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.




Questioning the Role of Intent in the Judicial Process

Although in theory it’s good to account for the intent of an accused individual when deciding legal responsibility, for many cases such consideration has the potential to have adverse side effects. While I do not think that our legal system should entirely disregard the intentions of a person when deciding responsibility, I think they should be considered with much scrutiny.

Firstly, while the individual may not have intended on committing the crime, in many cases the offender may have put him or herself at risk of hurting another individual. For example, if a person accidentally ran someone over while drunk driving. They clearly did not go out with the intention of killing someone, and yet by drinking and getting behind a car wheel, they put themselves at risk of harming another person. Therefore, while this individual may not be entirely at fault, punishing such an individual could act as a deterrent to others who are considering taking such risks, regardless of their intent.

Additionally, regardless of their intentions, the consequences of the accused actions may still the be the same. For example, in the case of accidental death by shaking a baby, as we discussed in class. It is all good and well to tell the mother that you did not intend on killing their child when you were babysitting, but that is not going to do much in the way of resurrecting the baby. Thus, considering intentions may not always be fair to those effected by such a crime or action.

Finally, in cases where the intentions of the individual are unclear, a criminal could easily lie about his or her thought process in the moment of the crime. In truth, it is impossible for even the most expert judge to entirely determine the exact thoughts of the accused individual’s mind. One can only speculate about such things. While it is true that a judge could use information including a historical analysis of the person, the circumstances of the case, as well as thorough investigation of the person, the only person who will know the entire truth is the offender themselves. Thus, in some cases such a person could lie about their intentions and if there is not sufficient evidence to argue otherwise, this could lead to an incorrect verdict. Evidence, on the other hand, can never lie. Therefore, when deciding legal responsibility it is better to adhere for the most part to the concrete information at hand.

Ultimately, while a judge should consider intentions, they should not be a major factor in the final judgement process. Unless the intentions are very clear and the person had absolutely no responsibility at all, I think it is best if most judicial decisions regarding responsibility are made based on facts and concrete evidence. The individualistic nature of a persons thoughts makes intentions a very unreliable piece of evidence. Additionally, the consequences remain the same regardless of intent. Although there are cases in which a person should be excused or not punished as severely because they were very obviously unaware of their actions, these cases should be few and far between. Intent will probably always play a role if we are to have an at all sympathetic judicial process, but I believe it should be limited as much as possible.

Responsibility as dependent upon Intent

Should intent be taken into account when determining moral or legal responsibility?  My answer is yes in both cases.  Although I find it more obvious that intent should play a role in the case of moral responsibility, I believe intent should also play a role in terms of legal responsibility.

Morality implies a sense of individuality.  Each person has his own sense of morality, of what is right and wrong.  If you ignore intent after one has caused harm to another, he will always be deemed responsible, regardless of whether it was an unintended consequence of an otherwise right action. 

For example, a volunteer at a homeless shelter gives a man a peanut butter sandwich and unbeknownst to either, the man has a peanut allergy.  He eventually dies of a serious allergic reaction to the sandwich 

While this example is trivial, if we ignore her intent she is morally responsible.  Ignoring any legal responsibilities, the woman’s desire to feed the man plays no part in other’s determination that she caused his death.  Moreover, the guilt she feels afterwards because she did not want to harm him means nothing.  However, I can think of no occasion when this would actually happen, since given the facts it is obvious that it was an accident.  Intent will always play a part in determining moral responsibility.  I believe we aren’t hardwired to want to cause harm to others because we are ultimately dependent upon each other for viability.  We are naturally inclined to differentiate between moral guilt and moral innocence, which is why we are willing to forgive when accidents occur and apologies are exchanged.  Furthermore, that we recognize regret and remorse proves we acknowledge the link between intent and moral responsibility.

However, in terms of legal responsibility, intent plays a lesser role.  What is legal and what is not legal is universal and objective.  Laws are spelled out and for the most part we can cite specific laws that say what is wrong.  Ignoring intent, we can objectively determine whether an action is right or wrong, making us each legally responsible all of the time.  Laws don’t say, “It is legal to hit a person while speeding to the hospital because you wife is in labor.”  You are legally responsible to obey the traffic laws, as well as maintain control of your vehicle at all times.

But there is a caveat- intent may not matter when determining whether an action is legal or not, but it does impact legal responsibility in the sentencing phase.  Whereas the laws are objective, the sentencing phase, being subjective, allows the inclusion of intent.  This congruency is apparent within the legal system because we have created classifications of responsibility.  Vehicular homicide, vehicular manslaughter- these both mean that you killed a person with your car, but the latter implies that you did not intend to do so.  Moreover, we have even further quantified exactly how responsible a person is by creating the ideas of gross negligence and simple negligence.  It has become vital for one’s intentions to play a part in the sentencing phase because it is avoids distributing overly harsh or inadequately harsh punishments.

Should Insanity Alleviate Legal Responsibility?

Professor Davis asked the class to watch a documentary entitled “The Mind of a Murderer.” The documentary, the second of a two-part PBS special aired in 1985, focuses on the crimes and trial of Kenneth Bianchi. Bianchi participated in the rape and murder of at least ten young women in the late 1970’s, and when he was arrested, he plead not guilty by reason of insanity.

Indeed, Bianchi convinced several experts in the field of psychology that he had multiple personality disorder. The documentary shows footage of several trained psychologists and psychiatrists defending Bianchi based on what they had perceived was a legitimate personality disorder. Eventually, though, investigators determined him to be faking. In fact, from my own admittedly biased outside perspective, the footage of Bianchi shows him to clearly be faking throughout the entire trial.

I realize that psychology has greatly advanced throughout the last few decades, but the fact that Bianchi was able to so easily convince the psychiatrists who examined him of his fake mental disorder is very alarming.

Say the investigators hadn’t brought in their own psychiatrists to examine Bianchi. Based on his original diagnosis, Bianchi’s innocence due to insanity would have held. He would have gotten away with the murders of ten women, which were performed in cold blood by a completely sane individual.

Perhaps if this were a unique case, it would be less alarming. However, the insanity defense has been used in several high-profile and controversial cases in the past century. One particularly famous instance of a case in which a defendant was found innocent by reason of insanity was the trial of John Hinkley in 1981 after he assassinated President John F. Kennedy. The majority of Americans were outraged, feeling that either the claim of insanity was not legitimate or that regardless of that, he had not been adequately punished for his crime.

This brings up two major questions regarding the defense of insanity:

First, is insanity easy enough to reliably determine within an individual to relieve them of any sort of legal responsibility?

Second, even if a person is truly found to be insane, does it fully release him or her from the moral responsibility that goes along with taking another person’s life?

In my opinion, insanity is too broadly defined to be used as a full-proof defense against any sort of charge of wrong-doing. In criminal law, there isn’t even an agreed upon definition of insanity. If a defendant plans out a crime while in a delusional state of mind, is he or she guilty? On one hand, the defendant is arguably insane; however, he or she was able-minded enough to intend to commit the crime. Does mens rea cancel out the defense of insanity?

Although these issues are extremely unclear, it remains important to at least acknowledge them. It seems that the legal defense of insanity may be one of but many aspects of our legal system that could use some reform.

Should Eric Charlton be held Legally Responsible?

In May 2012, 27-year-old Eric Charlton accidently shot and killed his younger brother. While drinking on a camping trip in Utah, Charlton’s handgun accidently fired, striking his brother, Cameron, in the temple. Because Charlton had not loaded a live round in the gun after replacing the bullet clip, he rightfully believed the chamber was empty. Likewise, Charlton had no intention of shooting his brother. Charlton was initially charged with second-degree felony manslaughter despite his lack of intention to kill, though this charge was later reduced to misdemeanor negligent homicide.

Under the rules of strict liability, legal responsibility is determined by wrongful intention combined with wrongful action. Intention includes actions that are done purposefully, knowingly, recklessly, and negligently. Reckless and negligent actions are included because the person is considered responsible for knowing the possible ramifications of a particular action. In the case of Eric Charlton, none of these applied because he had every reason to think the gun chamber was empty. Therefore, I believe Charlton should not be held legally responsible for his brother’s death. Though he was the cause of his brother’s accidental murder, he should not be culpable for the inadvertent loading and firing of the bullet that killed Cameron. It is an extremely tragic and sad situation, which Charlton will constantly be reminded of throughout his life. Charlton had no desire to kill his brother. He loved and cared about his brother dearly, and the coming life of trauma from this experience will serve as ample punishment for Charlton. To punish Charlton with legal sanctions on top of this is excessive and does not consider the pain he is already experiencing as a result of his brother’s death.

The purpose of legal sanctions is to discourage future crime and to serve as retribution for those who have committed crimes, along with preventing risks to society. Eric Charlton has not perpetuated criminal activity by his accidental murder of his brother, and there is no need to exacerbate his guilt and pain with legal retribution. This does not eliminate Charlton’s responsibility in his brother’s death; it simply acknowledges that he is already experiencing the grave consequences of his actions.

In conclusion, I believe intention is extremely important in determining legal and moral responsibility. When there is no criminal intent, legal sanctions should not be imposed, as trauma and guilt serve as sufficient punishments. If Charlton had accidently killed someone else who was not related to him, I think civil court fines would be appropriate, but he still should not receive jail time for such a mistake.





Moral Responsibility vs Legal Responsibility

When watching shows such as Law and Order  there is usually a clear good guy and a clear bad guy. If a defendant is found guilty, they are often painted as a morally corrupt person. However, sometimes this judgment is not so cut and dry. There are people who did not mean to harm anyone, but caused physical or emotional pain, and in some cases death. There are also some people who intended to cause harm, but were not able to do so. How do we set about to judge these people? How do we differentiate between moral and legal responsibility?

The law does not punish an attempted murder in the same way as an actual murder. It does not prioritize intentions over outcomes in the same way that many people believe moral judgment should. Everything depends on the results, whether death occurs. The law is concerned with definite results, and second with the intentions. However, knowing someone’s intentions can change your view on their innocence significantly.

Here is an example of differing intentions:


Possibility 1:

Abby and Seth work together in a large office building. They are both applying for a promotion for assistant manager. Abby gets the job so she has to go on a three week long business trip for training. She asks Seth to water the fern that is on her desk while she is on this trip. However, Seth is mad that Abby got the promotion. While she is gone, Seth does not water the fern like Abby asked. Instead, he ignores the fern. When Abby gets back, her fern is dead.


Possibility 2:

Abby and Seth work together in a large office building. They are both applying for a promotion for assistant manager. Abby gets the job so she has to go on a three week long business trip for training. She asks Seth to water the fern that is on her desk while she is on this trip. However, Seth is mad that Abby got the promotion. While she is gone, Seth does not water the fern like Abby asked. Instead, Seth pours acid on the fern. When Abby gets back, her fern is dead.


In these two situations, Seth has two differing intentions, but with the same outcome. In the first one he just ignores the fern. He doesn’t even think about it. But in the second situation Seth clearly determines to destroy the fern. Many people would say that Seth of the first situation was responsible for the death of the fern, but that he did not cause it. At the same time, the Seth of the second situation is responsible and caused the death of the fern.

So with these differing intentions we may be more inclined to judge the second Seth more harshly. This does not fit with the legal importance of outcome and that is where moral and legal responsibility ultimately calsh.

Predetermination and Legal Responsibility

Responsibility is one of the most debated aspects of legal philosophy, and rightly so.  It is one of the most vague social concepts but also is at the basis of how we view the world and the decisions we make.  Everyone wants to assign some sort of responsibility to things that happen in their lives, but it is almost impossible to perfectly assign responsibility for any one given event.  In any circumstance there are multiple reasons an event could have taken place and multiple people that could be blamed.  But the way our society and legal systems are structured necessitate that we ultimately assign blame for these actions on one person or group.  But should our laws be changed to accommodate the idea that true responsibility is impossible to assign?

In my opinion, Strawson makes a very legitimate claim in saying that responsibility as we have described it in our legal system does not truly exist.  Any action someone takes, he says, is a function of how one is as a person.  And the person had to at some point choose to become that way.  There is an infinite regress in this logic to the point that that person was a child and had no responsibility in the choices being made in his life.  Therefore, Strawson concludes, no one is truly responsible for any actions they take. 

To put his theory in terms of a hard example, let us take the instance of a child being kidnapped.  Almost any person you ask would have no trouble blaming the kidnapper for this horrible crime.  But according to Strawson, the kidnapper is not truly culpable because he never was in control of choosing to become a kidnapper.  His kidnapping of that child was a course of events set in motion since he was a child, possibly affected by his own upbringing, his environment, traumatic events in his past, or any other number of societal influences. 

So why then do we come down so harshly on this person in a court of law?  Why do we not simply chalk this event up to one of many predetermined events that happen everyday, this one just happening to be much more tragic than most?  In other words, why don’t we follow Strawson’s theory in practice if it appears to have no logical holes?  Many people will try to explain this by saying that Strawson is logically correct but that people still need to be held accountable for their actions, or that Strawson’s idea is flawed at its basis; that we all have freedom of choice in all of our decisions and actions. 

My personal theory, though, falls perfectly in line with Strawson’s theory I think, and still allows us to place legal responsibility onto those causing crimes to occur. According to Strawson’s theory, the choices in our lives and our reactions to events in our lives are basically predetermined.  This should be the same not only when speaking of crimes being committed but also of laws being made.  The first laws or societal constructs that placed blame on criminals for their actions were simply reactionary to the crimes already being committed.  The lawmaker was reacting to the crimes being committed in the way that he thought to respond, a way informed by his environment.  Therefore the creation of these laws is as much the responsibility of the lawmakers as crimes are the responsibility of criminals (which according to Strawson is not at all).  Lawmaking is simply a more global example of Strawson’s theory, and society has evolved over time to apply legal responsibility to many different kinds of legal cases.  Therefore if Strawson is taken to be correct, there is almost no use in arguing that his theory should have been put into legal practice, because in reality his theory is telling us we have never had any say or choice in the way laws are applied anyway. 

This is a very deterministic idea that is somewhat hard to wrap our minds around; that we have no say in what is happening in the world and never have.  Just because one believes in this theory though does not mean that we should advocate for letting criminals go because we do not have free will, or that we should not care about the application of the law.  I think that there is a medium between realizing that it is quite possible our choices are predetermined, and still fighting for the best outcome for society and what we believe is right.  Allowing everyone a free pass for their actions due to those actions being out of their own control does not lead to a productive society and for this reason I believe that while Strawson’s theory is plausible and likely true, we should not apply it in the sense that we take away all legal responsibilities.