Crime and Punishment

Incidentally, I read Crime and Punishment in my 20s and didn’t like it much. When I told that to a Russian guy, he assured me that I must have read a bad translation. A year ago I read a different translation and didn’t like it much. So there you go.

It’s weird to start a post with “Incidentally,” but that’s what happened!

Anyway, I heard a radio story today about psychopaths. It seems that there’s good evidence that their brains are actually physically different from non-psychopaths.

(The assumption was that they were born that way.)

So the question on the radio was: Since it’s not their fault, should they be exempt from the death penalty?

This question reminded me of another one I recently read: If there’s no free will, should we punish people?

Which reminded me of yet another question I recently read: If genetics made me do it, should I be punished, or should my punishment be lessened?


To me, the middle question is nonsensical. If there’s no free will, then we don’t have the free will to decide whether to punish people. So yeah, go ahead and punish them because why not?

The last question seems pretty simple to me, too.

  • Jail keeps you away from me. If genetics makes you eat people’s hearts, then regardless of whose fault it is, I’d rather you were locked up. ESPECIALLY so, since there’s less chance of reform.
  • Genetic probability generally works within a range. Where you land on that range can be, in part, determined by the environment. I may be genetically likely to eat people’s hearts, but I’m also genetically likely to alter my diet if the environment is hostile to heart-eaters.

The first question is a tricky one, because I’m not sure why we have the death penalty. I usually hear these reasons:

  • Satisfaction of justice/revenge, whether societal or specific to the victim
  • Punishment
  • Deterrence
  • Financial cost reduction

Given those items (and without discussing whether there should be a death penalty at all), I don’t see why your brain being different matters much.

There’s also an issue of implications here. As one guy on the radio said: What about depressed people? What about alcoholics? Their brains are different, too?

On the other hand, why don’t we execute people with extremely low IQs? What’s going on there? I think I agree with that, but I also think I disagree with letting psychopaths off the hook.

Can you help?

4 Responses to Crime and Punishment

  1. BruceS July 15, 2010 at 9:34 am #

    How about this (keeping in mind that I’m once again posting before coffee, and this time after a night of interrupted sleep): people with very low IQs are generally considered in the same way as children. We talk about a person having the mind of a child, or even of a specific age. When a child commits a crime, we follow one of two paths. The first is to charge him as a child, with a substantially diminished responsibility for his actions. Not only will we not execute him for a crime that could lead an adult to execution, we won’t even give him a life term in prison. Instead, he serves a few years in a special facility for youthful offenders, gets out, and when he becomes an adult his record is sealed. The second path is to charge him as an adult, stipulating that he has the capacity of an an adult and should therefore bear the same degree of responsibility as an adult. The treatment of low-IQ offenders is a variation of the first path. Although physically mature, the offender is mentally considered a child, with the same diminished responsibility as a child.

    As for mental illness, and how we should consider that in criminal justice, I’ll leave that for another.

  2. Kevin July 15, 2010 at 9:54 am #

    1) Yes, Crime & Punishment wasn’t the best. Have you read The Idiot, though? Man that one breaks my heart! And of course the first part in Notes from the Underground.
    2) I’m with you on issues of predisposition. Predisposition is not destiny. I have a predisposition to addiction, but that doesn’t make it okay for me to indulge that predisposition. In fact, it’s even more important to structure things so that I don’t.
    3) I have my own objections to the death penalty, but that mostly comes from my mistrust of the State, not reservations about the utility or morality of the punishment. Putting that aside, is IQ only weighed against the the death penalty, or is it weighed against culpability in general? I always assumed it was against culpability, not a particular kind of punishment, but I seem to remember a case in Texas now where the issue was the punishment specifically. Hmmm. That doesn’t make sense to me. If you’re guilty, then the punishment (whatever it is) should follow without exception. If there’s some question of capacity, as Bruce mentions, then I would think that would factor in the the guilt, but not the punishment.

  3. BruceS July 15, 2010 at 4:20 pm #

    I forgot to mention: Crime and Punishment is a great book. So you’re both wrong, simple as that. The Idiot was also good. As for Notes, I remember liking the writing, despising the character.

    • Kevin July 16, 2010 at 8:43 am #

      I like the idea of “Crime and Punishment”, but I’ve never enjoyed the execution. If I sit back and think about the story, the message, the characters, it all seems very interesting: How the ends can’t justify the means, the dangers of nihilsm, the redemptive power of a higher moral purpose. All good. But when I sit down to read it, I struggle with it. I don’t like Raskolnikov, and don’t find his confusion interesting. The detective (sorry, don’t remember his name) doesn’t seem that clever to me, but as I recall he’s supposed to be manipulating Raskolnikov, right? Sonya was kind of interesting. The sister annoyed me, but I don’t remember why at this point.

      But I think the main objection I have is that I never find Raskolnikov’s confused reasoning persuasive; I can’t get in his head. Why did he ever think that killing the pawn broker was a good idea?

      I don’t know. Maybe I should pick it back up and try it again.

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