I came across an incredible article the other day, which perfectly sums up my thoughts on human responsibility. I remember this topic was something I wrestled with when I was a Christian long before I started to experience any serious doubts. It’s often conflated with the ‘free will vs. determinism’ debate, but the subject of human responsibility or blameworthiness is a slightly different issue.
I hope you get a chance to read it, as it’s well worth your time. This topic has important implications for our justice system, as well as for society as a whole.
The crux of the issue is whether humans can truly be blamed for their actions. Or more specifically, whether a person’s actions can make them worthy of punishment. I take the stance that the writer of the article, neuroscientist David Eaglemen takes: vengeance and retribution should play no part in our justice system. Rather, we should be placing our emphasis on creating a healthy, and safe society. It is not necessarily an argument against incarceration or all forms of punishment. Rather it is a call for a progressive philosophy of justice which takes into account the scientific evidence which suggests that our decisions are inseparable from our biology and cognitive makeup.
I have been familiar with mental illness for as long as I can remember. My mom is paranoid schizophrenic, and one of the most amazing people I know. She did not choose to have her brain malfunction. The traditional view of human responsibility cannot explain things like her illness. Our minds are intimately connected to our physical brains. We cannot remove ourselves from the causal chain.
Eaglemen goes into many examples, from those who suffer from Tourette’s to people who have become violent as a result of brain tumors. It reminds me of what Neuronotes wrote a while back about how brain injuries can affect a person’s moral character and lead to violent, uncompassionate behavior. The point is clear: we cannot look at another person and accurately predict that we would act differently in the same situation since we don’t have that person’s genes or brain. It’s apples and oranges. Those of us who are mentally stable should be profoundly grateful that we weren’t dealt the same biological hand as a psychopath; who did not choose to have a messed up brain.
Does anyone deserve pain? I would say no; regardless of what that person has done or how evil a person is perceived to be. Does that mean we never inflict pain on other humans? No. Sometimes it is necessary. The point is, all pain inflicted should have a purpose. Punishment for the sake of retribution or vengeance is a lingering relic of past assumptions about libertarian free will that are demonstrably false, and should have no place in our justice system.