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Why Motivation as Criteria of Criminal Justice is Irrational

July 3, 2014

It is truly depressing and pathetic that murder trials have become so heavily reliant on “motivation” as the single most important determinant for a verdict. Did he kill her on accident, or on purpose? Was it spontaneous, or planned? Was he mentally ill, or sane?

When motivation is a consideration in the courtroom, and even more so when it is the most crucial consideration, the courtroom is reduced to a competition of actors, with the prosecution team claiming the defendant is an evil, cruel, hateful criminal that willfully planned out the brutal murder, and the defense team insisting that the defendant was a poor victim of circumstance, wrong place at the wrong time, unable to adapt properly to a traumatic situation, and often some kind of appeal to mental illness or extenuating circumstances.

Both sides exaggerate and distort the facts, both sides are heavily biased towards their interpretation of the events, but most crucially, neither of them have any idea what the motivations of the defendant really were, nor does the defendant necessarily even understand his own motivations. It’s all an act, the theatrical portrayal of hypothetical scenarios masquerading as evidence-backed facts. This kind of nonsense distorts the justice system more than any other factor. Who can put on the most convincing performance becomes the deciding factor of a verdict, with the facts of the matter being relegated to a secondary concern.

But even setting aside the evidence and the theatre, there’s another, perhaps bigger problem that is not even recognized as a problem: that killing is killing, rape is rape, theft is theft, suffering is suffering, regardless of the motivations. The concern with the motivation of the one committing the crime, their character, condition, abilities/disabilities, etc., is considered a core determinant of any judgments on whether they were justified in committing the crimes they did.

If a man steals for his children (or claims to), all of a sudden we sympathize with him. If a neighborhood watchman kills a young man because he feels threatened by him, all of a sudden we defend him and say “he had a right to kill him because of a credible threat to his life”. We emotionally identify either with the victim or the perpetrator in this fashion, believing that somehow, justice is contingent on motivation. Forget that we don’t know their motivations, and are just speculating based on hypothetical scenarios. Forget that regardless of his motivation, The store manager still took losses, and Trayvon Martin is still dead. They had their hearts in the right place, right?

You know what, suppose I agree with you. That would mean that, in all probability, all the major genocides, the Holocaust, not to mention virtually all wars in the world, were justified. Hitler wanted to save the German nation from the Jews and communists, and build a homeland and future for the German people. Stalin wanted to give Russia a great legacy that the world would never forget. Mao wanted to transform China into the most productive and ideal civilization. Even serial killers had good intentions, with Charles Manson wanting to wake up the world to how evil it had become, and Bundy wanting to fully savor the experience of the anatomy of beautiful young women.

There isn’t a single evil or wretched person out there who didn’t have some kind of good intentions, or tried to do the right thing, or wasn’t somehow the victim of circumstances, mentally ill, maladaptive, “at the wrong place at the wrong time”, traumatized, etc. We can prescribe a motivation to vindicate any crime in the book, which really goes to show how absurd it is that courts still place so much value in such a speculative and unreliable criterion. Introspection hasn’t been considered a real science for over a century now, so why does the law continue to put it on a pedestal. We’re not mind readers, we’re not fortune tellers, and even if we were, it doesn’t make the raped any less traumatized, the burglarized any less poor, or the deceased any less dead.

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