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.