Those of you who have watched Michael Sandell, celebrated for his on-line Harvard course on Justice, will know that he likes to work by describing difficult, and sometimes extreme, situations. And then he follows this up by questions which enable his students to explore the principles of justice – and to defend their views. I am no Michael Sandell, but last week I met with the University of the Third Age local philosophy group which I moderate. I thought it might be interesting to share with you the, somewhat artificial, situation I proposed to them. You may like to put forward an answer, and see what other contributors think.
In this situation I imagine that I am an ex-dictator of a country. When I was in power I denied all human rights, I imprisoned, tortured and executed many of my innocent citizens. When unarmed crowds demonstrated against me I sent out my fully armed troops with order to crush the rebellion as speedily as possible. Unfortunately on the last occasion I was overthrown, captured and sent for trial at an international court, which had the proper powers to try and punish me.
Although the trial was thorough it was straightforward. There was abundant evidence of my evil deeds, the court found me guilty, and I was condemned to execution.
There was only one remarkable factor. When I was captured a hand grenade exploded and a splinter went straight into my head. While I am quite compos in the ordinary way, the splinter has caused me to have substantial and irreversible amnesia. My last memory is when I was 14 years old and living in my father’s palace. I of course have not, and will never have, the slightest recollection of my time or my deeds as a dictator.
Now you, individually, are the equivalent of home secretary, hearing an appeal for mercy. Prosecuting council simply states that my identity is established, my responsibility for my crimes is established, and death by execution is the condign punishment set by the court. Defence council argues that it is unjust and grotesque for me to be punished for crimes of which I know nothing. Although my identity remains the same in strict terms, I have the memory of an innocent 14 year old. I am, to all intents and purposes a different person from the dictator who committed the crimes.
Now, who will you go with: prosecuting council or defence council?
In order to prevent you from wriggling out of the issue, there are conditions imposed in this exercise. You must assume the following in your answer.
First, that I did actually and freely commit all the crimes of which I was accused.
Second, that this was actually proved in court although, for obvious reasons, I could contribute no evidence.
Third, that I do actually suffer from complete and irreversible amnesia.
Fourth, that the proper law stipulates capital punishment for the crimes I have committed unless it can be shown that I did not act freely. The evidence demonstrates that I did act freely. Whether or not you believe in capital punishment in real life, you do believe in it for this exercise.
Your answer is “yes” if you rule that punishment is appropriate in this case. Your answer is “no” if you rule that punishment is not just in this case.
When we have enough answers to work with, I will tell you how my philosophy group voted, and also what we might infer from “yes” and “no” answers (if you haven’t worked this out already).
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