On Aaron Hernandez and Moral Culpability

Aaron Hernandez played for the New England Patriots from 2010 – 2012, when he was arrested for and then convicted of the murder of Odin Lloyd. He was subsequently charged with a separate double murder, but the court found him not guilty. After his acquittal in that case, and in the midst of the appeals process for the Lloyd murder, Hernandez was found hanged in his cell on April 19, 2017. As a result, the initial conviction for Odin Lloyd’s murder was vacated.

In the months since his death, scientists have had an opportunity to examine Hernandez’s brain to see whether he suffered from neurodegeneration. In addition to some genetic abnormalities pertaining to neurodegeneration, they determined that Hernandez had Stage 3 CTE, which is the most “severe damage in a brain younger than 46 years old” the researchers had seen. Dr. McKee, who led this team of researchers, noted, “We can’t take the pathology and explain the behavior, but we can say collectively that individuals with CTE of this severity have difficulty with impulse control, decision-making, aggression, often emotional volatility, and rage behavior.”

This raises a number of questions, specifically concerning the degree to which Hernandez’s genetic precondition and the subsequent harm from playing football contributed to the actions for which he was convicted. We’ll proceed under the assumption that, although Hernandez’s initial conviction was vacated per legal precedent, Hernandez retains moral responsibility for the act, because it was done propria manu. Nevertheless, if Hernandez were compelled by internal forces over which he had little control, one ought to consider to what degree Hernandez should be condemned for the act.[1]

That’s the question I want to examine. How does Hernandez’s genetic precondition and chronic traumatic encephalopathy affect his moral culpability? There seems to be little question over whether or not Hernandez committed the acts; his legal responsibility is of interest only to those who care for legal minutiae and to those who equate the law with ethics. Does Hernandez’s mental health bear on his moral responsibility, and, if so, in what manner?

To begin, we would do well to take a step back from Hernandez’s case in particular and situate ourselves in the Christian vision of the world. Christian orthodoxy holds that, although humanity had initially existed in a state of unadulterated communion with the creator, it alienated itself through a measure of disobedience from the creator. Since that initial innocence, humanity has been estranged from the ground of its existence. As a result, humanity acts within a warped world, marred by sin, and itself perceives and acts upon the world according to a distorted vision thereof.

Furthermore, according to Western orthodoxy (via Augustine [and his readers]), people are born not only estranged from their original innocence but also “guilty” of “original sin,” the sin of the patriarch. Although individuals are born into a world (seemingly) irreparably harmed by evils committed by people prior to them, and some of which are natural to the state of estrangement (cf. Ro. 8.20-23), Western Christianity broadly holds that individuals retain some measure of moral guilt simply by virtue of birth into a postlapsarian universe. Accounting for the state of the universe as one affected by sin in every manner, Western orthodoxy continues to teach that individuals affected (naturally rather than ethically)[2] by sin will still be held ethically responsible for those things committed by their hands.[3] The pertinent question is the degree to which both the “subjection to futility” in the body (viz. natural sin) and also the chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which could reasonably trigger subconscious alterations in the brain’s chemistry resulting in an increase in rage and violent tendencies–the degree to which these features, in Hernandez’s case in particular as well as in cases more broadly, impinge on the ethical liability of agents.

What I would like to suggest is that the degree to which natural capacities affect one’s culpability for wrongs (or, perhaps, their praise for rights?) has been underestimated. Not to say that a disposition to anger (whose etiology is a genetic or neurologic abnormality) utterly absolves one of wrongs committed on that basis, but perhaps we ought to be more circumspect in assigning culpability, more willing to consider the extensivity of sin’s reach:  sin no more throws the weather patterns of the world into disarray than it disorders the neural patterns of one’s mind.

The trouble, of course, is determining the proper assignment of blame. The two simplest answers proffered are (1) the one who acts always in every circumstance has full moral responsibility and (2) the one who acts does so under unrecognized compulsion, whether that be “the system” or genetic abnormality. We want to shy away from either one of those two solutions, for reasons outlined above. Because we are psychosomatic unities, and because our bodies are the means by which we have the possibility of engagement with the world, we can neither disassociate the actions of the body from our responsibility–nor can we act as though somatic limitations, dispositions, and tendencies do not in some sense bear on that responsibility. That is to say, our bodies provide the field for our moral behavior, and this field shapes the way in which moral responsibility can be assigned.

Insofar as Hernandez is concerned, it would seem that his chronic traumatic encephalopathy (exacerbated by his genetic marker) simultaneously constrained his ethical responsibility and made him more likely to violate those moral bounds; in fact, it could be said succinctly that to be made more likely to violate is to necessarily constrain responsibility. Again, to “constrain” is not to eliminate. One must always labor against the sinful dispositions into which we are born, however they manifest themselves. Hernandez ought to have been aware of the disproportionate levels of rage within himself, and he ought to have attempted to work against that tendency. Did his advanced CTE make such labor impossible? I don’t know. His perception of the moral landscape appears to have been heavily skewed towards violence as a legitimate solution. Perhaps there was some environmental failure around him, in which family or friends ought to have attempted to corral Hernandez’s worst tendencies, but ultimately the responsibility for the work of the hands belongs to the one whose hands they are. It seems that in some measure Hernandez’s actions could be ethically “excused”–but not altogether. His actions were so heinous that, legal guilt notwithstanding, Hernandez’s soul was tainted by the murder regardless of his unconscious tendency to those types of actions. His genetic and traumatic abnormalities diminish his culpability, but he retains a large measure of it because he seems to have embraced the sinful disposition rather than worked against it.

[1] This hints at the legal distinction between mens rea and actus reus, or between the “guilty mind” or internal elements and the “guilty act” or the crime itself. By way of example, the degree to which somebody commits homicide with “malicious forethought” determines the “degree” of homicide with which they should be convicted, from negligent homicide to first-degree murder. However, were one to be compelled to kill under threat of their own death, or, perhaps, under a spell, it would not be difficult to argue that the person who committed the act should not be held criminally responsible for it, because they did not “will” to do so, nor did they act recklessly in a manner that could have brought about a death.

[2] That is to say, one’s physical body, down to their genetics, is “subjected to futility” (cf. Ro. 8.20) because of sin; things go haywire because the world is disordered–not because “this man or his parents sinned” (cf. Jn. 9.3).

[3] One can make the argument that one is responsible not merely for the things done (or failed to have done) by their hands but for the way in which one treats the sinful (dis-)order of the world as it manifests in their environment. Per James K. A. Smith in Imagining the Kingdom, “Through a vast repertoire of secular liturgies we are quietly assimilated to the earthly city of disordered loves, governed by self-love and the pursuit of domination. So we toddle off to church or Bible study week after week, comforting ourselves that we’re devoted to ‘the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord,’ without realizing that we spend the rest of the week making bread for idols because we fail to appreciate the religious nature of these ‘secular’ practices. So we become the kind of people who are inclined to a sort of low-grade, socially acceptable greed that makes us remarkably tolerant of inequality and the exploitation of the (global) poor; or we take for granted a mobile, commuting way of life that exploits creation’s resources rather than stewards them. … A way of life becomes habitual for us such that we pursue that way of life–we act in that way of life–without thinking about it because we’ve absorbed the habitus that is oriented to a corresponding vision of ‘the good life” (141-2, emphasis original).


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