Crime and Human Rights (22): Blame Is So 20th Century

Blame is useless in criminal punishment. We don’t need it. Rather than blaming the criminal, as we so often do, we should pay sole attention to criminal actions. It’s those actions that are the problem. Crimes are bad – i.a. because a lot of crimes result in rights violations – and whether criminals are bad is of secondary importance. What we need to do is put an end to rights violations and crimes. In order to do that we have to focus on actions: on the consequences of certain harmful actions, and on ways to prevent them from occurring in the future.

Blame doesn’t help us to stop harmful actions. At least not immediately. (One could argue that blame teaches people about morality, but that’s a longterm goal). What does help, in some cases, is a focus on character. However, the purpose of this focus on character is not to build a case for blame. An understanding of a criminal’s character – of his or her general viciousness or dickishness – can help us avoid future crimes and rights violations because this understanding can tell us something about the need for incapacitation. A bad person poses a higher risk of recidivism than someone who has made a mistake or has committed one intentional evil act. However, this punishment of incapacitation isn’t the result of the criminal’s blameworthiness. The only reason to incapacitate a criminal is the risk of future harmful actions.

What we tend to do is the opposite. If we speak about a criminal’s character, it’s usually because we want to blame the criminal beyond what we would normally think is necessary. There are at least three stages of blame: people are blamed for doing something wrong accidentally or stupidly; people who do something wrong intentionally are blamed somewhat more; and people who do something because of their nasty character are blamed even more. (In criminal trials it’s common that judges take into account past actions as either aggravating or mitigating circumstances).

We often want to impose additional blame on someone who has done wrong and has a history of doing wrong because we believe that blame should be about character. Bad people should receive more blame than people who do one thing wrong. If two people commit the same crime but one does it because he or she is a bad person and the other for opportunistic reasons for example, then the former should receive more blame simply because he or she is a bad person. A bad character is worse than one bad intentional act.

What I want to do is sever the link between blame and character, and use a person’s character not as a source of blame but as a means to assess the likelihood of future wrongdoing and to avoid crimes and rights violations. Rather than use people’s character as a source of blame – which is very hard anyway given what we don’t know about genetics, early childhood experiences etc. – we should do character assessment, to the extent that it is possible, because it teaches us something about the need for incapacitation as a means to avoid harmful actions.

Obviously, this has consequences for the types and severity of the criminal punishments we can impose. (A person’s character or habitual behavior shouldn’t be an aggravating circumstance in itself, irrespective of the need for incapacitation). However, what I’m arguing here may have consequences beyond the realm of criminal punishment. It may be true that we blame too often and too much in general. A child who is blamed for wrongdoing may thereby learn the rules of morality; a worker who is blamed for misconduct may become a better worker, etc. But we should admit that we usually don’t have a good reason for blaming people. People’s intentions are hard to figure out. And it’s even harder to judge someone’s character, except in a few extreme cases. We’re also in the dark about what drives people: are their actions really the result of blameworthy choices, or is there something deeper such as their genetic make-up or early experiences that makes them do what they do? Hard to tell, and yet blame seems so easy.

More posts in this series are here.

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