Thursday, July 27, 2006

Empathy and Justice

My recent entry about the renowned geneticist facing sentencing for molesting a girl predictably generated some impassioned responses. The gist of them was, "Lock him up and throw away the key!" Some even went so far as to urge that he be maimed in a way that precluded his molesting any other innocent child. Several rationales were given for this severity of punishment, including retributive justice and deterrence. But more than one comment said words to the effect that if I had children, I would surely understand.

I agree that if I did have children, and especially if I had children who had been molested or I had been molested myself, I would understand better than I do now the anger, vengefulness, and even hatred that fuels the call for the harshest punishment of this crime. Yet, does the fact that one feels strong emotion about this because of some personal stake or involvment in it necessarily mean that what one wants to happen to the perpetrator should actually happen? And if I knew exactly how the commentators felt about this, and I felt the same way as a result, would this mean that what we all felt should dictate the scientist's punishment?

Not any more than my knowing and/or their knowing exactly how the scientist felt toward that little girl that led him to initiate a sexual relationship with her that lasted for some four years should necessarily determine the nature of his sentence. Justice transcends emotions and empathy for victim and victimizer alike. It may include these qualities to some degree, but it must also go well beyond them.

I think justice, in this case and based upon my admittedly limited knowledge of the facts, does not entail this man being imprisoned for the rest of his life. If I were a parent of a nine-year-old girl, I might roundly disagree with this assessment, but would that make my current assessment wrong?

I guess it all boils down to the frustratingly philosophical question, What is justice?


Tom said...

I think that there is wisdom in the ways that juries are selected. Potential jurors are excluded if there are factors in their past that might preclude them from being objective.

But you are right also is saying that the pain of a victim or family of a victim should not be excluded. I think that it is right, in the sentencing phase, for the victims' pain to be expressed.

I think a factor in evaluating if a prisoner should be released can be what the chances are of the man repeating his crime. The circumstances of pedophile's release from prison would need to be such that there is next to no chance he could prey on another child.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes what is just is also cruel...

dr.alistair said...

i have children and if someone interfered with them i would introduce them to my justice. i wouldn`t wait for a society of experts to get it wrong.