It always amazes me how people can have absolute conviction about certain events, often based on nothing but surface knowledge. To bring home my point, let’s look at a real example that happened in the early 2000s.

These are the undisputed facts of the case:

Suspect A, 40 year old male, in his 2nd marriage. Collected large amount of pornography, much of it being child and adolescent in nature. Solicited prostitution at massage parlors. He was legally removed from his home in 2000 after he made sexual advances towards his prepubescent stepdaughter. He was fully aware that what he was doing was unacceptable and took painstaking steps to conceal what he was doing. Convicted of child molestation, he was sentenced to either complete an in-patient 12-step rehab program for sex addiction or go to jail. He was kicked out of the rehab program for asking for sex from staff and other clients there. He was taken into custody for fear of him sexually assaulting his landlady, and when in custody, solicited female staff for sexual favors. Seven months after completing a sexaholics anonymous program, he was allowed back home. In Oct 2001, it was discovered that he started secretly collecting pornography again.

Based on these facts and your moral intuition, what do you think about Suspect A? Do you think he is an irredeemable predator, a threat to society who deserves to be locked up forever? Can you imagine any possible mitigating factor that might change your mind, and if so, to what degree, regarding his culpability?

Let’s see. The suspect did horrible things, knew what he was doing was wrong, and repeated the same behavior despite treatment. The moral intuitions are strong and one may be tempted to say that, perhaps poor circumstances may mitigate the crime, and a slightly reduced sentence might be reasonable, but that’s about it. And one would be wrong. So wrong.

The reality is that he should be more or less excused, if not exculpated. The facts are undisputed, yet they do not paint the full picture, and that makes all the difference in the world, even in this case. This case was presented at the annual meeting of the American Neurological Association in 2002 and published in JAMA Neurology.

These additional facts should make the case a bit clearer:

This person worked as a corrections officer before he obtained his master’s in education in 1998, upon which he worked as a teacher. He had no previous sexual attraction to children and had acquired this because of a brain tumor which displaced his right orbitofrontal lobe. The tumor did not erase previous established moral senses, but it reduced impulse control and impaired judgment enough to be sociopathic. After his tumor was removed, the pedophilia disappeared, and he was allowed to return to his home. In 2001, the tumor came back and he started exhibiting similar symptoms. After a 2nd removal, he returned to normal.

Indeed, omitted facts can make a huge difference. This example highlights two very important points. The first is that selective reporting, even if fully factual, can be thoroughly misleading. This type of cherry picking and quote mining is rampant in politically or ideologically charged topics. To better approximate the truth, it is therefore imperative to actively seek out intelligent viewpoints dissimilar to one’s own, even though the process itself may be uncomfortable. It also highlights our moral hubris – our willingness to condemn with certainty despite our lack of imagination.  

The second point is subtle but arguably more profound. It is about how we decide what to condemn, the very fabric of our moral intuitions. We feel comfortable excusing acts as heinous as this because there is a known, visible physiological cause. Our view shifts from seeing an intrinsically evil, mustache-twirling pedophile to a victim of a disease, unable to control his impulses. We can imagine how one could be hostage to uninhibited primal drives (precisely because we all have those drives) and understand the conscious effort it takes to regulate those impulses. We adopt the narrative of a hapless victim and exculpate through empathetic imagination (and medical evidence).

It gets more uncomfortable when we look at how we assign blame along the spectrum of mustache-twirling villain to tumor-inflicted victim. Do we slowly increase the blame from victim to villain, or is it a binary jump like the law, where the verdict must be either guilty or not guilty?

Speaking of the law, this case is remarkable in the sense that even the tool of choice to assign blame – intention – breaks down here. After all, intention is the difference between murder and manslaughter. In criminal law, a crime requires actus reus and mens rea, or “bad act” and “guilty mind”. In this case, he knew full well what he was doing was morally unacceptable (mens rea) and acted upon those thoughts with bad intent (actus reus). What we use to excuse the crime is impaired self-regulation, effectively rendering the act as “involuntary”. This is expedient but specious reasoning, because it doesn’t seem to fit the definition of “involuntary” – there was no duress exerted by an outside agent, as every single cell of the tumor is his own. The insanity defense is also questionable, since it must be shown that the insanity made it impossible for his to understand that the offense being committed was illegal (which is seemingly not the case), unless one is in a state with the modified M’Naughten rule allowing for “irresistible impulse”. It brings to light the strange fact that we don’t always condemn what we abhor, or criminalize what we condemn (and vice versa).

Back to the victim/villain spectrum. Before we move further, perhaps we should ask more fundamentally if are we begging the question – is the victim/villain narrative valid? On closer inspection, it is not so clear. We can empathize with the victim rather easily, even though his actions are villainous. What about a villain? We call someone a villain because we morally judge their actions as reprehensible, implying that we would do otherwise if we were in their situation given their state of mind. We pretend to know what actually goes on in their minds, when more often than not we have little more than an imagined caricature that fits the narrative (cue mustache-twirling evil laugh). And even if we could miraculously know that state of mind, we still mostly use our own internal experiences to judge.

For example, everyone’s impulse control falls on a spectrum, with the tumor victim on the low end, chessmasters on the high end, and everyone else falling somewhere in between. Below a certain threshold on the spectrum it becomes socially unacceptable, and we generally feel comfortable condemning people who fall in that segment. However, we are basing that judgment using our own impulse control level, which is presumably in the acceptable part of the spectrum. It is difficult to imagine others having a different level of impulse control, and far more convenient to label them villains with a “lack of will power” rather than consider one’s own lack of imagination. What if, like Sam Harris posits, it’s really just “tumors all the way down”?

To be clear, I am not suggesting that people are not guilty of crimes because they are fundamentally born different. Without opening the can of worms that is our backwards criminal justice system, I am suggesting that we should be less confident of our moral intuitions and be a bit more charitable, especially when judging others. We don’t always criminalize what we condemn, and we don’t always condemn what we abhor (and vice versa). Life is complicated enough – a little benefit of a doubt can go a long way.

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