Sins of the Past



The Washington Post recently published a story about an incident that took place during Mitt Romney’s

Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts,...

Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts, 2008 US presidential candidate. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

years as a high school student. According to the story, Mitt Romney took offense at the long hair of fellow student John Lauber. Lauber was apparently often teased for being a nonconformist and was apparently suspected of being a homosexual. After commenting on Lauber’s hair, Romney took action a few days later. He and some friends tackled Lauber and pinned him down. Romney then cut Lauber’s hair. Apparently no disciplinary action was taken against Romney.

Naturally, some folks pointed out that the story was published close to the time President Obama expressed his support for same-sex marriage and they speculated that the Post might have acted for political reasons. That is, the goal was to contrast Romney’s attack on Lauber with Obama’s enlightened stance on same-sex marriage. While such speculation is certainly interesting, my main focus will not be on whether or not the charge against the Post is true or even on the ethics of timing stories for political advantage. Rather, I will focus on the matter of the sins of one’s past.

Intuitively, under normal circumstances a person is morally accountable for his actions. There are, of course, clear and obvious exceptions to this. In the case of teenage Romney, he seems to be fully accountable for what he did-after all, he does not seem to have been coerced or compelled into this action nor does it seem to involve a situation in which his responsibility would be significantly mitigated. As such, it would be unreasonable to claim that Romney was not morally accountable for his actions.

However, it is fair and reasonable to counter this view with the obvious: Romney did this when he was a teenage male. Research on the teenage brain has confirmed what most people already knew: teenagers have poor impulse control and they think rather differently than adults. Stereotypically, young males are supposed to be even more prone to bad behavior. Thinking back on my own teen years, the research nicely matches my own experiences.  I can recall numerous instances in which either I or other people did rather stupid things. In some cases I was the perpetrator (like the time I whacked a friend in the head with a wooden flail and drew a lot of blood) and sometimes I was the victim (like the time I had my shorts ripped off and was forced to run back to the school wearing just a jock and my shoes). For those readers who are beyond their teen years, I suspect that the same is true.

While it is tempting to excuse Romney on the basis of his brain being immature, this does not seem to be enough of a basis to completely excuse his behavior. After all, having a teenage brain does not preclude a person from making sound moral judgments. It does, however, mean that teenagers are not as good at it as adults and hence should be held somewhat less accountable than adults. John Stewart Mill noted the difference between children and adults in his writing on liberty in regards to the ability to make decisions (which impacted the degree of liberty they should be allowed). From a moral standpoint (and also a legal one) it seems rather important to consider the extent to which an immature brain actually limits judgment and impulse control. After all, it is to this degree that children would be morally (and legally) excused in their actions. This difference is, of course, already recognized in the law: in general, children are not tried as adults and in the United States, there are juvenile courts just for kids.

As might be imagined, it is not currently known exactly how much impact the immaturity of the brain has on judgments and behavior. However, it does seem sufficient for my purposes to say that teenage Romney’s immature brain probably had some impact on his decision to attack Lauber, just as it did in my decision to whack my friend with a flail. However, it seems reasonable to claim that teenage Romney should not be held as accountable as an adult would be in similar circumstances. Likewise for the teenage flail wielding LaBossiere. I will admit that I am unsure of the degree to which accountability should be reduced, but it does seem quite sensible to hold children less accountable than adults and this should clearly extend to Romney (and me).

In addition to the question of the accountability of the moment (that is, how accountable a person is for the action at the time of the action), there is also the question of what the sins of the past reveal about the person of the present. In the case of Mitt Romney, the clear concern is what this incident from his teenage years tells the people of the United States about his fitness to be president. While Romney’s case is rather extreme, similar questions can be asked of each person. For example, what does the flail incident reveal about my fitness to be a professor of philosophy?

When assessing past incidents such as these in regards to current character, another important point of concern is the seriousness of the action. For example, the fact that I got into a couple minor scuffles in school does not show that I am a person of bad character now. As another example, if someone committed unprovoked murder as a teenager, then this would indicate that they could very likely be an evil person today.

In Romney’s case, the incident is somewhat serious. After all, he was involved in what would be considered assault and battery if an adult had done it. Likewise for the time I whacked my friend with the fail (or the time my shorts were stolen). As such, Romney’s incident and my own seem to be matter worth considering when assessing current character. While it rather oversimplifies things, it does make sense to say that we are what we did. That is, that the person I am now is the result of what I did in the past. Because of this, my past actions (and anyone else’s) would thus be relevant to assessing who I am now.

But, of course, there is also the obvious fact that a person is more than just a mere sum of past actions. These actions impact the person and what a person does can, in fact, result in a change so that they would no longer do what they once did. That is, people can change for better (or worse). As such, it would not do to simply look at a specific incident and take it to define the person of today. Rather, it must be taken in context of the person’s life. How a person responds to the past action also seems rather relevant to determining the person’s current character.

In my own case, and the case of my friends, we generally managed to become decent adults. While I whacked my friend with a flail, I grew up to be a rather calm professor of philosophy. My friends turned out rather well, too.  Naturally, I remember the flail incident (and others) very well and I feel rather bad about what I did. This is one reason why I became the calm philosophy professor I am today who has little inclination to strike people with a flail. As such, the flail incident does not show that I am currently a person of bad character.

In the case of Romney, there is currently no evidence that he is now prone to attacking people and cutting their hair. That is, he does not seem to be a bully. What is, however, somewhat worrisome is that he initially denied remembering the incident in question.

On the one hand, a case could be made that Romney honestly did not remember. After all, people forget things. No doubt there are some rotten things that I did as a kid that I have forgotten that other people (such as my parents or sister) remember quite well. Perhaps Romney honestly did not remember. Naturally, some folks might see this as a sign of bad character in that the attack on another person did not make enough of an impression to remain in his mind. After all, I vividly remember hitting my friend with the flail. Of course, I am younger than Romney, so perhaps my memory has yet to fade.

On the other hand, a stock tactic for politicians is to claim they do not remember an incident in which they (allegedly) did wrong. This always strikes me as an odd tactic, especially when there is adequate evidence for the incident and the incident is such that someone should remember it (barring mental deterioration). A claim to not remember a misdeed certainly says something about a person’s current character. Admitting to the misdeed, showing remorse and an improvement in character is, I would contend, says something far better about a person. Unless, of course, it is just a clever move to look good. Perhaps Romney deserves at least some credit-after all, he did not engage in an insincere theater of contrition act.

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  1. Both liberal and conservative views allow for rehabilitation. Religious circles even have a specific mechanism for this: admitting ones sins, asking for forgiveness, redemption.

    So, in this sense Romney’s specific past should not be held against him – i.e. it would be wrong to censure Romney now, because of that incident then. In the real scientific sense that we as individuals do change over time we really can’t say that the Romney then is the Romney now.

    What’s more significant in this story of his past is the extent to which that behaviour has followed him into his adult life. If he continues to persecute the non-conformist (i.e. those that don’t conform to Romney’s current opinion about what is socially acceptable) then it would be fair to say that this is a pattern of behaviour that should disqualify him from office, since elected officials are supposed to represent all citizens, not just the ones that happen to think along the same lines. Obama may or may not have personal antipathy towards homosexuality, which, if he has, may or may not be influenced by his religious views; but the point is he is making a case for a wider citizenship that includes homosexuals.

    If Romney has changed his views from those he had as a teenager; if he is more open to the variety of citizens that exists in the US, then no problem. What do you think is actually the case with Romney?

  2. swallerstein (amos)

    No one should be held responsible for what they do as a teenager years later.

    I did so many stupid, thoughtless and uncaring things.

    Over 50 years ago, when I was about 14, along with another boy, we made a third boy, who as is usual in such cases was not the most masculine member of our class, although I have no idea if he was gay or turned out to be gay, eat his cigarette. If he is reading this, my apologies.

    Then there was the time I slashed a car tires to show off my new knife to my friends.

    I could go on, but you all get the point.

  3. michael reidy

    Would your post be a fine example of paralepsis, apophasis or antiphrasis? Indeed because of its full catalogue of the sins of Mitt it might be termed proslepsis. It’s the good old fashioned device of I’m not going to stand before you and tell you that Mitt is x, y, z or far be it from me to mention .

    You missed the dying fall of yes it was wrong what I done did, but I am merely a humble teacher with but a limited number of lives that I affect, Mitt is aiming to give haircuts to a country

    First Obama blurts out about gays and now this. Somebody doesn’t like the numbers and is panicking.

  4. swallerstein (amos)

    Hello Michael:

    I’m not a Romney fan, but no one whom I’ve ever known could stand a full scrutiny of all their past, especially juvenile, sins. Perhaps not everyone bullies, but even Buddha had his share of teenage sins, according to the legend.

    People change, as did Buddha.

    I’m not claiming that Romney is Buddha, and I would not vote for him if I could, but everyone has been thoughtless or selfish or uncaring or dishonest from time to time.

    Maybe some people are born saints, but the rest of us have to learn, through experience, to be something less than saintly and that takes time.

  5. Mike- I am not sure the exact age of the incident, I have read 17-18. Many times in this country we try individuals who commit crimes at this age and younger as adults, not to say that we are right to do so.

    But I am sure that a court every year will lock away some 17-18 year old for years on end partially because they have been convicted as an “adult.” And I seriously doubt that a president Romney would consider pardoning or mitigating a sentence based on the fact that the perpetrator was only 17, capable of (re)forming a more benign and social character. In fact, when asked about the possibility of mitigating or softening such sentences Romney would probably pay heed to some responsibility-entailing desert of every individual’s actions, including even those with slightly tougher circumstances (the teenage brain effect) given that they know the difference between right and wrong and are at an age where we generally hold them accountable as a society. In other words, the idea that we can greatly reform the characters of 17-year-old selves that do idiotic things will be somewhat lost on him.

    Maybe that just points to hypocrisy . . .

    Furthermore, as is necessary, there is a continuum here. An 18-year-old’s understanding and behavior is far different than a 14-year-old’s, there is a gradual slide between childhood and adulthood, and bifurcating that category so sharply probably does not represent how we should understand the individual at any one time. There is also differences from each brain/environment to the next brain/environment. The WP article was interesting because it paints a broader picture of the social environment upon which Romney’s character was built and which this action was carried out in the light of. This action makes sense under those circumstances and that social field, the behaviors tolerated and expected and what is considered “good character” there and . . .

    As was mentioned, the thing that gives us pause is Romney’s wholly inadequate response today to what he had done (assuming he did it) and not just the incident in itself. His inability to reflect both on that incident, on that self, and those social structures, and ask questions about such things shows a lack of sincerity from his stances.

  6. Ron,

    True-the story of the redeemed sinner resonates well in the US, especially among conservatives (witness Newt and his divorces).

    As per the stock criticisms by the right against Romney, he seems to have a history as a moderate. Unless there are some new revelations, it seems reasonable to accept that the incident was isolated (as they say).

    Romney does face a two horned challenged here. One horn is that he must avoid the appearance of what folks call “homophobia.” After all, this is regarded as bigotry by most Americans these days, even many who are against same-sex marriage. However, he cannot be too “soft” on homosexuality, which leads to the other horn. This horn is that he has to stand solidly for the “traditional” values that are endorsed by the Republicans and this includes defending their current concept of “traditional” marriage. Romney seems to have pretty good self-discipline, so I do not see him making any questionable remarks about “gayness.” Rather, he will stolidly and blandly repeat the mantra that marriage is between a man and a woman (while hoping that the polygamy thing doesn’t get brought up as an ad homimen against his family).

  7. Swallerstein,

    I think that there are some misdeeds that should be considered serious enough to “stick” to a person, even though they were done as a teen. Murder, for example. But I do agree that the typical misdeeds of teens can be excused by the process of becoming an ethical adult. As the research (and experience) shows, the teenage mind does not have a full set of ethical or rational cylinders and is fueled mainly by emotion.

  8. Michael,

    I am in a position do to less damage than Romney could be in, true. But, of course, that does not give me an excuse that he would lack. So, if my youth got me off the hook for my misdeeds, so would his. That said, people should be more worried about Romney (and Obama) than about me. After all, my official capacity just allows me to speak in front of a number of students (many of whom are probably Facebooking and thus immune to my corrupting influece) while being president provides access to predator drones.

  9. Swallerstein,

    True-good decisions require experience and experience comes from bad decisions. 🙂

  10. Lyndon,

    Good points. From both a legal and moral perspective it is rather challenging to draw a line between adult and child. Naturally, we do have a number that we use (typically 18) while allowing some factors to mitigate (such as mental competence).

  11. swallerstein (amos)


    I would even exempt murder from teenage sins which should stick to people.

    When I was about 16, my girl-friend told me that another boy had her tennis racket and refused to return it. I told her that I would get it back and I went to see the boy with a loaded gun (for which I had no permit) under my jacket.

    Fortunately, the boy returned the racket upon being asked.

    I had no intention of using the gun; I just imagined that I’d show him it in order to scare him, but obviously, in the real world such situations can get out of hand and I had no ability to see that at age 16.

    Many boys I knew carried knives to “defend themselves” and some had guns. A few bragged of having been in knife fights, although in retrospect, I don’t believe their stories.

    We all grew up and went to the university, and none of us pursued a life of crime.

    At present I’m a responsible citizen, so orderly and law-abiding that many find me to be boring.

    I don’t know how teenage killers should be treated, but they should not be sent to prision and if they begin to lead a responsible life later on, their having killed someone as a youth should not be taken into account in judging their adult character.

  12. In no place you take concern for the compensantion of the victim, the one damaged by people like teenage Rommey and teenage LaBossiere. When teenage you and teenage Rommey commited the sick thing you did it resulted in an ego boost which benefited you in someway in those days and thus results in benefits for you today, and I would say very unlikely the degree of remorse you felt and feel now punishes you enoght, proportinal to amount of ego boost you gained from being cruel, and the amount of gains you attaind because of the feelings of self-efficacy you attained after the ego boost you received. I believe anyone who thinks contrary may be indulging in self deception for not facing what he knows is responsible for. Therefore you are benefiting now of this past evil and remain accountable. You must not only remmember and feel sorry, you must seek to apologise and offer in whatever way you can true compensations to the past victim which most probably suffers a lot today for such great evil some sick person caused him and much probably is less person he/she could have been because of the psychological damage that event created.

  13. Swallerstein,

    I can see the appeal of forgiving all such sins, but I would contend that teenagers are not devoid of accountability-they just have diminished accountability relative to adults (or what adults should have).

    Like you, most of the boys I knew did carry knifes. I carried one (actually, I still do-a safely legal “common pocketknife”). We routinely shot at each other with BB guns and sling shots. Once one boy threw a knife at another boy, sending him to the hospital for stitches. As you note, we mostly went on to become responsible adults. Well, except me-I went into philosophy. 🙂

    I would agree that teenage killers should be given a chance for redemption, but I think there are limits to that.

  14. Leo,

    When I hit my friend, I felt really bad afterwards. I still feel bad about it. When I saw his blood on the “flail” I felt sick and shaken. I realized that I could have actually hurt him very badly or even killed him. As an adult, I have never swung on another person from anger-and have only been in a few defensive fights (such as being randomly attacked while running). One reason for this is that experience-it showed me pretty clearly what hurting another person is like.

    I cannot, of course, speak for Romney.

  15. michael reidy

    I generally would expect more of these talking points being aired as the election looms. The other day I discovered that Obama had a serious relationship with a nice white girl who said that he was a bit distant and cold. This emerges now, how odd. Is this dog-whistle stuff or is it an appeal to atavism? Expect something like this soon. On his way to school during his formative years in Indonesia where his fluent Indonesian came in handy he regularly passed a mosque where the muzzein would call. Not many people know that this chanting affects the upper back hypocampus leaving subliminal messages which may remain dormant for years.

    On 3quarks daily I found this:
    Should we be amplifying these talking points though?

  16. Mike,

    On your discussion of teen murderers with Swallerstein, I think there is sufficient science available (even if funding prevents it being used where it is needed) to have a pretty good attempt at determining whether a particular individual is likely to commit murder or assault again as he goes through life.

    Rather than this very pragmatic view about his danger to others your view seems to be loaded with sentiments of blame, punishment and retribution (an angle that many free-will debates challenge in raising this distinction). Could you clarify your views in this regard.

    “I think that there are some misdeeds that should be considered serious enough to “stick” to a person”

    Why should they stick, other than as a pragmatic label applied to someone who continues to pose a danger to others. If there is a real sense in which such a teen has changed (as you and others have explained they themselves have) then on what basis does murder as a teen stick, and how does it stick (i.e. what do you do about it)?

    There does seem to be a distinction, between a developing teen on the one hand, and say some 80 year old being charged with sex offences against children when the offender was in, say, his 30’s or 40’s. There are similarities in the way in which Nazis were persude into old age. The difference here is that the crimes were committed by developed adults, even if those crimes were a long time ago and even if they have not committed more similar crimes for many years. The teen case seems easier to resolve to me than these cases, where I’m sure many of us would expect the persuit of ‘justice’ to proceed.

    I accept that for individuals the barrier that social standards that count a person as a teen or an adult (18? 21?) are as arbitrarily broad as speed limits on the roads, but I think the distinction is there in principle, and can be made case by case.

    Part of the problem is deciding how to deal with young killers. Set them free and they are subject to popular lynching; incarcerate them and you run the risk of compounding their problems to the extent that they inevitably remain a danger. How do you grow, as a child, a teen, and what do you learn about yourself, what do you become, if you are forever labelled as a killer? See this case:

  17. If “character” is the operative word here then, I still read that Mitt Rommey does not support same-sex marriage and others portray him as a “corporate bully” – re Bain Capital.So has his character changed? And do people’s character really change much? Reputation does, I guess, but does character?

    However, each of us have character traits that are morally or otherwise offensive to others – and I guess we each ought to make allowance for forgiven and give people at least a second change in the cause of a person’s life cycle growth and “brain” development – education, experiences, desires,emotions and knowledge etc.

    Convienently forgetting past misdeed and openly saying so, does however undermine honesty and integrity. A person of good character should surely be honest and sincere even when they stand to lose. Then again often, it is difficult and unfair to pass judgement on others or make a definitive point of view when all the facts are not known…

  18. I do agree that if a person is reformed and there is adequate evidence that s/he is no longer a danger to others, then it would make sense to release the person from incarceration. After all, a reasonable purpose of locking people up is to keep them from being able to commit more misdeeds upon the public (unfortunately, they are often free to perform misdeeds to each other).

    As far as the sticking part, my general principle is that some misdeeds could be so significant (so evil, perhaps) that they would indicate that the person is either severely lacking in rationality (in which case they need to be kept from other because the fail to understand their actions and could do more terrible deeds) or is evil (so that they would do wicked things again because it is in their character to do so). There could also be other possibilities-I don’t want to create a false dilemma by claiming that these are the only two choice. For example, imagine a 16 year old who consistently commits various misdeeds (theft, assault, molestation and so on) who then rapes and brutally murders several children. It would be hard to dismiss such wickedness as a mere youthful folly or the result of merely having a brain that is not yet mature. Given that capacity for wickedness (or severe lack of mental ability) it would be reasonable to suspect that the person’s defects run very deep and that he would not simply grow out of it and become a normal, reasonable ethical adult. Naturally, if it could be shown that he did somehow manage to overcome this and was a fine, upstanding adult, then perhaps it should no longer be held against him because of his rather impressive redemption.

    Summing it up, I would say that the wickedness of a deed would be a indicator of the person’s core character. While people do change with time, the core seems to remain, well, the core. As such, if someone knowingly and freely engaged in horrific acts, then it would seem reasonable to be wary of them even after they claimed to be reformed or grown up. Deeds that can be attributed to teenage impulsiveness or merely a bad/stupid choice would be less defining. For example, when I hit my friend I acted from anger and I did not realize that the weapon would actually do that kind of damage (after all, we made them so we could do SCA style “play” fighting).

  19. POD,

    Mitt does say that he thinks marriage is to be between one man and one woman. This need not entail that he is a bully, of course. As far as Bain goes, that could be relevant-perhaps his alleged bullying took on a more sophisticated, economic form.

    I would say that character can change. In my own experience, I have known people to have been redeemed (or who redeemed themselves). I have also known people who have fallen. I would say that the basic core remains fairly stable, but it does seem possible for people to undergo significant changes through choice and experience.

  20. swallerstein (amos)

    It seems to me that the basic core of people which cannot change is not moral character, but personality or character structure, which is an entirely different thing, for example, whether the person has an obsessive-compulsive personality structure or is introverted or extroverted in her personality.

  21. Mike,

    “For example, imagine a 16 year old who consistently commits various misdeeds (theft, assault, molestation and so on) who then rapes and brutally murders several children.”

    Yes, but this comes under the pragmatic.

    “severely lacking in rationality…or is evil”

    OK, I guess we get the problem with someone lacking rationality. But what I find curious is your use of the term ‘evil’. Could you expand on what you think it is.

    My own perspective is that ‘evil’ is an old label we gave to people who consistently behave at the extreme end of what would now be labelled alternatively as sociopathic, but which might better be described under a number of classifications in psychology and neurology. If you’re using it in a similar way then fine, but the term ‘evil’ has so much baggage from ancient (and sadly current) religious belief that it is an inappropriatly simplistic term in a discussion like this.

    I’d agree with swallerstein’s sentiments that it’s not about morality. Not, from my perspective, in the judegmental sense, but about personality, as determined by the brain – which may include genetic predispositions and learned behaviours in complex combinations, but still basically, outwardly, a pragmatic issue of behaviour. The complexity may make the details practically indeterminate in many cases, and consequently incarceration may be the best of a bad set of options. But it need have nothing to do with emotive moral notions of ‘evil’, ‘wickedness’ – unless you are using these as simplistic labels for otherwise real states of personality.

  22. Dennis Sceviour

    What does this have to do with philosophy? It is political rhetoric, mud-slinging and smear. If that is all they can find on Mitt Romney, then he is almost Mr. Clean. Mitt Romney has not given permission to examine his personal life or an historic hazing incident. His recent comments indicate he may be prepared to change his views on hazing.

    There has to be a line to draw between what is important to hold the position of supreme commander of the American armed forces and the defence of the American constitution, and the myriad moral beliefs of the populations at large. I see nothing wrong in questioning Mitt Romney about military matters. Who is the enemy? Who would he attack? What weapons would he use or not use? How much diplomatic experience does he have in international affairs? What does a teenage hazing incident have to do with this?

    As I write this, I see James Garvey has posted a very interesting view on reductionism. He questions how nosey we should be. How much should we examine the personal lives and dustbins of people, instead of judging them for what they want people to see?

    Is there an agreed definition for sin? Most of the discussion appears to have the religious Catholic-Islamic meaning of judgement and eternal damnation. Other societies do not share the same beliefs. For example, in Mike LaBossiere’s Mohawk native language, the word for sin is “tang” which loosely translates “we agree to disagree.” It is not eternally judgemental.

  23. I resisted taking this line before, but since others wish to pick on Mike’s unfortunate youthful incident:

    If Mike’s assault with the wooden flail caused some happenstance greater effect on the other individual (such as a clot, say) it would have not prevented him from becoming what he is today, assuming that we as a society did not throw him in jail for 10 years in response to such—there is philosophical literature on “bizarre luck” like this I believe. In fact, if the worse happened and that young-Mike willingly owned up to it, reflected on his self’s character and reformed such, there is the probability that empathy and guilt would have driven even more pro-social reformation (not to say that he did not maximize on that account).

    Anyways, those are difficult questions to parse. You and Romney, given other environmental structures, were probably capable of outgrowing such incidences and taking in a more reformed character, something that may be less likely to happen to others in worse socio-economic circumstances, say, or with other brain/mind structures.

    I think those kind of things point to other important lessons of environment and behavior that have been hinted at here. Say, 17-year-olds who commit some violent act but do so because of involvement with gangs and the type of characteristics and identities that go along with such, probably have more resilient characters that could not be as easily amended, as compared to singular acts by many upper-middle-class young adults. That’s not to say that young adults who fall into gang activity or have more criminally structured brain/minds are not capable of being changed, but the dynamics are different in many cases.

    I would argue we should be looking for compassion in both cases. And we should recognize that total lifestyle and neighborhood changes may be necessary for these types of characters (gang type of personality, e.g.), whereas people like the young-Mike are more capable of adjusting their own behaviors in light of smaller incidences. Imprisoning youth or putting them in the types of juvenile detention centers that we have are probably wholly inadequate with dealing with individuals who are caught in any of these situations. Of course, gross inequality, failing schools, failing neighborhoods, and failing family structures are also problematic here. As stated above, if the young-Mike’s incident had the bizarre luck of a clot that led to worse consequences, throwing “young-Mike” in jail for 5 years for such an incidence, would have been a bad response by society—as opposed to counseling and ‘rehabilitation’ of some kind.

    Lastly, quite frankly, such ideas about transforming characters and behaviors probably apply to most adults as well as they do to many younger people. That is, throwing 25-year-olds in prison for, say, 60 years, saying we “deem you punished” is not really doing anyone any good.

  24. So, question:

    Qua Mitt, the worst-case scenario might be something like that his past actions showed he was biased against gays and, unfortunately, he is still biased against gays.

    That’s worst case, right?

    Now, let’s say Mitt actually is biased against gays (whatever the truth actually is). The question I’m interested in is whether or not this means he can’t rationally correct for his bias assuming that he was a) aware of it, and b) believed he shouldn’t act on it as a policymaker.

    Is it possible to be biased and still intentionally and successfully ‘follow the rules’ contrary to that bias?

    For a bias to be relevant, it seems we would have to answer “No”, but is that answer true?

  25. Asur,

    Excellent points.

    As you note, about the worst that can be inferred from the available evidence was that young Romney was apparently biased against people who appeared to match the stereotype of a gay male and that he is still biased in this manner (although apparently no longer inclined to manifest this bias in the context of alleged personal violence).

    His bias need to disqualify him. After all, we all have biases and people are capable of rationally compensating for them when engaging in decision making. Assuming the bias, the question would be whether or not Romney can do this or not. A rational test would be whether or not Romney could present a good argument in favor of his position and show in this process how he took into account this alleged bias and that it did not lead him to engage in poor reasoning.

    To use a analogy, as a professor I tell my ethics students that I do not grade their papers based on whether I agree with their positions or not but on the quality of the work. Obviously, I have definite opinions on almost all moral issues and this requires me to compensate for my own views when grading. If I can grade fairly in such cases, then presumably other folks (such as Romney) could make rational policy choices while compensating for bias.

    It is also worth noting that Romney might not regard his view as a bias, but rather as an objective view of reality.

  26. Lyndon,
    Excellent points. When judging people for their misdeeds, those factors you mention should be part of the assessment. I grew up in a lower-middle class environment with good adult supervision, which no doubt had a significant impact on who I was and who I am now. Folks who are far less fortunate in terms of environment and parents would have a much harder time of it in regards to “turning out well.” People can do it, but the difficulty is well worth considering. Romney, of course, was raised in the upper class and had a vast wealth of opportunities and resources-which would be relevant to how he turned out.

    I do agree with you about prisons. While I do see value in locking away people who pose a direct and ongoing danger to others, locking people up just to punish them does not seem to have a positive effect (especially how we do it in the States). Unfortunately, there seems to be little will for creating a truly reformative penitentiary system. It is, of course, also worth considering that creating an effective system of redemption might be beyond our capabilities.

  27. Dennis,

    “What does this have to do with philosophy?”

    The philosophical points of concern are 1) to what degree do past actions define current character?, 2) to what extent does age morally mitigate responsibility and 3) should people be judged today for misdeeds of their youth? These all seem to be philosophical points.

    “It is political rhetoric, mud-slinging and smear. If that is all they can find on Mitt Romney, then he is almost Mr. Clean. Mitt Romney has not given permission to examine his personal life or an historic hazing incident. His recent comments indicate he may be prepared to change his views on hazing.”

    I’m not smearing Mitt. I was careful to make sure that the source of the story is credible and that Romney has not established that the claim was untrue. I was also careful to make it clear that I was not claiming that Mitt was an especially bad person. After all, I made a point to present an incident of my own to show that I, too, have sins of my past.

    “There has to be a line to draw between what is important to hold the position of supreme commander of the American armed forces and the defence of the American constitution, and the myriad moral beliefs of the populations at large. I see nothing wrong in questioning Mitt Romney about military matters. Who is the enemy? Who would he attack? What weapons would he use or not use? How much diplomatic experience does he have in international affairs? What does a teenage hazing incident have to do with this?”

    That is a good question-which is one I asked, namely do past misdeeds tell us about the person of today? On the one hand, the answer seems obviously yes-the person I am today is clearly the result(in part) of what I have done. On the other hand, the extent of the impact can be questioned. In my case, although I did hit my friend, this incident does not show that I am a violent person. Perhaps the same is true for Mitt. If so, he could respond as I did and show that the incident led him to be a better man than he was as a boy.

    “As I write this, I see James Garvey has posted a very interesting view on reductionism. He questions how nosey we should be. How much should we examine the personal lives and dustbins of people, instead of judging them for what they want people to see?”

    In the case of public figures, we have a right to be fairly nosey. After all, we need to know who he might attack and his character and past behavior tell us some of the answer to the question.

    “Is there an agreed definition for sin?”
    Probably not. But the discussion does not seem to hinge on this. After all, I think we can agree that whacking someone in the head with a flail is bad and so is attacking a kid and forcibly cutting his hair.

  28. Ron,

    Part of it would be pragmatism (“we must keep this person locked up, otherwise they will simply rape and murder innocent people”). But, of course, it would also be ethical. After all, the most pragmatic thing to do would be a single round to the back of the head. That we would lock him up rather than kill him is a moral choice.

    I’m somewhat old school about evil and take it to go beyond merely being badly wired neurologically. After all, that makes evil sound like it is on par with a computer software bug or a conflict between a USB mouse and a USB scanner that causes driver problems. I’m working on a sci-fi post about this that I should have done for next week. But, I will say that there seems to be an important normative element to evil that goes beyond a hardware/software problem. In part, I am for a more classic view of evil because I think it is actually important to regarding ourselves as agents rather than mere objects. That is, a person can be good or evil. A machine can just be broken or operational.

    Naturally, I do consider that I could be 100% wrong about all this.

  29. I’d say that moral character is part of the core of character. I’m going with Aristotle on this one.

  30. Dennis Sceviour

    Thank you for the reply.

    “1) to what degree do past actions define current character?,”
    This is a complicated question that I suppose can only have a complicated answer. First, it may depend on upon whether a persons past failures can develop experience and character growth, or whether a persons past actions dictate all their future decisions. I believe the onus lies in proving the second case. We should assume that a person has learned from their past mistakes. This is the usual course of events, and the basis of our education system.
    Second, no two circumstances are identical. I doubt a past action of a person could be an absolute predictive criteria of future actions.
    Having said that, there is a caveat. In the matter of a person who is trying to whack me on the head with a board, again it would depend on the circumstances. If the participants were practicing the Japanese art of Kendo, then I would say it is proper conduct.

    “2) to what extent does age morally mitigate responsibility and”
    I believe the legal restriction on responsibility for criminal charge is the age of seven. Before that, a child is not considered morally responsible.

    “3) should people be judged today for misdeeds of their youth?”
    Some of the above arguments may clear up some understanding of this question. There is a limitation of 20 years in civilized countries that a person can be judged for misdeeds. Therefore after 20 years, they should not have to worry. In an uncivilized country then truth, time and blame are up for grabs. In cultures and religions that hold to eternal damnation, judgment carries for like and the afterlife, and the life and afterlife of family members, ad nauseum. Americans had a problem some time ago with the feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys, but I think society still has a long way to go to mature itself. The Christian religion holds to a doctrine of forgiveness, which is considerably helpful. Revenge is a complicated topic involving comparisons of the retributive versus utilitarian schools of thought in jurisprudence. Mike, you ask a complicated question. I suppose I ask complicated questions to.

    “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not
    become a monster. And when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also
    looks into you [Nietzsche].”

    My concern is how much of this is useful in helping the voter decide on the President of the United States. My answer is – very little. The facts related to deciding on the election of the President should be relevant to the position; otherwise, I suspect there will be faulty judgement.

    “After all, we need to know who he might attack and his character and past behaviour tell us some of the answer to the question.”
    How? When shopping for a light bulb, does one taste the glass? Taste has nothing to do with it. The criteria has to match the alternative in decision theory, else we have faulty judgment.

  31. Hi Mike,

    Respectfully 🙂 I still think you’re dodging the issue on ‘evil’.

    Agency itself is a vague description that is ill defined. We seem to let it pass when people, instead of defining a term, use an identity relationship (he is evil, she is good) without being clear about the definition (of ‘evil’ or ‘good’). Similarly with agency (I am an autonomous agent; Asimo the robot isn’t; that ant over there, well, maybe; my cat, sure; your dog, no he’s just a dumb animal).

    I appreciate some terms, like ‘agency’, and ‘evil’, have historic baggage that makes the consensus on definition difficult, but I still think your old school is still poor school.

    There is no evidence to suggest there is anything specifically different about the ‘agency’ of various entities (humans, robots, computers, animals) other than the degrees of autonomy and intelligence.

    Autonomy is really about the degree to which an entity can have behaviour that is not immediately and simply related to its current inputs. Today you might hit me and I hit back. Tomorrow you may hit me and I smile. What determines my behaviour is the complexity of the system doing the controlling and its relative independence of current inputs. I am autonomous to varying degrees over varying subjects. I have no autonomy in avoiding being killed in a mid-air explosion. I have some degree of autonomy in avoiding an oncoming bus as I cross the road, if I see it soon enough and react quickly enough. I have greater autonomy in deciding what I’ll have for breakfast – within the constraints of what is available, what I can get, what I can consume. And this is significant. Autonomy, my control over my behaviour, is always within the context of constraints. For a computer the constraints just happen to be very specifically those associated with the design of the computer, but it would be wrong to say a computer has no autonomy.

    Intelligence is the capacity to perform tricks, basically. The more clever the trick the more intelligent the entity. Intelligence might vary over subject matter. Example: some very intelligent scientists believe in a personal Christian God.

    You abuse the comparison between a broken computer and an ‘evil’ person. A computer has a rather more clear design specification, and so we can tell reasonably easily whether it is broken or not. I say relatively easily, because I can assure you, as an expert in this field, that every major computer operating system and programme you know is broken. And so is every computer they run on. We just don’t always notice it.

    Humans were not designed (theism to one side) and so have no blueprint – not even a genetic one really, given that ‘gene expression’ is often determined by circumstances. So, we tend to think less of people being ‘broken’ unless they diverge obviously from various accepted social and clinical norms. But our social and clinical norms are so wide that we often, over time, adapt our view. What was once considered broken becomes just part of the rich tapestry – homosexuality as a rather recent example; females actually wanting sex being an older example.

    But there is a similarity between people and computers. Brokenness is such an inherent part of computing that chips are made to a design, but the manufacturing process is so tricky and flawed that the chips are simply made using the best current process, and then classified according to their behaviour. This has been the case even with simple components like resistors: make them imperfectly, measure their resistance, label them accordingly. With humans its: make (and rear) them imperfectly, measure them, label them accordingly.

    So, your distinction isn’t at all as clear as you make out. Broken computers can work quite well, enough to last years, even if we have to mess with them, restart them, cajole them, into doing what we want. And quite often we adapt our use of them, our behaviour, to fit in with what they are prepared to do. This sounds pretty much like our relationship with people. You hit another kid on the head? Were you broken? Was that bug fixed by the running repair of social adjustment and intelectual development?

    The danger with your ‘old school’ labelling is it’s too simplistic. It’s the driver for mob behaviour in response to unusual people, scary people, dangerous people. The label ‘evil’, along with its cousin of excusers of retribution, ‘free-will’, is really too simplistic. And if you stick to the ‘old school’ notion too closely you tie yourself to the religious symbolism, where ‘evil’ is just dead wrong.

  32. I’m not so much dodging it as postponing it.

    Evil is a tricky matter. On the one hand, there has been a significant movement to cast evil as being banal and regarding it as a matter of neurological defects or perhaps in terms of emotional responses (as per Hume and other emotivists). These movements do have an appeal-after all, as you note, the idea of a metaphysical evil (as the sort seen in games in which evil and good are detectable and weapons can be holy or unholy) seems silly and medieval.

    On the other hand, there seems to be something about evil that is left over after our neurological or emotive or whatever examinations or reductions. A nasty residue of wickedness that seems to refuse to go away. The challenge is, of course, to make a case for this evil and sort out what it is. Perhaps good and evil will be completely eliminated or at least completely reduced-I am open to that possibility and do consider that my attachment to “good” and “evil” might be the result of too much D&D and too many heroic movies. 🙂

  33. The laws of specific states do provide a handy practical answer, but they don’t seem to conclusively address the philosophical questions.

    No, people generally don’t taste the glass when shopping for a light bulb. But that doesn’t seem to be analogous to considering Romney’s (or Obama’s) past. To use a consumer analogy, if you were buying a used car, you would presumably not lick it, but you would want to know its history. After all, that would be relevant to your decision and assessment. For example, if you found out that the car spent some time underwater in a flood, then that would probably incline you not to buy it. However, if the worst that happened to it was that it once had a small fender bender, then that would be no big deal. The same would seem to hold true for candidates. That is, how much “damage” have they taken over the years and how will it impact future performance?

  34. Mike, I still not see the true concern of compensation for THE VICTIM, what have you done to help the other person which because of you was so injured? All I hear is about how YOU felt, that’s why I think these feelings you said you had were more a fear of being found guilty and that everybody will think bad of you than a true guilt feeling of concern for the wellbeing of the victim. But now under this kind of ‘when I was young’ excuse you want to bring this about as ‘look how great I am’ in comparison and ‘remmember I’m not accountable for that anymore’. If you were so concern today as you say you will try to do something in compensation for that great evil to the persons affected by that.

  35. swallerstein (amos)


    Why do you say that Mike committed a “great evil”?

  36. Leo,

    I never claimed to be great. At most, I claimed I ended up being a contributing member of society who doesn’t do horrible things. As far as what I did for my friend, I helped him as best I could. He ended up being fine and we are still friends today. So, I took responsibility for my action and things were set right decades ago.

  37. “I helped him as best I could. He ended up being fine and we are still friends today. So, I took responsibility for my action and things were set right decades ago.”

    You should have said that earlier. It’s ok then, without this then everything else is different.

  38. A minor point, but it’s worth noting that the original Washington Post article by Horowitz cited no firm evidence that Lauber was, at the time of the attack, presumed to be gay. That doesn’t make the bullying incident any less heinous, of course.

  39. To me this appears thinly-disguised political advocacy from a supposed venue for articles on philosophy. OF COURSE past behavior should be a consideration in our evaluation of ethical fitness for the presidency; otherwise we would all base our votes on looks, perceived personality, stage performance, and other superficial factors. However all previous actions are not created equal. If I shop-lifted at any age, feel free to hold that against me in any way you choose, but do not see me as the moral equal of someone who robbed a convenience store and shot the clerk. Consideration of Romney’s teen-aged action, even if reprehensible by standards then or now held, should make an essayer pause to compare that action with another’s adult non-judgmental (at best) association with advocates of violence and association with religious bigots, the latter which you deigned to “forgive” in another blog– even if these advocates are the folk heroes of children of the ’60’s and their wannabes. To consider only the ethical failings of one contestant in a race without weighing them against those of the opponent is one-sided–unless the opponent has never had ethical failings, which may be the point. One of the two will be our president.

  40. Benjamin,

    First, philosophy is not inconsistent with advocacy-although doing advocacy via philosophy is more challenging than the usual advocacy. After all, philosophical advocacy has to avoid mere rhetoric and fallacies. It would actually be interesting if all advocacy had to be philosophical in character and that the media folks would call people on fallacies and such.

    Second, I’m not actually advocating against Romney here, just examining the issue that was raised by the incident in question. My considered view is that the incident should not count against Romney, although his handling of the situation was not done as well as it should have been done. Part of this might be the challenge Romney faces in speaking to both the general electorate and certain elements of the Republican party. Obama faces similar problems-he has to speak to the lefties in his own party while not scaring the general electorate.

    In the case of Obama’s past associations with the radicals, it does seem that his association was rather limited. In the case of the Weatherman connection, Obama was 8 when Ayers was active. His association with Ayers seems to have been limited to a $200 donation and serving on the Woods Fund Board. At that time, Ayers was a professor of education and did not seem to be setting off bombs. That seems like a tenuous terror connection.

    In the case of Wright, the connection is much stronger: Obama was there as an adult and was presumably well aware of what Wright was saying. However, Obama did reject Wright and end the association. While the connection did cause some worry, it hardly seems damning-especially since the last connection to Wright was years ago. I’ll extend the same principle to Romney or anyone else. After all, I’m reasonable sure most folks can be linked to someone unsavory in their past. Provided that the connection is not ongoing and that the person did not do terrible things in that context, then it seems reasonable to forgive many sins of the past.

    I do admit that I have some favorable bias towards Obama, because I also have an academic background and have rather humble origins. However, I do endeavor to offset my bias by making a concerted effort to be objective. Given that I have been rather critical of Obama (especially in regards to drone strikes) I think I have had some success in this matter.

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