Monday, May 16, 2011

Being guilty of what one hasn’t done

In my last blog I said that the time will not be far away that we can “read” the minds of other people and see what their intentions are. As we have seen, scanners may be able to guess even better what we want to do than we, the bearers of these intentions, can. But what does it mean to say that someone has the intention to perform an action like blowing up an aeroplane? Fundamentally it says that the person concerned (let’s call him or her the agent) has the serious will to perform the action that s/he intends to do and that under normal circumstances this agent will not not perform the action. When an agent has an objective intention (an intention as registered by a scanner), we suppose that this agent will sooner or later also develop the subjective intention to act according to it. But what if this is not the case? Scanners show only correlations, not causal relations, so it is quite well possible that a scanner registers a certain intention and that this intention is related to an action by those who operate the scanner, while actually the scanned intention needs to be related to another action.
This still imaginary case reminds me of a real case that happened not so long ago somewhere in the Netherlands. Most Dutch municipalities have bye-laws that say that it is forbidden to transport equipment like rope ladders, chisels and other such tools in your car between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., for they might be used for breaking in. Now it happened that a man who had done some odd jobs in a friend’s house was stopped by the police late at night, when he returned home. The police found an almost complete set of “forbidden” tools in his car (but not a rope ladder) and despite the explanation of the man why these tools were there, he was fined. The man decided not to pay, so he had to appear in court but there he was condemned (actually because the judge did not listen to his arguments).
I think that this case is basically not different from my scanner case and that it clearly shows what can happen if we ascribe an objective intention to a person on account of “objective” facts, although this intention does not agree with the person’s subjective intention. It makes clear that scanning a person’s brains in order to register his or her intentions does not have only practical consequences (like preventing a bomb attack), but that it can have ethical consequences as well: someone can be considered guilty on account of an objective intention that s/he has according to a brain scanner, while in fact s/he did not had the related subjective intention to act and although s/hewould never subjectively develop the intention ascribed to him or her for the simple reason that, for instance, an intention as registered objectively can have multiple meanings or because the circumstances are such that the agent would never get the idea to develop the ascribed intention: One is guilty of what one hasn’t done and did not want to do. I think that the consequences reach also further, for what remains of our idea of the free will, when it can happen that we ascribe objectively an intention to an agent (and maybe condemn him or her because of it), while s/he did not have the related subjective intention nor did perform the action concerned?

No comments: