I saw a news report on television about a judge who released a man who had been found guilty of raping two children. Asked by some reporters why he let the sex offender go, the judge said that prison was not appropriate because this man has a disease. The basis for this outrageous decision was the judge’s own belief in the disease model. It seems that the judge himself had an addiction to alcohol and had completely accepted the disease model of addiction. Concerning a convicted pedophile who had raped two children, the judge said: “He has a disease like I do.”
The truth is, neither the judge nor the convicted child rapist had a disease, and both of them were responsible for their own actions. Yet the judge used the disease model to rationalize his own behavior as well as excuse the behavior of a convicted pedophile. By blaming behavior on biology or genes, the judge relieves himself and others of the responsibility for their actions, and the logical consequence of his belief about his alcohol addiction is to extend the disease model to other behaviors. Sickness and genes, however, do not cause people to lose control of their behaviors, and addiction is not a disease.
To accept the disease label implies that people must accommodate those who are sick by not holding them to account for their irresponsible behaviors, which in this case means that a convicted sex offender is released from prison.
Although the above example may seem extreme, it is the logical consequence of believing that behavior is the fault of biology. As Schaler (1998) notes, “The disease model is being applied to any socially unacceptable behavior as a means of absolving people of responsibility for their actions, criminal or otherwise” (236).
When people feel absolved of responsibility for their actions, the expectations are that others must accommodate them in their sickness. As a society, we rightly make accommodations for people who are handicapped or disabled by attempting to remove the barriers that would prevent them from living life to the fullest extent possible. However, when this principle is applied to drug and alcohol abuse, gambling, shopping, eating, sex, and other behaviors, a perversion of this benevolent rule occurs. It exploits the goodness of society while crippling the will and confidence of those who are addicted.
The sickness label not only harms society, as the above illustration suggests, but it also harms those who are labeled. When people view strong desires and emotions as a sickness, they tend to display the behavior of whatever sickness they have been assigned; that is, they behave in all the ways suggested by the label. People feel helpless and hopeless about their condition and become passive participants in the treatment process. This means they look to doctors to cure them, or family to care for them, or employers to accommodate them, or religion to provide what they will not provide for themselves.
J B Myers