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To what extent is a wrong-doer responsible for their actions?

  1. Mar 15, 2009 #1
    To what extent is a wrong-doer responsible for their actions? If a person is not responsible for their own actions, it doesn't seem quite right to punish the person. For instance...

    If a homicidal maniac is driven to do evil things by an uncontrollable compulsion, do we say that this person is evil and should be punished or do we say that he has a mental disorder that makes him non-responsible for his own actions?

    If the answer is the latter, can anyone ever be responsible for any wrong-doings that they do?

    If an investment banker runs a fraudulent pyramid scheme that ruins the lives of hundreds of people, do we say that the banker is just an evil bastard who needs to go to jail. Or, alternatively, do we make the assessment that "no normal person who can control their actions would purposefully ruin the lives of hundreds of people". Therefore, this banker must suffer from a mental disease that makes him irresponsible for his own actions.

    Any thoughts?
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 16, 2009 #2
    Re: Responsibility

    If a person accidentally runs over someone with their car, they are still responsible, even if it wasn't their intention. Same is true for a person that runs someone over and it is intentional. Both are responsible. Whom should be punished is another question.
  4. Mar 16, 2009 #3
    Re: Responsibility

    "mental disease" isnt a word you just throw around like you're doing here.
  5. Mar 18, 2009 #4
    Re: Responsibility

    Even if no personal responsibility existed, it would still be entirely rational to punish people in a preventative manner for deterrence. However, the reason we hold people who are mentally sane responsible for their actions and not the mentally ill, is because the mentally sane can usually predict the outcome of their actions and act to avoid unpleasant consequences. Insane people usually can't.
  6. Mar 19, 2009 #5


    Staff: Mentor

    Re: Responsibility

    From a psychological standpoint punishment is a type of operant conditioning, or in other words a way to teach an animal and thereby change its behavior. The effect of punishment on a healthy animal is to reduce the behavior. In this sense the truly insane cannot be punished, because they cannot learn to reduce the behavior.

    That said, it is still rational for a society to punish (in the legal sense) the truly insane. In this case it is done, not in the interest of reforming the criminal, but in the interest of protecting the remainder of society. You may not be able to change the criminally insane behavior, but you can prevent the insane criminal from having the opportunity to harm others with his behavior.
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