Guest post: Responsibility, character, retribution

A guest post by the philosophical primate, extracted from a comment on Prison disagreed with him.

In calling him a bully and a coward, I addressed Castro’s moral character, and expressed a character judgment. That has bugger all to do with retributive justice.

In fact, one of the aims of a legitimate, socially constructive penal system (which we do not have in this country) is that it offers those convicted of crimes the opportunity and resources to reform their character, to become better human beings. As you said, rehabilitation should be our aim, not retribution — and what is rehabilitation but character reform? But even in American prisons, for all their flaws, some people have used their time in prison to face their own past — not just their criminal actions, but the life history that led up to their criminal actions — and sought to overcome their problems and confront their guilt. In short, they’ve tried to become better human beings, tried to rehabilitate themselves. But becoming a better human being is difficult, and Castro appears to have been too much the coward to even contemplate such a struggle. Instead, he denied responsibility for his actions repeatedly, then escaped the consequences of those actions at the earliest opportunity. Thus, even the last action of his existence was morally blameworthy.

As Hume pointed out a few centuries back (in Enquiry, Section VIII, Part II), the whole business of making moral judgments absolutely requires that people’s behavior is caused by their character. When we judge that an action was not produced by a person’s actual intentions and predispositions — for example, in a genuine accident — we don’t assign moral blame. The fact that character is itself the result of a causal chain in no way negates the possibility of making moral judgments, or sensibly using concepts such as responsibility and blame. Were there reasons why Ariel Castro was a loathsome human being? Logically and psychologically, there certainly must have been: People develop, they don’t just spring into existence wholly formed. Do the causal forces that shaped Ariel Castro into a bully, a coward, and overall vicious person (in the classical sense of vicious, as opposed to virtuous) somehow expiate his responsibility for his actions? Not in the slightest.

Holding people responsible for their actions is not the same as retribution, and some of your arguments here seem to confuse this vital distinction.


  1. Minnow says

    “As you said, rehabilitation should be our aim, not retribution”

    Why? Where does that ‘should’ come from? Don’t get me wrong, I am all for rehabilitation in many circumstances, but in a case like Castro, it is nonsense. There was absolutely no chance that he would repeat his crime (and that is the goal of prison rehabilitation, not some mystical reconstruction of the soul), so, if rehab was really the only legitimate aim of the system, he should have been released. There would even be a case for releasing him with a substantial financial package to help him relocate (that would guarantee that infamy did not force him into petty crime). The only possible reason for imprisoning this man, was retribution. So I think you have to take a side.

  2. freemage says

    Minnow: No chance he would repeat his crime? Maybe if you go by a tight definition of, “He won’t kidnap three young women and hold them prisoner for years while abusing them physically, mentally and emotionally.” That specific crime seems unlikely, yes.

    But you really don’t think he was a likely candidate for re-offending more broadly? For pity’s sake, the man didn’t even seem capable of acknowledging that what he’d done was wrong in the first place. That’s the easiest way to spot a likely repeat offender.

    In cases where rehabilitation is unlikely, it is reasonable to shoot for the lesser goal of containment, to prevent re-offense. And there is also a deterrent function to law enforcement, which should not be completely disregarded, which has nothing to do with ‘retribution’ as such.

  3. F [is for failure to emerge] says

    Yes, because not only should rehabilitation be the aim, sometimes people are locked up because they are dangerous. And certainly he was locked up for purposes of retribution, although that should not be the aim of the penal system.

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