The Washington Post recently published a story about an incident that took place during Mitt Romney’s
years as a high school student. According to the story, Mitt Romney took offense at the long hair of fellow student John Lauber. Lauber was apparently often teased for being a nonconformist and was apparently suspected of being a homosexual. After commenting on Lauber’s hair, Romney took action a few days later. He and some friends tackled Lauber and pinned him down. Romney then cut Lauber’s hair. Apparently no disciplinary action was taken against Romney.
Naturally, some folks pointed out that the story was published close to the time President Obama expressed his support for same-sex marriage and they speculated that the Post might have acted for political reasons. That is, the goal was to contrast Romney’s attack on Lauber with Obama’s enlightened stance on same-sex marriage. While such speculation is certainly interesting, my main focus will not be on whether or not the charge against the Post is true or even on the ethics of timing stories for political advantage. Rather, I will focus on the matter of the sins of one’s past.
Intuitively, under normal circumstances a person is morally accountable for his actions. There are, of course, clear and obvious exceptions to this. In the case of teenage Romney, he seems to be fully accountable for what he did-after all, he does not seem to have been coerced or compelled into this action nor does it seem to involve a situation in which his responsibility would be significantly mitigated. As such, it would be unreasonable to claim that Romney was not morally accountable for his actions.
However, it is fair and reasonable to counter this view with the obvious: Romney did this when he was a teenage male. Research on the teenage brain has confirmed what most people already knew: teenagers have poor impulse control and they think rather differently than adults. Stereotypically, young males are supposed to be even more prone to bad behavior. Thinking back on my own teen years, the research nicely matches my own experiences. I can recall numerous instances in which either I or other people did rather stupid things. In some cases I was the perpetrator (like the time I whacked a friend in the head with a wooden flail and drew a lot of blood) and sometimes I was the victim (like the time I had my shorts ripped off and was forced to run back to the school wearing just a jock and my shoes). For those readers who are beyond their teen years, I suspect that the same is true.
While it is tempting to excuse Romney on the basis of his brain being immature, this does not seem to be enough of a basis to completely excuse his behavior. After all, having a teenage brain does not preclude a person from making sound moral judgments. It does, however, mean that teenagers are not as good at it as adults and hence should be held somewhat less accountable than adults. John Stewart Mill noted the difference between children and adults in his writing on liberty in regards to the ability to make decisions (which impacted the degree of liberty they should be allowed). From a moral standpoint (and also a legal one) it seems rather important to consider the extent to which an immature brain actually limits judgment and impulse control. After all, it is to this degree that children would be morally (and legally) excused in their actions. This difference is, of course, already recognized in the law: in general, children are not tried as adults and in the United States, there are juvenile courts just for kids.
As might be imagined, it is not currently known exactly how much impact the immaturity of the brain has on judgments and behavior. However, it does seem sufficient for my purposes to say that teenage Romney’s immature brain probably had some impact on his decision to attack Lauber, just as it did in my decision to whack my friend with a flail. However, it seems reasonable to claim that teenage Romney should not be held as accountable as an adult would be in similar circumstances. Likewise for the teenage flail wielding LaBossiere. I will admit that I am unsure of the degree to which accountability should be reduced, but it does seem quite sensible to hold children less accountable than adults and this should clearly extend to Romney (and me).
In addition to the question of the accountability of the moment (that is, how accountable a person is for the action at the time of the action), there is also the question of what the sins of the past reveal about the person of the present. In the case of Mitt Romney, the clear concern is what this incident from his teenage years tells the people of the United States about his fitness to be president. While Romney’s case is rather extreme, similar questions can be asked of each person. For example, what does the flail incident reveal about my fitness to be a professor of philosophy?
When assessing past incidents such as these in regards to current character, another important point of concern is the seriousness of the action. For example, the fact that I got into a couple minor scuffles in school does not show that I am a person of bad character now. As another example, if someone committed unprovoked murder as a teenager, then this would indicate that they could very likely be an evil person today.
In Romney’s case, the incident is somewhat serious. After all, he was involved in what would be considered assault and battery if an adult had done it. Likewise for the time I whacked my friend with the fail (or the time my shorts were stolen). As such, Romney’s incident and my own seem to be matter worth considering when assessing current character. While it rather oversimplifies things, it does make sense to say that we are what we did. That is, that the person I am now is the result of what I did in the past. Because of this, my past actions (and anyone else’s) would thus be relevant to assessing who I am now.
But, of course, there is also the obvious fact that a person is more than just a mere sum of past actions. These actions impact the person and what a person does can, in fact, result in a change so that they would no longer do what they once did. That is, people can change for better (or worse). As such, it would not do to simply look at a specific incident and take it to define the person of today. Rather, it must be taken in context of the person’s life. How a person responds to the past action also seems rather relevant to determining the person’s current character.
In my own case, and the case of my friends, we generally managed to become decent adults. While I whacked my friend with a flail, I grew up to be a rather calm professor of philosophy. My friends turned out rather well, too. Naturally, I remember the flail incident (and others) very well and I feel rather bad about what I did. This is one reason why I became the calm philosophy professor I am today who has little inclination to strike people with a flail. As such, the flail incident does not show that I am currently a person of bad character.
In the case of Romney, there is currently no evidence that he is now prone to attacking people and cutting their hair. That is, he does not seem to be a bully. What is, however, somewhat worrisome is that he initially denied remembering the incident in question.
On the one hand, a case could be made that Romney honestly did not remember. After all, people forget things. No doubt there are some rotten things that I did as a kid that I have forgotten that other people (such as my parents or sister) remember quite well. Perhaps Romney honestly did not remember. Naturally, some folks might see this as a sign of bad character in that the attack on another person did not make enough of an impression to remain in his mind. After all, I vividly remember hitting my friend with the flail. Of course, I am younger than Romney, so perhaps my memory has yet to fade.
On the other hand, a stock tactic for politicians is to claim they do not remember an incident in which they (allegedly) did wrong. This always strikes me as an odd tactic, especially when there is adequate evidence for the incident and the incident is such that someone should remember it (barring mental deterioration). A claim to not remember a misdeed certainly says something about a person’s current character. Admitting to the misdeed, showing remorse and an improvement in character is, I would contend, says something far better about a person. Unless, of course, it is just a clever move to look good. Perhaps Romney deserves at least some credit-after all, he did not engage in an insincere theater of contrition act.