Responsibility test case

We talked about the case of “Kevin” as presented by Radiolab.

Necessary conditions on responsibility

What are the necessary conditions for being responsible for your actions, where “being responsible” means that you could be justifiably punished for them?

Incompatibilists say the necessary condition is that you have to be the cause of your behavior, free from any other causes outside of your control.

Compatibilists, as represented by Morse, maintain that the necessary condition is rationality: you can be responsible for your behavior only if you were rational when you did it. Last time, we talked about what, exactly, Morse means by rationality. As Leo pointed out, we had much more detailed statements about rationality on hand that someone did not think to include in the discussion. (He didn’t say it that way, of course.)

Anyway, I took the suggestion this time and distinguished two different accounts of rationality.

  1. Knowledge of (a) right and wrong and (b) what you are doing. This is the M’Naghten Rule.
  2. Knowledge and control of your behavior in the light of what you know. This is the position of the American Law Institute.

If we use the M’Naghten Rule, Kevin is pretty clearly responsible.

If we use either of the other two standards, it’s at least debatable whether he is responsible or not. On the one hand, there is a lot of evidence that his behavior was something that he could not control. On the other hand, there is some pretty good evidence that he had some control and there is at least a suggestion that he could have know to get help to exert even greater control.

We had far too rich a discussion to summarize, so I’m not going to try. I will say that Taylor wins the prize for most quotable positions. Hat’s off to him!

The big picture

If we’re going to say that Kevin cannot be punished because his brain was responsible rather than him, then we are on the road to saying that no one can be punished. After all, everyone’s brain is responsible for their behavior. At least, that’s what materialistic neuroscience seems to be on the road to showing … someday.

So what happens then? We entertained the idea that retributive punishment was something we might be better off without. Ideally we would treat the conditions that lead to anti-social behavior and incapacitate those who cannot be treated. But we would not do these things with the thought that those who were being treated or incapacitated deserved this treatment in any deep way. It is just their misfortune, much as the person who is quarantined has the misfortune of being sick (or in a zone where others are sick).

Leah pointed out the big problem here: guilt is not a necessary condition for treating a disease or incapacitating a threat to public health. Retributivists insist on guilt as a necessary condition of punishment. But we are inching up to replacing punishment with limits on people’s liberty without guilt. If we can identify the causes of anti-social behavior before it happens, we can treat it or incapacitate those who bear them, prior to the crime.

If you find that horrible, you’re hanging on to retributivism.

Then again, as Ben suggested, if we get to be really good at prediction, we’ll also be really good at treatment. So what will replace punishment, he hopes, won’t be so bad. You’ll be treated and let go. It’s not like the nightmare of being diagnosed with a psychological condition by people who refuse to let you go and insist that your denials are proof of your delusion. At least, we hope.

Key concepts

  1. The facts of Kevin’s case
  2. The difference between the M’Naghten Rule and the American Law Institute’s rules