotionally, and there is no objective value for that.

  72. Give me a break.

  73. John R: At what point do attentiveness and neglect lean on each other? You forget to feed baby for 24 hours. Inattentive? No accounting for it?

  74. Memory is tricky. Somestimes you think you had finished a task but in fact you have not. This happens to everyone especially when under stress or meeting a deadline. I have my experience of brushing my teech twice…

    It maybe too much to forget a baby, but it’s not impossible to forget, or confuse that you had performed some actions, say taking the baby out from the car, bringing her to the care centre etc, if these actions became a routine.