Tuesday, April 3, 2012

A thought experiment

I love reading Free Inquiry magazine.  The writers offer up some very interesting perspectives. However, interesting as they may be, due to a pretty busy schedule (and my recent obsession with Call of Duty) I am about a issue behind on my reading.   Last week I was on holiday, though, and was able to do a bit of catching up.  One of the articles I read was on the dangers of human genetic enhancement.  It was an interesting article in which the authors brought up, what I think, are some valid concerns about the subject.   It also got me thinking.  What if, instead of modifying a persons genes to make them a kinder person, some diabolical parents altered the genetic code of their unborn child to make him a bloodthirsty and hateful killer.   Furthermore, after that child is born his parents raise him to believe that violence is good and killing is even better.  When he eventually goes on a murderous rampage, is he really to blame?  I want to say no.   He committed the crime to be sure, but he was only doing what he was given a strong instinct to do and what his parents taught him to do.

Assuming that up to that point he had no interaction with anyone but his parents, would he qualify for the legal definition of insanity?  (Not knowing right from wrong)

Now I want to try and muddy the waters a little bit.  This time let's imagine that the child is taken from his (disturbed) parents just after he is born.  He still has the genetic modifications that are meant to make him a killer, but this time he is given to a loving adoptive family.  The loving adoptive family do their best to give him a solid upbringing.  Nevertheless, one day the young man still goes on a killing spree.   Where does the responsibility lie now?  He knew right from wrong this time, but his natural instinct to kill won out (I am assuming that this is a strong instinct in this case).  Would it be fair for us to condemn him given what we know about his genetic make up?  It is not as clear cut as the first case, but I still feel that we cannot.  I don't think it is really much different from a person being forced to kill against their will, which is to say, by another person's will (in this case, the original parents'). 

Now to confuse things more, let's get rid of the original parents' genetic modifications all together, but due to genetic chance alone, our young man is still born with the same genes that his evil parents were going to give him that would make him a killer.  He is still given to the adoptive parents and still given the loving, nurturing upbringing and still eventually goes postal.  Now the biological parents are absolved of this massacre; clearly, they had no control of him or his genes.  I don't think the adoptive parents are to blame at all in either scenario as they did their honest best for him.   So the blame clearly rests solely on the young man's shoulders.   That doesn't seem right either.  From his perspective his life has been exactly the same as it would have been in the second scenario.   The only actual difference here is that in the one situation his genes were designed to be that way and in the other they were a product of random chance.  In both situations, he had no control over his disposition at all.   So can we condemn him for it this time?  On deep consideration, I want to say no.

So what can we do? We certainly can't have a bunch of crazed killers running about.  So we have to separate the killers from society.  Which is pretty much what we do now.  However, I would posit that given what I have discussed here, the emphasis of that separation should be on rehabilitation instead of punishment.  The question is when should the person be locked off from society and rehabilitated.  In this thought experiment I have I have included a person that has an irresistible urge to kill.  Someone who no amount of nurturing will help.  If you have such a person and somehow know it, it would seem that the time to remove them from society is as soon as possible, before they hurt anyone.  That isn't really fair to the person, but then it isn't really fair to lock them up for something they were predisposed to do either, and this way we save the lives of his victims.  In reality, however, I am sure no case would be so cut and dried, and we could never know how certain a person would be to commit a violent crime.  Still things like this are what make me a) a determinist and b) a person who questions our traditional notions of justice.

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