February 19, 2001

I Can't Seem to Let It Go...

I'm still mulling over the issue of the drunk driver, and her successful (so far) lawsuit against her employer, who failed to stop her from driving drunk.

The email I've received, the feedback at home, and the comments on the message board have been overwhelmingly in opposition to my opinion; that's ok, because the discussion has remained civil and respectful.

It's seen as an issue of personal responsibility - that is, the driver trying to blame someone else for her mistakes.

And as far as that point goes, it is, and as I've said, I'd prefer to see her not benefit monetarily from the lawsuit, preferring that the money had gone to organizations such as AA or Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

I'm all for people taking responsibility for their actions. I'm all for accountability and consequences. I roll my eyes when I hear stories of parents bailing out (figuratively or even literally) their teenage kids from all manner of trouble. I even believe in letting them fail and learning the hard way.

The focus in this discussion has been on the driver, as if blaming what happened on someone else's actions makes her less culpable. I don't think this is the case - it should go without saying that she is wrong and guilty of a criminal act. I'm looking at her boss's situation independently of hers. She is 100% guilty and I never meant to imply otherwise.

Now can we talk about the employer?

When I hear that he, in effect, allowed his employee out on the roads drunk, I have to wonder about HIS sense of personal responsibility.

As I understand the story, and for the purposes of this discussion (which might be hypothetical but I think worthy of discussion nonetheless), the woman was noticeably drunk, and obviously intending to drive. The employer offered to call her husband or a taxi. When she declined, he made no further effort to keep her off the road.

I can't get past the notion that this is wrong, and that there WAS a further obligation on the part of the employer to try to prevent the accident that occurred or even a potentially greater tragedy.

I have no idea whether the liability is a legal one - I'm not a lawyer and am not familiar with the relevant laws in Ontario. My contention is that the liability is a moral one.

Did the employer just shrug his shoulders and say to himself, well I tried, but it's her funeral?

It might have been someone else's funeral as well.

What if his wife's car had found its way into that driver's path, instead of whatever inanimate object finally did?

What if it hadn't been his wife's car, but a stranger's? Is a life worth more because it belongs to our own inner circle?

I'm using words such as "obligation" and "responsibility" here; these words imply accountability, and I've been thinking about to whom (or to what) we're accountable.

(Disclaimer: I've never taken a sociology course in my life: the following is completely off the top of my head, or perhaps another part of my anatomy depending on your reaction to it..)

As children, we're accountable primarily to our parents (flawed creatures though they may be) and to our school. In order to be socially accepted, some accountability also has to be given to a peer group.

Children need to be taught to transfer accountability so that they can function as independent adults. But to whom are adults accountable?

In the days when religion was more pervasive in society, god(s) held that role, with the help of religious leaders and moral codes set down in various religious tracts.

Now, civil and criminal law books have supplanted the role of the bibles in determining right, wrong, accountability, and consequences.

We no longer answer to our god but to the judge. The intermediary isn't the priest or the rabbi, (or the voodoo master) but the lawyer.

Contrary to what might be inferred from the above, I'm not a religious person.. not in the sense of any organized religion, anyway; but if I had to choose between getting advice about personal morality from a minister (of any religion) or a lawyer, I'd choose the minister.

We are certainly "overlawyered"* but the reason for that is that the law has been asked by society at large to function not only as it has been intended, but as a moral influence as well.

It's hard to teach a moral code without a faith to back it up. Not impossible, but hard.

How do we move towards creating a more morally responsible society without forcing religion or excess litigation into our lives?

We have to learn to answer to each other.

Several months ago I commented on a review of the book "Bowling Alone" by Robert Putnam. This book was discussed in Brian Kappler's column in the Montreal Gazette a few days ago, reminding me about the effects of social isolation and the concept of "social capital".

(As summarized in the Gazette:)

The key idea is that social connections - the overlapping networks of your own relatives, friends, co-workers, neighbours - have value, just like a physical asset or money in the bank. When you're looking for work, want to solve a community problem or just want to hang out with people, you need social capital. It's not what you know, it's who you know, and especially how many people you know. The more individuals connect, the theory runs, the better off they are. Where such links are dense and well-established, for example, crime rates will likely be low.

I can't help but feel that if the employer in the drunk driving saga had a higher stock of social capital, he would have behaved differently and done all he could to keep his employee, and anyone out on the roads with her, out of danger.

People often need motivation to "do the right thing". Altruism is rare, too rare to be relied upon in general circumstances. Behaving in such a way as to increase our social capital might be a cold and impersonal way of describing community-minded, thoughtful, caring actions, but it feels realistic enough to be a viable theory. There are movements that attempt to improve social interactions within communities - just surfing around while writing this, I found two of them, the Civic Practices Network and Better Together.

Perhaps the employer in question isn't legally bound to do more than he did; perhaps rewriting the laws so that he would be, isn't the answer either. I still think that the driver's complaint (that he should have stopped her) has merit in a social and moral sense. If we are not our brothers' keepers, who will be?

Linque Du Jour:   *Overlawyered.com

Self description:
Overlawyered.com explores an American legal system that too often turns litigation into a weapon against guilty and innocent alike, erodes individual responsibility, rewards sharp practice, enriches its participants at the public's expense, and resists even modest efforts at reform and accountability.

The root of all evil, or the result of negative changes in society? Maybe both..

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