Monday, February 7, 2011

Moral Objectivity vs. Moral Pragmatism in Punishment

Consider a compare-and-contrast type of scenario. A man is convicted, with sufficient evidence, of committing several murders. People rightly assign moral blame and believe justice has been done. Suppose that same man had instead been kidnapped by an evil organization. He was implanted with a device which connected wirelessly to a supercomputer. This supercomputer controlled every action, and indeed every single thought or process in his mind and body. The supercomputer was programmed and controlled by the evil organization. They caused him to kill several people in cold blood. They even caused him to want to kill them, and to plan to do so (controlling even his plan and thoughts about it!).

It is clear our moral intuitions assign blame in the first case, but not in the second. In fact, were we able to do so, we would say if the man in the second case could be “unhooked” from the supercomputer, and the evil organization could be apprehended, then we would hold them responsible, and not the man. This illustrates we do in fact intuitively believe we are morally-acting free agents. For if we were determined to do what we in fact do, it matters not whether we are determined by one thing or another (at least in terms of moral culpability).

Now a “moral-justice pragmatist” (so-called because even though he is a determinist he nonetheless believes punishment may be meted out on a pragmatic basis, to avoid future crime) may avoid this problem altogether by agreeing the man in the second case should not suffer punishment. This is because there is no indication from the scenario the man would repeat a crime. For these people I would ask them to consider a second thought experiment.

Suppose a man witnesses a violent and brutal mugging of an elderly lady by a single assailant one night as he is walking home. As it turns out, the man is wonderfully proficient in martial arts. There is no question that he would have stopped the man from harming the woman. Instead, citing non-interference, the man does nothing. Moral objectivists rightly call “foul!” Though he may not be punished by the law, he clearly had a moral obligation to stop the brutal mugging (we are also assuming, for the sake of argument, the man fulfilled whatever legal obligations were binding upon him [such as reporting the incident to police after it occurred, and making himself available as a witness], all of which are irrelevant to the singular action at hand). However, the pragmatist here simply has no justification for moral or legal punishment. On this view, he did something perhaps out of style or taste, but not anything really wrong.

Now let us consider one final thought experiment. A mentally handicapped young man observes violence in movies and life, and believes this to be some sort of “playing.” He ends up killing a young acquaintance in an accidental death as a direct result of this violent behavior. The objectivist does not typically hold the man responsible. It is understood that he did not form any moral intent, nor could he have understood what he was doing or be expected to know its results. Yet the pragmatist has no such basis for this view. There’s no indication he would not do the same thing again to someone else, and thus he should be punished. Placing him in a mental facility shows a distinction made between his action and another’s, but as we have demonstrated, it does not matter for moral responsibility (in a pragmatic sense) what determines your actions; if one can be punished for an action not determined by him, then there’s no reason to differentiate punishments on the basis of intent of action. That is to say, the pragmatist may dole out different punishments for different actions, but between similar actions intent does not make a difference to moral culpability (as on determinism intent is largely a fiction).

So, while the pragmatist may agree with the objectivist in the first scenario, he is forced in the second to hold a man guiltless who apparently has done a reprehensible thing; he is forced in the third to hold a man who could not have known any better just as culpable as a run-of-the-mill murderer.

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