For the record, the title of this post is ironic in tone. So to my chronically depressed readers, no animadversions intended. You do indeed have a character flaw if you’re depressed, but character flaws are pretty common so I wouldn’t worry about it.
I say depression is a manifestation of a character flaw not to further afflict the afflicted; I hardly want us to think of the depressed the way we think of shoplifters. But it would be progress if our attitudes toward shoplifters became more like to our feelings toward the depressed. And for that to happen, we need to ditch the unwarranted distinction between character flaws and a malfunctioning brain.
Most people — at least within the coastal wine-and-cheese crowd — accept that depression is not something for which blame is an appropriate response. For example, here’s Judy Bolton-Fasman writing in the New York Times:
In the summer of 1980, I was 19 years old and had a defining panic attack that divided my life into a very clear before and after… During one particularly long jag of crying and rocking myself back and forth for hours, my parents took me to the emergency room. The doctor prescribed sleeping pills and told me to “get a hold of myself.”
No one suggested that there could be a physical condition underlying my anxiety and depression — at least, not to me. The research that shows that anxiety and depression can be treatable conditions caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain — chronic illnesses that respond to medication like high cholesterol or diabetes — was not widely known. Instead, I confused my brain’s failure with individual failure.
Nineteen years old and depressed, Ms. Bolton-Fasman was obviously in severe emotional pain and should have been treated more compassionately by her doctor — but not because her depression came from “her brain” and not “her self”. That’s a silly distinction. Ending up in an emergency room because you’re severely depressed is no less a personal failure than ending up in jail because you’ve stolen expensive jewelry or ending up unemployed because you’re too hung over to show up for work. Mental illness carries less stigma than it did a generation ago because we now look at the brain with a more powerful microscope. Look at the brain with an even more powerful microscope and all individual failures will be revealed as brain failures.
This isn’t just intellectual masturbation and the question of free will isn’t just an intellectual game. It affects the way we think about privilege, because if there is no free will then there can be no distinction between “earned” and “unearned” privilege. All privilege is unearned. All unequal outcomes derive from unequal opportunity. Moreover, human nature being what it is, a belief in earned privilege has the pernicious effect of distancing the happy and well-off from the unfortunate. Compassion becomes pity. Respect becomes condescension. Me and my friends have struggled heroically with depression; those people over there are just lazy.
This doesn’t mean that everyone should be treated the same. There are very good practical reasons why a doctor is paid more than a janitor. There are very good public policy reasons why some people should be incarcerated. We don’t want people who are stupid and emotionally unstable in positions of power and authority. But these are pragmatic reasons for inequality that have nothing to do with cosmic justice.