Mens Rea, the Sickness of Comparison, and the Benefit of the Doubt


I. Intro
I would like to share a connection between the U.S. understanding of justice and our everyday life with colleagues, friends, and partners.  Once upon a time, I studied a bit of law alongside business.  (Incidentally, I decided to travel a crazy itinerary to South Africa, Turkey, Morocco, and Switzerland to enjoy that summer instead of studying for the bar exam.  I have never once regretted that.)  

II. What is Mens Rea?
I remember being pretty intrigued when our esteemed professor Mr. Butler told us about mens rea in Criminal Law class.  In our legal system, the mens rea is an important aspect of how we assess guilt and the severity of wrongdoing.  Mens Rea means “guilty mind” in Latin.

I want to provide just enough background information to provide us a base for making the connections to our everyday lives.  

Findlaw tells us:

In other words, [mens rea refers to] what a defendant was thinking and what the defendant intended when the crime was committed. Mens rea allows the criminal justice system to differentiate between someone who did not mean to commit a crime and someone who intentionally set out to commit a crime.

To give an example, imagine two drivers who end up hitting and killing a pedestrian. Driver 1 never saw the person until it was too late, tried his or her best to brake, but could do nothing to stop the accident and in fact ended up killing the pedestrian. Driver 1 is still liable, but likely only in civil court for monetary damages.

Driver 2, on the other hand, had been out looking for the pedestrian and upon seeing him, steered towards him, hit the gas pedal and slammed into him, killing him instantly. Driver 2 is probably criminally liable because he intended to kill the pedestrian, or at least he intended to cause serious bodily harm. Even though the pedestrian is killed in both scenarios (the outcome is the same), the intent of both drivers was very different and their punishments will be substantially different as a result.

Mens rea is distinguished from actus reus, which means guilty act. Only rarely, in cases of strict liability, can an outer act alone independent of the intention/state of mind produce guilt in our justice system.

III.  Connections

So the questions I would like to ask based on observation of my own mind are:
1. How often do we assign guilt to others in everyday interactions based only on a guilty act and not their state of mind?  
2. And furthermore, how often do we deem our own act or another’s a “guilty act” based on our own intolerant and subjective judgments of right and wrong?

A. First question.  For example, say I am out on the balcony making an important phone call.  My landlord innocently stops by, I invite him out to the balcony, and he gently pauses me to ask me an important question.  After a brief, pleasant interaction, he walks back through my apartment and absent-mindedly locks me out on the balcony.  

My own negative narratives stem from what we might agree is a kind of guilty act on the part of my landlord.  But certainly not a conscious, negative ill will.  

First of all, it bears mentioning my landlord is not the only one who has made mistakes.  And how often have I made a mistake and wished people could have understanding for me!  

Moreover, when I attribute guilt rather than understanding to my landlord, I become an angry victim.  My victim loves indulging in the narrative that I am being singled our for persecution.  That life is ultimately something against me.  It loves when proof and confirmation of that story arrives.  It actually eats it up with relish.

As soon as I project and assume a guilty mens rea and feed my victim, I have lost this round to my shadow.  

Self-righteousness, judgment, and indignant anger don’t serve me.  It sounds obvious right?  But how to remember our higher values in that moment?  How to not explain away and rationalize this part of myself that does indeed exist?  

The challenge is when the challenge comes, just as life configures itself in just such a way to reveal some of our shadows.  In my point of view, that is part of life’s beauty to give us a chance to grow beyond our own limitations through conscious goodwill.  Give ourselves a break and some gentleness and acceptance, absolutely, but also keep orienting towards a better version of ourselves, over and over every time we fall.  Keep getting up and remember the lessons learned from this battle, if we want to win the war so to speak.  


B. Second question.  Many of us, dare I say nearly all of us, suffer from the sickness of comparison.  How often were you compared to siblings, friends, other people by your parents and other people in your lifetime?  

Let’s bring in the example of two friends who are on a deep path of spiritual/personal development and transformation.  

Friend #1 has a conversation with his family about their distorted relationship with work, and realizes he can extend understanding and acceptance.  Simultaneously, he recognizes that sharing his honest perception can help heal his own roots and parents.  At some point during the conversation, he, his father, and mother all cry.  It’s beautiful.    

Friend #2 has a sister who is unloading some past hurts on their father.  He sees it as a moment to observe and realizes it is not his responsibility to try to be a hero and intervene and help everyone.  He offers his presence and observation and lets them work through it.  He doesn’t let his own discomfort get the better of the situation and try to “fix it.”  He understands that sometimes these challenging, destabilizing moments are part of what leads us to better places.

The situations have their own nuances, but also share enough common ground to produce understanding.  When I heard these two stories in the same context, I noticed my own discomfort and insecurity.  It was connected to the part of me that believes there is only one right way to handle situations.  When I share a story and then somebody shares a similar one but had chosen something different in the way of action, I sometimes feel inferior like my choice was wrong.  Or I sometimes feel their decision was inferior and feed my self-righteousness.  

I will try to convey the essence of the shadow side of comparison as I understand it.

The sickness of comparison focuses on the surface level act, rather than the underlying motivation and intention. It focuses on appearance. Its sole intention is to produce one normal.  It loves to insist on one right way.  It doesn’t allow for uniqueness and individuality.  Comparison is the enemy of diversity and respect.  It likes everyone to be yellow, instead of allowing for the rainbow.   We rely on normal as an external indicator of how we should be to fit in, not rock the boat, and deal with our own insecurity.  But isn’t normal what has created our society as it is?  Should normal be the guide?    

In the case of these two friends, love and truth can be motivating each of them through infinite variables and nuances and their own uniqueness to make different decisions.  Again it is the state of mind, not the act alone which matters.  It could have been easy to side with one of them and declare that one champion of the world.  It sometimes feels safer to think in black and white.   

Despite whatever we might think about the shortcomings of our criminal justice system, there is an undeniable logic in the importance of the mens rea.  There is also an undeniable logic in focusing on understanding our own motivations and intentions, as well as others', rather than looking only at the surface level action.  

IV. Conclusion

Even when we are pretty confident of our rightness in a situation relative to the other, it pays not to feed a narrative that makes the other guilty and thereby victimizes ourselves.  We only disown our inner authority and responsiveness and get stuck in reaction and blame.  We don’t end up feeling good.  It is a simple practicality.  

The benefit of the doubt is when we challenge our own inner narrative and perception to extend generosity and empathy to the other.  We don’t assume we know this or have this already, we keep practicing challenging and overcoming the shadows which get in the way of our higher human values.  The one who most benefits from extending the benefit of the doubt is ourselves actually.