A World Without Moral Responsiblity?

How are moral responsibility and mental responsibility the same and why are some people not morally responsible because they are not mentally responsible? Those are the two main questions I came up with as we discussed Strawson in class. Strawson believes there is an intrinsic link between mental responsibility and moral responsibility such that without the former the latter cannot exist. Similarly Dr. Dorothy Lewis, a psychiatrist who studies serial killers and criminals, has found a link between the mental state of serial killers and moral responsibility. She, like Strawson, believes that certain people are not morally responsible for their actions.

In his ‘Basic Argument,’ Galen Strawson argues that a person needs be in a certain mental state in order to be morally responsible for their actions. He believes a person must have a mental reason for their actions and they must be mentally responsible for themselves (6). Strawson relies heavily on the mental state of a person to establish moral responsibility. Similarly, Dr. Dorothy Lewis believes that a serial killer is responsible for their actions if they experience abuse, mental illness(es), and brain damage. Only after fulfilling all three criterions, can Dr. Lewis diagnose someone as not being morally responsible for their actions. Dr. Lewis’ rationality aligns with Strawson’s idea that causa sui – cause of itself – is not possible. External forces push on a person and lead to unfortunate circumstances. Dr. Lewis states that murderers are made and not born (“Mind of A Murderer”). Their crimes are not because of them, but because of the abuses they experience and the damages they incur.

Both claim that people are not morally responsible for their actions, however, if they are not responsible them what happens to our legal system? If Ted Bundy or Jeffrey Dahmer are not morally responsible for their actions because they may have brain damage, a mental illness and a history of abuse, then who do we hold responsible for the lives they took? Our society would crumble if prosecutors decided that certain people have broken mental states and are not responsible for lives they take. The question then becomes, do those killers live freely in society since they are not prosecutable or do they go off to facilities with others who are not mentally responsible for themselves? Do we create an alternative world so they can live without moral responsibility while we continue to prosecute people here who are morally responsible? Dr. Lewis gives her three-prong test to establish moral responsibility, but what if those are not enough or too many; where do we draw the line at whom is morally responsible and who is not? No one would ever have a reason to take responsibility for their actions.

There is also a link between moral responsibility and legal responsibility. In most cases, when an action is illegal it is also immoral. What would become of our society if murder were no longer immoral for a certain section of the population, would our laws change to suit that new moral standard? Would the society have to redefine morality? If that were the case, would murder then not become a moral standard for those who are not mentally responsible? Then, would we have to open all of the prisons in the world and release those who pass these new tests to determine who is and is not morally responsible? What would become of their punishments and what punishments would the society dole out for those who are morally responsible (by the new standard)? As these questions demonstrate, the legal and moral standards of a society would have to change to incorporate this new population that is not beholden to the same legal or moral responsibilities as the rest of the world if we allow others to not be morally responsible for their actions.




2 thoughts on “A World Without Moral Responsiblity?

  1. I do agree that there is an intrinsic link between moral and mental (or legal) responsibility; however, I don’t see how the two can be considered the same, for they merit such different judgment and consideration. Unlike Strawson, I think there are certain instances in which circumstances lend moral responsibility without legal responsibility–or vice versa. Say, for instance, a person is found not guilty by reason of insanity. While this defendant may not have to endure the legal repercussions that someone found guilty of the same crime would be subjected to, I still think there is a degree of moral responsibility involved; the defendant’s actions still elicited or brought about a series of events for which he or she is morally responsible whether this responsibility is recognized or not.

    Whereas legal responsibility is arguably easier to determine due to evidence, testimony, analysis, precedence, etc., moral responsibility is more vague and ambiguous. There are no tests to take or machines to run to determine morality or moral responsibility. For this reason, I think moral and mental (legal) responsibility cannot be considered the same.

  2. I think Strawson would say that nothing except our approach or perception changes if the Basic Argument is true. If I cannot be wholly responsible for my actions by Strawson’s reasoning, then no one in history has been wholly responsible either. The law need not accommodate a new population; rather, the law would need to reflect that fact that we’ve had an incomplete view of responsibility up to this point in time.

    If there were changes in the legal system, they would only reflect the fact that someone accepting Strawson’s view might think that intent plays a small role in determining responsibility. On this view, perhaps all crimes would be judged from a strict liability standpoint. Strawson may think that Dahmer could not be responsible because he did not choose to be in the state he was in when he acted, but he could still think that the law has an interest in continuing to detain murderers.

    I’m not sure I agree that an action that is illegal is also considered immoral. People in positions of authority may seem to think along these lines, such as the policeman or judge who considers it a horrible breach of your contract with other drivers if you go eight miles above the speed limit or run a red light. However, I imagine that your average person has a more flexible view of morality, where certain laws serve more as guidelines that as a strict moral code. I can’t imagine anyone feeling guilty and running off to his priest to confess that he went a few miles of the speed limit or rolled through a stop sign. The law serves more to make society run smoothly, and society probably runs more smoothly with the Dahmers and Bundys of the world behind bars or in rehabilitation cells.

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