Crime and Punishment

All of us were shocked at saddened to hear of the motorway accident in which the Statham family, two parents and four children, were crushed to death in their car. A large truck which had ignored warning signs drove into their rear. The driver was sentenced to three years in jail for “careless driving.”

I don’t want to comment on the particular case, but I think that the connection between an offence and its actual results should stimulate some thought.

We all deplore careless driving but I daresay that any of us who have driven for a long time (my licence dates from 1953) will admit that on some occasions, distracted perhaps by adjusting volume on the radio or trying to interpret a signpost, have been guilty of it. But in the great majority of cases our momentary lapse has done no harm. Yet by ill fortune it might have done, For example we might have clipped an elderly cyclist who was manoeuvring around a pothole and who as a result has a fatal heart attack. Causing death by careless driving carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison.

Now my question is this. Should the penalty be related to the actual fault or to the inadvertent results? We know that, in the case I have cited and several others, there is an outburst of emotional fury by the relatives of the victim if they believe the sentence to be too light. Understandable of course: people are not given to thinking clearly when emotion rules. But should such strong feelings be the arbiter of justice?

Should not the culpability of the offence rather than the incidental results be the criterion for punishment? How will God judge us? (By the way, if any of you reading this should have a momentary lapse of attention at the wheel, and end up in jail, don’t forget to let me know how I can get Second Sight News to you by email.)

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Moral judgment, Quentin queries. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Crime and Punishment

  1. Trident says:

    I think you can come at this question in a different way. If someone is negligent and as a result damage is caused then the victim is likely to be suing not in relation to the seriousness of the negligence but in relation to the financial consequences.
    So if a waiter carelessly permanently stains your new jeans with beetroot soup the claim might be for, say, £25. But if it’s a couturier dress it might be £10,000. Same negligence, different consequences.
    Why shouldn’t justice be the same?

  2. Durham says:

    No, I’m not with Trident here. God judges us by the guilt of our choices. This would include the general consequences we can foresee, but not the precise. incidental outcome. We would be obliged to make ‘satisfaction’ – whatever that would be in the case of the old gent. That is the equivalent of civil damages.

  3. RMBlaber says:

    Scenario (A): a 15 year old boy gets into a heated argument with another 15 year old during a school arts lesson, grabs a craft knife and stabs the other teenager in the thigh, cutting the femoral artery. His victim bleeds to death in spite of the efforts of teachers and paramedics to save him.
    Scenario (B): a 30 year old lorry driver causes a motorway pileup which results in the deaths of two people and serious injury to five more, three of whom have to remain in hospital for several months before being discharged, as a result of being distracted while using a ‘hands-free’ mobile ‘phone.
    In the first scenario, there is an element of intent, in that the offender clearly intends to do his victim some harm. The question is, how much harm? Is the intention to kill, or merely to injure? Is the lack of pre-meditation a mitigating factor? What of the boy’s youth? This would be a mitigating factor if it is considered likely to have an adverse impact on his ability to make calm and rational moral judgements; if, in other words, he is thought to lack maturity.
    In Scenario (B) the element of intent is lacking, but in its place there is the element of negligence. Again, however, it is the act (or omission) itself that is the focus of attention in assessing the degree of guilt, rather than the consequences of the act, horrendous as they are.
    The opposing view, that we should judge acts on the basis of their results or effects, is called consequentialism – for obvious reasons. It is the offspring of utilitarianism – the view that we should judge acts on the basis that they should contribute to the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Utilitarianism is, in fact, only a special case or sub-type of consequentialism.
    Both are wrong, indeed pernicious, because both are prepared to subordinate human beings as mere means to ends, and both argue that ends justify means. That was the sort of argument employed by Stalin in justifying the Gulag, or the Nazis in justifying the Holocaust.
    However angered we may be by the consequences of a particular act, it is not by its consequences that we should judge an act, or the instigator or performer of the act, but the act in and of itself, which may be intrinsicare bonum or intrinsicare malum, to employ moral theologian’s Latin. To do otherwise is to make a very grave mistake indeed.

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