Let me try that again…

November 17, 2009

I can’t really describe this post as anything but a failure. I didn’t communicate my message very well at all, and then, having failed at that, I started rambling about libertarianism, thus distracting even further from my main point. So I’m going to try again.

One point on which the author of that Post article seemed particularly emphatic was that parents whose actions lead to the death of their children should be receiving long jail sentences. I wanted to write a post in order to ask, “What would be the point of that?”

A possible justification for long jail sentences would be for its deterrent effect, thereby helping to prevent such deaths in the future. Of course, I do accept that if you tax an activity, you’ll get less of it. On the other hand, there were two factors that made me think that the threat of longer jail sentences wouldn’t have much of an effect on behavior. First, for parents, the cost of their child’s death is already very, very high. This is the principle on which ransom is based. “Perform action X, or we’ll kill your daughter,” is so bad that “we’ll kill your daughter, and you’ll go to jail for five years” isn’t that much worse. On top of that, there’s the cost in terms of social ostracism, when you choose to get medical treatment for your daughter’s condition even though all of your friends and family believe that it is morally wrong.

Second, perhaps more importantly, even if it were well-known that parents will definitely be sent to jail if their children die, it still wouldn’t have affected the behavior of these parents much, because they didn’t believe that their daughter was going to die. The idea was, prayer was supposed to heal her.

So I don’t think deterrence is a goal likely to be accomplished by giving longer prison sentences to the parents in this case. What about another justification, that regardless of whether it deters other such cases, the parents in question simply deserve to be punished for what they did? The tone of the article implies that this is the author’s true belief, but again, I think that it’s misguided.

The question of desert comes down to a question of mens rea; yes, the daughter died because of what her parents did or failed to do, but did they act with a criminally “guilty mind”? When Turley writes that parents should not be allowed to use religious belief as a defense in such cases, he’s clearly implying that he doesn’t buy the defense: it’s just an excuse. And this is why I quoted The Brothers Karamazov in the intro to my post yesterday. We simply cannot allow ourselves to believe that people with good intentions can be responsible for evil. That would imply, among other things, that we ourselves could potentially be responsible for evil. And that’s no good. So I think it’s from this impulse that we turn these parents into villains, whose daughter is dead as a result of their callous neglect.

My reaction to the article was that longer jail sentences wouldn’t serve any purpose, so it’s weird that he’s advocating them as a solution.

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2 Responses to “Let me try that again…”

  1. Rrrobert! Says:

    I see – much clearer. So what you’re saying is that the popular conception of justice owes a considerable and unacknowledged debt to our fixed ideas and cultural psychology – a debt which has little if anything to do with actual justice.

    Good point, though of course (a) it’s not clear that that’s bad and (b) justice – what the hell is it anyway.


  2. It may be a bad sign that I don’t understand your summary of my alleged point.

    I think you’re saying that I’m saying that the desire to put people in jail for doing bad stuff is often a reflexive reaction to perceived injustice, rather than a considered position that a jail sentence would actually remedy the situation in question.

    Well anyway, that’s what I was trying to say… I think.


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