Moral Responsibility – Our Duty to Empathize

Meet Brian. Brian is 21 years old and has just been convicted of voluntary manslaughter, after breaking and entering an apartment, and shooting the homeowner to death. Brian is currently looking at no less than 11 years in a state penitentiary.

This is not Brian. To understand Brian we must first understand his childhood. Brian’s father left his mother before Brian was born. Brian’s mother, a paranoid skitsofrantic, raised Brian until he was five years old, when she was taken away by the state for trying to drown Brian in the kitchen sink. After this first horrific incident in Brian’s life, he went to live with his older brother.

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They stayed together for three years, until Brian’s brother was murdered due to gang violence. By the time he was ten years old, Brian was living on his own. Brian joined the same gang his brother had been apart of, because it was a family, a home. He spent his teen years in and out of the juvenile justice system, committing semi-serious crimes, and not attending school. The man Brian murdered had participated in a drive by shooting that killed Brian’s closest friend.

This is Brian. Brian has been completely shaped by his horrific childhood, just as we are all shaped by our own childhoods. It was not Brian’s fault that he was born into a horribly unstable family situation, in which the first emotions he knew were violence, anger and stress. Eric Hickey, a criminal psychologist, wrote that this stress caused by early childhood trauma can trigger criminal behavior in the future. It was not Brian’s fault that he received no care from his parents as a child ; Hickey goes on to write that this lack of parental guidance can lead to the inability to cope with stress, which in turn leads to the offending acts. It was not Brian’s fault that he decided to join a gang.

While it was Brian’s decision, it was a decision made out of dire necessity ; thus it was not a decision at all. By this time Brian’s path was laid out for him by the gang and the juvenile justice system. When confronted by the stress of seeing his best friend murdered, Brian reacted with violence and anger — just as fortune had prepared him to. _____________________________________________________________________ Meet Sebastian. Sebastian is 32 years old and has just been convicted of involuntary manslaughter, after driving across a median and killing a teenager, while under the influence. Sebastian is currently looking at 22 months in prison after a plea deal, with the possibility of parole.

This is not Sebastian. Sebastian suffers from alcohol addiction. He started drinking heavily in response to the sudden death of his mother, almost six years ago. After realizing that Sebastian’s drinking was becoming a serious problem, his friends advised him to check into a rehabilitation facility. Sebastian refused, claiming that he was not addicted.

Sebastian never believed that his drinking was a problem until he was caught driving drunk, had his license suspended, and spent a small amount of time in jail. At this point, almost two years ago, Sebastian decided to completely refrain from drinking. To understand Sebastian, we must understand addiction. Alan Brody in his essay, Addicts, Mythmakers and Philosophers, defined addiction as a “disorder involving a compulsive process which undermines the ability to regulate one’s behavior”. Brody characterizes addiction as a disability, (similar to paralysis) that prevents people like Sebastian from doing certain things.

In this case, from regulating his drinking behavior. Sebastian would prefer to abstain from drinking altogether, because he understands the negative effects it can bring about ; after a cost-benefit analysis of abstinence, Sebastian decides that drinking is just not worth it. However, due to his addiction, Sebastian is unable to regulate his preferences and decides to drink “in spite of his resolve to remain abstinent”. Sebastian is not some heinous villain deficient of sound moral principles ; he is simply deprived of the ability to act on his preferences. Sebastian did not want to go out driving the night he killed that teenager. He was driven to it (no pun intended) by the overarching reach that addiction has on his life.

_____________________________________________________________________ Meet Flynn. Flynn is 23 years old and is currently sitting on death row. Flynn is a serial rapist and was found guilty of raping innocent women on thirteen separate occasions. As you may have guessed, this is not Flynn. To understand Flynn, we must understand psychopathy.

Flynn (along with 1% of the entire human population) is a psychopath, and can be considered morally insane. In his book, The Moral Landscape, Sam Harris shows how activity in the brain leads to the actions of psychopaths. Harris writes that people like Flynn “exhibit significantly less activity in regions of the brain that generally respond to emotional stimuli… [which] serve as anchors to social and moral norms”. They also “show abnormally high activity in the reward regions of the brain… [which] leads to risky and predatory behavior”. No argument can be made that Flynn is responsible for the level of activity in specific regions of his own brain.

However, there is significant evidence that these factors have a huge impact on the behavior that human beings exhibit. Flynn cannot understand that what he did to those thirteen women was absolutely appalling, or that it may have negatively affected them at all. In his mind he was acting on his own pleasures, as all human do, is it his fault that he couldn’t comprehend the consequences of his actions? _____________________________________________________________________ Brian, Sebastian, and Flynn all pose an obvious danger to society, and clearly prisons should be built to keep them from harming others. However, if we empathize with each of their own situations we will realize that all of them are, as Harris writes, “some combination of bad genes, bad parents, bad ideas and bad luck” — all of which are qualities they do not deserve to be punished for. The question then becomes : where does moral responsibility fit into these situations? Brian and Sebastian are diseased individuals, but the state could have taken serious steps to stop this from becoming true. Solutions in Brian’s case include more funding for foster care programs, more attention toward under-privileged kids in the public schools, and a juvenile justice system based on rehabilitation rather than punishment.

Solutions in Sebastian’s case include a better understanding of alcohol addiction, and state mandated treatment centers free of cost. Our current criminal justice system, unfortunately, puts Brian and Sebastian into a situation which inhibits their growth, and they will return to society one day much worse off than they were when the entered prison. The state is morally responsible to make restorative justice programs readily available to those people whom were dealt a very bad hand in life ; Brian and Sebastian, likewise, are responsible for taking part in their own rehabilitation. Unfortunately for Flynn, psychopathy is a little known subject of modern science, and therefore viable solutions aren’t yet known. However, we do know that the brain is malleable even in adulthood, and with advances in neuroscience, such solutions could someday be found. As we as a society continue to understand how arbitrary factors impact the actions of individuals, the state will become more and more morally responsible to help rather than punish those diseased people who create disturbances in society.

The state, as Harris writes would be “immoral not to recognize just how much luck is involved in morality”.