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April 28, 2022

"Criminal Acts and Basic Moral Equality"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper on SSRN authored by John Humbach.  Here is its abstract:

Modern criminal justice presupposes that persons are not morally equal.  On the contrary, those who do wrong are viewed by the law as less worthy of respect, concern and decent treatment: Offenders, it is said, “deserve” to suffer for their misdeeds.  Yet, there is scant logical or empirical basis for the law’s supposition that offenders are morally inferior.  The usual reasoning is that persons who intentionally or knowingly do wrong are the authors and initiators of their acts and, as such, are morally responsible for them.  But this reasoning rests on the assumption that a person’s mental states, such as intentions, can cause physical effects (bodily movements)— a factual assumption that is at odds with the evidence of neuroscience and whose only empirical support rests on a fallacious logical inference (post hoc ergo propter hoc).  There is, in fact, no evidence that mental states like intentions have anything to do with causing the bodily movements that constitute behavior.  Nonetheless, the mental-cause basis for moral responsibility, though it rests on a false factual inference, has enormous implications for criminal justice policy.

While society must obviously protect itself from dangerous people, it does not have to torment them.  The imperative to punish, a dominant theme of criminal justice policy, is not supported by evidence or logic, and it violates basic moral equality.

April 28, 2022 at 12:48 PM | Permalink


This paper's asinine premise that intention has nothing to do with behavior is so far in outer space that it's not worth a lot of commentary. I'll just say that nonsense like this, brusquely holding forth in the name of "science," is one reason other bellowing in the name of science is earning, and getting, growing skepticism.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Apr 28, 2022 5:08:37 PM

I think this is the first time I've agreed with anything Bill Otis has said here.

Was that paper published on April 1st?

Posted by: Keith Lynch | Apr 28, 2022 5:50:05 PM

The author of this paper can't see the forest for the trees, he forgets that humans, who under his logic have no control over their own action, run the justice system.

Posted by: Steve | Apr 29, 2022 10:55:35 AM

I needed a good laugh today.

I couldn’t subject myself to the entire paper, but I would love the opportunity to ask the author a question. How do you “protect society” without de facto punishment? Restriction of movement, whether by prison or house arrest, is punishment. Fines are punishment.

It is impossible to “protect society” without some form of punishment, whether you want to use a delicious brioche bun for your sh!t sandwich or not.

Posted by: TarlsQtr | May 1, 2022 12:19:09 PM

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