Monday, April 13, 2015

Monsters and Evil. Further reflections on clinical and moral language.

Finish Line 2013

On the identification of monsters and evil.

Next week the sentencing phase of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's trial begins. He faces life in prison or execution. 

While I share with many a desire for harsh punishment, I also want to live in a civilized state. Boston is a place where most everyone demands harsh punishment but only a small minority supports capitol punishment. Even the parents of the youngest victim want to spare Tsarnaev's life. Concerns with the moral, the clinical, and the legal collide. 

The responses to “Evil, Sickness, and Choice”, where I called Tsarnaev evil, were helpful, even therapeutic. They clarified my ambivalence and discomfort. They remind me I’m dealing with two categories, the clinical/medical and the moral, usefully complemented by a third, the legal.  Here’s what I see a bit better. To express outrage and indignation, I want a language of blame, accountability, and responsibility. I need expressions that honor that actions follow from reasons and choice. Clinical/medical language minimizes or limits blame insofar as it deliberately avoids pointing to the value or worth of someone. Moral language attacks the problem of worth head on.  Unlike the quiet calm of a clinical statement, moral language can scream judgment. But shouting is satisfying and troubling at the same time. Moral utterance, at least for me, elicits struggle. I want to yell, “you evil, disgusting monster!” but then I’m appalled at what I may be setting in motion: “Let’s kill the monsters!”

Moral language is unruly. I want rules that, on the one hand, appreciate our moral understanding while, on the other,  protect us from primitive moral impulse. That’s what the category legal offers. The law attempts to systematically sort these issues out. It provides the cool sterile procedure of clinical/medical method while respecting a need for blame and judgment. Courts of law provide and enforce official and negotiated Degradation Ceremonies.  At least, that’s their charter.

Another problem. Calling someone a monster is different than treating someone as a monster.  Earlier I equated certain personal characteristics as those that identify a monster. (I believe I muddled my use of the concept of  Personal Characteristics” by not distinguishing the clinical from the moral). I’m thinking of the tale of the scorpion and the frog and what happens when the scorpion convinces the frog to provide it a ride across the river. We don’t blame monsters the same way we blame persons. After all, can you really blame a monster, if a monster is what a monster does? 

There are, however, the interrelated distinctions of responsibility for one’s deliberate actions and responsibility for knowing one’s personal characteristics and dispositions. Freud nicely pointed this out when he was asked if we are responsible for our dreams and replied if we don’t hold ourselves responsible, then our neighbors will. With this in mind, if a monster holds itself responsible for its evil ways and refrains from acting on these dispositions, is it still a monster? Was it ever?  

Next week, the penalty deliberations of a jury that represents but is not representative of Boston and Eastern Massachusetts begins. The Marathon is next Monday.


On A Jury of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's Peers.   And  Monday April 15th, 2013, Marathon Day.
On the issue of responsibility for a person's actions and their personal characteristics: The Two Concepts of Action and Responsibility in Psychoanalysis.


  1. "After all, can you really blame a monster, if a monster is what a monster does?"

    "That settles that," said Bromosel testily. "Yoo-hoo!" he cried. "Come and eat us!" And from far away, a deep voice echoed, "Me beestie. Me do that thing." (*Bored of the Rings*, Harvard Lampoon)

  2. "Moral language is unruly." That's an interesting insight. It seems to square the moral perspective against the law (which I take to be a prudential perspective). But we can't have normal life just by rule following, so there is always some room for a moral perspective in a normal life. There's also a fittingness to some moral degradation ceremonies, but it's easy to get carried away or be biased and render the ceremony unfit; so we call for the fittingness of the law (where it is harder to get carried away or be biased). And yes, sometimes it feels good (Hedonic) to let loose with righteous outrage.

    Like Actor-Observer-Critic, the Four Perspectives are functions we should be using continuously without privileging one over the other.

  3. An angle on this topic: If you aren't familiar with Puppygate (no reason you should be), concentrate on the last few paragraphs.