Should the law depend on luck?
On a snowy Saturday afternoon, Harry and Paul watch football and drink beers at the local pub. Both drives away intoxicated, and both lose control of their cars on the slick roads, Harry collides with a tree, while Paul collides with a young girl playing in the snow and kills her. Harry can expect a fine of seven hundred dollars along with temporary suspension of his license. Paul’s punishment is far different: for vehicular manslaughter, he faces two to fifteen years imprisonment.
Should a chance outcome exert such a powerful influence on our moral judgements? It seems wrong to punish Harry and Paul differently when they engaged in absolutely identical behavior. Yet it doesn’t seem right to send Harry to prison for years for having hit a tree, even while driving under the influence; neither does it seem right to let Paul off with a fine for killing someone.
We think in two perspectives when we assign punishment. One produces a punishment in proportion to the harm that a person causes. Two, judges actions to be morally wrong based on their intentions to harm, or risk of harming others. So how does moral judgement change the way we think about the law?
Unsurprisingly: we punish people in order to teach them how to behave. But how can we explain the tendency to punish accidents? Is there some advantage to punishing a person who caused harm unintentionally?
Swiss psychologist, Jean Piaget began to ask children questions about right and wrong. Piaget found children have strikingly profound differences from those of adults in making moral judgements. In one of Piaget’s tests of moral judgements, Piaget told children about two young boys who broke teacups. One boy was trying to help his mother but dropped a tray of fifteen teacups. The other boy was trying to steal cookies while his mother wasn’t looking, and he knocked a single teacup to the floor. Piaget asked them; which of the two boys was naughtier? To an adult, it was...
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