Tuesday, 17 April 2007

Letting Hugo out

A: We’re going to let Hugo out of prison. I have come to you to tell you the parole board’s decision. He'll be free sometime next week.
B: You have come to tell me?
A: Yes.
B: This man killed my friend. Hugo stabbed my best friend and killed him.
A: That’s why I felt I had to come tell you in person.
B: I don’t think you should let him out. Let him stay in prison. Let him stay there until he dies.
A: You think he is still dangerous, I understand. But, believe me, he is no longer dangerous. When he stabbed your friend he was suffering from schizophrenia. Now, after several years of intensive treatment, he is cured of the schizophrenia. He is no danger to anyone.
B: That’s not what I mean. I don’t care if he’s cured. He killed my friend. He should stay in prison.
A: As a punishment? But he is a different person to the person he used to be. To keep him in prison would be like punishing one person for a crime committed by a completely different person.
B: My friend is dead.
A: That is a tragedy. But keeping Hugo in prison won't bring him back.
B: So you're saying it's a tragedy for my friend, and for those who loved him, but it's not a tragedy for Hugo?
A: Of course it is a tragedy for Hugo! He has lost years of his life to prison.
B: A tragedy for Hugo would be to spend the rest of his life inside.
A: But he is no longer the person who killed your friend.
B: That’s the sense in which it would be tragic. You’re talking as if nobody is responsible for the death of my friend! You’re talking as if nobody should pay for my friend’s death.
A: In a sense that’s right. Nobody is responsible: not Hugo because he wasn’t in his right mind, and not anybody else. It was a kind of tragic accident. That's probably the best way of thinking about it: not that Hugo killed him, but that a terrible accident caused his death. It's as if he was struck my lightning, or killed in a car wreck.
B: Why should the arbitrariness of that accident strike down only my friend? Why not Hugo as well?
A: Why? Because it’s unnecessary. You’d be condemning Hugo to unnecessary and unearned punishment. If you met him now you’d understand how completely he’s changed. He’s a modest, charming, articulate man. He has a lot to contribute to society.
B: So had my friend.
A: But your friend cannot be brought back to life! Whereas Hugo can be brought back into society. If I could bring your friend back to life, I would. But it's beyond me.
B: But you can bring Hugo back from schizophrenia.
A: Exactly!
B: In other words you offer me a system of morality based upon ‘because we can’. Because you cannot bring my friend back to life all of us, who loved him, must continue suffering. Because you can cure his killer of schizophrenia, it’s moral to release him back to life. An ethics predicated upon ‘it is moral to do a thing because we can do that thing’ is too deeply rotten for me even to begin to discuss.

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