2013-12-12

The "I Have No Moral Compass" Defense

What are we to make of a legal defendant who claims he is innocent because he failed to associate guilt with his actions?
A psychologist testified for the defense that the teen is a product of something he called "affluenza." Which basically means, Couch doesn't link bad behavior with consequences because his parents taught him that wealth buys privilege. 
That psychologist cited one instance when Couch, then 15, was caught in a parked pickup with a naked 14-year-old girl who was passed out. Couch was never punished, the psychologist said. He also testified the teenager was allowed to drink at a very young age, and even began driving at just 13.
Let's quickly dispense of the argument itself: Even if you believe your neighbor is no better than a stray dog, you are not allowed to put a shock collar on him. Even if you believe you are entitled to drive around drunk and kill people, you are still guilty of intoxication manslaughter.

At issue, though, is the fact that the judge sentenced the boy to only 10 years of probation after he (the boy) had killed four people during an act of reckless endangerment and felt no remorse. If the psychologist's testimony is true, the boy is also guilty of sexual assault, and nonetheless feels no remorse. Reading between the lines here, he appears to be a psychopath.

Psychopaths are scary, but not as scary as the idea that someone could receive a dramatically reduced sentence as a result of arguing that he simply has no moral compass. We are treading into some very dangerous territory. Having a bad set of morals shouldn't get you off the hook for committing crimes. If that weren't bad enough, the article goes on to say:
Couch's attorney, Scott Brown, said the sentence will teach the teen that there are consequences for his actions. 
"Taking him away from his family and teaching him to be a responsible citizen, that's a consequence," he said.
It is not the legal system's responsibility to instill morally bankrupt teenagers with a sense of ethics. Not only can the legal system never actually accomplish this task (take a good look at how well the education system has fared on that matter to date), we would be fools to create a world for ourselves in which legality is conflated with morality.

That is a dangerous psychological leap to make. What happens when the legal system requires people to act contrary to their private sense of morality? We ought not equip the state with the philosophical means of immoralizing dissent.