restricted access Commentary on "Multiple Personality and Moral Responsibility"
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Commentary on “Multiple Personality and Moral Responsibility”

Theaitetos sleeping is not quite “the same” as Theaitetos waking, any more than Alcibiades drunk is Alcibiades sober. Nor am I, at fifty, quite “the same” as Stephen was when he was five. In one way, my sober fifty-year-old waking self can reasonably disclaim responsibility for what Stephen did or seemed to do when he was dreaming, drunk, or five years old. Those other Stephens were not “fully responsible,” were not doing what they freely chose because they chose it—though it would be odd to deny that they were acting willingly. Nor am I now very likely to do the things that—drunk, asleep, or five years old—“I” did: in that sense I can disown those actions and never fully “owned” them anyway. Maybe now I can even disown such actions as I once really owned: once I thought them the right thing, and now I do not.

On the other hand, as Stephen Braude says, even children (even, he might have added, dogs) are treated “as if” they are “responsible”: as if, that is, they know what they were doing and may be deterred from doing it again. Should Alcibiades sober be made accountable for what “he” did when drunk? Why not, if this deters him from getting drunk again? Perhaps, as Aristotle suggested, those who do wrong when they are drunk should be fined double the amount. Perhaps those who find it difficult not to drink habitually should be fined ten times the amount. What matters is the amount of money that will put them off, that will force them to “take responsibility” for their own future lives. People who know that they can’t trust themselves when they are drunk, sexually excited, or driving a fast car must put it out of their own power to be in those positions—and if they can’t do that, then others must do it for them. Free men and women “take responsibility,” take charge of their own lives, and wish to be held responsible for what they do and have done. Those who cannot “take control” must, technically, be slaves.

There is no point expecting “natural slaves” to take control of their own lives; to measure what they want against what is allowed by society. Such “slaves,” at best, can be controlled by an immediate threat or prize. In a way, it is pointless to punish them, though it may be necessary to imprison, maim, or kill them. Much the same thing may be said of some who are not, strictly, slavish. Should eighty-year-olds be “held responsible” for what they did in their forgotten youth, a world away? They will not be doing it again, and may not, even now, have any greater understanding than the rest of us as to why they did it in the past. “Punishment” in such a case can only [End Page 55] be used to deter others who might follow the same path, to help them to control their lives in ways that do not injure others. Otherwise, we are not strictly speaking of “punishment” at all: perhaps more often than we like to admit, public condemnation, incarceration, or execution is a symbolic elimination of a perceived evil, whether or not we think, or have good grounds for thinking, that the victim is really guilty. The sacrificial victim carries away our anger or unhappiness.

Pragmatically, in other words, we punish people for things that—even at the time of the action—they did not control, or which they have long forgotten. For punishment to deter them, they must understand what they are being punished for. For it to reform them, they must accept that the punishment inflicted is just. Those who neither understand nor accept punishment may still be treated harshly, for the sake of others—maimed, or killed, or simply (if we choose to be humane) imprisoned. There are some acts, so Aristotle said, below the level of humanity: such bestiality cannot be punished. It does not follow that the perpetrators should be “free.” Pragmatism permits us to retain the rites of sacrifice, even...