…For They Know Not What They Do

I was watching season three of The Family Guy last weekend. As I am philosopher, I’ve trained my eyes to find the philosophic significance of any and all that I see on television. Now, initially, I enjoyed the episode “Petarded”, because it was politically incorrect, and because. it’s fun to mock the afflicted. But when I watched last weekend, I realized that there was more there than meets the eye. Lurking behind the juvenile “retarded” jokes was the age-old question dealing with moral inclusion — namely, the question dealing with the culpability of mentally challenged people. In this episone, Peter is diagnosed as mentally disabled (he says retarded, because saying that is funnier than saying he’s disabled or challenged). Peter, realizing that he’s now mentally feeble, uses his challenged state to his advantage. He starts a Bible fight in church, he opens the occupied stalls in the ladies’ bathroom — all the while excusing himself by announcing that he’s “retarded”. Normally, we would say that Peter’s behavior is inexcusable. if a “normal” person took a peek at us while we were in a public bathroom, that person would probably have an asskicking headed his way. (This is exactly what Sasha Baron Cohen does with his character Borat. By pretending to be ignorant and a little stupid, he gets away with things that we wouldn’t tolerate from someone who we thought was normal. There is much more at work with the character, but I won’t go it to that here). But, if someone is in a position that he is unable to control himself (or unable to understand what he’s doing) we tend to treat those people differently. They do not share the same level of moral culpability as someone who is considered fully functional and rational. So what do we do with people who are not rational? Are they (can they be) responsible for what they do? The emphasis on rationality is one of the drawbacks when we consider human behavior philosophically, especially when we look at the behavior of people who clearly are not rational. There are those who are mentally handicapped — born with or by way of accident — who are not able to control or understand their actions (morally, consequences, etc). This is why we do not punish children as we punish adults (except in extreme circumstances) in the legal system. Children do not understand the full extent of their actions. Likewise, we treat people who are mentally handicapped in a manner tha is different than we treat “normal” people. But Peter isn’t organically damaged, he merely believes that he’s “retarded”. What if someone isn’t mentally challenged but believes that they are? They say that hanging around crazy people can make a person crazy. And certainly there is alot of anecdotal evidence to prove this to be the case. I don’t remember what the name of the movie was, but there is this movie about this dude who wasn’t mentally disabled, but was raised in an institution his entire life before someone figured out that he was normal. All I remember is that it was made in the 70s and it had Frederic Forrest in it (I should probably IMDB it someday). So, if someone said that you were mentally disabled (but yoy weren’t) are you still responsible for what you do — assuming that you are actually rational? Are rational people who think irrationally still responsible for what they do? We know that in Peter’s case, even though he seems to take his diagnosis seriously, he’s still morally on the hook for what he does (and CPS seems to think this as well, as they threaten to take his children away from him). But what about people who really are mentally disabled? Our attitude tends to be “it depends”. When we see, for instance, a mentally challenged person who is accused of committing a crime, our first inclination is to ask how mentally challenged that individual is. If a person is merely “slow”, we tend to show less sympathy for their condition than if a person were fully incapable of understanding their actions. If a mentally disabled person were accused of murder, we would ask if he demonstrated signs of knowledge of what he had done. We would ask if he ran from the scene of the crime or if he showed remorse for what he did. If he does, we would say that he understands that what he did was wrong, and that he should be punished. But then we ask, to what extent is to be the proper punishment? When Bill Clinton was runnig for president in 1992, he went back to Arkansas to preside over the execution of a mentally challenged man who was condemned for committing a murder. Clinton’s decision to uphold the death sentence was blasted by those who felt that the condemned man lacked the mental capacity to understand what he had done. They felt that the punishment was excessive considerning the fact that the man was mentally handicapped. Questions of dimished capacity also arise when we think of the treament of children in the justice system. When a 6 and an 11 year old perpetrated a massacre of their classmates in Jonesboro, the question of whether a child as young as six can understand the implications of his actions came to national prominance. If a child that young can conceive of shooting and killing his classmates with high-powered firearms, does he have the mental capacity understand his actions and be held responsible for what he’s done? If the child is not mentally disabled (meaning that besides his young age, he’s normal), and we agree that all humans have the capacity for rational thought, then at what point is the child rational enought to be held accountable for what he does? Kant says that we should treat people as if they are rational, free moral agents (this avoids the urge to be paternalistic, which would, according to Kant violate an individual’s autonomy).But if we treat all people as if they are rational, are we not treating people in a manner that they are not? The appeal of Kant’s theory is that it is cut and dry. There is no room for ambiguity. But in real life, there is more ambiguity than we know what to do with. We’re often left to wonder how rational a person is. A person may be able to function in society (even function without anyone else helping them), but they aren’t fully rational people. I think of the character Lenny in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Lenny has the capacity to function in society. He’s capable of holding a job, and does it well. But mentally, he like a child. When Lenny kills Curley’s wife, the act is unintentional. He was trying to feel her hair, but he panicked when she began to scream. Nonetheless, Lenny murdered the woman. He knew he had done wrong, but also seemed incapable of controlling himself when he did it. (Much like how a child acts). What would Kant have to say about Lenny? When the men on the ranch learned that Lenny killed Curley’s wife, they gathered a lynch mob to kill him. When we read this, it seems like their punishment for Lenny is unfair –it’s not fitting considering that Lenny lacked the mental capacity to fully understand his actions. But, when Lenny’s BFF George kills him, somehow when George kills Lenny, we aren’t as offended. We understand that George didn not kill Lenny out of revenge, but for the need to protect Lenny from the gang (and maybe to protect Lenny from himself). When George kills Lenny, another ranch hand, Slim, tells George,” Never you mind… A guy got to sometimes”. There are those who say that this is why they see no wrong in executing prisoners with dimished capacity. It’s the “rabid dog” defense. They reason that it is inhumane to allow a rabid dog to go around potentially hurting other people. We don’t kill the dog because it is cruel or because we necessarily want to kill the dog, but because we are saving others from an animal that cannot control itself. To put a mentally challenged man behind bars for the rest of his life, they argue is wrong because he may not understand why he is being held (the reasoning being if he doesn’t understand that what he did was wrong, how could he understand that he needs to spend the rest of his life in prison for it?). We worry about punishing mentally challenged people excessively, but we know that we cannot simply let them go either.
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