I’ve been interested recently in the ways in which norms from some domains impinge on norms from other domains. To that end, I’ve been writing about cruel jokes, wherein the funny and the moral intersect. I don’t at all deny that some cruel jokes are funny; I’ve been known to be amused by many. But there are some cruel jokes that, somehow in virtue of the cruelty, just aren’t jokes. The example I’ve been using is from Stephen King’s book (and/or Brian De Palma’s great film) Carrie. Carrie is raised by a rather terrifying fundamentalist mother, and she is so ignorant about her sexuality that she doesn’t realize what’s happening when she gets her first period in the shower at school. Her classmates tease her relentlessly, and the most cruel among them devise a prank: They make Carrie think she’s the prom queen, and as she’s standing up on stage, soaking in the applause, they dump a bucket of pig’s blood on her. They all find this absolutely hilarious…until Carrie gets a little irritated (for the rest, read the damn book!).
There has come to be some consensus amongst political scientists and legal theorists that a major source of over-incarceration in the United States is (mostly county) prosecutors filing a significantly increased number of charges against individual arrestees (e.g., committing fraud means getting hit with the charges of mail fraud, bank fraud, wire fraud, computer fraud, and more). This practice is known as “charge-stacking” (see here and here, for example). The basic idea is to guarantee conviction on at least some lesser charges: Risk-averse defendants cop to a lesser plea, even if they could have defended well against the most significant charges. So most people who are prosecuted get convicted on some charges. But so what? Why is this practice bad? I’ve been thinking that the answer to this question lies primarily in the practice’s running roughshod over what we take to be some crucial features of interpersonal moral agency.
I suspect I’ve just wandered into a longstanding dispute, but I’m curious what people think about the nature of wrong acts, and in particular about whether an agent incapable of perceiving the relevant wrongness/rightness reasons can nevertheless perform wrong acts. Here’s a representative quote from someone who does think this, Gideon Rosen, in his 2004 paper “Skepticism About Moral Responsibility”:
When you pull my chair out from under me just for laughs, there is no doubt that the act is wrong. But if you’re only five years old, or if you mistakenly believed that I wouldn’t mind, then even though the act is wrong, it may be a mistake for me to blame you for it.
I agree with the blame claim, of course, but I don’t know what to make of the claim that the act is wrong. Would we say of a bear who did the same thing that the act was wrong? Interested to hear considerations for and against this claim.