Ever since Watson so eloquently presented the case of Robert Harris to us, people have used this case as an illustration of the problem of moral luck and to demonstrate the possibility that ultimately perhaps no one is truly morally responsible for anything. When we learn of the terrible upbringing of Harris from being kicked out of his mother’s womb to being beaten by his father to being untouched by his mother, we wonder what we would be like had when had his life: “There but for the grace of God go I.” And we notice our reactive attitudes being dampened down.
I’ve always been dubious about how this case has been used (forgive me if I’m not remembering exactly all the ways Watson uses the case—I haven’t read his article in a while). First, I don’t think any of us know what we would be like if we’d been raised like Harris. But if we’d been raised as Harris was, I’m not sure we would count as the same person (this personal identity issue has come up here before). More importantly, I suspect Harris does not satisfy most compatibilist conditions for free will and moral responsibility. When we learn about his upbringing, our intuitions may be influenced by the fact that we have reason to wonder whether he really knows right from wrong or really can control himself in light of rational deliberation. It’s very hard to know whether we feel the pull to mitigate our reactive attitudes towards Harris (a) because he is, like all of us, the product of his past, or (b) because, unlike most of us, he is the product of a peculiar past that made him, well, somewhat crazy. (Wolf’s case of Jojo faces the same problem, I think—it’s entirely unclear whether he convincingly satisfies the "deep self" conditions.) And it’s not like we have the intuition that Harris is not responsible at all. Rather, we have the intuition that he’s less responsible than we initially felt. We mitigate our reactive attitudes, perhaps because we feel Harris’ upbringing has diminished the degree to which he possesses requisite compatibilist capacities for free will.
The lesson here generalizes to some extent. We often assume that those who commit the most gruesome crimes are screwed up in a way that makes it hard for us to understand their mental processes and that makes it easy to wonder if they are wired in the wrong way. This is why I think it is more useful to test our intuitions about the general worries of determinism or self-creation with cases that don’t confuse the issues—that don’t conflate having a (deterministic) history with having a history that screws up one’s rational control capacities. What we need is a case that involves a sane person carefully planning to do what he knows is wrong, doing it repeatedly, and causing terrible harm, and who does not appear to have a terrible upbringing (or genetic defects, brain damage, etc.). This is where Bernie Madoff comes in.
Try the Harris move on Madoff: Go learn about his upbringing (my hasty wikipedia research indicates nothing traumatic or out of the ordinary). Consider his motives as sympathetically as you can (some say he initially did not want to lose his investors money because he wanted so much to be successful at his job). Imagine that he is, like all of us, unable to create himself or to be the ultimate source of his actions. Bring all that into focus as clearly as possible. But at the same time keep in focus the fact that he stole billions of dollars from hundreds of people over a decade, carefully planning how to do it, and knowing exactly what he was doing and that it is wrong. At a minimum, I don’t think we have the reaction we have to the Robert Harris case. Rather, we may be left still feeling more like these two victims of Madoff’s scheme (though perhaps with slightly less severe indignation and suggestions for punishment!) …
1. Elie Weisel on Bernie Madoff (transcript here), asked if Madoff is a psychopath: “’Psychopath’ means it's a sickness; sociopaths, psychopaths, it is pathology, it's sickness. The man knew what he was doing, and I would simply call him ‘thief, scoundrel, criminal.’ Anyway, whatever is to hurt him, I think should be invented, because he deserves it. [Laughter] … Could I ever forgive him? No [Applause].”
2. Investor Dewitt
Baker (who lost over $1 million to Bernie Madoff): “I’d stone him to death.”