Bioethics Blogs

Punishment and Memory

The public outcry at the decision of the Crown Prosecution Service that Lord Janner was not fit to stand trial for 22 sex offences, the last of which were allegedly committed in the 1980s, appears to have led the CPS to initiate a review. Janner’s case raises several issues about the punishment of crimes that may have taken place in the relatively distant past.

Some of these issues were discussed in an excellent recent post by Tom Douglas, focusing on the case of Oskar Groening. Tom touched on the question of personal identity and punishment. I’d like to say a little more about that in the case of radical personality change such as that caused by very severe dementia, and in particular about the connection between memory and moral responsibility (on this see section 5 of David Shoemaker’s helpful piece on personal identity and ethics in the Stanford Encyclopedia).

Consider three (imaginary) cases of people who have committed a serious violent crime in the past. In the case of all of them, brain and capacity for consciousness continue to exist as normal over time. The first case, Forgetful, is based on a conversation I had a while ago with Julia Driver. Forgetful has entirely forgotten about the violent crime, but is otherwise functioning normally. Nothing can be done to jog her memory – that crime has entirely disappeared from her mind. I suspect that some might have qualms about punishing someone for a crime they really can’t remember, but that most people would find it acceptable: what matters is that Forgetful is still the same person who committed the crimes, not whether she can remember them or not.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.