Responsibility – Legal and Spiritual


Law and spirituality both deal with the issue of responsibility.

The law sets out norms and standards promulgated by authorities in accordance with the procedures established by the state, typically set out in a constitution or governing statute, or according to custom.  These norms and standards might or might not reflect accurately a consensus about values and principles that are shared by the people governed by them, and might or might not have been adopted in procedures that are satisfyingly participatory and democratic.  We are probably aware of laws that we consider be fair and useful, and laws that we consider to be unfair and destructive.  Marginalized viewpoints have less influence and power in shaping the laws; socially dominant groups make laws for themselves and for the groups they subordinate: men make laws for themselves and for women, whites make laws for themselves and for blacks, wealthy individuals make laws for themselves and for everyone else.

Nevertheless, there is a dominant-consensus norm in human rights worldwide that values the “rule of law” as such, and requires that breaches or violations of law are enforced by holding lawbreakers responsible.  The principle of deterrence holds that expectation of punishment for lawbreaking should promote compliance with the law, and optimistically perhaps also implies that this promotes a sense of responsibility by making people aware of their behavior and their effort to comply.

The legal value of responsibility, and its meaning as used in law, is somewhat at odds with the spiritual principle of responsibility.

Spiritually, through a practice of mindfulness of some sort, a person can gain insight into the ultimate responsibility of self as an active principle that creates through choices.  By becoming aware of, accepting and affirming our own choices, we both gain greater effective control over the course of our lives, and gain a sense of humility in knowing our specificities and limitations.

Restorative practices to some degree aim to unite the spiritual with the legal concept of responsibility, to promote mutual acceptance of our responsibilities towards each other in a collective process that is inter-subjective and not hierarchical.  Many restorative practices, especially those based on lessons from First Nations, include spirituality as a grounding value.  By looking to the future and aiming to restore and heal the breach and the harm it caused, rather than focusing on the act of lawbreaking in isolation from its context, restorative practices have the merit of breaking the cycle of violence and revenge.  Yet, even the best kinds of restorative practices would have to acknowledge their limitations in cases where a person rejects the consensus norms, or utilize some form of coercion or separation or mutual adjustment if the perspectives cannot be reconciled.

Restorative practices and indigenous concepts of law lay greater emphasis not only on personal and subjective responsibility, but on the function of law as a guide to behavior, as an educational and even aesthetic function.  We can look to good law as showing us a “beautiful” way to be in the world, a way that affirms “truths” we “hold to be self-evident.”  Human rights law draws on this tradition; it speaks to lasting values but is also evolving and subject to reconsideration, as most evident in the challenge posed by the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities to earlier soft-law instruments on human rights in the field of mental health.  (The CRPD overturned earlier norms that treated involuntary commitment and forced treatment as necessary evils to be regulated, and instead prohibits these practices as violations of the equal right of persons with disabilities to liberty and security of the person, legal capacity, freedom from torture and ill-treatment, and right to free and informed consent in health care.)

For the most part, both legal and spiritual traditions related to responsibility have excluded people who are labeled as mad, insane, mentally ill, people with psychosocial disabilities.  I say “labeled as” because it is not an identity that a person can claim in the absence of internalizing a judgment about oneself by others, or a fear of such judgment.  In this way I think Foucault was correct in studying madness from an external viewpoint, since “madness” belongs to those who construct it and not to those who are so labeled.  (Similarly, the construct of “womanhood” may properly belong to men; we female adult human beings can happily do away with it except to make visible the classification that oppresses us, in order to destroy it.)

The spiritual aspect of this was brought home to me recently by the posting on Facebook of an article on Mindfulness as a Buddhist practice that has lost its roots and is being co-opted for therapy.  While the article made a valid point about any formulaic therapy necessarily being a superficial version of mindfulness, I was disturbed by its tone of fear and creation of a mystique around mindfulness practice, as something that is not a happy pill and therefore can be dangerous.  There is in this premise the truth that much of psychiatry including formulaic therapy promotes the illusion of easy solutions to psychic suffering that absolve the self of responsibility – responsibility both for oneself inherently, and for the choices being made about seeking ease for the suffering.  But at the same time, the idea that because of the risks entailed in a practice of mindfulness, risks that arise from the emerging awareness of responsibility, with the temptations of ego-power and escape into fantasy, mad people should be wary of doing it, is just wrong.

As I said in my comments to the Facebook post: “We are already dealing with the risks of mental and spiritual exploration (or things coming on us without having explored) – it’s not as if we can shield ourselves. We have to deal with it, like being thrown into the ocean, we are already there and have to learn to swim.”

I am reminded of something Chris Hansen said during an Intentional Peer Support training, in countering a similar idea of our fragility as promoted by the mental health system.  I’m paraphrasing, but it was something like: All the things they are trying to protect us against, such as being homeless – most of us have already been through that and survived.

These kinds of insights can be turning points for any of us in getting free of the shame-narratives put on us by the mental health system, by law and by many layers of societal attitudes.  In my case, being locked up as a mental patient was a signal that I was a loser and a social failure.  That was a very long time ago but the narrative persists in my self-awareness.  On the other hand, it has been hard for me to publicly claim my agency and responsibility in creating some of the beautiful principles in the CRPD.  In a conversation with a friend recently I caught myself trying to come up with explanations, source material, where it came from, it was just connecting the dots.  She said, “nobody else knew what dots to connect.”  I’ve been very much aware of the countervailing tendencies to avoid ego and to avoid being written out of history – but it makes a difference to me personally to be aware of the fact of my agency and not need to do anything more with it.

In my work on legal capacity, I have emphasized criminal responsibility and responsibility in general, because of the way that discrimination against people with psychosocial disabilities manifests as a refusal to acknowledge our moral agency.  This puts us in legal and social limbo as non-persons, it limits our interactions with others and our potential to create relationships.  But that is only from the outside and to the extent that prevailing attitudes and norms affect us and our friends and communities in real life.  Like any oppressed people, we don’t live the stereotypes about us, many of us are excruciatingly aware of moral choices and responsibilities, especially in relation to responding to others’ emotional and practical needs.  Peer support comes out of seeing each other as real, not buying the crazy-label or the illusion of moral absence.  That is why so many of us are enraged about the insanity defense and advocate for its abolition.

I think that more discussion is warranted in our community about responsibility – from an inside perspective.  What is its value to us, both spiritually and legally.  What would be required to remake law and legal responsibility into something that we see ourselves beautifully reflected in.  How we struggle successfully and unsuccessfully with views about responsibility that we have absorbed from the culture around us, which often point the finger at us and say we don’t measure up.  What we hold others responsible for, and how to make our judgments about their responsibility effective.

What is the relationship between restorative justice for us – e.g. reparations for the human rights violations of forced psychiatry, psychiatric drugging and electroshock, deaths in psychiatry and in police custody, severing of parent-child relationships – and restorative justice as a way of dealing with conflict in communities, as an alternative to police and prison, which would need to include us as equals with all other community members?  What do we know about responsibility, from our spiritual exploration and navigation?  Will there always be some disconnect between the spiritual and legal, or can law be made beautiful and evolve to continue being shaped by the truths of our lives?



Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.


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  1. Tina, this is a vast and complex and important set of questions that you raise. And I see that the article you reference has also been picked up by other survivors (Mary O’Hagan). I congratulate you for daring to venture into this territory. But I also caution you (and Mary) on the hazards of bringing our western mindset to the interpreting (making sense) of ancient spiritual traditions of the East.

    First, I thought the article itself fell into this trap. In particular, that it viewed eastern spiritual traditions from the perspective of western psychological understandings. Which could perhaps be called a “category error” (yes, I suffer the same western mindset) in that the spiritual traditions are not at all oriented towards the “therapeutic” orientation of western psychology. Rather, they are concerned with spiritual awareness and awakening, not psychological (mental) healing. Furthermore, what we in the west now call “mindfulness” is in some ways very different to where this practice sits within the collection of practices that constitute the whole if the spiritual teachings. Indeed, mindfulness in the west is often little more than the deliberate relaxation of the mind, whereas in the eastern traditions it is but one of many elements/components (techniques, understandings) in the process of spiritual awareness/awakening. Etc etc etc … so great care is required to not take “mindfulness” in isolation from (a) its larger context and (b) its role/purpose within that context. Otherwise, it becomes simplistic and naive, which is typically the case in the west’s response to eastern spiritual traditions.

    I don’t want to valorise eastern spirituality here (wonderful though it is in many ways) because it also frequently comes with serious flaws, including in the human rights area, which is very much a western, legal space. For instance, the eastern spiritual traditions frequently require devoted subservience to the “master”, which includes all the human rights abuses that are now finally being exposed in the Catholic church (amongst others).

    Your question of legal versus(?) spiritual authority intrigues me. At one level, for me personally, the moral authority that I try to observe comes very much from a spiritual sense of who I am, what the world is, and my place in that world. This is inevitably very personal and therefore cannot be generalised for any population – or society. So alongside my personal (spiritual) morality, and as someone born and raised on western (libertarian) values, I do believe in “the rule of law”. In principle. Except that law, of course, is frequently an ass. Plus it’s also usually the laws of the victors so that they’re often created out of self-interest, prejudice and discrimination.

    So although I believe in the principle I also see the need for laws to evolve to more closely reflect the spiritual morality that I most deeply believe in. Which is what your efforts do so magnificently. Though still a long way to go …

    I think I’ve gone off-track …

    But what’s prompted me to write (and rant) is to urge caution when viewing eastern, spiritual ways of understanding ourselves and the world’s we love in through the lens of western, psychological eyes. They’re very different. Both are valid. Neither is superior or better, so that neither is in a position to judge the other. And neither contains the complete answer to what we’re looking for. Rather, I believe that the hope for the future is to embrace both – as-well-as rather than instead-of – and to integrate both kinds of wisdom into a greater understanding.

    Yeah, wishful thinking, I know. But that’s my hope. And I think the questions you raise help us in that inquiry.

    Just my $0.02 worth …

    Continued blessings on your great work, Tina.

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    • This is a beautiful statement of unity and integration.

      I also very much appreciate and resonate with this:

      “…urge caution when viewing eastern, spiritual ways of understanding ourselves and the world’s we love in through the lens of western, psychological eyes. They’re very different.”

      Yes, thank you.

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    • David,

      I started to reply to you but internet wasn’t working and reply got lost in the ether.

      It looks like you are commenting on the article that I linked in my post, rather than on the content of my post itself.

      For me, spirituality is not something that belongs to any religion, any philosophical perspective or any discipline or practice. It is as accessible to any of us, as the air we breathe. Feminism promoted this insight for example in Robin Morgan (I think) ‘s classic saying, any woman can be a witch. All she has to do is say, I am a witch, I am a witch, I am a witch. It has to do with an intentional openness and exploration, it is inside each of us.

      Mindfulness, as you point out, does not necessarily imply spirituality, but it is one way of getting there.

      And spirituality is not so far away from healing. For myself, I had a dual practice for a while, focusing on healing and also on exploring spirituality. After a certain point they merged. This is a similar theme I have found repeated in my life, that I start something new that is separate from other things I’m doing, and eventually I find that it has a point of convergence or merges into a larger pattern.

      That is actually what I am finding now with the links between spiritual and legal responsibility. It is complex and not resolved, but certainly interesting to explore.

      All the best,


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  2. I agree, you’ve covered a lot here, and I’m not necessarily an expert on the topic of “mindfulness,” nor the law. But my journey was / is one of a spiritual nature, where I did become aware of who my subconscious self is, lost the ego, which I understand is the goal of meditation, to become “enlightened” so to speak. I consider myself still on this journey, however. And I am supposed to be a judge according to 40 hours of unbiased psychological career testing, so the concepts of “rule of law” and justice are inately very important to me.

    As to reparations, wow, I feel we are so far from that because the corruption goes all the way to the top, unless there is a God who plans to take care of that at this time. Basically, I believe the current psychiatric system is completely upside and backwards, if it’s goal is to help people, as they purport. According to my research and experience, the actual primary function of today’s psychiatric system seems to be covering up child abuse or adverse childhood experiences by turning the victims of abuse into “schizophrenics” with the neuroleptic drugs. Although, this often starts with other diagnoses and the other psych drug classes. I see today’s psychiatric system as a pyramid scheme of iatrogenic illness creation, an industry whose function is to gas light innocent people.

    As to responsibility, quite sincerely, since the entire psychiatric system is based upon fraudulent science, of course the psychiatrists should be held legally liable to their patients for the harm they have caused. As should the drug companies. Right now it appears to be only the governments who are profiting from the drug companies crimes against humanity. But all need to take personal responsibility as well, so I’m working on the story of how I was gaslighted by doctors and pastors. We haven’t had a good gas lighting movie since 1940, so hopefully I’ll be able to get my tale published, and perhaps turned into a film someday.

    As to a disconnect between the law and spirituality, I think a big part of the problem within today’s legal system relates to corporations being given the rights of people, and all the greed inspired problems and changes in the laws that have resulted from that unwise granting of personhood to legally mandated, psychopathic non-persons.

    We are living in a very unjust and messed up society right now, and as has been historically true, the psychiatric industry is a major perpetrator of injustice.

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    • Dear Someone Else,

      Thanks as always for commenting on my post.

      I agree with you that there are not good prospects for reparations. Right now it appears that the only revolutions that are allowed to truly succeed are those that can be assimilated into global monopoly-capitalist patriarchy to make the populations more governable. It is a bleak assessment and a bleak reality. I sometimes view what I do as preparing the groundwork, along with so many others, for what can come after, at a time when human beings may be more ready for being, I want to say, fully human in the sense of being aware of responsibilities for self and to others in ways that can let us live in greater harmony.

      It does seem to me that psychiatry as an industry of social control allied to the security state is strong, given the alliance of corporate rule to the security state in general, which is reducing the scope for citizenship and democracy (citizenship in the sense of responsiveness/taking responsibility for the well-being of the community, and democracy in the sense of collective decision-making; not citizenship in the nationalism sense or democracy in the ideological sense). It will be interesting to see where the critiques by Whitaker, Gøtsche and others will go, how far, and whether the CRPD requirements to abolish incapacity, commitment and forced interventions will be actually implemented anywhere. I have hopes still for what can happen in places where psychiatry does not have such a stranglehold as in the US, and in the US itself possibly hopes for changes at the local level based on strong community organizing and incorporating CRPD human rights concepts and principles.

      As for gaslighting, I agree that this is a big part of what psychiatry does, and also a big part of the way that people purporting to be our allies in the human rights field at times claim to agree with us but actually in the fine print are still allowing for forced psychiatry to continue – not saying emphatically it has to stop now, and taking action to make that happen. Some of it is actual constraints but a great deal is accommodation to what people are being told is the right way to do things, to go slow, not antagonize too much, etc. And then they don’t want to outright disappoint us but they are not coming all the way.

      What you say about corporate personhood, and the severing of the link between spirituality and law, is interesting. I have thought about the link between on the one hand granting personhood to fictional legal entities, and on the other denying it to human beings (legal incapacity, and forced treatment/commitment which is in part also a denial of legal capacity). It would be interesting to address this aspect of psychiatric abuse in some way, someone could do it graphically.

      Thanks again for your comments, it helps to think together and maybe we will find better ways to fight back and win.


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