Guilty, but not responsible?
Any scientific developments that threatened our notion of free will would seem to put the ethics of punishing people for their bad behaviour in question. In Free Will Harris debates these ideas and asks whether or not, given what brain science is telling us, criminal justice, in focusing on retribution, rests on an entirely false basis. An example he gives is a murderer who kills because of a brain tumour. This person is a victim, not a criminal. The tumour is the cause of his crimes. People imagine that the normal brain is a different story. But in fact the study of any criminal brain, says Harris, is the equivalent of finding a tumour in it – the wrong genes being transcribed, the brain being dictated by events over which he has no control. Human choice, says Harris,
“…is as important as fanciers of free will believe. But the next choice you make will come out of the darkness of prior causes that you, the conscious witness of your experience, did not bring into being.”
Clearly we need to lock up dangerous people. But there is no sense to the idea that they somehow deserve it. Retributive justice is like requiring us to hate, as well as shoot, a wild animal who escapes from the zoo.”
When we say lock up, are we still talking about punishment? Inside the forensic hospitals I have visited, there is a brick-solid tension between staff and inmates/patients as to how to treat them. A common dilemma the staff struggles with is should they been treat the prisoners as medical patients and deliver care since they are generally not guilty by reason of insanity (NGRI) or should they be treated like as captured monsters, since dangerous behavior IS what landed them there? Staff safety is a major concern obviously. Taking a tip from Norway, a novel change would be a path toward first treating them like humans- since no matter what they did/how heinous it was - that’s all they are.