Personal blame in acts of wrongdoing

There undoubtedly has always been evil in the world, along with good. But lately I’ve been thinking about evil from the evildoer’s point of view . . . everyone from a terrorist down to a litterbug, and so many in-between. In every instance I can imagine the person knows that the action is theoretically wrong, but rationalizes in his own mind that circumstances excuse him from blame; he literally doesn’t believe that – in this case – what he’s doing is wrong.

I am NOT saying that what he does is not wrong. It is. I’m just saying that from his subjective viewpoint, he can rationalize that – in those circumstances – he is permitted to take that particular action blamelessly.

Is this always the case, or are there wrongdoers who actually believe that their actions are wrong, but commit them anyway?

I’m not entirely convinced of this myself, and would like some feedback.

What would be the foundation for some psychological law that prevents him from doing something he knows is wrong? If a child’s mother tells him not to eat the cookie, he eats it, is found out, and feels guilty, isn’t this an example?

In my mercifully brief teenage rebel phase, I engaged in some minor shoplifting and vandalism that I knew was wrong. I suspect plenty of Dopers have similar examples. I don’t think it’s that unusual for people to do things they know are wrong at the time.

I knew cheating on prior girlfriends/wives was “wrong.” I did come up with justifications at the time, but I knew it was wrong.

I believe angry people sometimes do things with full knowledge they are wrong, because it (briefly) makes them feel good. And some people get accustomed to doing things that are wrong, and stop caring that it’s wrong.

Humans rationalize everything. It’s how we exist. You cheat because “my partner isn’t giving me what I need.” If we allow for rationalizations to excuse this in any manner, then we will start sliding to lawlessness. For society to function properly, we need to agree on the acts that are wrong (murder), what might possibly excuse them (self defense), and what the punishment is (law & order sound 25 to life). We cannot give every person a free license to do what they want simply because their brains short circuit their own higher reasoning.

In addition, you are leaving out the fact that sociopaths exist. There are some estimates that up to 1 in 10 can be a sociopath. While this may be too high an estimate, it’s certainly possible for most people to enter a dissociative state at certain times, due to emotional state, illness, or injury. Anger is a common one. Ever been angry enough at someone that you hope or wish they die? Ever been so enraged at someone that if they died in a fire at that moment, you’d feel no empathy for their suffering? How about depressed and wish the world to just end?

A lot of people have. Should we let you off the hook because you are enraged and the object of your rage is on fire in front of you while you clutch an extinguisher? I don’t believe so. I feel confident in opining that most people would at least express trepidation with letting you off the hook.

As for “knowing” it’s wrong, that’s not really the issue. Even if you have no moral compass whatsoever, you know what the law disallows. If it’s direct violence or direct deprivation of another, it’s pretty much illegal. I’m sure we could hunt up loop holes and such, but it’s not like you can go into court and go “Your honor, I didn’t know what beating my spouse with a lead pipe was illegal.” which is why everyone goes “I was blinded by rage at finding her cigarettes on the floor! Please grant me a reprieve!”

Despite possible leniency in certain circumstances, direct responsibility must be the root of justice. If you cause any kind of harm (physical, financial, etc) to another, you must be punished.

(I further believe that this must also be accompanied by equality in dispensing that justice, but that’s slightly off topic.)

Transgressors are never to blame for their transgressions. They do them either because they are compelled by circumstances beyond their control, or because they do not know any better because they were never taught right from wrong in a manner that was effective for them.

I expect that a psychopath would do things that they “know are wrong” all the time, but simply not care.

Seems to me that sociopathic or psychopathic behaviour at least partially implies doing behavior that, intellectually, you know is wrong, but you do it anyway because you really don’t care that it is wrong; they do it just because they “feel like it”. If that is the case, then yes, there are people that do wrong knowing it is wrong.

I’ve heard that everyone in prison is innocent.

As Farin says, rationalization goes a long way. “It’s not okay for anyone to do X, but it’s okay for me to do X, because Y.”

Kant weeps.

But don’t limit it to crime. We neglect our friends, our pets, we’re cruel to strangers, we are hostile to service people, we’re lazy at work, we’re defensive…but we all think we’re good people, and therefore, we’re justified.

I think the way you phrased it is dead on: he is permitted to take that particular action blamelessly.

I don’t think “This is wrong” and “I’m justified in doing this because…” are mutually exclusive. When I speed on the freeway, I know it’s wrong, but that doesn’t mean I can’t justify my actions (I’m late, there are no cops around, etc). Just because someone can justify their actions, doesn’t mean they don’t *also *know that their actions are wrong.

So, no personal responsibility then? Right, thanks for the warning.

Debating your point here would derail this thread, but I would like to see you post your assertion as its own thread, with some kind of backup argument, so it can be freely debated. Oh, and I think your assertion is nuts.


Wish I could find the cite, since it was a great interview, but Christopher Lee (I’m pretty confident it was Lee) was once asked, “How do you play such compelling evil characters?” His answer was: “I don’t play villains. I play people. And all people believe what they are doing is good. All people have some way of justifying their behavior, no matter how evil or immoral it may seem to the rest of us.”

That pretty much sums it up, I think. Evil does evil because it feels compelled, obligated, or justified in its actions. Evil may not kick a puppy every morning, it may even donate to charity or raise a family; but if evil decides to sell its friends & family down the river for a quick buck or just for the heck of it, hey, it’s evil, and in its mind, evil = good. Q.E.D.