Are you responsible for your actions?

Normally, we say that everyone is responsible for their own actions. We hold people accountable for what they do. But we tend to make some exceptions. Children and people who are regarded as mentally ill, or who are not able to understand what they do are often seen as not responsible for what they do.

In most cases, however, we say that each and everyone has a choice, you make it and take the consequences.

But sometimes accountability does not necessarily come from a choice.  Sometimes someone is found guilty and accountable for other reasons. Sometimes the rule seems to be that someone should be found guilty regardless of whether they did something or not. Is it perhaps that humans sometimes want to have revenge rather than justice?

One historical example of this is the witch trials. A few hundred years ago there were many witch trials where women were burned at the stake. Most of these witch trials war born out of some misfortune or other. There might have been a child who went missing, or a cow that might have died suddenly. And someone had to pay, someone had to carry the blame.

A scientific experiment

A group is built on emotions of love or friendship, or at least a group must give you something positive or you are likely to leave it. But in most groups there will also be conflict or members of the group who use or abuse other members. One of our biggest groups is society as a whole. In society there are people who use and abuse others, they steal or start fights. To stop this behavior we have laws and punishment. But beneath those rules there is a common set of principles of morality that most humans feel are right. One such idea is fairness. Fairness means that everyone should get the same treatment for the same behavior, or something like that.

Even in monkeys you can see that they have a sense of fairness. In an experiment some monkeys were rewarded a cucumber when they completed a task, and some were rewarded with a banana for the same task. The monkeys which only got the cucumber resented the others. A similar experiment can be seen here:


In groups of four talk about the following questions and take notes:

  1. Can we hold children accountable for their actions? Why/why not?
  2. What do you think about the insanity plea? Isn’t some crimes always insanity? Aren’t all murderers insane? If not, why/why not?
  3. There’s an expression that says that you shouldn’t judge someone unless you have walked in their shoes. What does that expression mean? What do you think about it? Do you see any risks or benefits form following this piece of advice?
  4. Have you experienced something similar to a witch trial in your lives? Something happened and somebody was blamed for no other reason than someone had to bear the blame? Tell the story to your friends.
  5. So, what is the function of punishments in the law? Why do you think people are punished? Can there be more than one reason? What are they, do you think?
  6. Have you experienced that someone got a better reward than you for the same behavior? How did you react? Tell the story to your friends

When you are finished, please hand in notes.


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