Is there anyone in the world who is truly irredeemable? Can you think of someone who did terrible things and had no justification or excuse for acting that way? Generally speaking, we all have people that come to our minds when asked that question. For some it may be historical dictators like Stalin or famous criminals like Charles Manson, or for others it may be someone who has wronged them in their personal lives. Most everyone can agree on this, however: those who consistently harm others for their own personal gain are bad people.
Unfortunately, it’s rarely that simple in a court of law, or even in the court of public opinion. Determining whether or not someone is at fault is a tricky task that involves diving into their past and their brain to figure out why they do what they do. A common way lawyers will defend their clients is to have them plead insanity. This tells the courtroom that the defendant was psychologically unable to understand laws and morals, and they should not be held accountable for the crimes they committed. Another way a defendant can be cleared is by proving coercion or entrapment. This usually applies to the government. For example, a police officer can’t go undercover and harass someone on the streets, asking that person to illegally sell the officer a prescription drug that the officer claims to desperately need. Police officers cannot pressure someone into doing something that they wouldn’t normally do. Most people would agree that neither the clinically insane nor the legally entrapped deserve to “pay for their crimes.”
However, this way of thinking implies quite a bit more than just lighter sentencing. Speaking ethically, regardless of what the law says, if you can’t be held morally accountable for something an officer coerced you into doing, then what would be different about something a friend or family member coerced you into doing? If anything, the friend or family member would have more influence over you than the “random passerby.” They could probably get you to do even worse things than prescription drug deals with enough pressure.
In the same way, societal pressures can be even more coercive than interpersonal ones. If you found yourself in a place in life where you couldn’t afford food for yourself and your family, then stealing food from those who have an abundance may, in some circumstances, be morally justified. Living in an area with no opportunities to work or leave may lead to people dealing drugs, or even buying them to escape their hopelessness.
Similarly, the ability to plead insanity shows us that brain function affects moral accountability as well. Should someone who was born with predisposed violent tendencies be held to the same standard as someone who’s never so much as squashed a bug? Even if they weren’t born with it, being raised in a violent home leads to kids becoming more violent as they grow up and at no fault of their own. Ultimately, someone’s actions and personality are wholly determined by factors of both nature and nurture, neither of which they have any control over.
If you’re still not convinced, ask yourself this: what aspects of my personality and disposition did not come directly or indirectly from the way my brain naturally works or the way I was raised? It’s unlikely you’ll find an answer. It’s a principle of psychology that every action we take is for a reason. Internal functions and external stimuli determine how we react to things and how we are changed afterward. In this way, every “bad person” that exists is just a victim of circumstance, someone who is either misunderstood or simply raised wrong. It certainly doesn’t sound like a fun thing to believe, as it simultaneously robs us of both free will and all accountability for our actions, but from a secular perspective, it’s the logical endpoint of the current moral framework we use.
Many people, when asked why they believe the things they do about morality, will say that morals come from the religion they follow. Certain things are forbidden or required because the god or prophet of their religion forbids or requires them. This is one worldview that skillfully sidesteps secular predestination, but unfortunately cannot be relied upon in our legal system. The separation of Church and State requires the government to morally justify their laws independently from any religious teaching.
This view of accountability isn’t exactly helpful in the legal system though. The idea that no one is at fault for their actions isn’t how we process the world, and certainly isn’t very helpful when trying to keep dangerous criminals off the streets. The biggest reason this issue is important arises in interpersonal relationships. The people in your life who you’re closest to will sometimes appear to betray you. Sometimes there are people who seem to be mean for absolutely no reason at all. It’s important to remember that there is always a reason for the action. Seeking to understand those who hurt you is an important step towards forgiveness and is ultimately better for you both in the long run. Once you understand why they act the way they do, it’s much harder to be angry. It will also help you find a solution to the conflict without leaving yourself vulnerable to being taken advantage of again. In the end, it’s always better to know what you’re dealing with, and the best way to know is by seeking to understand.
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