Should we judge people for their past moral failings?

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam is facing a controversy after a photograph surfaced from his medical school yearbook showing one person in blackface and another wearing a Ku Klux Klan hood. The media alleged the governor was the one in blackface.

Northam, initially apologized, but later said that he did not believe that the photo was of him and called it “disgusting, offensive, racist.”

The controversy came just months after Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh, faced allegations of sexual assault going back to his high school years.

As a philosopher, I believe these cases raise two ethical questions. One is the question of moral responsibility for an action at the time it occurred. The second is moral responsibility in the present time for actions of the past.

Most philosophers seem to think that the two cannot be separated. In other words, moral responsibility for an action, once committed, is set in stone.

I argue that there are reasons to think that moral responsibility can actually change over time – but only under certain conditions.

Locke on personal identity

Portrait of John Locke. Skara kommun/, CC BY
Philosophers implicitly agree that moral responsibility can’t change over time because they think it is a matter of one’s “personal identity.” The 17th-century British philosopher John Locke was the first to explicitly raise this question. He asked: What makes an individual at one time the very same person as an individual at another time? Is this because both share the same soul, or the same body, or is it something else?

Not only is this, as philosopher Carsten Korfmacher notes, “literally a question of life and death,” but Locke also thought that personal identity was the key to moral responsibility over time.

“Personal identity is the basis for all the right and justice of reward and punishment,” he wrote.

Locke believed that individuals deserve blame for a crime committed in the past simply because they are the same person that committed the past crime. From this perspective, a person would still be responsible for any of the alleged actions of a younger self.

Problems with Locke’s view

Locke argued that being the same person over time was not a matter of having the same soul or having the same body. It was instead a matter of having the same consciousness over time, which he analyzed in terms of memory.

Thus, in Locke’s view, individuals are responsible for a past wrong act so long as they can remember committing it.