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Justifying Affluenza by Philosophical Theories Research Paper

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Updated: Sep 13th, 2020


The Ethan Couch care is one of the most famous recent examples of the use of affluenza defense in criminal court. Essentially, affluenza defense argues that the person has “a diminished sense of responsibility due to his [or her] wealth, pampered childhood, and absentee parenting” (Zurcher par. 3). The case of Ethan Couch, a 16-year-old teenager from a wealthy family, gained national attention in 2013. On 15 June that year, Ethan was drunk driving, lost control of his car and hit several pedestrians, four of whom died in the incident (Zurcher par. 2). In this case, the wealth of the teenager’s family was used to his advantage and presented in court as a mitigating circumstance. The lawyers argued that having been raised in a wealthy family, Ethan had little sense of the consequences of his actions, which led to irresponsible behavior that harmed people (Zurich par. 3).

The judge agreed with the defense, deciding for the teenager to be sent to a high-end California drug rehabilitation center, paid by the parents (Zurich par. 1). Ethan received no jail time for killing four innocent people, which lead to a national uproar, both in the press and among the public (Zurich par. 1-2). Indeed, the sentence was too soft for the nature of the crime and its consequences. Moreover, the case highlighted the biased nature of the United States justice system: the entire affluenza defense rests on the fact that people from wealthy backgrounds should not be held responsible for their actions in the way that middle or low-class people are. The ethical and moral controversy that surrounded the case and the defense argument used can be described using two philosophical theories: brute-luck egalitarianism and moral relativism.

Brute-Luck Egalitarianism

The theory of brute-luck egalitarianism stands on three main principles. First, that the outcomes of actions that are not deliberate are unjust (Knight 1061). Second, that the outcomes of deliberate gambles are unjust (Knight 1061). Lastly, the theory argues that results are just in the cases where the individual’s choices are not influenced by his or her luck (Knight 1061). In the case with Ethan Couch, brute-luck egalitarianism can be applied in his defense. Here, the family’s wealth can be viewed as an example of luck or gamble; in this way, if Ethan’s actions are seen as the direct outcome of his family’s financial status, the damage incurred as a result of these actions is unfair.

Apparently, the affluenza defense presented the case in a similar light, linking the teenager’s drunk driving, which was the ultimate cause of the incident, to his family’s position and his upbringing. Therefore, the strategy of the affluenza defense in Ethan Couch case can be best outlined as the following sequence. First, the lawyers connected the crime directly to the family’s wealth. Second, they utilized the brute-luck egalitarianism theory, effectively arguing that since the family’s affluence was not the result of Ethan’s deliberate actions or choices, then the crime should not be treated as such, too.

Moral Relativism

Another philosophical theory that could be applied to the case is the theory of moral relativism. In the traditional view of the concept, moral relativism consists of three separate components (Quintelier & Fessler 96). Firstly, the theory states that “descriptive, prescriptive, or meta-ethical aspects of prescriptive terms such as ‘right,’ ‘wrong,’ ‘ought,’ etc. (e.g., their use, legitimacy, or meaning) are relative to a moral view” (Quintelier & Fessler 96). Secondly, moral relativism implies the variation of moral views and values, stipulating that there is no standard applicable to all individuals under all circumstances (Quintelier & Fessler 96).

Lastly, the theory argues that this variation is an embedded part of all aspects of people’s lives, meaning that it cannot be overcome by following standardized rules (Quintelier & Fessler 96). In general, moral relativism implies the power of situations and circumstances, as well as the individual’s traits, over the standards and laws set by the society. In the case with affluenza, for instance, the application of theory is especially relevant: family wealth and upbringing are circumstantial and vary between the families. By utilizing moral relativism, the justice system gains the opportunity to distinguish the outcomes of cases for middle, low, and high-class citizens by insisting on the differences in financial circumstances, while at the same time arguing that they ultimately pushed the person into committing a crime.


Nevertheless, there are two main problems with justifying affluenza by philosophic theories. First, even though both theories stipulate the substantial role of external circumstances in the outcomes of people’s actions, this logic is usually applied to people of high economic status. There is little regard for lower-class people, who might be similarly driven to commit unlawful actions because of depression, unemployment, or lack of money. Secondly, if we attribute the power of influence to situations, we are ultimately depriving people of their right to choose between right and wrong actions. Overall, despite the opportunity to justify affluenza by philosophical theories, the application of this type of defense in criminal law is problematic and needs to be revised to promote the equality of justice.

Works Cited

Knight, Carl. “Egalitarian Justice and Expected Value.” Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, vol. 16, no. 5, 2013, pp. 1061-1073.

Quintelier, Katinka, and Daniel Fessler. “Varying Versions of Moral Relativism: The Philosophy and Psychology of Normative Relativism.” Biology & Philosophy, vol. 27, no. 1, 2012, pp. 95-113.

Zurcher, Anthony. “.” BBC News.

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