September 6, 2012

Ethics in our Justice System

Our application of Aristotle's writings and philosophy is evident in our current justice system. We take a similar discourse to that of Aristotle in Nicomachean Ethics towards the distinction between voluntary and involuntary actions based on the agent’s original intentions.

In cases where the question of the severity of punishment that should be received for a committed crime comes down to whether the crime was committed voluntarily or involuntarily our justice system has the task of making that distinction. Black’s Law Dictionary defines voluntary as "Free; without compulsion or solicitation. Without consideration; without valuable consideration; involuntary as that which is performed with constraint or with repugnance, or without the will to do it. An action is involuntary, then, which is performed under duress."

 This is similar to Aristotle’s own distinction between the two “an involuntary action being one done under compulsion or through ignorance, a voluntary act would seem to be an act of which the origin lies in the agent” (Aristotle 127) Aristotle also makes the point that for an act to be involuntary there must exist a feeling of remorse or regret within the agent. Aristotle states that “An act done through ignorance is in every case not voluntary but it is involuntary only when it causes the agent pain and regret”(Aristotle 123) This statement introduces the idea that there is in fact a third classification, Non-voluntary acts. Non-voluntary acts occur when the agent shows no regret or remorse following their actions. This classification not especially evident within the legal system for it seems that as long as it can proven without a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime without the will to do it originally they can still face an involuntary charge.

Although Aristotle presents us with a technique to distinguish between voluntary and involuntary actions there still arises the issue of the judgment of those actions. The final decision of a voluntary or involuntary act is left up to human discretion in our legal system. Ultimately this distinction falls upon the jurors of a given case to navigate the definition of exactly what is intent, constraint, or repugnance along with the observation of precedence of course. I find it interesting that Aristotle does not in fact go into more detail of the moral dilemma of characterizing voluntary and involuntary actions as it relates to the judgment of another’s actions.

Black's Law Dictionary 2nd ed. (St. Paul, Minn.: West Publishing, 1910)

1 comment:

Karlyn Mckell said...

I think this post is really interesting and accurate. Men are, rightfullly in my opinion, judged by more than their actions. They are judged by the intention of their actions. What I gathered from the readings is that Aristotle thought, more than anything, intention was the most important thing to look at when trying to understand what motivates a man. And for someone to be truly good, and in the eyes of our legal system good enough not to be punished or to receive limited sentencing, their actions must have been good at the heart, even if they were bad in outcome. A perfect example of this in today's world is doctor's. Doctor's get sued all the time for making mistakes, but I doubt there are very many cases where the doctor's sought out a bad outcome.

This idea of "intention" is so prevalent in our society that a man can be put to death by the state if his intentions were malice and evil in nature. If a woman poisons her husband over a series of months in order to kill him to get the life insurance policy, she can be put on death row. But if this same woman walks in on her husband cheating on her and stabs him to death, she will just get life imprisonement, because her actions were guided by an emotional state rather than an intention to do harm.

I think it is very important that we make this distinction and I think it is good that our legal system is built on this, rather than the primitive "eye for an eye" philosophy. But I do agree with you that it is sometimes scary that the interpreting of these intentions is done by other men, who may never fully understand another man's true intentions.

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