Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Culpability for irrational action when you are culpable for the irrationality

It is widely thought that:

  1. If you act wrongly in an irrational state, but you are responsible for being in the irrational state, then the irrationality does not take away your culpability for the wrongful action.

But consider these two cases.

Case 1: Suppose that you now program an unstoppable robot to punch me in the face ten years from now. The law sentences you to a jail sentence justly suited to what you have done. Then, ten years later, the robot punches me in the face.

Comments: You clearly should not get another jail sentence for that. You’ve already been punished for all that you did, namely programming the robot.

Case 2: The same as Case 1, except now the unstoppable robot is programmed to brainwash you into punching me in the face. Ten years later, the robot brainwashes you, and you punch me in the face.

Comments: I think it is almost as clear as in Case 1 that you should not get another jail sentence. It shouldn’t make any difference to your culpability whether the robot punches me directly, as in Case 1, or brainwashes you (or someone else) to punch me.

This judgment seems to contradict (1). For in Case 2, you act out of an irrational state but are responsible for that irrational state.

I think we need to clarify things. We talk of culpability for actions and culpability for the effects of actions. Thus, if Alice freely punches Bob in the face, we can say that she culpable both for punching Bob and for the effect, say, Bob’s broken nose. But when we say that Alice is culpable for Bob’s broken nose, I think this should be taken as shorthand for: Alice is culpable for freely punching Bob in the face in a way that resulted in a broken nose. In other words, culpability for the effects of actions is culpability for an action qua resulting in the effects.

In Case 1, you have effect-culpability for the robot punching me, and action-culpability for programming the robot. Talking of the effect-culpability for my being punched is shorthand for saying that you are action-culpable for programming the robot so that it would punch me.

In Case 2, we should say a very similar thing. You have effect-culpability for your< punching me, and action-culpability for programming the robot to brainwash you to do that. You do not have action-culpability for your punching me, because your culpability for punching me is really just your culpability for programming the robot to cause you to punch me.

Principle (1) is right as regarding effect-culpability but wrong as regarding action-culpability.


Heath White said...

I think I agree with your conclusion, and I would add this explanation:

We care about effect-culpability because we care about the harm you do to others. This need not be intentional. If you accidentally break someone's window with a baseball, you have a responsibility to replace it. You are act-culpable for nothing, but effect-culpability turns on harm you caused, not harm you intended.

We care about act-culpability because we care about the state of your will vis-a-vis other people. This need not have any effect. If you attempt to murder someone, but totally botch the job and harm no one, you are still liable to arrest. You are effect-culpable for nothing, but act-culpability turns on (roughly) the harm you intend, not the harm you cause.

Now consider the principle about acting wrongly in an irrational state. The assumption is that you in fact do some harm, so you are effect-culpable, because this kind of culpability doesn't depend on your internal states, rational or otherwise. Also, you are not act-culpable, because ex hypothesi your irrationality is such that you don't have an ill will toward your victim.

Heath White said...

But I think I will disagree a little about what should happen in Cases 1 and 2. It seems to me that I will owe you compensation if I (say) break your nose. But maybe you are wearing a catcher's mask (anticipating the punch) and the punch does no harm; in that case I won't owe you any compensation. Whether I owe you any compensation cannot be determined until we see the results of the punch, so not until the ten years are over.

Alexander R Pruss said...


You're definitely right about compensation. I was specifically talking about punishment, which is different from compensation. And it would make perfect sense for me to compensate you before I actually punch you in both cases 1 and 2, if I am (or the authorities compelling me to pay are) confident that I will succeed in breaking your nose. That I think gives further evidence for the main point. Pre-punishment is unjust in a way in which pre-compensation is not. (I think punishment needs to be a result of the crime.) So what is going on is compensation, not punishment, and hence the responsibility for the nose-breaking is effect- not act-responsibility.